August 2020

August 7, 2020

From Refugees to Helpers to Advocates: The Madison Refugee Union

By Becca Schwartz, Resettlement Director

A few short years after resettling here, Kassim Rajab has become an educator and guide for other refugees in Madison. After escaping war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kassim spent 17 years as a refugee in Uganda before he was able to come to the U.S. in 2018, and to make a new home for himself with help from Jewish Social Services. Within a few months of his arrival, Kassim and three other JSS refugee clients traveled to Washington DC to speak with Congressman Mark Pocan and Wisconsin Senate staffers about the significance of refugees and asylees admissions to the US. Kassim, along with a JSS client from Burundi and another from Afghanistan, spoke about the need to increase the numbers of refugees allowed entry into the US, for both human rights AND national security purposes. (The current administration has cut refugee resettlement to its lowest level since the program’s inception in 1980.)

Empowered by the chance to speak to national leaders, Kassim helped found the Madison Refugee Union (MRU). The MRU helps new arrivals connect with each other for community and support, and works to give a voice to Madison’s refugee communities through advocacy, and outreach.

One of those community members, Gilbertine, is a mother of three originally from Burundi. She fled persecution in 2012 with her two young children. They landed in a refugee camp in Malawi where her husband joined them the next year. The family resettled in Madison in late 2018. Now she serves as a mentor for other newly arriving families.

After the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nation-wide protests that followed, JSS reached out to the MRU to ask what kind of support refugee communities needed. Refugees from Africa were particularly worried. Would they need to behave in a certain way if they had an encounter with the police? How could they talk with their children about what is going on?

Kassim and Gilbertine had been surprised and disturbed to find that this kind of racial violence happens in the United States. Gilbertine struggled through some difficult conversations with her children. She is now concerned for their safety and well-being as they experience racism for the first time from their peers at school. They decided to join in the protest marches and to add refugee voices in the growing movement to end police violence against unarmed African-Americans..

In early June, MRU members donned masks and joined a Solidarity March organized by Madison’s African-American Council of Churches. Staff from JSS and the Jewish Federation of Madison along with thousands of other supporters came wearing masks on a warm Sunday afternoon to listen to a call for justice from multiple faith leaders.

The march was unlike anything that takes place in their countries of birth – they both found it encouraging that so many people came out to support the message of the Solidarity March leaders to continue the work of building a just society for all. Kassim was amazed to see Madison Police officers guiding protestors safely along State Street to the Capitol.

Both continue to look for ways that the MRU can support change in their new home. Kassim speaks with youth about safe and unsafe behaviors, and how to interact with police. Gilbertine reads about African-American history. She learned that it was marches such as these that helped turn the national tide against legal segregation in the south 50 year ago. Both are optimistic that the activism and frank discussions sparked by recent events will lead to real change for future generations.

August 14, 2020

Using Jewish Holidays as a Spiritual Road

As I enjoyed the glorious sunny and beautiful weather this week, I noticed a bit of chill in the morning and evening air that made me aware that fall is around the corner. And with fall comes the Jewish High Holidays. The holidays this year have a cloud over them.  Thinking about Rosh Hashanah without going to synagogue and Yom Kippur without a communal break fast is painful. The length of life under the pandemic, the distance of family we cannot hug and the yearning for community weighs on us.

As I watch my rabbinic colleagues work tirelessly to creatively plan how to shepherd their communities through this unprecedented season, I feel lucky to not be in their position. I am privileged to have the space to think about the deeper spiritual meanings underlying the holidays.

The Jewish calendar is a masterful cycle of holidays and observances that address the breadth of human spiritual needs. This time of year is a beautiful example. We can think of the holiday season as beginning began two weeks ago on the holiday of Tisha B’Av, which is exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah and ending with the holiday of Simchat Torah.

The march from Tish B’Av to Rosh Hashanah begins with a public display of grief. We fast and recite the book of Lamentations sitting on the floor of candle-lit synagogues. Deep mourning of the brokenness in ourselves and in the world around us is the first step in in creating the change that this season bids of us.  Grieving, Jewish tradition teaches, is an essential part of the teshuvah process.

