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The Joy in Community

 

I recently watched a documentary called Praying with Lior, about a boy with Down syndrome preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. Both of Lior’s parents were rabbis, but his mother died from breast cancer when he was six years old, and that shapes a lot of the story. There are bits of film of her praying with Lior, and with her larger community, that are heart breaking. Lior’s joy in prayer clearly comes from his Mom, and his love for her. He leads prayers in his classroom at school, and in his tree house, and then finally at his Bar Mitzvah in front of the whole congregation. His joy in prayer is contagious. The only person who is less than enthusiastic about him is his younger sister, because she is his younger sister. I can relate.

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The most poignant moment in the movie is when Lior and his dad go to the cemetery to visit his Mom’s grave for the seventh anniversary of her death, just before his Bar Mitzvah. At first it feels like a forced set piece for the movie, but then Lior starts to hug his mother’s headstone and he won’t let go. Eventually his father is able to hold him and Lior starts to keen with sorrow. It’s as authentic as everything else about this boy, and it feels like he’s giving permission to everyone around him to express more, and be more, of who they really are.

 

Some of Lior’s fellow congregants wax poetic about the greatness of Lior’s spirit, and wonder if maybe he’s the reincarnation of a great Rebbe, but his godmother laughs it off and says that if Lior had been born into a Christian family he would have been singing Christmas songs with the same passion. Because it’s not about his particular religion, or some magical force that is out of reach for other people; Lior’s joy comes from his love for his mother, and his memories of singing and praying with her, and from the heart of who he is. He just happens to be a Jewish boy, in a Jewish community, so that’s how his joy expresses itself.

The way Lior’s family and community embrace his passion for prayer gave me a lot to think about, because another community might not have been as welcoming of him. He might have been shut out, or shut down, instead of encouraged to grow in his spirituality and in his role in the community. The fact that he didn’t just have his family behind him, but also a wider community, made a huge difference in who he was able to become. His dad, a Reconstructionist Rabbi, works with him on his speech for his Bar Mitzvah and jokes that Lior has heard way too many sermons about the value of community in Judaism, but the fact is, Lior has gone beyond hearing it, he’s taken it to heart. He sees himself as a full-fledged member of his community, because he has been seen and treated that way by the people around him.

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“Huh, are we a community?”

 

After the movie ended, I looked up Lior to see how things had turned out for him, and I found an article from 2018 about how Lior, at twenty-six, was living in his own apartment in supportive housing, had a girlfriend, and a job, and went to his drum circle and synagogue events every week, and also did speaking events to help people see that communities can be inclusive of children and adults with disabilities, and that those children can do so much more in their lives, with that support, than anyone might have thought possible.

I want my community to be more like Lior’s. I’m trying to figure out my role in making that happen, but it’s hard to overcome the resentment I feel, that what I need doesn’t already exist, and that I have to first imagine it, and then create it, and fight for it myself. It is hard work to teach our communities how to accept us as we are. I don’t have 2.5 children, or a husband, or even a Seder to go to for Passover, but I still exist. And I still have a lot to offer. I want my community to see me, and be open to hearing what I have to say, instead of assuming that they already know, or that I have nothing to add.

Maybe what I really need is for Lior to come to town and show me how it’s done. At the very least, he could teach us how to run a drum circle. Cricket and Ellie would love that.

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“I love making noise!!!!”

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“Me too!!!”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

 

 

Synagogue Dogs

            I wish that my dogs could participate at my synagogue. Yes, Cricket is obstreperous and barky and disruptive, but I’d like to believe that there is something in the music of prayer and the solemnity of the service that would help calm her and give her some relief, the way it does for me. The Rabbi and Cantor at my synagogue like to sing harmonies. I think that was the clincher for me when we visited the synagogue last year and decided to join, the way the music was like a conversation between the two of them.

            It would be nice to have an acknowledgment that dogs are members of our families, especially for people like me who don’t have children, or husbands or wives. We get left out of community rituals that would allow us to feel more whole and welcome.

And sometimes, I just feel like I want Butterfly to be sitting on my lap, so I won’t feel so strange to myself in this strange place that isn’t home. She would be my therapy dog, for when I start to twitch and shake and feel self conscious about being in public.

Butterfly, in silent prayer.

Butterfly, in silent prayer.

 Butterfly’s presence would calm and relax the people around her, except for the occasional stress peeing. And then there would be one less place my dogs would be barred from going. It’s already painful for them that they can’t go to the supermarket.

            My synagogue is Reconstructionist and one of their prime directives is to be inclusive of all kinds of people. People, but not dogs? They’ve broken down barriers for intermarried couples and gay couples and women in leadership. Shouldn’t there be some way to break the prejudice against my dogs?

At Friday night services, people wear casual clothes. I started out wearing black dress pants and high heeled boots, because I thought I should, but now I wear jeans and sneakers. There is an aging population at services and they are very accepting of each other’s limitations. They understand the need to be there instead of alone. This is the kind of place that could welcome dogs.

            I would have loved there to be a service to welcome Butterfly into our family. I picture something like the Lion King scene where Simba is introduced to the community, raised up high. I would have liked the Rabbi to hold Butterfly up on the pulpit and say a blessing over her and announce her name to the congregation.

Butterfly's naming pose

Butterfly’s naming pose

When Cricket is sick, it would be nice to be able to go to synagogue and say a public prayer for her recovery. There’s something powerful about putting aside privacy to ask for help from the community, as if we are tapping into an electrical system where everyone’s energy is pooled together.

Cricket is less amenable to being raised in the air

Cricket is less amenable to being raised in the air

On Purim, when we read the story of Esther and use a noise maker, called a grogger, to blot out the name of the bad guy in the story, Haman, the dogs could participate. My dogs, especially Cricket, could be living noisemakers. There could be a whole Hebrew school class for the dogs, to train them for their big day, when they can stand up as a barking choir, and blot out the name of the enemy who tried to harm their humans.

But most of all, I think dogs could bring something unique to a house of worship, because they are not of any particular religious or ethnic persuasion. A Golden Retriever could just as easily, and happily, live with Jews or Muslims or Christians or Buddhists. Dogs are not biased towards one religious group or another. A dog’s presence in the synagogue could be a reminder of the basic spirituality we all share, the God-sense we are all trying to tap into, rather than the specific religion we use to get us there.

My synagogue-ready dogs

My synagogue-ready dogs