Whoa! The Horse has Already Left the Barn

Horse_flight

Ohio began its process of “re-opening” in mid-May. The JCC where I work planned for a phased re-opening starting in June. At first, only personal training by appointment was allowed. Two weeks later, it was personal training by appointment and use of the Fitness Center without a trainer also by appointment with occupancy strictly regulated. Today, the pools opened as did the locker rooms.

And then…Gov. DeWine announced on Monday, June 29, that a number of public health orders surrounding COVID-19 that were due to expire on July 1 would be delayed by a week.

It seems like the timing is off–not just in Ohio but everywhere. At a point when cases are surging and it is clear that the curve was never really flattened, some places are continuing the process of opening up, others are taking a step back (Ohio), and still others are enforcing ever-stricter measures. The Federal Government has preferred to let states deal with the issue of how to re-open or not–which makes perfect sense as COVID-19 has definitely boned up on US geography and knows which states are which [sarcasm]. Why is there no national plan like in other countries?

I get that folks want to get the economy and our lives as we remember them rolling again, but at the current trajectory it looks like the process of re-opening in which we are now engaged will actually further delay those goals. Until the virus is under control, it will be impossible to get the economy under control.

I feel safe at the JCC right now. Lots of precautions have been put into place to keep the employees and members as safe as possible. As it becomes clear that the pandemic is not just disappearing but, in fact, getting worse, can any of us be sure that we are doing the right thing? Will it be possible to backtrack and tighten things up again? Can the fitness industry (in particular, gyms) even survive what is ahead if we need to close up again? So many questions and so little direction from the Federal Government.

The “Re-Open Horse” has already been let out of the barn. He is running around like crazy. Not sure if we can catch him if we need to. Even if we do, can we get him back in the barn?

We need leaders who can be honest about the sacrifices that we will need to make until the pandemic is under control. While Ohio’s governor has made good decisions so far (although I disagree with him on nearly every other policy issue), does he have the political will to “disappoint” the people of this state again with more restrictions?

At the very least, we all need leaders who are willing to admit that there is even a horse. Only then can we corral it and get it back in the barn. Until then, that horse/virus is going to keep on running…and it may be too late to catch him.

Falling Apart?

Broken Robot

They say that aging is not for the faint of heart.

Each year, it seems, my body surprises me with something else. Last year I had an emergency appendectomy–not fun at all and with a harder recovery than I expected. Three months later, I finally took care of a long-standing issue with Plantar Fasciitis that led to another surgery–also not the least bit enjoyable with an even harder recovery.

In the midst of COVID-29–which, thank God, I have avoided thus far–I have had a skin cancer with surgery (about which I blogged earlier). I will be having shoulder surgery in the not-too-distant future to resolve bicep tendonosis. And did I mention that some of my labs came back “funky” and I’ll need some more evaluations?

Definitely not for the faint of heart.

There are times when I do feel like I’m falling apart, like I am a broken robot whose circuits and switches are malfunctioning. The weird thing, though, is that I am still running (thanks to the surgery on my foot last year), am still working as a personal trainer, go for long bike rides a couple of times each week, can hike, and do the other activities that I enjoy. It is all relative. I sometimes see pictures of others my age and think that I’m actually doing pretty well, if not excellent. Others who see me tell me how great I look and ask how I keep in such good shape. And yet, there are days where I feel like I’m simply holding on with toothpicks and glue.

My attitude has evolved into the following. My father lived until he was 85. He had a lot of health issues including diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson’s, and did not always take the best care of himself. If I manage to make it to 85 that means I have another 28 years to go (God willing). I plan to do all the maintenance and repairs so that my body will help me to do all the things I want to do as I age. It is kind of like taking care of a car; as long as we are faithful with the upkeep, the car should last a good long while…and may even become a classic!