Tradition moves us from grief to comfort with seven weeks of special haftarot, prophetic readings of comfort read every Shabbat after Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah. That is where we are this week. Tomorrow we will read the third of seven haftarot of comfort which follow the haftarot chastisement of the people’s misdeeds that precede Tisha B’Av. Guilt and mourning are followed by comfort.

We must take time for comfort after the mourning before we can do the work of repair and return, of soul-searching and repentance called for on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the day we comfort our misdeeds and our mortality, stripping ourselves of the earthly pleasures that distract us from the truth of our lives. It is after this intense time of introspection that we move to the joy of Sukkot. We are now prepared to live with the fragility that the Sukkah symbolizes while knowing how to fully celebrate the abundance of the harvest. We complete the season with Simchat Torah, the day we begin reading Torah again and are reminded of the cyclical nature of our lives, of our stories and of our tradition.

This movement of the holiday season can be a template for us in our own lives of how to move through painful times, to create change and renewal and fully celebrate the joy of what we have. May each of us feel the comfort of this Shabbat and be gentle with ourselves and we walk in the unprecedented days ahead.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Renée Bauer

August 21, 2020

What does it mean to be a good Jew?

Some years ago, I took a course on Jewish leadership taught by a rabbi who provided us students with a challenge. “I want a written answer to one question. What does it mean to be a good Jew?” Wouldn’t we soon be busy enough preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipuur? Why this? Why now?

My peers and I talked the matter over. There are many moving parts to being a good Jew. We follow a calendar of holidays, each with distinct and meaningful traditions of its own. We accept that are 613 commandments, some positive, some negative, and not just 10. We have laws of kashrut that concern everything to do with food, including the kitchen sink. We adhere to rituals in our synagogues and specialized programs of study for conversion to Judaism. What answer is the rabbi waiting for?

We soon realized that we were grappling with observance. Were the more strictly observant students the best Jews? Did ritualistic behavior impact our being inscribed in the Book of Life on Yom Kippur? Trying to find best answers to these questions naturally led to discussion about the humble act of seeking forgiveness from others for our unintentional misdeeds. Although we hadn’t yet determined what really was a good Jew, we were learning from each other, which is a desired approach to study in Judaism.

Deep introspection regarding our behavior can provoke anxiety. A perceptive woman took a seat beside me one Rosh Hashanah. “What,” she asked, “is making you so sad?” I explained that my grandma passed away earlier that year in South Florida. This woman had such kind eyes. “My grandma kept asking me to move down there with her.”

It always seemed a power struggle and to be honest it drove me nuts when my grandma brought the subject up. We both knew I’d never move to Florida, but I always somehow felt guilty about it, and then after she died ashamed. Ashamed? “If only I had listened better maybe she would’ve talked more about her loneliness.” My new friend asked me if I could forgive myself. “Forgive myself? It’s the High Holidays. I should be seeking forgiveness from my grandma.”

While I later discovered that there’s Jewish guidance for seeking forgiveness from someone who’s passed away, I reckoned with myself that year. It was good sharing what I’d learned about teshuvah (atoning for one’s sins) with my peers as we continued seeking the perfect answer to the rabbi’s question: “What does it mean to be a good Jew?” “Well,” I began, “you can’t seek forgiveness for something without first being honest with yourself.”

By the end of that reflective month of Elul, we students of Jewish leadership submitted our responses to the rabbi. Although we had had significant discussions, each student’s answer was unique, and full of comfort and consolation and self-awareness. I mostly wrote about the necessity of listening for good leadership, Jewish and otherwise. Years have since passed since taking that class and I am still thankful for what I learned. Respectful listening to people from diverse backgrounds is essential to my work today as a JSS case manager here in Madison.

Rabbi Renee Bauer thoughtfully wrote about the cycle of Jewish holidays and observances last week. Her writing certainly inspires me to think about my personal and communal life, and where we are collectively going from here. As a community, a nation, a people. As the month of Elul, and this sacred season, begins today, I hope you will join me in personal and communal reflection.

