Summer Sermon at Moriah Congregation, Deerfield, IL
When Rabbi Fraint invited me to give this sermon, I was, of course, honored, and I figured that he had invited me in my capacity as the Executive Director of Northwestern Hillel to share some of my impressions of Jewish student life at Northwestern, or Jewish life on campus in general. And I’d be happy to do so, especially since Jewish life at Northwestern and at colleges throughout Chicagoland and beyond is thriving as never before.
But this is Moriah, and my primary connection here, as many of you know, is not my job. Rather, I am Michael Simon, the lucky guy who is married to Claire Sufrin, the eldest of the four wonderful children of Barry and Irene Sufrin.
So I’m here today to share not a sermon, but a story.
I want to tell you all how I met Claire– and the good news is that you already know that this story has a happy ending!
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Five years ago this week, I went to Israel to lead a group of Harvard and Yale students on a three-week journey called Netivot. A week before the students were set to arrive, we postponed the program due to the Second Lebanon War, which had broken out a couple of days before I went to Israel. After our program was cancelled, I changed my ticket to return to the U.S. earlier than expected, but I gave myself a week to hang out with friends and to mark an important anniversary.
For what would be my last Shabbat of that trip, I was invited to dinner at the home of Noam Zion. Many of you are likely familiar with Noam’s “A Different Night” haggadah. Five years earlier, I had met Noam when he gave a talk about that haggadah in Providence, RI, where I was living. One thing led to another, and in summer 2001, when I went to Israel to spend the year as a Dorot Fellow, I moved in with Noam’s 81-year-old father, Rabbi Moshe Sachs. That Friday night in 2006 offered a chance to have Shabbat dinner with my old (quite old, in fact) roommate, Moshe, his son Noam and daughter-in-law Marcelle, and his grandson Mishael Zion and his wife Elana.
I planned to go to services at Shira Chadasha, the pioneering “partnership” minyan where I had davenned with Mishael and the Zion family (and hundreds of others) throughout 2002 and 2003. But Mish called me that Friday morning to tell me that he had been asked to lead Kabbalat Shabbat at a special Friday night service at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. He encouraged me to attend Shira Chadasha and then meet him at his parents’ home for dinner, but I didn’t want to miss his Kabbalat Shabbat. And, besides, I had spent most of 2001-2003 at Pardes.
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A bit of background is in order. Before I became director of Northwestern Hillel, I worked at Harvard Hillel from 2003-2010. Prior to becoming a Hillel professional, I lived in Jerusalem from 2001-2003. But before the year 2000, I had never been to Israel. I grew up with a fairly strong Jewish connection and celebrated my Bar Mitzvah in a Conservative shul, but I didn’t attend Jewish day school or Jewish summer camp, didn’t go to Hebrew School after my Bar Mitzvah, and had little involvement in youth group in high school or in Hillel at Stanford. It was only after college, when I was teaching in Los Angeles through Teach for America, that I slowly began to explore Jewish community and expression beyond once-a-year events like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Passover seder. In graduate school, I attended Friday night services at Harvard Hillel and then, while working in Providence, I became involved in the young adult Jewish community.
By 2000 I was almost 30 years old and considered a leader of Jewish young adults in Providence, but I looked in the mirror and saw someone who had never set foot in Israel or read a page of Talmud. So I went to Israel on a program called Livnot U’Lehibanot in February 2000, when peace seemed ready to break out everywhere in Israel and Palestine. After a three-week visit, which I thought would enable me to check off that ‘been to Israel’ box and go back to my non-profit community development work, I cried on the plane ride home, yearning to return. And return I did, on July 4, 2001, for my Dorot Fellow year, spent mostly at Pardes.
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So back to 2006: Yes, I would join Mishael at Pardes that Friday night.
When I walked into Pardes, I saw Rabbi David Levin-Kruss, an old friend who coordinates the summer programs. He asked me to help make a minyan in the traditional service, so I davenned mincha in the Beit Midrash while the egal service took place in Room 5. We’d all be going to the roof together for Kabbalat Shabbat.
