Trusting the tradition? / Remembering Naomi Rabkin, z”l

Thursday, March 8, 2018 | 21 Adar 5778


Naomi Rabkin funeral and shiva:
The funeral will be on Thursday, March 8 at 1:00 PM at El Camino Memorial Park chapel followed by burial at El Camino (5600 Carroll Canyon Rd, San Diego, CA 92121). All are welcome.
Shiva will be on Thursday at 6:30 at the Leichtag Foundation (441 Saxony Rd., Encinitas) and again on Saturday and Sunday. With tremendous gratitude to Naomi’s Leichtag Foundation family for providing us space to mourn.
Naomi’s memory will be a blessing. She asked that donations be made in her honor to a charity you feel represents her values. She was particularly grateful to the Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) Support over the past several months. Any foundation that supports research into Triple Negative and/or Inflammatory breast cancer, which are poorly understood and particularly devastating types of breast cancer, could use more support. For example:
Baruch Dayan haEmet.


By Nigel Savage

Dear All,

A little after I wrote this email – partly on the subject of death and mourning in Jewish tradition –  I learned that Naomi Rabkin had died. Her funeral takes place in just a few hours’ time.

Naomi was a dear friend. She had a smile as bright as her hair was red; she lit up the room.

She was involved in Hazon’s work both when she was in Atlanta and when she moved to San Diego. She was at the Food Conference in 2006 and ‘07 and ‘12, and she co-chaired it in 2010. She was at the first Intentional Communities Conference in 2014. She started the first Jewish CSA in Atlanta – I worked with her as a volunteer on that and then on Limmud Atlanta and later still as a professional when she was at Leichtag. She and Michael were actually married at Isabella Freedman, and she sometimes said it was her favorite place in the world.

It is just incredibly shocking that she has died. She was way way – way – too young.

She fought cancer with a smile on her face and a wig on her head and tenacity and no self-pity whatsoever.

I wrote the email below more than partly in relation to the mourning rituals following the death of my father. But my father lived to the age of 85, having lived a full life. So my heart goes out to Michael and Joey and Talia, to whom I send the deepest condolences, and to everyone who knew and loved and mourns Naomi. I wish you all long life.

I hope the email below is an apposite tribute to her, to the life she lived and the values she believed in and exemplified.



How do I be or try to be a better person?
How can or should we respond to the fraying of democracy and of society?
What tools could I use to cope with everything changing all at once – technology and societal expectations and the climate?

Earlier this week, EJP published a provocative and important essay by Andrès Spokoiny about the sometimes tension between content and inclusion in Jewish life. His argument has relevance not just for the Jewish community narrowly construed but also in a wider societal frame.

“We responded to the perceived (and real) threats of assimilation,” Andrès argued, “by creating ‘gateways’ to Jewish life, but we ended up treating those gateways as goals unto themselves – doors to nowhere – rather than first steps towards more demanding content and richer meaning…”

And he continued, “In a free marketplace of ideas, Judaism needs to articulate how it provides meaning, comfort, thickness, and transcendence to people’s lives. In a global world, Judaism needs to articulate what it contributes to the conversation of humanity.”

The reason this resonated so strongly with me is that my Dad died on Tu b’Shvat; his funeral was five weeks ago today. In these last five weeks Jewish tradition has indeed provided me with meaning, comfort, thickness and – not a word I use very often but it may be right, in this case – transcendence.

This has been a new, strange, profound and learningful experience for me. Na’aseh v’nishmah, the tradition teaches – you will do, and you will learn; ie you only learn, perhaps you can only learn, by diving in and doing something. And so it has been.

From the moment of getting the phone call I let go of almost all decision-making. I had to get back to Manchester. I put up an email autoresponder. I needed simply to learn and to follow the Jewish rhythms of mourning. Other than that… it was like one of those movie scenes, a slow-motion free-fall into a place in which nothing could be seen. And it has been a very remarkable and beautiful free-fall.

I haven’t seen it done in a long while, but there was a certain kind of training that used to include a “trust fall.” The point of it was that you started to fall and trusted that others would hold you.

Aninut and the funeral and shiva and shloshim and the post-shloshim period – a real-life trust fall.
I fell… and was held.

And, to be clear, my Dad lived a good and long life. There are worse tragedies in the world, far worse. And we will all die, and everyone around us. And yet… he was my Dad, and in the moment of getting the call, and on the day of the funeral, I was in immense grief. And steadily this remarkable combination has held me – the tradition, with its rules and rhythms, together with the people who bring those rhythms and rules to life.

Shiva was remarkable and surprisingly full of laughter and connection and re-connection. People and food and conversation and many little kindnesses. And through it, having the sense that it was ok to ask – I, who would far sooner offer help than ask for it, simply fell into asking, because I needed to. It turned out that it was ok to do so. And, then and subsequently, close friends and quite vague acquaintances and people at work have equally and differently been kind and supportive.

