Community in Action this High Holiday Season

“…this is the fast I desire…share your bread with the hungry and take the wretched poor into your home. When you see the naked, clothe him, and do not ignore your own kin. Then shall your light burst through like the dawn, and your healing spring up quickly…”

(Isaiah 58:6-8 – From the Haftarah for Yom Kippur Morning)

Last week, within hours of messaging rabbinic colleagues in Seattle, my inbox began to fill with offers of support for my parents. Jewish people in Seattle offering support to Jewish visitors in crisis from New Jersey have been the hands and feet of a Living God this Season of Repentance, their lights “bursting through like the dawn.”

My mother (Yocheved bat Heschel u’Bluma) was in an ICU in downtown Seattle, far away from her home in Southern New Jersey. To celebrate their 50th anniversary, my parents took a cruise to Alaska, their first vacation as a couple since their honeymoon 50 years ago. They had been obsessively planning this trip for months. Debates abounded about this or that excursion, this or that hotel, this or that restaurant, and the like. This was all, perhaps, a welcome distraction from the acute pain they still feel about my brother’s death 18 months ago from brain cancer. Since his diagnosis in November 2020, they have understandably been in a heightened emotional state. This trip was to be, God willing, a turning point.

And from all I have heard, the cruise was a success. Photos showing their big smiles were refreshing, a comfort for family and friends to see.

After the cruise, though, my parents went to their hotel to get ready to fly home the following day. At the hotel, my mother suddenly became violently ill. They hoped that whatever she had would pass quickly, which it did not. So, in the middle of the night, my father called an ambulance, and mom was quickly shuttled to a hospital in downtown Seattle. Though she continued to get sicker, we took comfort in knowing that she was in a major city. No matter what, we knew that she would get top notch care.

Meanwhile, Seattle hotels were BOOKED SOLID for the whole week, and my father needed a place to comfortably rest his keppie between hospital visits. There was hardly a room to be found, and what we could find was exorbitantly expensive and far from the hospital. The hospital’s go-to hotels for this type of situation were booked too.

I am a Reconstructionist rabbi, so I emailed some colleagues in Seattle from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. I asked whether any of them might know someone with a spare bedroom close to the hospital where my father could crash. One of them emailed the Washington Coalition of Rabbis. Those rabbis messaged friends, staff, and congregants. Before I knew it, my inbox began filling up with offers of bedrooms, meals, and Rosh HaShanah plans for my dad. Through the generosity of strangers in the Seattle Jewish community, I was able to quickly arrange comfortable hospitality for him within walking distance to the hospital. The first night, his host (a synagogue employee who I am sure is swamped with High Holiday preparations) made up a comfortable bed for him, served him a delicious dinner, and helped him do his laundry. He then stayed the remainder of the week with a local retired rabbi and his wife, who drive my father two miles from their home to the hospital each day. In addition, they welcomed my father into their family for Rosh HaShanah dinner, and ensured my father could say Kaddish for my grandfather, of blessed memory, on his Yahrtzeit. I also received a call from a rabbinic chaplain in the hospital system. Another rabbi paid a pastoral visit to my parents. It felt like a miracle. In a few short hours, the Jewish community of Seattle put their values into concrete action because Jewish people were in need. To me, it demonstrated God’s power, working though us as God’s agents in the world. This chesed, this kindness, exemplified the very best of who we can be as Jews and as a Jewish community.

For the past seven years, I worked to build up and support a congregational community as their rabbi. Earlier in September, I began a new role as the Director of Jewish Outreach and Engagement at the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey. It is the mission of the Federation to support Jews, Jewish organizations, and Jewish values. “The Strength of a People. The Power of Community” is written on our walls and in our hearts. Seattle: you delivered on this for me and my family. The inspiration I take from you will help me remember what it is I am supposed to do in my new role in 5784.

And then it happened...

While sitting at my new desk writing this piece, I got a call about an individual on our campus visiting from Israel on business needing a place to pray for Rosh HaShanah. I immediately went to meet him, and we discussed what he was looking for. Knowing this community, I had some thoughts as to where may be a good fit for him. I then made a call to a local Orthodox rabbi who I thought may be able to best meet his needs. This Reconstructionist rabbi called an Orthodox rabbi, we wished one another a Shana Tovah, and I asked him if he could help. He excitedly said yes, offering meals and a place for this man to pray comfortably. We thanked one another and made plans for after Yontif to connect again. As it says on our walls: “The Strength of a People. The Power of Community.”

We must support our community by being a part of it. Support the Federation, our family of agencies, and Jewish organizations wherever you call home. Get involved and support your synagogue. Support their High Holiday appeals. Don't take any of this for granted. Without your support (yes, YOUR support), the structures that enabled this can easily fall away.

Seattle, todah rabba, thank you so much. Our family will remember this chesed, this kindness, forever. Mom is now out of the hospital and home safely. I pray that she will be strong enough to daven next to me on Yom Kippur. May all those who helped make this happen, directly or indirectly, be written and sealed in the Book of Life. May each reader commit now to the fast that Isaiah exhorts us to have: welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, sharing your bread, being hospitable, and remember what it means to support your community. Make 5784 a year in which we all can merit our own light, and Divine light, to burst through like the dawn.

Shana Tovah,

Rabbi Nathan Weiner
Director of Jewish Outreach and Engagement
Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey