September 2020

September 4, 2020

A person very close with my son died yesterday. T met Florence when he was a small child, when Florence and her husband Jules were living at Oakwood Village and T was volunteering for the Shabbat programs. We don’t have family in the Midwest. But for T, going to Oakwood was like going to see family. When he went to Oakwood and saw Florence, they both would have huge smiles. Florence would tell him that she loved that he plays the piano and percussion and that he should become a doctor. Even after Florence moved to another community, fifteen-year-old T figured out how to visit her. And with COVID-19, the two of them Zoomed and stayed connected until this week. This relationship has been very important to my son and I believe it was to Florence as well. I will always be grateful to JSS, Paul, Dean and Florence, for the kindness they have shown T.

JSS builds community. We bring together people and help them feel not alone. We provide emotional and financial support and advocacy to those in need. T and Florence’s friendship, is one example of the many, many friendships that have been initiated through JSS. We need your support to continue our work. Please consider a donation here to make this happen.  

Shabbat shalom,


September 11, 2020

Ties that Bind

With the High Holidays nearly upon us, I am sharing a picture today that reminds me of ties that bind. Taken by yours truly on a “real” camera, it’s of my then three-year-old daughter, Sasha, and an Ethiopian woman born in Qwara, a province of the Region of Amhara.

The beautiful woman in the photo made Aliyah to Israel in 1999 and shortly thereafter joined an Ethiopian-Israeli dance troupe that ultimately visited the United States in 2004 to perform for pre-school children in various cities around our country. Sasha and I were among the lucky ones who enjoyed a demonstration of ESKISTA, a traditional and popular Ethiopian dance. The white loose fitting clothing accentuated the dancers’ shoulder and chest movements, creating an image of them being one with the music.

The troupe invited Sasha and her friends to join them on stage, thrilling them and their parents beyond imagination. Youth-sized Ethiopian garments slipped over small heads! The children were also given long blue ribbons to swirl as they danced – ribbons of sky and grace for the little ones! There was only one problem. No pictures allowed! Not during the performance, or after, to the dismay of many.

At the end, Sasha neared her favorite dancer. “I want a picture, Mommy!” Next came the mitzvah of all time! With a slight questioning nod to her elder, the dancer received permission to pose for one photo with Sasha. And, as the image reveals, Sasha was ever so smitten with the Ethiopian woman whose name we never learned. Evermore, I am awestruck by this young lady’s act of kindness that made my daughter so happy.

As you can see, I framed the keepsake and displayed it on our kitchen counter, where it has remained. I love it, and have grown to love the Ethiopian young lady almost as if she, too, were my daughter. Jewish people are taught to value kindness, so much so that it has been said that the kindness of a stranger can even save a life. Kindness is a tie that binds.

The absorption of the Ethiopian community to Israeli society is a story of challenge and courage. With a history of famine, religious oppression and civil war, many who made Aliyah to Israel suffered but forged ahead. When Sasha and I met the young woman in our photo, she did not talk about her tribulations. Instead, she expressed gratitude for her freedom to be Jewish, something that we are also thankful for in our family. Freedom binds us, and our appreciation of it sometimes even more.

Many years have now passed. I sometimes ask my daughter, “I wonder how the dancer observes the High Holidays?” Since the ideal of kindness supports our journey to a richer Jewish way of life, we presume that she pursues the Jewish goal of transforming the world into a place of goodness, thus making her observance of sacred days similar to most Jews around the globe.

Sasha turns twenty next month. Over the years of her youth, I have done my best to raise her awareness of the customs and traditions of Jews worldwide. A personal thought of mine: celebrating the impact of our diversity is equally as important as treasuring our binding ties. As it calls together the Jewish people, the ritual blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah humbly speaks to every Jew. I like to believe that it moves us forward in kindness, and in peace.

I am grateful for my colleagues at Jewish Social Services, and for the opportunity to be of service for people of all backgrounds in Madison, Wisconsin. During these times and during this pandemic, it is such an honor to be part of a team that sees both the forest and the trees.

L’Shanah Tova,

Joni Pico