Wednesday, June 11, 2014

This American (Jewish) Life, Volume 1: Personal Testimonies by Congregants of TBE

Our experiences shape us but do not define us: Reflections on Resilience & Taking Action

By Marni 

I’m honored to have the opportunity to share my experiences and reflections as part of TBE’s This American Jewish Life series. Everyone in this room has life experiences worthy of reflecting and sharing with others.  Having the opportunity to put our experiences into words and share with the congregation allows for a unique opportunity to share and reflect. Thank you all, in advance for listening as I share. 

August 8, 2011 started off an ordinary Monday morning. That particular morning I had a babysitter at my house with the kids for 4 hours while I went to the gym, ran errands, and ideally got some work done. Those 4 hours were unstructured; the only commitment on my list was hanging up a flyer for the JCC Jumpstart 5K at the Ridgeway Starbucks. When I walked into Starbucks, I saw that someone else already had hung the flyer there, so I decided to find somewhere else nearby to hang it.  I headed to Café Oo la la, which I had never been to before, to see if they had a community bulletin board.  When I walked inside, I was greeted by a table of familiar faces and I found out the cafe had wifi. I decided then to stay & do some work. I retrieved my laptop from the car, ordered a bowl of soup, and set up office at a small table about 20 feet inside the café. I had told the sitter I would be home by 1pm. At 12:25pm I paused and strongly considered running over to Stop & Shop to pick up some yogurt for my daughter, because we were out, before leaving Ridgeway. But I decided to stay & keep working, as I was on a roll. At 12:35, just as I was hitting ‘save’ on my computer and about to shut it down, something happened that has since changed me. Out of nowhere came an earth-shattering sound, as if I was in a movie theater with surround sound and the volume up way too high. It was the sound of a wall of glass being shattered all at once combined with the sound of a car whose gas pedal was being driven into the ground. Before I could turn my head to orient to this sound, I was on the hood of the car being driven into the café counter and then pinned to the counter along with 2 other café patrons. The car never came to a stop on its own; the wheels were spinning until several people opened the door and pulled the driver out of the car. If not for the café counter being strongly anchored, we would have been driven straight into the kitchen in no time. But I quickly learned to not think about what COULD have happened; all of those what-if scenarios didn’t matter. All 10 of the injured survived, which was truly the only thing that did matter to me.

That was actually my first thought after being hit: I am ALIVE. Once I realized this, I instinctively began to free myself from the wreck before anyone was able to make their way over to help us. I could pull one leg free relatively easily, but the other was much harder to break free. Ultimately I had to free my left foot from my sneaker in order to do so, and then slid across the hood and tried to come down on my own. I soon discovered that my left leg was unusable. I hopped a few feet away to relative safety and waited. I knew I would not be going home anytime soon. When my phone was returned to me from the wreckage, my first call was to my babysitter, asking if she could stay a little later.
 It was no surprise to the first responders that the driver pulled from the car in this crash was 92 years old. The driver was simply trying to park his car, and had refused the assistance of another passer-by at Ridgeway less than a minute earlier who had offered to park his car when she saw him driving onto the sidewalk outside of Staples. But the driver instead insisted on parking his car himself.

This crash was a lead story on the local news that day and made headlines beyond, and many people told me they saw me on Channel 12 being carried out of the café. In those days following this event, in between retelling this story to countless concerned friends, relatives, and law enforcement, hugging my kids, finding an orthopedist, and getting intimately familiar with life on crutches, several things became clear to me:

1)      I had been through a trauma, and I felt compelled to emerge not as a victim but as a stronger person

2)      Something happened needlessly that was very preventable and I needed to do what I could do to help make sure that this didn’t happen again

3)      I am part of an amazing community who will lend support and assistance to a friend in need on a moment’s notice

I now want to spend time discussing these 3 realizations and how they relate to the themes I said I would talk about in the title of my talk:

Resilience and Taking Action, in the context of being a Jew

Before I speak about each, I must mention that there is no way to do either of these topics justice in just a few short minutes. I am passionate about both of these topics and welcome any conversation about either, anytime.

I had been through a trauma. The recovery from this trauma, was ultimately up to me.
Immediately upon returning home that evening, I saw that my kids (then aged 3 and 5) needed to know that I was OK. I scooted backwards up the stairs, very slowly, to console a frightened child. That night, I was determined to do my usual Monday evening ritual at that time, bake banana chocolate chip muffins that my daughter ate every day for breakfast. I realized that I needed to do this for myself, to show me that I was OK. I realized that I did not want to be a victim, in any way.

As a clinical psychologist, I know how debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder can be, a lesson especially driven home while I was in training at a VA medical center. I noticed that I was hypervigilant when I heard a sudden loud noise, a day or so later. I decided to consciously work to prevent any element of PTSD from setting in by exposing myself to things that otherwise could have made me scared. Essentially I immediately made a conscious decision to promote resilience in myself.

