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Embracing the Stranger We See Before Us

At times, we have the opportunity and challenge of embracing strangers when we meet them face-to-face. These encounters can be deeply unsettling at first. But as barriers of difference fall, they can be deeply meaningful, even transformational. 

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Responding to Disability

In my work as Director of Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion, I have the wonderful opportunity of leading disability awareness trainings for educators, clergy, and community members across the Greater Philadelphia area.

One exercise that I often use to open trainings is to invite participants to take a moment and think of a person whom they know who has a disability, “The person  who comes to mind might be someone from your immediate or extended family, a neighbor, a synagogue member,” I say. “Or someone who went to school with you in a classroom down the hall. Or, it may be that you have a disability and would like to reflect on your own experience.”

I then ask: “What has the person who comes to mind taught you? What lessons have you learned from their life experience?”

When I share this exercise in disability awareness trainings, I am always amazed by the rich stories and experiences that come forward. Sometimes, people reveal a hidden learning, cognitive, or mental health disability that their peers don’t see and share about their own wisdom and understanding that’s grown out of their experiences. Sometimes people talk about close family members or friends and the challenges and successes that they’ve witnessed in knowing them. Other times, people may recognize interactions they’ve had with a community member at a grocery store or other setting where they have gotten to know a person with a disability just by being open and engaging with that person in casual conversation.

The reality is that 20% (or 1 in 5) of the population has a disability of some kind, and so it’s likely that either we ourselves or someone close to us will be one of those people. Disability can be present from birth or it can be acquired through an accident or through the aging process. Each of us who does not have a disability today doesn’t know that that will be true for us tomorrow… or at some time in the future.

We’ve made significant progress in the Jewish community in raising awareness of disability inclusion issues and in providing better support and access in our synagogues, schools, and camps. But there still remains, in many cases, a sense of isolation for people with disabilities and their families. As a mom of a son with cognitive and sensory issues, I’ve experienced this feeling many times and have heard from many people who share this experience. At some community events, programs, or services, staring or “shushing” occurs. Or sometimes, people simply avoid the person with a disability… and their family. Exclusion—for whatever the reason—hurts.

It’s essential that we make room for conversation about our personal responses to people with disabilities and how each of us can overcome anxiety or concern and move into friendship and understanding. This personal work is a necessary step if we are to become a truly inclusive community.

In my recent ELI Talk, Faith, Companionship and Vulnerability: Standing With Families Who Have A Child With A Disability, I share how I used to be a person who was unsure of how to engage with families in my community who were raising kids with differences. I share the raw, personal story of my journey—of how I came to understand my son’s autism and imagine a community in which people reach out and try to connect with families like mine, even when they feel unsure of how to do so.

In my talk, I share about how the Jewish value of Bikkur Holim can give us some guidance and grounding about how we can support families going through a disability diagnosis—and through the life span. Our Jewish communities know how to be there when people are going through challenges—we bring meals, we send cards, we check in, we listen. We can expand our circles of compassion to be there for people with disabilities and their families.

In my own life, I’ve experienced the way that someone reaching out can have a profound impact on my energy and emotions and on my son’s experience of being valued. For example, one day I was at the grocery store with my son and, as usual, we had a number of people looking at us. My son moves his body a lot—jumping, flapping, rocking back and forth, and people tend to stare when they see him. On this day, an older woman looking at cans across the aisle from us stopped me and asked if my son could get something down from the top shelf for her. “He’s so tall,” she said, “Would that be okay?” I gestured to my son and he took down the product she needed and put it in her cart. She thanked him and he smiled so broadly, beaming pride. What that woman did was to see something he was capable of rather than judge his deficits. This simple moment brought me to tears.

Similarly, one day I had taken my children to a festival at a local park that was busy with music, food, and games. I saw a woman with Down Syndrome and her caregiver sitting by themselves, away from the action. I noticed that no one was interacting with them. I’ve been there—it’s an incredibly lonely feeling to sit apart from the activities going on around you. I walked over and said hello and asked if they were enjoying the festival. I introduced my children and we chatted for a moment. Later that afternoon, the caregiver approached me and thanked me for stopping and saying hello. It was such a simple gesture and it makes me wonder why we don’t naturally do that kind of thing more—in our shuls, schools, and community gatherings.

