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A television series titled Picket Fences ran on CBS from 1992-1996. David E. Kelly, producer and writer of Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, The Practice and others also created this one. Mr. Kelly writes wonderful dialogue with intelligent banter and entertaining plots. Picket Fences was his first show. In my opinion, the name itself coupled with the point of the various plots of the shows, earns it the title as his most brilliant look into the human psyche.
Picket Fences takes place in the small town of Rome, Wisconsin. Jimmy Brock, the main character is the sheriff of the town. His wife, Jill, is the town doctor. They have three children, a perfect house with a spotless lawn and, you guessed it, a white picket fence. As a matter of fact, most houses in the town have white picket fences and, on the outside, the homeowners’ lives seem perfect.
However, a lot happens in this town. As the plot centers around the sheriff and the doctor, most stories revolve around puzzling illnesses or crimes. Some more memorable episodes involve cows mysteriously giving birth to humans, a mass of murdered bodies found in freezers, and spontaneous human combustion. Mr. Kelly went to great lengths to prove that picket fences do not make a perfect community.
The white picket fence has become the symbol of the American dream. And yet our new vinyl siding, beautifully maintained flower beds and white picket fences only give us a false sense of purity. Those expensive opaque blinds simply conceal our true emotions, our real-life blemishes – anger, disappointment, greed, gluttony.
A quick google search on picket fences comes up with “outdoor shower hiding behind a white picket fence.” People today believe that we can hide anything behind a white picket fence. And in the same way, we hide behind our outer appearances. Manicures, pedicures, make-up, expensive yet uncomfortable shoes, stiff yet “flattering” clothing – we hide our flaws behind this structural equipment. And we spend way too much time working on them instead of working on the issues inside.
No matter how thick the siding, how white the fence, or how beautiful the flower beds; if the inside of the house has turmoil, it will seep outside. The family cannot maintain health on the outside, if, on the inside, there is pain. It is the same with our bodies. No matter how perfect the hair or make-up; no matter how muscular or athletic, if the mind and the soul are in chaos, the body will cease to function appropriately.
I am not advocating ignoring your siding, lawn, fence, or bodily needs. On the contrary, I believe that sometimes cleaning up the outside can prompt a deeper cleanse. However, only tending to our outward needs is only doing half the job.
In the book of Samuel, chapter 16 verse 7, God speaks to the prophet Samuel saying, “For God sees not as humans see: humans look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” We are not God, but we are commanded to be Holy. Parents teach their children to “not judge a book by its cover.” Judaism teaches the same in its own way – “Al tistakeil b’kankan, eileh b’mah she-yesh bo – Don’t look at the bottle, rather, look at what is inside.” Teachers instruct students to treat everyone fairly, not by what they wear or how tall they are. Clergy preach about equal rights for all regardless of race, ethnicity, or other outward signs. And yet, we all fall victim in some way or another to disbelieving what we ourselves teach. The more we fall apart inside, the more we attempt to gain control over the outside. The vicious cycle is soul-deadening.
We must strive to see ourselves as God sees us – from the inside out. Once we shine that light inside of us to an illustrious gleam, it will radiate such light and warmth, it will overshadow any broken boards of our picket fences, any dull pieces of old siding, any physical blemish we fear. God knows, our souls are pure, our faults are real and true, for we are only human. But to become divine, we must look inside, not out – for that is where the holiness lies.
Rabbi Jaimee Shalhevet
While it seems like summer just started, the High Holidays fall early this year and are fast approaching (and if you really want to induce panic in a clergy member just say that phrase to them.) Erev Rosh Hashanah, which always is on the first of Tishri (the Head of the Year), falls in our Gregorian calendar in the first week of September. If we rewind to the first of Elul, the month in which we begin our spiritual preparations for the High Holidays, we begin preparing ourselves on August 9th. During Elul, we recite penitential liturgy and poems that help us ask for forgiveness from God and help us get into the needed frame of mind to have our slates wiped clean and to begin anew.
Among the tasks required to receive God’s forgiveness are confessing our sins but also apologizing to those people we have harmed either through action or deed. Because it requires facing another person, this can be a challenge for people. I am reminded of a children’s book by Jacqueline Jules titled The Hardest Word. In it, a bird keeps making mistakes and asks God for help to try to fix things. God asks the bird to bring God the hardest word. The bird brings back many words to God, but none of them are the hardest. At the end of the book, it is revealed that the hardest word is indeed “sorry.”
What makes “sorry” the most difficult word to say? There are several reasons that I can think of; we are scared to admit to our mistakes and then have to own up to them, to drudge up things that may have been forgotten, are embarrassed of our past behavior and are nervous or even scared to confront someone we hurt.
In my family, we call one another and make a blanket apology for anything we’ve done in the past year and know the person on the other side of the phone will quickly absolve us. I wonder what it would look like if we actually accounted for each offense we could remember and sincerely apologized for those individual and specific deeds. Would it help deepen our relationship with one another? Maybe actually wipe away some built up resentment? Isn’t that the point? Has my family been doing it wrong all of these years?