Mishael was in the Beit Midrash. During the chazarat ha-shatz, he came over to me and said, “It must be difficult for you to be back here, especially this time of year.” And I said, “It’s funny – I actually hadn’t been thinking about it. But, yes, now that you mention it…”
Following mincha, folks from the Beit Midrash and Room 5 converged in the hallway. In front of me was a lovely young woman, and I struck up a conversation. “Hi, I’m Michael”. “Hi, I’m Claire”. “Are you studying here at Pardes this summer?” “No, I’m just here with a friend”. She explained that she was doing doctoral research in the Martin Buber Archive at Hebrew U. in Givat Ram. She said she had attended Yale. I told her about the program that wasn’t happening, with the Yale and Harvard students. I was basically grasping at straws to keep her talking to me as we walked toward the entrance of Pardes, to the stairs leading to the roof. We passed pictures in the hallway, including those of Marla Bennett and Ben Blutstein. I noticed the portraits, though I didn’t need to look to know that they were there. I don’t think that Claire noticed the pictures, nor did most of the other folks who were there that evening.
As we walked to the stairs, we passed through the door I had held open for Marla Bennett on the morning we met, in early September 2001.
On the rooftop, we separated into informal men’s and women’s sections. It was still light out, with the crisp blue sky and softening light playing off of Jerusalem stone. And quiet, very quiet, the streets of Jerusalem emptying as Shabbat began. Mish led a beautiful service full of singing. Many memories flowed through my mind, but I also kept thinking – what am I going to say next to this lovely woman Claire? I have to keep talking to her…She had mentioned that her PhD work was at Stanford, so I went through my mental rolodex of friends in Palo Alto…
Mish finished Lecha dodi, and then stopped to share a brief d’var Torah. He noted, “This is the time in the service when mourners are welcomed into the synagogue to be embraced and re-engaged into the life of the community, even when they feel torn and broken and disconnected.”
“But,” he went on, “this week we are all mourners. For one thing, we are in the Nine Days, with Tisha B’Av coming next week. We all mourn the destruction of Jerusalem in ancient times. But we are all, here in Israel, also now mourning our young soldiers who have lost their lives trying to stop Hezbollah and the rockets that are raining down upon the North of the country.”
For a moment, my mind shifted from musings about Claire to memories of a young soldier named Yotam Gilboa, one of the first two soldiers to be killed in Lebanon that July. Four summers earlier, I had been Yotam’s counselor on the Nesiya program, in which a group of American and Israeli teens traveled throughout Israel on a six-week journey of learning, expression, and identity exploration. Yotam was from a family of Kibbutznikim. He was the strong, silent type – stoic, not much of a talker, but definitely a doer, the Israeli who was always showing us flabby, soft Americans how to load our (overloaded) luggage into the storage compartment on the bus. Yotam was not a big fan of authority figures (or authority figure wanna-bes, like us counselors). For most of that summer Yotam didn’t seem to like or respect me very much.
Yotam was a tremendously proud Israeli and a worthy heir to the spirit of the chalutzim (pioneers) of the early 20th century. But Yotam Gilboa, age 21, of Kibbutz Maoz Chayim, was now Yotam Gilboa (zichrono livracha – may his memory be for a blessing). Suddenly, with Mish’s words, a series of battles that seemed close-yet-far-away had taken on a very personal resonance.
As Mish spoke of mourning the loss of Israeli soldiers, I remembered the last time that I had seen Yotam, on August 1, 2002, the day after the Hebrew University terrorist attack. 80 high school students had sat in a silence so complete that I can remember it even now, a silence broken only by an occasional sniffle or muffled weeping as I said goodbye to the group and explained that I had to leave to accompany Marla’s body back to her parents in San Diego.
After I spoke, all of the students surrounded and hugged me, crying on my shoulder. It was the only time that Yotam ever let down his tough-guy guard in front of me. He embraced me, and looked at me with tears in his eyes, and said nothing – for what is there to say? But in Yotam’s eyes, I think, I had suddenly become an Israeli.
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And then I thought about Marla.