In my ELI talk, I share ways that each of us can reach out, even when we don’t know what to say:

“I need us to get comfortable with our initial discomfort around disability so we can get over it and move into lovingkindness,” I say in my talk. “If our community can rise to do this kind of companionship, we will all have the opportunity for growth and the holiness that comes through valuing all human experiences.”

I hope you’ll take a listen, share with your community, and write to me about your questions or experiences about supporting people with disabilities and their families.

Faith, Companionship and Vulnerability: Standing With Families Who Have A Child With A Disability

Welcoming Strangers Through AirBnB: A Spiritual Practice

When our son officially moved out, Simcha, my husband, and I listed our house on AirBnB. Of course, we could use the extra income, but also we knew the house felt empty with both kids gone. We were already paying the utilities for the whole house AND were feeling somewhat guilty about the unused rooms…. Why not share our space? After all, hospitality is a Jewish value.

I created the profile on AirBnB, Simcha redid the bedrooms, and we were open for business. We were a little anxious: it does take a bit of courage to welcome strangers into your home. Would we like them? Would they like us? Would they break things? Steal things? So one of the first things we had to face was our own fears and anxiety. AirBnB does have an insurance policy so the fears weren’t really rational. Our first lesson was: Have faith and trust in Divine providence.

Our first guests were mostly students looking for a cheap place to stay overnight. They dropped in for a night, and didn’t need much. One student holed up in the room for three days studying for an exam; we didn’t hear a peep out of him. We started to get worried—we were parents after all—but he was fine. Just had his earbuds in and was studying away.

Then things started to get interesting. We had a woman come to visit her mother who was ill. While she was there, the mom ended up in the hospital. The next day when we asked how mom was, the woman reported that her mother had just died! Since Simcha is a grief and bereavement specialist, and I’m a rabbi, this woman had landed at just the right place at the right time to be cared for. We shepherded her through the week of the funeral and then she came back to clean out her mother’s apartment. It felt like we were doing a mitzvah, not just hosting. Next lesson: Welcome the stranger, do a mitzvah.

Although that was the most dramatic event, we had other people who landed at our house who had no idea we were Jewish upon booking our space. But when they checked in it seemed they had been sent to us because of the juncture of their spiritual journey and the advice we could provide. So the lesson was—we might have thought we were doing this to make some extra cash, but actually God’s hand was in this process as evident by who came to us: hashgakhah pratit.

At one point, we had an inquiry to host two Muslims. They were from Pakistan and were here in the USon residence rotation for two weeks. We were a little anxious about this. We rarely had the opportunity to interact with Pakistni Muslims, much less in our home. Yet at the dinner table we found ourselves speaking openly about the relationship between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians. That night felt like we were truly making peace. The spiritual lesson was: Don’t make assumptions based on fear, be open to making peace.

Another unusual guest also stands out. It was the holiday of Sukkot, and although we had a sukkah we weren’t entertaining on the first night. We got a request from a young naval officer who was on leave for the weekend and wanted to see the sights of Philadelphia. He booked us and in talking to him, we found out he was from Texas and had never met Jews before! So on that sukkah night our Ushpiz, our hallowed guest, was a lone ranger who we could never have imagined helping us fulfill a mitzvah.

Many Jews have also checked in. We had a very assimilated woman who was curious about her heritage. Another young woman had visited our neighborhood to try out an Orthodox congregation before she converted, and instead she landed at our liberal Jewish rabbinic household. It made for interesting conversation. Other Jews who have graced our abode include an Israeli mystic who read our numerology charts, and many who have dropped in to the neighborhood for b’nai mitzvah and needed a late Shabbat check out. It has been a wide range of “shlikhut”/outreach opportunities.

We’ve hosted all ages from students to seniors, people from many countries. We have had many adventures in a mere eighteen months! I’ve learned a lot from my guests, whether it was the African American men going to a vegan gathering, doctors in training giving free advice, college students on a road trip where I got to live vicariously through them.

We learned an unexpected spiritual lesson as AirBnB hosts: When you are open to hakhnasat orkhim, hospitality, your life is much richer than you can imagine.


Welcoming Strangers, Welcoming Angels

B’shem Hashem elohei yisrael
Miyimini Michael u’mismoli gavriel
Umilfanai uriel um’akhorai refael
V’al roshi, v’al roshi, shekhinat el.