In all of this, the core trust that I have depended on is one that is not to be taken for granted in all parts of Jewish life today; a trust that Jewish tradition itself is wise, combined with the trust (and, I suppose, the knowledge) that there are institutions that exist to scaffold that tradition, and people who can be relied upon in so many ways. This is what “content” means, when it comes to life; when we breathe life into it.

So I was able to trust that food and a minyan and chairs and siddurim would show up because I was in a place – north Manchester – where those traditions are strongly intact, and with a network of Orthodox shuls that buttress them. People who really schlepped to come to the funeral and to the shiva. And then I showed up at a shul in Cape Town where I knew not a soul and was warmly received. I wanted to borrow ten siddurim – no problem. Then I was with close friends and wanted three more guests for Friday night dinner, so we could daven together – no problem. (The twelve of us included four who were orthodox, three masorti, three secular, plus Liz and me – and everyone comfortably and happily and seemingly with no stretch at all davenned mincha and Kabbalat Shabbat and ma’ariv… because I asked.) In Virginia Beach – an impromptu minyan. And then another one. And then at the office. And last week at my home.

I had a remarkable two days last week, which summed up in close succession the range of this. We had a staff offsite at Isabella Freedman. On the Monday I led a traditional mincha, with an egal minyan, and said kaddish. In the evening, for ma’ariv, Jess Berlin led a 15-minute silent meditation, and I then said kaddish. In the morning, Dr. Shamu Sadeh led a very beautiful stripped down shacharit – “avodat halev, the service of the heart” – with a guitar and much singing, and I said kaddish. After lunch Janna Siller led us in a seed-planting, the first of the new season, and (having agreed this with people in advance) at the end I said, you’re one of my rabbis and this is part of the Torah that we all are learning, and I said kaddish d’rabbanan. Then I came back into the city and for mincha I went to OZ, the orthodox shul round the corner, and davened mincha which (because it was the Fast of Esther) included a Torah reading, Haftarah, and Avinu Malkeinu. And I said kaddish. Then for the megilla we decided at the last minute not to go to Romemu – it just felt like it would be a tad too exuberant for me, still in shloshim – and instead we went to an impromptu orthodox-but-explicitly-open-to-all megillah reading and ma’ariv in the basement of our building, with a random group of neighbors and near-neighbors – and I said kaddish.

And I respect and understand those who are egal and won’t daven in an orthodox setting. I respect and understand those who are orthodox and won’t daven in an egal setting. I’m aware that as a guy it may be easier for me to cross between different kinds of places. (Though, NB: at every orthodox minyan I’ve been at, to my surprise – weekday morning and evening – there have been women davening and not just men.)

I would add: I don’t exactly know why I’m saying kaddish. I don’t “believe” in it, in any literal sense. When we talk about the content of Jewish tradition, it has to include the very un-modern humility of being willing to be part of something we don’t fully get. (This excellent op-ed in The New York Times, just this week, entirely sums up my views on saying kaddish.)

And so my central argument – the thing I have learned, so strongly, these last five weeks – is:

  1. The tradition is wise; wise and old and softly sanding Jewish life and human nature for twenty centuries like waves lapping upon the pebbles of the beach;

  2. I only get to access that wisdom, if I trust in the tradition, and allow myself to enter into a place, into places, both actual and existential, that may not always be comfortable for me, or fully known in advance; and

  3. In a fractal and reciprocal sense, it is not just that I rely on institutions of many sorts to enable me to access the tradition; it is also true that, by my presence and my commitment, I also enable those institutions to persist and thrive and evolve for others.

And this is how, for me, this loops back also to my opening questions and to Andrès’s line about “the conversation of humanity.” The modern welfare state established societal safety nets to protect us in times of weakness or vulnerability, or to provide opportunity to those who lacked it. Medicare and Medicaid and the NHS. Unemployment benefits. Social security. The GI Bill and free education.

These were – and are – critically necessary to living in an equitable society. And they replicate in governmental form some of the specific obligations of Jewish tradition, going back centuries – caring for the widow and the orphan, obligations to provide for the tinokot shel beit rabban (ie, the education of children), and so on.

(I know too little to translate this sufficiently into Catholic or Muslim or Sikh. But part of the power of all of the ancient religious traditions is that they indeed weave “theology” with intermediate institutions that channel those theologies into lived behavior and communal structures. So I trust that other religious traditions also bring these obligations to life.)

As country-wide institutions of support arose, especially in the post-war period, religious institutions weakened. Part of this is to do with modernism and postmodernism and a literal loss of faith. But part of it, it occurs to me only now, arose also because people didn’t need those intermediate institutions quite so much. Why do a trust-fall if there’s a safety-net? If we grew up with the safety net, our sense of confidence in it is akin to our trust that the sun will come up tomorrow – it was always there and thus always will be there. Growing up in the seventies I indeed took these things largely for granted.