I know that this is not the end of the surprises. I am sure that other parts will fail me every now and again. I am fortunate that I have access to health insurance and can deal with my issues in a planned way rather than at the ER when the situation becomes critical. I do worry about so many others who do not have the same privileges that I do. This too is part of the social protest movements that are going on.

The main thing is to listen to our bodies, to care for them, to keep them well-nourished, well-exercised and well-rested. We cannot control everything that will happen, but we can keep ourselves as strong as possible so that when parts fail, we are better able to address the issue.

That is my strategy as I make my way into territory that is not for the faint of heart.

No Time to Work Out During the Pandemic

Stopwatch

I had a conversation with a friend the other day who I know used to be a regular user of the gym where I work; he even worked out regularly with one of the top personal trainers. I asked him whether he has been working out with his trainer and he told me that he has been too busy; I pushed him a little bit and reminded him that all of us trainers are working virtually via Zoom, which removes the commute time. I got a sort of shoulder shrug.

This wouldn’t be such a noteworthy conversation, except that I have had similar ones with more than a few friends/acquaintances (and clients). They have gotten used to not going to the gym–even though virtual sessions have been offered since early April–and now that we have re-opened (albeit in a modified fashion), they haven’t gotten back in the habit.

Many of my clients who worked with me virtually have returned to the gym in what I would say is an almost seamless process. There have been administrative glitches to be expected given the new realities, but from the physiological standpoint, coming back to the gym seems like the natural thing to do rather than an “obligation” that needs to be shoved back into the schedule. Other clients who legitimately do not feel comfortable coming in to the gym work with me virtually on a very consistent basis. BTW, it is amazing how tough a workout can be even without the fancy gym equipment. I have seriously challenged clients with props such as rolls of toilet paper, dish towels, throw pillows, and just their body weight.

It is important to note that many of my clients who have not returned to the gym and who are not training virtually make a point to tell me that they are walking a lot, gardening, etc.–the usual activities of summertime; when I ask them if they are checking their heart rate to see if it is elevated the response is always crickets chirping. When we eat, we often underestimate how many calories we are consuming…after all, what damage could a bowl of (healthy!) granola with milk possibly cause? (Check the label and you’ll be surprised). The same is true with exercise; we overestimate how many calories we burn; we think we are getting a workout, but a casual walk with the dog–constantly sniffing and marking territory–does not raise one’s heart rate significantly unless your dog is a greyhound! We need to get the heart pumping, the blood circulating, and the lungs expanded.

Folks who worked out with me consistently via Zoom before returning to the gym have found that the load (how much weight they can push, lift, pull, etc.) now is not where it was pre-pandemic. We are having to do some reconditioning. Can you imagine what the difference will be for the gardener and the dog-walker when (if) they return to the gym? Even those who did not get ill due to the pandemic will feel like they are recovering from a disease when they begin to work out in earnest again. Inertia plays a powerful role and can undo much of the progress and maintenance we have achieved.

We are still in a pandemic–this will go on for a while. There is so much that we still cannot do safely. This should free up time for us–time to re-connect with our fitness goals, with our gym memberships, with our personal training sessions–or even with a more rigorous home routine that raises our metabolic rates.

COVID-19 shouldn’t be an excuse to not stay fit–unless you have the virus and are battling illness. On the contrary, a regular exercise program together with proper nutrition, stress-reduction, and sufficient rest can boost the immune system. It is time to get those priorities straight and find the time you know is there to take care of yourself.

Will I Be Forgiven…Will I Forgive Others?

Mahatma Gandhi The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

Kosher Fitness is supposed to be about Judaism and Fitness…so you may be wondering what the connection to forgiveness is.

Fitness and health don’t just refer to our physical being; it also means being spiritually and emotionally sound. No small part of mental illness is related to an inability to forgive others–hanging on to anger and disappointment–or an inability to receive forgiveness–or feel that we are unworthy of it.

