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Silver Learnings: Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman

These past 15 months, no matter how “hard” or “easy” any of us had it, we’ve learned a lot. Good stuff even. Our learning, you could say, has been one of the pandemic’s silver linings. To acknowledge some of those Silver Learnings, we’ve invited friends from different walks of life to share what they’ve learned from the pandemic. Our guess is you’ll hear some voices that sound like your own, and some that offer a window into a world you’ve not known but from which we can all now learn.

 


 

Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman

Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman has been the spiritual leader of Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY, for more than thirty years. Rabbi Sirkman fosters a face-to-face faith, cherishes the gift of Torah, affirms the importance of developing a relationship with the Jewish State. He has served as Chair of the Program Advisory Committee for URJ Eisner Camp, the Admissions Committee of HUC-JIR, and teaches 5th year rabbinic and cantorial students at HUC-JIR. Ordained by HUC-JIR in 1987, he received his B.A. in Religion and his M.A. in Theology with a Certificate in Modern Jewish Thought from Boston University. Rabbi Sirkman lost his wife Susan (z”l) to cancer, is the proud father of their four wonderful children, Aaron, Alexander, Gabriel (Chelsea) and Sophie, and adores his grandson, Sawyer. He’s also Billy Dreskin’s best friend!

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As a Reform rabbi who’s spent over three decades in congregational life, I’ve often talked of renaming Reform — an insufficient descriptor for our denomination — to Punim-to-Punim [from the Yiddish, “face-to-face”] Judaism. Rabbi Larry Kushner once said, “We are a hopelessly communal people.” More precisely, I believe, we are a ridiculously relational people. Being together makes being Jewish happen. But what happens when we can’t be together?

To my great surprise, these past fifteen months have taught a life-lesson I would not have believed possible without witnessing it myself: that our being together as Jews, and as a congregation, transcends time and space. We don’t actually have to be together to be…together.

When my oldest friend in town texted me late last March that he was in bed with the virus, I was worried but not overly concerned. Bobby was a force for life, a CPA who did as much pro-bono work for causes and people in need as he did his for-profit ventures. He was the guy who’d drop off a pound of tongue and rye bread, or whitefish salad, at my side door whenever he went to the deli for himself, the friend who remembered my kids’ birthdays and sent them socks and underwear because you can never have enough of those essential life-staples. After not hearing from him for a couple days, I texted his wife who let me know Bob was taken to hospital, perhaps needing a ventilator. With pandemic protocols, she had to stay at home. The next call I received was from his late-30’s daughter Shana, who I’d known since she was in kindergarten, asking me to pray because she wasn’t sure he’d make it. Bobby’s funeral was 5 days later.

With Covid-19 restrictions, rabbinic presence was solely remote. How could I bring comfort to a family I loved on Zoom? The gift of that surreal moment is that they brought comfort to me. Bobby’s oldest grandchild, almost 13, spoke about Papa Bob’s heart, endlessly giving. He talked about how hard his upcoming Bar Mitzvah service would be without his grandfather there, adding, “But somehow my Papa would be.”

Almost 600,000 lives lost in our country. The number seems beyond our grasp. Until we consider that each single one leaves a family behind, perhaps kids or life-partners, parents or grandkids, dearest of friends, who can’t imagine the world without them.

After I shared words of tribute via the graveside Zoom service, and we all recited Kaddish, the prayer in tribute of the person who’s passed, his children and grandchildren began ceremonially shoveling in some dirt atop Bob’s casket, doing the very last thing they could for this man they so loved, filling his grave.

Watching it all from afar, I did something I almost never do. I cried. And as his family, not ready to leave, filled my screen, his wife of nearly fifty years being comforted by the hugs of her grandchildren, I saw/envisioned Bobby standing alongside … tall and bald, smiling sweetly, his hands extended, about to do some kind act, unsolicited as always. He was not ready to leave either.

What have I learned as a rabbi from this most incredibly challenging year plus? That we are here to hold each other up, to cry as we must, to bring the comfort we can. And to know that, so long as we bring to life the memories of those who’ve left us, their love will never die.

And likewise, what the pandemic has taught me, and maybe all of us as people of faith, is that whenever we are there for each other, wherever/however we gather in mutual hope and care, that is where our congregation lives — through the betweenness we share, far beyond any building or any one place. Our peoplehood goes beyond the face to face, manifest in the love we share that makes God’s Presence real.

Rabbi Jeff Sirkman

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