The current fraying of western society is both unsettling and morally distressing. The Italian elections this week. President Achashverosh. The post-Brexit uncertainties. Rising authoritarianism. And all of these, as scary or problematical as they are, are symptoms of still deeper challenges. The scariness of underfunded pension schemes (both private and public). The impact of technology. The multiple different ways that we are literally over-consuming the world, and by our actions depleting what will be available for future generations.

And this for me then loops back to Andrès’s essay and my experience these last five weeks, because it requires the strengthening both of civil society and of mechanisms for self-restraint to even begin to be able to address these challenges. This is precisely what the “content” of Jewish life is about.

His central point is that it is good and necessary for Jewish life to be welcoming and inclusive; but while we do this we must also challenge people, and challenge ourselves, to learn and to observe and to grow and to do. And this is not just “tikun olam” or being good in some abstract sense. It requires the texture and definition of lived thick culture, of Jewish tradition – Hebrew and halacha and food and the land of Israel.

If we do this we will, in my view, challenge ourselves to be better people; we will rely upon and strengthen Jewish communities; and we will then also, both as a light to the nations ourselves, and as allies and partners to others, build and rebuild the patchwork of civil society with which to face the coming storms.

This is flighty language, but it translates into: go to shul. Join a shul. Put money in the pushke. Volunteer with a non-profit. Go to a shiva house. Make the minyan for mincha. Learn Torah and commit to it and spend time on it – and be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Lean into Israel – be willing to give Israel the benefit of the doubt. Ask for help and support when you need it. Trust that it is there or will be there. Don’t worry so much about being an outsider or not knowing the words or the tune. Just dive in. Fake it. Learn it. Sing along anyway. Read a book. Google it. Ask a question. Dare to introduce yourself to someone – including to the rabbi.

Hazon, with due humility, strives to facilitate this genuine engagement with the content of Jewish tradition in many different ways.  From day one of this organization it was critical to me that we had real respect for Jewish tradition. That in teaching we not take texts out of context. That the nekudot (the vowels) are correct when we publish something. The sourcebooks we’ve done – the work on food and eating and shmita – are certainly accessible if you’re not Jewish or don’t have Hebrew, but they’re also serious enough for you to learn from them even if you’ve got semicha and a PhD in Talmud. In both the New York Ride and the Israel Ride, we built the rides around Shabbat. Had we not done that we’d have raised more money – but we’d have lost a critical part of the educational content of both Rides. The impact of Shabbat was more important to us than the money we’d have saved if we’d done them differently.

Adamah, JOFEE Fellows, Teva, the retreats at Isabella Freedman, the regional work we do; all of this work is about marrying the tradition and contemporary life in thoughtful and serious ways. Learning from Jewish tradition, taking it seriously, separating ourselves temporarily, when we can, from the noise of the wider world; and imbuing the tradition with life, as we strengthen old relationships and forge new ones. Breathing life into the Jewish calendar, with its astounding gifts and riches. The doorways that Hazon provides are intended to be welcoming and accessible, but it is critical to us that, on the other side of those doorways, there is indeed serious learning. If you sign up for Adamah, you don’t have the choice as to whether you want to daven or not: we daven (nearly) every morning, and it’s a compulsory part of the program. It’s true that we interpret davening more liberally and more creatively than in an orthodox shul. But the fact that it is an obligation and not a choice is critical to the construction of the program and of its impact. And it is because of this that Adamahniks – from a hugely wide range of backgrounds – learn something about davening and Jewish spirituality which they might otherwise never know.

And the work of Hakhel and Kenissa is about applying this work on a larger scale. Strengthening Jewish life and creating intermediate institutions within society requires sustained work not merely to broaden but also to deepen and to connect.

In his last paragraph, Andrès quotes the famous line – “renew our days of old.” (It sounds a bit different in hebrew: chadesh yameinu k’kedem – the words we sing when we return the Torah to the ark.) Which reminded me of Rav Kook’s famous riff on this: that we must make the old, new; and the new, holy. This, indeed, is the (re-)engagement with content, which is our shared task. “The Torah is a commentary on the world, and the world is a commentary on the Torah…”

So I wish you and me and all of us a long life. Certainly I invite you to step through any of our doorways (and especially if you have never done so, or it feels a tad scary to you to do so). Check out our upcoming retreats. Come to the Food Conference. Sign up for the New York Ride & Retreat. Join us at Pearlstone for the 5th Jewish Intentional Communities Conference. Apply for Adamah or to be a Teva educator. Download or order one of our curricula. And do each of these things with an openness to being challenged, and with a sense of trust both in Jewish life and the people around you.

Finally, given the beautiful gifts that are interwoven within the Jewish calendar: don’t forget one of the best ways to observe Jewish tradition, to challenge yourself, and to think about our lives and the world around us, right now: start to get rid of your chametz

Shabbat Shalom,