In the name of God, the God of Israel
To my right is Michael, to my left is Gavriel
In front of me Uriel, and behind me Rafael
And on my mind, and over me, Shekhinat El

—From traditional bedtime Shema, with my loose translation.

In Parashat Vayera, Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, is sitting by his tent in the hot sun when he sees three strangers. This is what our Talmud in Bava Metzia 86b tells us about them: “Who were the three men? The angels Michael, Gabriel, and Rafael. Michael (“Who is like G‑d?”) came to bring the tidings to Sarah of Isaac’s birth; Rafael (“Healing of G‑d”), to heal Abraham; and Gabriel (“Might of G‑d”), to overturn Sodom. Of course, Shekhinat El—the Presence of G-d—mentioned in the song above, is God’s presence inside each one of us.

These strangers, we learn, are angels, representing different aspects of God. Michael represents loving-kindness and wonder—who is like God, awesome in holiness?! Rafael represents transformative healing. Gavriel represents the power to destroy what needs to be destroyed. Thank God, Avraham welcomes them in. He says to them, “Adonai, my lords, please, if you find favor in your eyes to do so, don’t pass by your servant.”

You might have noticed that the Hebrew word for my lord is “Adonai”—it’s the word we use when we call out to God, my God. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence here. It feels like Avraham knew that these strangers—and we might even extrapolate all strangers—carry with them aspects of God. Now, these strangers are explicitly called angels or messengers of God in the text, but the text also tells us that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. In our earliest parshiyot the Torah is drumming in the message: all people, even or especially the stranger, carry godliness inside of them.

So how does this story play out in our parashah? What happens after Avraham and Sarah welcome the strangers inside, wash their feet, share a meal with them, and listen to the wisdom that they’ve brought? Avraham is faced with a pair of communities that behave quite differently: Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of these communities did not seem to notice the godliness within strangers, and they threatened those who were new to their locale with violent acts. Later on in the Bible, in Nevi’im, our Prophets, Ezekiel 16:49 states clearly, “Behold: This is the sin of Sodom—pride, fullness of bread, and careless ease… she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy.”

When God tells Avraham that God is considering destroying these greedy, violent communities, Avraham steps up and says no. He says no to God. He argues: it can’t be that everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah hates the stranger and persecutes them! Please, don’t destroy them; if there are a few good people around, let them be! The angel Michael, who represents wonder at God’s creations and loving-kindness toward each one of them, even to the point of heroism, seems to be with Avraham in that moment. This parashah teaches us that loving-kindness can be brave, it can be countercultural, and it can be godly.

Because after all, God concedes. There ends up being just one good family, but God makes sure that they get a chance to escape. God sustains and shelters the few righteous people, and teaches us that we need to do everything we can to save the innocent, even as the world seems to be crumbling around us. As the Talmud teaches us, Gavriel, the angel who represents productive destructive power, was there in that moment. And yet Michael—the loving, gentle angel—was there as well, saving the one family that resisted the violence, and maintaining Avraham’s love of humanity. Even through fear, and even in times of chaos. We need that balance when we face cruelty; we need to bring Avraham and Michael’s ḥesed, loving-kindness, with us, even in Sodom.

Herring and Havdalah

(from God Loves the Stranger)

It is hard to think about our trip to Lithuania without remembering the food. The best borscht I ever tasted with sour cream and boiled potatoes. I remember Regina stopping by the side of the road to pick sorrel, a green herb, and asking me, “Did you ever eat schav?” I remember the bitter schav from the Bronx. My mother would give it to my father as a huge treat: She poured it from the glass container and added sour cream. I thought it was ghastly then. But the memory is as potent as the latkes that are served everywhere with sour cream. The huge fried potato pancakes. My father loved latkes. My father was not a Litvak, a Jew from Lithuania. In fact, my mother degraded him as a Galician— a Galitzyaner— but he still liked the Litvak food of my mother’s heritage. And there were golden blintzes, too, served, yes, with sour cream. Just like my father loved. So different from my protein and veggie diet. Not zero percent Greek yogurt, but rich, delicious sour cream! And amidst the borscht and the herring in Vilna (Vilnius, as it is now known) was the pork. Pork for breakfast, lunch, and supper. Pork in every shape and color. This we did not see at home. So strange to belong so easily to a place where you never were and are remembered by so few and forgotten by so many. Strange to see so many blonde people. Tall blonde people.