I often say that, in 2001-2002, I fell in love with three “things”. I fell in love with Israel during a time when it was facing an existential threat, with bombs exploding almost weekly in Jerusalem, in cafes and on buses and on the streets. I fell in love with Jewish learning, experiencing the revelation of ancient text coming alive in meaningful ways that I had never really thought possible. And I fell in love with Marla Bennett.
Marla was born and raised in San Diego, went to college at Berkeley, and studied in Israel at Hebrew U. during her junior year and then at Pardes starting in September 2000. Marla arrived at a moment when the elusive dream of peace looked like it might actually be achieved. Instead, the 2nd Intifada erupted that fall.
Marla and I met in September 2001, began dating in November, and by January I had decided to stay for a second year in Israel. During summer 2002, she needed to be at Hebrew University for ulpan, as part of her Hebrew language proficiency requirement for the Pardes Educators Program. So I applied to Nesiya – a chance to stay in Israel, and an opportunity to try my hand at Jewish education.
Marla loved Jerusalem. In spring 2002 she wrote, “I’ve been living in Israel for over a year and a half now, and my favorite thing to do here is to go to the grocery store. I know – not the most exciting response from someone living in Jerusalem these days. But going grocery shopping here…means that I live here. I am not a tourist; I deal with Israel and all of its complexities, confusion, joy, and pain every single day. And I love it.”
She loved the beit midrash at Pardes, the same one where I davenned on that night when I met Claire. For the year after her death, I could still see her sitting there, in her makom kavua, her regular desk. I had spent more time than I probably should have looking over at her when I was supposed to be studying my sifrei kodesh during the year we were together. For me, Marla was beyond a sefer kodesh, she was a living book filled with wisdom and laughter, smiles and love, open to me and to her friends, community, and world.
On the last Shabbat of July 2002, just after Tisha B’Av, Marla and I went for a walk in our beloved Yerushalayim, a walk that began in the heat of late afternoon and ended as the cooling breezes arrived in the hills of this holy city. On our walk, Marla pointed at houses to show me the kind of place where she’d like us to live some day. We walked through a playground filled with small children. We held hands as we walked, beaming in joyful anticipation of hundreds of Shabbat walks – and so much more – that we imagined lying ahead of us in our future.
Marla also wrote this in spring 2002: “As I look ahead to the next year and a half that I will spend in Israel, I feel excited, worried, but more than anything else, lucky…. Stimulation abounds in Jerusalem…. There is no other place in the world where I would rather be right now.”
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July 31, 2002 – the 22nd of Av, 5762 – was a cruel twist in the Jewish calendar. Instead of nachamu, the comfort we all needed, we had our own Tisha B’Av. Hamas terrorists exploded a bomb in the Frank Sinatra Café at Hebrew U., killing Pardes students Ben Blutstein and Marla Bennett and seven others, and wounding our friend Jamie Harris-Gershon and nearly 100 others. Terror struck, and our nightmare became a reality. The year that followed, rather than a year of simcha, was one of mourning, of crying out in agony, of grasping for ghosts in the beit midrash and in the streets of Jerusalem. A year of searching for Marla, though she could not be found.
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So here I was in July 2006, standing next to my dear friend Mishael Zion, who had sat with me each Shabbat in that year after the horror and held my hand throughout Kabbalat Shabbat when I cried as we sang Ana B’Koach (Marla’s favorite). Here I was standing on the rooftop of Pardes, where Marla and I had stood four years earlier on Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, listening to the somewhat subdued celebration in Jerusalem because we were too concerned about security to venture downtown.
Tisha B’Av would arrive the following Wednesday. Before that, Monday would be July 31st – the fourth anniversary of the bombing at Hebrew U.
So, yes: we were all mourners in that moment.
And yet – this was not 2002. It was 2006, and Claire was a few feet away, and my mental Rolodex continued to spin. This woman Claire was a graduate student from Stanford. Didn’t I try to contact a graduate student from Stanford on JDate a few months earlier…?