What is resilience? It is a word that gets tossed around a lot and is definitely a hot topic right now.

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.  It means "bouncing back" from difficult experiences.
Research has shown that resilience is NOT extraordinary, rather, it is ordinary. Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn't experience difficulty or distress, experiencing discomfort may be necessary in building resilience.
My favorite thing about resilience: Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.
-          Source: APA: Resource on Road to Resilience

Resilience, in my thinking, is very much intertwined with being Jewish. I see Jews, as a people, as resilient, largely due to the following:

1)      The power of the community. We draw strength from community, fierce dedication to helping others up

2)      Survival instinct- we are not victims, and can even be our own heroes.

3)      We are taught to retell stories, stories of persecution and of being the underdog. 
Retelling stories encourages us to think about our collective experiences and learn from them. Retelling also encourages us to make a commitment to ourselves and our posterity that we will be a strong people who are concerned about our greater world. Our experiences, collectively and individually, help shape who we are but do not define who we are.

The second theme of the talk that I want to reflect on is ‘taking action’.

Taking action and taking a stand when you see that something is wrong and you feel compelled to do something to make it right, to me, is a core value of Judaism and is deeply engrained in who I am. Tikkun olam, literally meaning to repair the world, is a fundamental teaching of Judaism. I interpret it as meaning to take a stand to right the wrongs that you see, and generally make the world a better, more just place for all.  It is active, not passive. You are the agent of change.

Getting back to the 2nd realization after the crash that I mentioned before, that if you see something happening that is wrong, you must do something about it. To me, doing nothing after this crash was not an option. I survived something that was completely preventable, and I knew needed to speak out, as this crash was not an outlier. In fact, in the days following this crash there were two separate single-car fatalities in lower Fairfield County alone involving drivers over 80 who misjudged something significant while driving. And my conversations with Stamford Police in the days after this crash clearly indicated that they are beyond frustrated with the amount of preventable accidents that they respond to involving older drivers who were not driving safely. 

Statistics clearly show that the most dangerous accidents happen to the very young and the very old, and while there are many necessary laws and regulations for the very young, there are none for the very old. With the aging of the population, we are, as a society, going to need to have some serious discussions about what it means to be a safe driver as we age. My personal position on this topic is that there should be a standard, empirically-derived age at which drivers are retested. Clearly that will not eliminate these types of crashes completely, but it will certainly prevent some. Now I am very sensitive to some very real concerns surrounding this issue- that of ageism, the sense of the loss of freedom, and lack of alternate transportation options. And I also, like everyone else in this room at some point, have had to deal with this issue with my own relatives. Discussing safe driving and whether a relative should still be driving is not an easy conversation to have most of the time. But it is very necessary conversation. And I encourage everyone here to reflect on whether it is time to have that conversation with any of their own relatives. This is a public safety issue, when it comes down to it.

Three days after the crash I decided to speak out about this particular issue while sharing my own experiences. I contacted local politicians on both sides of the aisle, and received much favorable support from all. As an aside, nothing has been done about this, but everyone recognizes that something SHOULD be done, but that’s a whole other discussion. I posted a “note” on my facebook page encouraging my own social network to contact their politicians and to think about discussions that they might need to be having within their own families. I received a lot of support from my friends and community on that issue.

Which brings me to my final reflection from the crash- the role of the community. Truly having the support of others, made recovery and normalcy so much easier. We are blessed to live in a community where people will go out of their way to check in and offer to help out. And we are blessed to live in a time where news can spread very quickly and easily and where you can look up a stranger whose name you hear being given to an EMT, and find out, via facebook, that you have a mutual friend, and connect with them while they are in the hospital. So this is a belated, yet genuine thank you to all who knew me then and offered any type of support- it was so appreciated. I also appreciate the relationships I have since developed with some of the other victims of the crash. None are present here tonight, but having each other has made a huge difference as we were healing. From this crash developed new friendships with people I would have never known otherwise. So out of a messy situation came a lot of good.

In conclusion, this experience I’ve shared has certainly help to shape the person I am today by reinforcing my commitment to taking action and to helping me build resilience in life, no doubt. But I know I have always been this way, and I will always continue to be, no matter the challenges I face or the issues that compel me. And I will always be inspired by others who I see doing the same thing, victims speaking out and in general, people trying to improve a situation for themselves or for others. And people choosing to be resilient and finding meaning in whatever it is that has driven them to become more resilient. I’ll end with the words of Vicktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust Survivor, who has inspired countless millions with his words. He wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." 