Regina is known to most Jews who pilgrimage back in time to Vilna to visit the graves of their ancestors. She is the daughter of a Soviet Jewish father and a Lithuanian mom. She introduced herself to us by saying, “I am a shiksa.” Her father died when she was seventeen, and she embarked upon her life passion to know the Jews, their history, their teaching, their present, their languages. She knows the shtetels empty of Jews. She knows how to read the gravestones. She knows all the Jews in Vilna, including Fanya who is the librarian at the Center for Yiddish at the University and who fought with the partisans! She knows the Belarusian Jew who volunteers at the museum in Ponar where 70,000 Jews were shot and their bodies dumped into huge pits to store fuel that had been dug by the Soviets. There were photographs in that small museum of the eighty Jewish prisoners sent by the Nazis in 1943 to dig up the bodies in the pits and burn them to disguise the evidence. Regina took us to see the huge pits of ashes.

Belarus border to Deveniskes, Devenishuk, where Maynard’s mother was born. We searched for evidence of their home, the shul, the grave of his uncle who died at age three before his mother and her family left. It was an endless day. The sky turned grey and the air filled with moisture. When we returned to our hotel, there was more news of the war in Gaza. We said goodbye to Regina with great appreciation. We were on our own for Shabbat, to rest, to go the Choral synagogue for services, to collect our minds and souls.

Late Saturday afternoon we got a message from Regina that she would pick us up at 7: 00 p.m. for dinner. This was not an arrangement we had made or expected, but we were ready, dressed, and curious.

She arrived with a Jewish woman from New Jersey who had just arrived from Israel: She thought we would enjoy meeting each other. She didn’t have a car so we started walking. We walked beyond the tourist downtown to a residential area that did not look as well-kept: stone buildings; more litter in the streets; dogs and cats roaming. We walked for close to an hour. It was getting cool and dark. Then we reached Regina’s sister’s apartment. It was spacious and crammed with old furniture, piles of papers, pottery bowls, dishes, books. Regina played the piano for us. We noshed on cheese and bread. Her nineteen-year-old son was there, and he and Maynard talked basketball: another religion. Regina served wine and herring and said, “You might not like the herring.” I tasted it; it was so intense, I felt as if I had been engulfed in a salt mountain. It was not at all like the Vita Herring in cream sauce from the jar.

Then Regina asked if I would recite havdalah! She had a Kiddush cup. It excited her that I was a woman rabbi. We improvised the candle and the spices; I said the prayers. And I wondered: What was the havdalah, the separation? Between Sabbath and the week? Between before the Holocaust and after the Holocaust? Between Jews and Gentiles, herring and pork, Vilna and Vilnius? Or do we bless the heart as it breaks again and again? Or maybe it signified the temporary and unexpected separation between Maynard and me as we prepared to leave Vilna. He would be headed back home to Philadelphia, and I was to fly to Jerusalem.

Yet, the main symbol of Havdalah, the ritual of separation, is the braided candle. We have the experience of being separate, being strangers to each other and ourselves. But in the sacred time in which we share a meal, a kindness, or a prayer, and when we just sit and let be, in the breath, in the body, the mind reveals another truth. We are as connected as the strands of the havdalah candle. One color wax melts on and into the other. And as our wicks join together, there is but one bright light that streams forth.


Heart of the Stranger

Exodus 23:9 is one of many iterations in the Torah reminding us of our duty to advocate for and protect the stranger. This is one of a series of illuminations regarding social justice quotes from TaNaKh.

A print of this piece is available at the Ritualwell Store: https://ritualwell.org/catalog/heart-stranger

Rabbi Me’irah Illinsky is a 2007 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. As an artist and rabbi, Me’irah brings depth and beauty to her Judaica paintings.  She embarked on serious study of her Jewish heritage as an adult, enabling her to bring a mature perspective to the sacred canon. Her mission is to provide what she calls “Visual Access to Sacred Texts” by means of engaging illuminations which have the power to enhance spiritual life and Jewish connection.  You can see more of her artwork at http://www.versesilluminated.com/

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