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High Holy Day Sermons 5780

What I Learned from Janie

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Rosh Hashanah Day 1

Before I speak about anything else in this new year, what I need to and what I want to talk about most, as you can imagine, is Janie. More than anything or anyone else, Janie fills my head and my heart.

The Sunday afternoon that Janie died suddenly and unexpectedly… all kinds of thoughts swirled in my head. I can’t do the High Holy Days this year, I thought. How can I stand up and talk about the issues that usually concern me deeply. They have no meaning for me now. The saddest thought of all was “I am all alone now. Without Janie, I am all alone”

Two days later, hundreds attended Janie’s funeral service. I did not feel alone. During the week of Shivah my home was filled with you, congregants, friends, colleagues. I didn’t feel alone. Periodically, our little grandson Parker would walk in the room, knock something over and seeing his beautiful face and boundless energy, I couldn’t feel alone. In reading every card that was sent, in receiving each name of the hundreds who donated to Janie’s Memorial Fund, trees planted in Janie’s memory, I felt lovingly embraced….. not alone.

After the week of Shivah, we continued with evening Minyans in the synagogue. The first night, I drove into the parking lot and wondered what else was going on that summer night. I walked into the chapel a few minutes before the Minyan would begin as I normally do throughout the year and the chapel was already full as it is normally not throughout the year. I was not alone. Comfort came in many ways and each way touched my heart.

To be honest, all of that comfort added together could not come close to equaling another day with Janie. We loved being alone together. But it was and remains a true comfort.

I learned from an insightful rabbi some years ago “love is wanting to give more than you every hope to receive in return.” I tell this to just about every couple who sits in my study before their wedding. Our usual concept of love is ‘what he does for me’, ‘how she makes me feel.’ A greater love is what I do for her, how I make him feel, what I give is the truest expression of love. Of course no one wants to be in a relationship of unrequited love. It’s got to be a two way street but the truest love is still wanting to give more than you ever hope to receive in return.”

That was Janie. Janie gave me so much over all the years including these past years until the very end. So very much! Her very being made my life so much richer and brighter.

Janie gave so much to us. She made an indelible impact on our community in many ways.

As we were falling in love, we would talk for hours and hours each night. One discussion we never had was whether I would move to New York were we to get married. Janie had spent her entire life in the same zip code growing up and living as an adult on the upper East side of Manhattan and four years at Barnard College just above the Upper West Side. Her whole life and the girls’ lives were in New York. As Janie came to spend time here, in Pennsylvania as she called it, Janie saw how much I love this community and synagogue and she came to love both as well.

This was a foreign world for the three girls. The first time they visited, they ranged from first to ninth grade. I told this story some twenty two years ago. Janie and the girls came to Bucks County during Passover. One day we went for a long walk and at one point, Samara, the youngest was tired and said “Can we call a cab?” We weren’t that far from Tanners at that point. I said we can call a cow but we can’t call a cab. That describes the culture shock from Manhattan to Richboro.

Janie quickly came to love our community too. Loving always meant giving for Janie and so she gave. She gave to the community as a whole and she gave quietly to so many individuals in our congregation.

It happened often that Janie and I would visit a Shivah house together. When we were leaving, the mourner would say goodbye and thank me politely and give Janie a great hug and thank her for all she had given them in that relatively brief period of time. I never said out loud “What am I chopped liver?” On the way to the car, I would say to Janie “I know that person for fifteen years and in fifteen minutes you developed a bond and gave such comfort that amazes me.” It was part of Janie’s magic.

In 1997 we began a project to write a new Torah. It was one of the most spiritual experiences we have ever had. We engaged a scribe in Israel by the name of Goldstein, who we visited during our first trip to Israel together. Hundreds of our members stood next to the scribe as he wrote a letter of their name in the Torah. We had a parade down Second Street Pike when we dedicated the Torah with hundreds of us led by a band, under a Huppah and joined by Christian clergy in the community. We raised a sizable endowment for Adult Education and we’ve been benefiting from that fund for the past 20 years. This was all Janie’s idea.

For the past twenty years, our Sisterhood has been doing an incredible Shaloch Manos for Purim that touches every member of our synagogue. That was Janie’s idea.