Finally, I am so grateful that so many people close to me came out tonight to hear me speak. I feel truly blessed to have you all in my life. Thank you to my family for coming tonight to support me. My girls inspire me every day to be the best person I can be. Finally, thank you to Temple Beth El and Rabbi Hammerman for supporting the This American Jewish Life series and for recognizing the value of people sharing their personal journeys during Shabbat services. I am so grateful for this opportunity. Thank you.

Memories of a Father, By Dana

Some called him Brewer.  Some called him Bruce Lee.  Others called him Brucie.  His name was Bruce Horowitz and I called him dad.  His smile would light up a room.  He was one of the friendliest and most personable people you would ever meet. 

He loved taking hikes, especially at Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, CT, listening to music, photography, sailing with the sun shining on his face, and most of all he loved doing these activities with me, his only child.  I was proud to call him one of my best friends.

On May 1, 1992, my dad turned 46.  It was my junior year of high school.  He had stopped by my house that morning, (my parents divorced when I was 10), so that I could give him his birthday gift: a photo of us from a photography project we worked on together, smiling and eating cookies.  He loved the picture.  Little did I know, as I watched my father pull out of the driveway smiling ear to ear that it would be the last time I ever saw him.

Three days later, on the morning of May 4, he was shot and killed, point blank, in his place of employment in Hamden.  He was a public insurance adjuster who had a meeting with his supervisor, and their 31-year old client.  This client shot and killed my father, and then my father's supervisor with a 9mm gun.  A gun he had without a permit.  A gun he shot a total of 10 times.

I was eating lunch in the courtyard of my high school when I was summoned and escorted to the principal's office.  As I walked in, my heart sank at the sight of my mother in tears; I knew something was terribly wrong.

"Your father was shot and killed at work this morning," she said to me.  I was 16 years old and couldn't believe what I was hearing.  Could this really be happening in my life? I was in shock.

The immediate days that passed were not easy.  Despite my heartbreak and disbelief, this double homicide had become front page news all over New England.  On the day of the funeral, local news channels reported directly outside of the funeral home as cars were pulling into the parking lot. Our privacy was lost and our pain was shared with complete strangers.  My father's name was in the news for days, as was mine.  When I returned to school after a week of mourning, I felt like people looked at me differently, they didn't know what to say.  Most said "I'm sorry", but it was never comfortable for them or me.

That morning, my world changed forever.   My father became a statistic, another victim of gun violence.  Now, more than 20 years later, whenever I read about gun violence at a school, on a university campus, in a movie theater, or just in someone's neighborhood, my heart breaks for the families that lost loved ones.  I am angry that someone made a life choice that not only left someone dead, but left a permanent scar on their family and their community.  Using a gun to kill innocent people is horrible.  No one should have to endure the pain of losing someone they love before a full life was lived. 

I now have two children of my own and the hardest question my five year old daughter asked me, which I have not yet honestly answered, was "How did your daddy die?"  How do I answer that question?  What do I say?  A five year old is just a child, an impressionable soul that embraces life with such joy and wonder.  I never want to take that away from her.  One day she will know the truth, but it won't be for a long, long time. 

My dad would have been the best grandfather.  He would have taught my kids about trust, equality and love just as he taught me when I was a child.  He would have been proud of both of them for all of their large and small successes.  He would have made each child feel special and valued as he did for me during the sixteen years he was in my life.  My dad was a special man and despite his life being stolen from me, I take comfort in knowing that no one can steal my beautiful memories.  Memories live forever.

Whose guilt is greater?   by Lisa

                Through our puppet, Chef, my husband and I pretend to be various members of my extended family, speaking with a heavy Italian accent about all things Italian: meatballs, squeezing cheeks, giving sloppy kisses. Through the puppet, we poke a little fun at the more animated elements of my family history and surely give our young daughter a good giggle. She, after all, is both Italian and Jewish – so you can imagine how difficult her life might become when she confronts the innate guilt that is often associated with each of these strong identities.

                Chef is perhaps our way of enjoying the more lighthearted aspects of being Italian. Many people have heard, or thought themselves that Jews and Italians are quite similar – at least in their traditions – boisterous conversations, a love of all things edible and a strong sense of guilt. For some reason, both cultures are also adept at giving and receiving guilt, especially in the relationships between parents and children.

                As such, it makes sense that my decision to convert to Judaism, on the same day with my then-5-year-old daughter, would inspire my analysis of family heritage, guilt, and ultimately, of parenting. While I converted to Judaism on August 29, 2013, my journey to the Mikvah probably started more than 40 years ago. I was born in a predominately Jewish neighborhood in Miami, where my mother’s Jewish neighbor drove her to the hospital the day I was born. My childhood best friend was Jewish. And, the nuns in catechism class often advised me to have stronger faith and fewer questions.

