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A Message From Rabbi Rose

It might be strange to start this article by writing about synagogues other than Beth Shalom, but: I want to share a bit of history about the phenomenon of synagogues named Bikkur Cholim, like Seattle’s Sephardic Bikur Holim and Bikur Cholim Machazikay Hadath.  Bikkur cholim means “visiting the sick,” which sounds like a strange name for a synagogue (certainly stranger than “House of Peace,” the translation of Beth Shalom).  Yet in prior centuries, it was common for synagogues to be named Bikkur Cholim.  Why?  Because these communities saw taking care of each other as a primary function of who they were.  Before prayer, or learning, or any of the other functions of Jewish communal life, it was common for Jewish communities to come together first and foremost with the purpose of caring for each other.

Bikkur cholim may not be in our name, but it is nonetheless in our very essence.  In my 5+ years at Beth Shalom, I have heard countless stories from CBS members about times when the community stepped up and took care of them.  I have heard from exhausted new parents about what a lifesaver Mitzvah Corps was when their child was born, about the deep sense of love and care they felt when total strangers from their community brought them home-cooked food when they were too frazzled with newborn care to take care of themselves.  I have heard from mourners about the comfort brought by Mitzvah Corps volunteers who showed up in their home, armed with paper goods, nosh, siddurim, and kippot, ready to host a shivah minyan, and about the warmth they felt when CBS community members showed up to make that minyan.  And if you joined us for the annual fundraiser, you heard Diana Steeble share her story about the difference that Mitzvah Corps meals made for her and Karin in the aftermath of an injury.

But here’s the deal: Beth Shalom, like all communities, is made up of individuals.  And so this core function of synagogue life, being an actual community that takes care of each other, is entirely dependent on each one of us.  At some points, each of us needs the care of our fellow community members.  And at other times, each of us has the potential (and the responsibility) to provide that care.

But just as I have heard countless stories about the power of our Mitzvah Corps, I have also heard countless anxieties about participating.  It can be hard to accept help: “I don’t live in the neighborhood, I don’t want to make people schlep to my house for a shivah minyan.” “We can always order takeout, so we don’t really need meal support.”  “It’s so sweet of you to offer, but someone else needs a meal more than I do right now, let people cook for them instead” (this last one was especially popular during early COVID).

It is scary to be vulnerable, but interdependence is part of the human condition.  We are not meant to go it alone.  In Bereishit’s account of creation, the first thing that God deems “not good” is human loneliness.  We all need each other, so please don’t be shy about needing help from our community from time to time.

But even more commonly, I hear from so many folks in our community who want to offer help but feel nervous: What if my kitchen isn’t kosher enough?  What if my kitchen isn’t kosher at all?  What if I’m not sure how to participate in a shivah minyan?  What if I don’t know how to comfort a mourner?  What if I’m not a gourmet cook?  What if I can only contribute occasionally; do I really have the bandwidth to take on this responsibility?

If taking care of each other is core to who we are as a community, it is past time for some reassurance that we are capable of it, even if it sometimes feel daunting:

  • First of all: the most important thing is showing up.  When you attend a shivah minyan— even if you don’t know the mourner, even if you feel awkward, even if you aren’t sure what to say— your presence alone communicates to the mourner that they aren’t alone, and brings us closer to the minyan they need to say kaddish.  Sure, there are some helpful tips and best practices: follow the lead of the mourner and keep the focus on them, listen compassionately, avoid offering platitudes.  If it’ll help you, go with a buddy.  But really, the most important thing is just to show up.  
  • Just showing up is an important motivating principle in cooking for Mitzvah Corps, too.  This is not the Great British Baking Show, it’s making sure that someone has the warmth and stability of a home-cooked meal, prepared with love, during a time when that’s difficult or impossible for them to manage themselves.  Make some extra lasagna or soup, put it in your freezer, and you’re most of the way there.
  • You do not need to keep kosher to cook meals for Mitzvah Corps.  The requests that are sent to the Mitzvah Corps email list will always specify food needs-- depending on the recipient, sometimes the food needs to come from a kosher kitchen, sometimes it needs to be vegetarian, sometimes it needs to be not-too-spicy.  Reading the request will tell you if you’re a good candidate to help with a particular need, but don’t rule yourself out without even checking!
  • This whole system of being in community together is built on all of us contributing when we can and being supported when we need it.  If you can cook a meal twice a month, do that; if you can cook a meal once a year, do that.  If you know how to lead a shivah minyan or want to learn, let us know.  If you can make a commitment to visit shivah homes in your neighborhood, that’s great.  If you’re up for a bit of a drive to make a minyan for a mourner who is farther away, that’s great, too.

May we all step up to our responsibilities of bikkur cholim (visiting the sick), along with nichum aveilim (comforting mourners) and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness).  And may our caring for each other bring us together in supportive and harmonious relationships, making us truly worthy of the title “Beth Shalom.”

Sat, June 15 2024 9 Sivan 5784