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov,

Joni Gill Pico, MS Jewish Communal Service, MSW

August 28, 2020

Tim and Kathy Mazur Once Again Step Forward to Support a Gem in Our Community

By Jim Mackman

I’m so often asked what I like the most about working at JSS. My answer is always the same, “JSS does so much good in our community. On a continuous basis, JSS helps to improve people’s lives. I often wish that we could share all the beautiful things that happen at JSS. I want our community to know what a fabulous resource we have in JSS. However, because we honor the privacy of the people we serve, most of the lovely things that happen at JSS are not able to be shared.”

One of my favorite gems is the JSS Chaplaincy Program. The JSS Chaplaincy Program was created in response to Madison’s congregational rabbis, who asked JSS to become a chaplaincy resource for Dane County’s Jewish people who are not affiliated with a congregation. The program was able to take legs with the generous help of a three year start up grant from the Irwin A. and Robert D. Goodman Foundation. This allowed JSS to bring on Rabbi Renee Bauer as the JSS Chaplain. Rabbi Bauer provides spiritual care, support and comfort for Jewish individuals and families who are coping with illness, aging, loss or other life challenges. Rabbi Bauer cares for clients in the community, at continuing care facilities, at in-patient hospice and in the hospital. Having a rabbi on staff allows JSS to meet the requests of families that would like Jewish funerals, memorial services and unveilings but are not currently connected to the organized Jewish community. To provide continuing connections to Jewish life, JSS hosts Shabbat and holiday celebrations at select senior care facilities and delivers of holiday baskets on Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Purim and Shavuot to homebound seniors. The chaplaincy program serves as a scaffolding of spiritual support throughout the community by providing information and training to organizations and institutions working with Jews as well for members and professionals in the Jewish community.

In 2020, Tim and Kathy Mazur stepped forward again and contributed $30,000 to help make sure that the JSS Chaplaincy Program will continue to thrive.

In 2019, Tim and Kathy Mazur generously contributed $40,000 to make sure that the JSS Chaplaincy Program would remain as a vital resource for Dane County’s Jewish people who are not affiliated with a congregation. Part of this gift was the sponsorship of a large Chaplaincy event on healing from grief with Rabbi Bauer’s teacher, Rabbi Eric Weiss in November 2019. In 2020, Tim and Kathy Mazur stepped forward again and contributed $30,000 to help make sure that the JSS Chaplaincy Program will continue to thrive and grow; even in the face of a pandemic.

2020 has been a surreal year. The pandemic has changed our lives in major ways.  People are struggling with job loss, housing instability and isolation. Most of the institutions have had very strict rules limiting contact with patients who are hospitalized even in end of life situations. Funerals and end of life care have been very difficult during the pandemic. Attendance at funerals is dramatically limited and travel puts family members’ health at risk. However, Rabbi Bauer is still present to support and guide people during these extra challenging times. Rabbi Bauer has conducted funerals where families needed to attend virtually. When she hasn’t been able to meet in-person, Rabbi Bauer has communicated with families by phone and Zoom. 

Despite the pandemic, the JSS Chaplaincy program is continuing to grow. Rabbi Bauer continues to focus on supporting those dealing with death and dying, helping people who are care takers and working with families who are faced with serious illness, dementia and the loss associated with that. The Chaplaincy Program has added more individual work in the areas of addiction and grief. There have been some fun Chaplaincy activities even in the face of the pandemic. Rabbi Bauer recently officiated at a mikvah conversion for twin newborns who were born through a surrogate. Because of Covid-19, we are more than doubling the number of Rosh Hashanah gift baskets that go out to isolated seniors. We are working to engage more youth in outreach to isolated seniors through zoom for holiday greetings. JSS is starting a program to help unaffiliated Jews keep track of their loved ones Yahrtzeit. Congregations help their members know when to honor their deceased loved ones. However, for unaffiliated Jews it can be difficult to know when to light memorial candles and/or say Kaddish. 

I am full of gratitude for the opportunity to work at JSS and for people like Tim and Kathy Mazur who help make the work of JSS possible.