                I was the youngest of five children in a very strict, Italian, Catholic household. (I even had my own rosary beads since infancy.) Acceptance was not my family’s strongest suit.  At a young age I attempted to test their levels of acceptance, brought home an African-American boyfriend, studied women’s studies in college (my mother repeatedly asked if I was a Lesbian) and then, ironically, met Eric Strom, a straight-laced, successful businessman who was Jewish. When Eric gallantly approached my parents to request my hand in marriage, my parents said no. Emphatically, no - because Eric was Jewish. I’ll never know the true details of that lengthy and arduous encounter but what’s most important is that Eric didn’t tell me about it for years. And he proposed anyway.

                In some passive and very aggressive ways, my parents made their inability to accept religious difference a full-blown family conflict. I was repeatedly accused of deserting my Italian heritage. My dad refused to walk me down the aisle just days before the wedding. These and other guilt trips were attempts to control my decisions – that’s what guilt does.

                Thus began my discovery into the challenges of parenting – not marriage, but parenting. I began to analyze the balance between acceptance and expectation in which my parents were so horribly failing. As such, I entered marriage and parenthood with an even deeper sense of guilt than the Catholic Church could ever have imposed. I know that I did not desert my family. I also love my parents enough to recognize their struggle, regardless of how illogical it appeared to me. After all, I’m clearly an intellect and they’re, well, Italian.

                Throughout the early years of our marriage, Eric and I made many attempts to bring my parents to the table – on one occasion, Easter and Passover fell in the same week and my parents were visiting our new home. I encouraged my parents to join us for Seder. It was the Catholic Holy Thursday. They gave a million excuses why they wouldn’t be available. But, low and behold, they returned from their engagement just as we were beginning to eat. My mother feigned astonishment at her poor timing (despite my incessant warnings that this would occur), and when my husband’s family welcomed them in both a literal and symbolic breaking of bread, they retreated down the hall and shut the door.

                Among the verbal and nonverbal reactions of my in-laws, I sat with an incomprehensible sense of guilt. I knew my in-laws would get over the snub, but my mother’s deep-rooted sense of betrayal was very real to her – her feelings were, and are, authentic.

                That was 1994.

                Since then, there has been little discussion of religion between our two families, and some hope for growing acceptance with the arrival of our daughter, Sarah. There’s nothing quite like a baby to bring people together. Once my mother (secretly) sprinkled holy water on Sarah’s crib, she revealed moments of grace –

                My parents actively participated in Sarah’s baby naming. They send Hanukkah cards and gifts. They almost understand that we will not openly discuss religion with them. Suffice it to say that we are just different.

                Now, when I consider the nature of guilt in these interactions, I recognize that my decision to embrace Judaism, long before my actual conversion, sparked my mother’s own feelings of guilt. Perhaps she ponders if she somehow failed to parent – to be true to the commandments and sacraments of the church. Thus, it makes sense that she would project her own guilt onto me. As though, in my differences, I’ve made it impossible for her to be observant in the way she saw fit. In light of this idea, guilt isn’t just an effort to manipulate; it’s our way of taking responsibility for our actions.

                It is my new Jewish learning that has led me to such clarity. After all, if we are truly creatures of choice, as the Torah suggests, then what I choose is deeply connected to what my parents taught me.

                Perhaps ultimately I’m luckier than most. I’ve been motivated to confront making a responsible choice about my own style of parenting – and I choose not to see the world in such black and white terms – or according to a purely Italian or Jewish ideal. While my own upbringing lacked balance, the balance between acceptance and expectation that is essential to good parenting, I can find that balance now.

                When I chose to officially become Jewish last year, after a decade actively practicing Judaism with my husband and his family, I credit myself for accepting my own guilt and my parents’ sheer human frailty. Sarah and I entered the Mikvah together, mother and daughter. And in my mother’s own controlling image, I peeled Sarah’s tiny fingers from the handrail and dunked her head, despite her screams of fear about going under water.  Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before Sarah writes her own essay about mother-daughter dynamics. In the end, she emerged proud to have been swimming in the Rabbi’s special pool.

                I don’t know whose guilt is actually greater. But I know that our parents are the best parents that they know how to be. And so are we. I can’t promise that Sarah won’t grow up with some portion of her guilty heritage, but I know that our family can create a dynamic that centers on acceptance.

                My parents are now approaching the increasingly-stubborn age of 80. I can confidently say the best reprisal for any previous conflict is laced in kindness and love, as I recently overheard my husband talk quietly with my mother. Her sister had recently passed and he said to her, “Mary, you will never be alone. We will always take care of you. You will be with us.” After more than a decade of turmoil, he can embrace her with such compassion. Then, so can I. That’s a parenting model Sarah can really learn from.

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