I wonder, is “sorry” actually the hardest word to say or does it just represent the hardest process? Even though it scares me, I am going to take baby steps this year towards making the kind of apologies I believe God really wants. I send you strength and courage to do the same.
Cantor Mariel Ashkenazy
I never expected to be stepping into the role of President at North Shore Synagogue. I think of all those who walked this path before me, each one with their own dreams and plans for the future. And now, as I enter this role after one of the most unprecedented years of physical and emotional struggles, I bring my own dreams and plans to continue the legacy of North Shore Synagogue as the congregation looks for support and meaning in their membership. At this time, I do not have the answers. What I do have, is hope.
“Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better,” writes Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l. “Hope is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue; hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does need courage to hope.”
I hope we can all be active in our vision for North Shore Synagogue.
“Hope is the ability to combine aspiration with patience; to be undeterred by setbacks and delays; to have a sense of the time it takes to effect change in the human heart; never to forget the destination even in the midst of exile and disaster.”- Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l
I hope we can all be patient with one another. To reach out and ask for what we want in order to get what we need.
During this past year, we have welcomed new children and grandchildren and have lost many – some too young and some with fully lived lives. None without sorrow and many with additional challenges of going through life cycle events during a pandemic. This year has reminded us of the importance of being a part of a community during tough times. I participated in Zoom shivas that helped the bereaved feel connected to community members who also joined. We met relatives and friends near and far and made an impact with loving conversations about those we’ve lost. We laughed together at comedy and mind-blowing magic and mentalism nights and learned a lot about wine and cheese and cooking for Jewish holidays. We continue to have the opportunity to work together to impact what comes next. I am grateful for the efforts of everyone involved with keeping our synagogue operational during this past year. The office staff, the maintenance staff, Nursery school staff, Hebrew School staff, B’nei Mitzvah training staff, and the Board of Trustees and many of our committees worked at providing a strong connection and very much needed support to our community.
As the President, I will try to do everything to ensure that each member feels valued and connected to North Shore Synagogue. Our Rabbi, Cantor, Executive Director, Board of Trustees, and I are committed to supporting the congregation and our community — through tried-and-true programs, as well as new initiatives. These initiatives may include outreach, congregational engagement, new lifelong learning programs and innovative ways to re-engage our youth. I am optimistic that through these efforts, we will continue to grow our congregation and support the members who have shared their lives at North Shore Synagogue. I want to hear your needs, suggestions, and ideas for our congregation. I am asking anyone who wants to participate in any Board committees or synagogue activities to contact the office or myself, and we will work diligently to make it happen. The best way to reach me is by email email@example.com.
July 20th will be our inaugural Golf and Cocktail Party Fundraiser at Muttontown Country Club. I hope to see many of you for fun, reconnecting and a live auction with raffle prizes, etc. Golfers and non-golfers are welcome! Bring your family and friends!
Thank you to our outgoing President, Larry Henin; our Rabbi, Jaimee Shalhevet; our Cantor, Mariel Ashkenazy; our Executive Director, Jacquelynn Golub and everyone on the Board and in our building for getting us through this most challenging year.
Signing off, as I always will, wishing you well, with the Yiddish phrase my grandparents instilled in me: “Zei Gezunt” (Be Well).
As I write this message, we have just recently completed our High Holy Day season. The High Holy Day season does not end with Yom Kippur, but rather also includes, Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. It’s quite a run. And when it ends after Simchat Torah, we enter into a month called “Mar Cheshvan.” It’s really just called “Cheshvan,” but the word “Mar” is added before it because it means “bitter.” This month is called “Bitter Cheshvan” because it is the only Jewish month that has no holidays in it at all. As I sit here writing in Mid-October as we enter Cheshvan, the next Jewish holiday we will celebrate is Chanukah. And that seems lightyears away.
So, I thought, “let’s get prepared for Chanukah.” You know what though? We can’t in the way we used to. And this has of course become the mantra of our day. We can’t plan for things in the future because we don’t know what the future holds. Where will we be COVID-wise? Where will our social distancing rules and mask-wearing mandates stand? Where will the economy be? Will everyone in my family be healthy? Will we be able to see each other and be near each other?
There are so many questions, that it seems near impossible to plan for something that is two months away.
And yet, do we ever know the future?
Ask anyone whose future changed in a split, unexpected, second. Anyone who won the lotto. Anyone in a devastating accident. Anyone who discovered they or a loved one had a terminal disease. Anyone who passed an entrance exam they didn’t expect to. There is a yiddish saying, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht,” meaning, “Man plans, and God laughs.” Now, in the seriousness of our current situation, I do not believe that God is laughing, but the point of the saying is that we never really know what to expect from the next month, day, or sometimes, even the next moment.