We finished Kabbalat Shabbat and headed back to the stairs, and I sidled up to Claire and asked her three questions – Do you know Igor and Sivan? (yes) And Maya and Noam? (yes) Um…Did I try to contact you on JDate a while back? (um – maybe)
We separated again for ma’ariv, and then I found her before leaving for dinner at the Zion home. I asked her out, and she told me how to find her email address after Shabbat. We went on our first date that Sunday night. At around 2 a.m., after dropping Claire off at her apartment on Ha-Palmach, I walked back to the apartment where I was staying, in Baka. I realized that July 31 had already begun, and that this anniversary would be unlike any previous one.
Later that day, still the 31st, I took the Bus #4-aleph to Mount Scopus, to Hebrew University. I made my way to Café Sinatra, and sat at a table not far from where Marla and Ben and Jamie would have been sitting. I closed my eyes and remembered coming here thirty-two hours after the bombing. The tables and chairs and bodies and blood and nails and spikes and flesh and hair and glass and everything else imaginable and unimaginable had been swept up and cleaned. Much of the structure remained intact. But – not the ceiling. Panels had fallen or had been blown off, wires exposed. The guts of this building had been ripped open.
Forty years ago, Yehuda Amichai wrote in his poem “The Diameter of the Bomb”:
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective
range – about seven meters.
And in it four dead and eleven wounded.
And around them in a greater circle
of pain and time are scattered
two hospitals and one cemetery.
But the young woman who was
buried where she came from
over a hundred kilometres away
enlarges the circle greatly.
And the lone man who weeps over her death
in a far corner of a distant country
includes the whole world in the circle.
I wondered as I sat there, how many people in here, right now, know what happened here exactly four years ago? Does anyone besides me?
I sat next to The Tilted Tree, the memorial outside the café. I sang Ana B’Koach. Recited Psalm 23. Sang Ha-malakh ha-goel oti.
But then I stopped, noticing that two girls and a boy walked through the plaza, watched me for a moment, then left. I needed to know who they were – no one else was in the plaza that day, and I wondered what their connection might be. I followed and caught up with them, and asked one of the girls whether she had a connection to the memorial. And then, as she said her name – Rivka – I realized exactly who she was.
Rivka Blutstein. Ben’s sister. I had met her when she was 13, the year of her bat mitzvah and of her loss. At 17, she looked wonderful, poised, and – despite the difficulty of this moment and this place – happy. She told me that this was the first time that she had ever been to Hebrew U, the first time she had seen the cafeteria and the memorial.
I went back and finished my “ritual” – recited Psalm 121, and then sang Tov l’hodot l’Adonai. Without irony, anger, or anything else. It is good to thank God.
Four hours later, I met up with Claire for our second date. We crisscrossed town: to the shuk for dinner, to Emek Refaim for dessert, and then back to Claire’s apartment on Ha-Palmach. At the end of the date, in what I did not then realize was a glimpse into many such moments in the future, I helped her close her stuffed suitcases and schlepped them downstairs. I waited with her for the sherut (shuttle) to take her to the airport. And then we said goodbye and soon began a Boston – Palo Alto long-distance relationship. Which led to her moving to Boston, to us getting engaged, then married, then moving to Evanston, and to the arrival this past March of our son, Jacob Samuel Sufrin Simon.
Tov l’hodot l’Adonai, indeed.
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Today, in July 2011, we prepare to enter the three weeks of national spiritual and historical mourning that culminate with Tisha B'Av. In two weeks I'll mark the 9th anniversary of the bombing at Hebrew University. And in eight weeks, thousands of people mourning their loved ones will join millions around the entire world in commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
The Talmud famously tells us that the murder of one person destroys an entire universe. Marla was preparing to be a teacher of Torah, with dreams of one day heading a school. How many students – how many worlds – would Marla have touched and changed indelibly? Dozens, hundreds, thousands? We’ll never know, but we mourn the loss of these universes.
In the first years after the bombing, when I spoke about Marla, I ended on that note – loss, sadness, pain, and unfulfilled dreams. The animating part of the Tisha B'Av narrative is the destruction of the Temple. For 9/11, it is those flaming planes and impossibly crumbling towers. And for this story, it is the bombing of the cafe.