The heart of our annual Yom HaShoah Holocaust Memorial service is a candle light procession of those who lost relatives in the Shoah as Janie did or have relatives who survived that darkest time in human history as Janie did being a daughter of a survivor of Auschwitz. Janie brought that procession here from New York City.

Janie together with Roberta Gordon founded a women’s Torah study group with such a firm foundation, it continues to function and flourish to the present time.

These past years, Janie was deprived of so much. You were all deprived of what else Janie could have given to our community over the past decade.

I said to Jordana during the week of Shivah that I needed to speak about Mom during the holidays. I don’t think I can talk about anything else before Janie but I don’t want it to be overly maudlin.

Jordana recommended that I might talk about the things I learned from Janie. I think Jordana recommended that for me knowing how much she and her sisters learned from their mommy.

I learned about trust from Janie in many ways. Some years ago, I gave a High Holy Day sermon based on the book and movie Seabisquit, that unexpected champion horse. I mentioned to Janie that I could use a Jewish joke about a horse though Jews and horses don’t necessarily go together. Janie went upstairs and within minutes came back down with a joke she had printed out. I read it and reluctantly said “Janie, this isn’t funny at all.” We went back and forth and finally, Janie said, “it’ll be funny, if you tell it right.” It came the day of the sermon and how much I wanted to be proven wrong. I began the sermon with this joke. Janie was sitting to my right as always. I delivered the punch line and the laughter was tremendous. I looked over at Janie somewhat sheepishly as the laughter continued and grew louder. The laughter was loud but I heard a quiet voice inside simply saying “it’s about trust.”

I learned how to play a hand in cards from Janie. Janie would refer to herself as a survivor’s daughter. This had great meaning for her. If her father Oscar Trencher could survive two years in the camps, she could deal with whatever life would throw at her. She not only talked the talk, she walked the walk. There is a well worn platitude: “we can’t controll the cards we are dealt but we can control how we play them”. This was no platitude for Janie. This phrase was her guiding light. Janie played one of the worst hands possible as well as anyone possibly could.

I learned from Janie about living as fully as possible in spite of it all. There is an expression in Hebrew למרות הכל in spite of it all. I have always been amazed by those who have led rich and loving lives in spite of it all. In spite of surviving the Holocaust, in spite of abuse as a child, in spite of terrible losses in life. Janie lived in spite of all the limitations this disease imposed on her. Janie worked hard going to physical therapy two times a week and doing yoga at home with her yoga instructor each week. למרות הכל in spite of it all, Janie never gave up.

Janie could no longer cook but she loved watching the cooking channel. Janie could hardly move but Dancing with the Stars was one of her favorite shows. Janie took delight in watching others excel in things she could no longer do. She didn’t resent others because of her limitations. She lived with an amazing sense of equanimity in spite of it all.

Many of you have spoken to me about Janie’s courage and how you have been inspired by her. I hope you might continue to think of Janie and continue to find inspiration from how she went on למרות הכל in spite of it all.

I learned about a deeper faith in G-d from Janie. Janie also had a profound belief in the world to come, a spiritual afterlife. I explored this topic repeatedly on my own in rabbinical school and taught classes on it over the years. Janie believed this with all of her heart and soul. I was privileged to share life with Janie these past two decades.

High Holy Day sermons usually develop over the course of some weeks even months. This is not really a sermon. It is more reflections of a love story that developed over the course of twenty three years since we met in the summer of 1996.

I want to conclude with a word of thanks to you who met Janie twenty three years ago. For twenty years before that, I was an unmarried rabbi as unusual as that is. Many of my waking hours were devoted to the synagogue. And then Janie came into my life. It could have been far different, but from her first visit, Janie felt embraced by everyone she met. There was no exception. Though Janie spent much of her professional life with Jewish communities, I don’t think she ever came upon a community like ours. There are very few like ours.

In spite of all of Janie’s limitations and in spite of however difficult moving was, whenever there was something special in the synagogue, Janie wanted to be here. Patti knew how much it meant to Janie, Patti fashioned her own schedule around Janie being able to be here whatever day or time that was. You gave Janie so very much. I am forever grateful.

To be honest, I don’t know how to end this. Maybe because there is no ending. What I learned from Janie, how much I loved Janie has no ending. For me that story continues, even without Janie physically present, that story continues.