And yet, the same religion that gave us this handy quote, also urges us to prepare, that is, to plan, for that very unknown future. We are supposed to gather oil for this upcoming holiday of Chanukah. Oil is not quick to make, so we are supposed to begin creating and gathering it long in advance of the holiday with the assumption that it will come and we will be around to celebrate it. We are supposed to plant parsley on Tu B’shevat in order that it should sprout and grow strong enough to harvest for use on Passover, five months or so later. We don’t know for sure that the parsley will take root. We don’t know that it will be ready at exactly the correct time. We don’t even know what Passover will be like and, in ancient days, where we would be when this pilgrimage holiday fell. But we are commanded to prepare anyway – to live “as if.”
And so, in today’s very fragile, shaky, and unpredictable world, we must keep moving forward as if it were a commandment from God. Because it is.
I will plan for Chanukah. I will plan for in-person possibilities. I will plan for virtual possibilities. I will plan for everything I can think of in between. For whatever it is, I will plan. And God may laugh. But that’s ok. God will be laughing with us, not at us. For our perseverance is part of why God chose us. Our stubbornness to continue to plan in the face of dire uncertainty makes God smile, and keeps us alive and around.
As the leaves change colors and fall to the ground, The Byrd’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” plays on loop in my head. Inspired by the text of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, we are reminded of the ebb and flow of our universe, as well as our existence. The text also speaks to matters beyond our comprehension; the ways of nature created by God. We can try to prepare ourselves, organize, plan, etcetera, but in the end, there are simply matters over which we have no control. As we read in verse 11, “He (God) has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
While some may find the text of Ecclesiastes discomforting in its assertion about our lack of control, we can also view it as reassuring. There is always a balancing of nature, a give and take, and that in of itself is something we can rely on. I believe Pete Seeger captured this essence in his interpretation of the text, as the verses of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” are punctuated are with the refrain of the same words. The words represent constant movement, but yet comfort us and ground us in their melodic predictability and repetition.
As the days grow shorter and darker, we enter into the ebb cycle of our seasons. In autumn, we gather the last of our harvests and try to make the most of it, stretching it through our times of need. Ways that are lost on most of us now, like canning and preserving food, were once so critical to our ancestors who faced food insecurity in the winter months. And while it may seem foreign to us now, it is a part of nature; we watch as birds fly south for better living and animals enter into hibernation after much preparation for sustenance in the dearth, until it is time to come out to greet the sun. We pray that we too emerge from the winter to a spring of renewal and rebirth.
This year has been difficult for most of us. Accustomed to the rhythms of our lives, we experienced a disruption to our previous ways of being and living, abrubtly confronted with uncertainty instead. As we learn from Ecclesiastes, no matter what we face now, whether it be good or less than good, it is only temporary.
In the darkness of our lives, we know that it will get better, that light will come; and I think this is where most of us find ourselves right now. Psalm 126:5 reminds us that “those who sow in tears, will reap in joy.” Our time is coming.
Whenever I prepare to marry a couple, I ask them many questions. One of which is always, “Where do you see yourselves on your 10th anniversary?” I ask this because I loved when this question was asked of me by the rabbi who officiated at my wedding. Well, this year, I celebrated my 13th wedding anniversary. When I got married 13 years ago, I’ll tell you what I did NOT write. I did not write that I saw myself in 10 (or 13) years living through a worldwide pandemic, struggling to decide whether my children attended school in person or online, and wearing a mask just to buy groceries. But you know what? There has been so much in my life that I didn’t expect. So many things in my future that I did not foresee:
In my teen years, I was in a car accident that left me with permanent injuries.
My first born was born during Hurricane Sandy. And we couldn’t take him back to our house because there was a tree in our kitchen.
My daughter was born with two dislocated hips.
My youngest son needed surgery during the second week of his life And will most likely need medication for the rest of his life.
These are just a VERY few of the things I NEVER saw happening. They were all hard at the point that they were occurring. And they all changed my life in some way. Also, in each of these situations, I felt utterly alone or at least pretty unique and I found myself somewhat envious at times of people that weren’t going through these situations.
But this time is different. True, I am going through something I never expected, foresaw, or can even believe most of the time. But this enormously important difference this time, is that I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I am not alone. I know this not only because my family is going through this crucially challenging time, but also my town, my city, my state, my country, my world. There is not one person I know or know of, that is not struggling for normalcy in this bizarre time in which we live.
And that makes an enormous difference. It used to be that when someone asked another person, “how are you?” The accepted answer was “fine.” We would often hide our difficulties in order to connect with the person with whom we were conversing. Now, I find that when we’re on many of our zoom meetings, people are honest. “How are you?” is met with “I’m having a hard time.” Which then yields the response, “me too.” It’s strangely a breath of fresh air to acknowledge that none of us are really ok. But knowing that we are all in the same boat somehow makes it a bit easier to deal with. So, yes, this is unbelievably hard. And, as I sit and write this bulletin article in August, I have no idea what September will look like when you read this. But I am sure of one thing. No one will be alone. We will be in it together.
I wish us all a new year where we find health and peace,
Rabbi Jaimee Shalhevet