But a Jewish narrative of pain and destruction is incomplete without an infusion of hope. With Tisha B'Av, a moment of hope comes at the end of the Talmud tractate Makkot. Rabbi Akiva and three of his gedolim buddies go up to Jerusalem. When they reach Har Ha-Tzofim – Mt. Scopus – they tear their garments. But when they reach the Temple Mount and see a fox emerging from the Holy of Holies, the others start weeping, but Rabbi Akiva is metzachek. He is laughing/teasing/playing. They say “Why are you laughing?” He retorts, in typical Jewish fashion, with a question of his own: “Why are you weeping?”
And they respond, “Because the Temple Mount has become an outhouse for the foxes!” (In other words, Because we’re doomed!)
And Akiva says, Well, that’s why I laugh. There’s a line in Scripture that connects the prophets Uriah and Zechariah. And Uriah prophesied that Zion shall be plowed as a field – in ruins. But Zecharia prophesied that “old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem.” And until Uriah’s prophecy of destruction was fulfilled, I was afraid that Zecharia’s prophecy of redemption might not be fulfilled either. But now I see with my own eyes that Uriah’s has been fulfilled, so it is certain that Zecharia’s will, as well.
His friends then respond, famously, “Akiva, you have comforted us. Akiva, you have comforted us.”
Rabbi Akiva is no starry-eyed idealist, blind to the destruction in front of him -- the text tells us clearly that he joined his companions in tearing his garments upon first seeing the destruction of Jerusalem. But as they got a closer look, Akiva was able to take the longer view. He could see beyond the horizon of immediate destruction to a future filled with promise.
On the day of Marla's funeral in San Diego, I found myself sitting next to her father Michael in a room in their home where they were gathering memorabilia along with dozens of cards and letters that had begun pouring in from around the world. At one point, somewhat out of the blue, Michael turned to me and said, "Linda and I want you to celebrate your wedding someday." My initial thought was "Didn't you get the memo? There won’t BE a wedding." But then I realized: what an astoundingly generous gift I have just been given.
Over these past nine years I have brought the memory of Marla along with me as I have become an educator in the Jewish world, influencing dozens, even hundreds, of wonderful young Jewish and non-Jewish students each year. And each year I help to bring dozens of these young people to Israel, many for the first time, so that they might be inspired and challenged in some of the ways Marla was, and that Claire and I have been, as well.
Speaking of inspiring…
This story is, of course, also about Claire – how a beautiful, brilliant, funny, and caring young woman was able to encounter me and my story and take a leap of faith that we could build a story together. I no longer – if I ever did – believe in “beshert”, that things are “meant to be”. The implications are too painful.
But in the sense that I was meant to have another chance to fall in love with a life partner, that I could love this person more than anyone I have ever known, that I would learn more from her than any teacher I’ve ever had – well, I still don’t quite believe in beshert, but I feel tremendously fortunate and blessed.
The story of how Claire and I met begins in Jerusalem, the place the midrash locates as where Ya'akov had his dream at Beit El, and the place where Akiva had his laughing vision of hope amid the shards of destruction.
Our own little Ya'akov entered the world almost four months ago. Nearly every night, as we are putting him to sleep, we sing a song to him. We sang it at the conclusion of his bris. It's a song that we sang often at Pardes in the difficult year prior to the bombing and the awful year after it. It's a song that I often sing when I end one of these talks. It's a song that Marla loved. It comes from the blessing that Jacob says to Joseph, regarding his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe: “Ha-malakh ha-goel oti mi-kol ra yevarekh et ha ne-arim…” "The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm - Bless the lads. In them may my name be called. And the names of my fathers Avraham and Yitzhak. And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth."
This is Jacob's lullaby prayer for his children and grandchildren - who will go on to become b'nei Yisrael - for their safe keeping and safe journeys. And it is our song to our own little Jacob, the namesake.
History and memory provide the context for this story, one that is filled with connections that don’t necessarily make sense.
Until they do.