This has been on my mind a lot since reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. This true story follows the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete whose plane was shot down over the Pacific in World War II. He underwent an ordeal that most of us would not have come close to surviving; he saw terrible cruelty that was reminiscent of what was happening in concentration and death camps throughout Europe at the same time. After the war, he was able to find a way to forgive those who had done him so much harm; it was a way for him no longer to be controlled by them.

I learned about this in a class for rabbis many years ago that focused on anger. The teacher asked: Would you tolerate a renter in your home who never paid the rent? We answered: No. What if the person was loud and made noise at all hours of the day and night? Again, we answered: No! What if this person trashed their room and did damage to your home too? We answered: No way! And yet, our teacher pointed out, that is what many of us metaphorically do. We allow others to live in our heads rent-free, harassing us, giving us no piece and making a mess of our lives. One of the ways that we can “evict” them is by finding a way to forgive them. It is an act we do not so much for them, as for ourselves.

This is a very Jewish way of looking at things as well. Every year at the High Holidays we focus not only on the sins we may have committed against God, but also the ways in which we may have hurt or offended others around us. We should seek forgiveness from the Lord (only after we have done everything possible to rectify the situation), but we must also be willing to forgive others and ourselves. Every year, we engage in this process so that the hurt, estrangement and emotional pain do not fester. It is not easy, but it is rewarding and a HEALTHY thing to do.

Of course, this is also on my mind when I think about the heightened awareness in our nation around racial injustice. We have a system of justice that is broken; it does not treat everyone the same. Those with privilege (read, white skin) have much greater access to justice than people of color. It is a sad reality and it is long overdue that we deal with this.

Where does forgiveness fit in here? All of us have made mistakes. We have been insensitive. We have been unaware. We have looked the other way. This is true even for those of us who consider ourselves champions of justice and equality. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we cannot know what we do not know. But ignorance is no excuse. We have heard the cry of the oppressed (knowing what it is like to be oppressed since we commemorate it each year at Passover), and now we must act.

Are our past mistakes forgivable? Can we be released from the guilt of centuries of injustice–in which we have participated either wittingly or unwittingly?

A good Jewish answer: it depends. First, there is a difference between forgiving and forgetting. The first we are bidden to do, the second forbidden. Memory is essential to prevent the repetition of past wrongs. Second, certain sins cannot be forgiven: murder, sexual molestation, genocide, etc. The Talmud teaches that God Godself will deal with those who have committed these crimes. It is outside of human hands. For example, I cannot forgive the Nazis for murdering my great-grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins; the ones who would need to forgive were turned to ash and rest now in shallow pits in Europe. I leave this forgiveness (if it exists) to God.

This still leaves us a lot of room for our own personal interactions. When we wrong someone or offend them, when we are insensitive, when we fail to see the suffering of others…what should the reaction be? Is there room for forgiveness from others? What about when we are at the receiving end? Can we forgive?

Sometimes there is a vibe out there that when someone makes a mistake (not out of meanness, but out of ignorance or lack of sensitivity) that this person must be destroyed. Fire him! Ban her for life! We won’t be happy until that person is reduced to dust!

There is an expression (wrongly attributed to Ghandi, but it sounds like something he might have said) that says “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Is the goal when someone “sins” to crush them? The prophet Ezekiel taught that the Lord does not delight in the death of the sinner, but rather that the wicked repent of his/her ways.” Instead of trying to destroy a person, are there opportunities for teaching and learning? Can we help them repent? Can we turn enemies or bystanders into allies?

It is not for me to dictate to others how to carry out a movement for racial justice. I only hope that there is room for listening…for atonement…for teaching…for compassion…and forgiveness. I know that I have not done as much as I should in the past–and even now; I understand that this should be met with righteous indignation, but I also hope it is accompanied by help and guidance. This is the Jewish concept of Justice AND Mercy.

These are Jewish values but also human values. We live in a society that is unwell; the fever is getting worse, but there are signs of healing as well. I want to be part of the healthy nation that will emerge. I hope that I am up to that challenge and will prove a worthy ally.

Not every sin is forgivable. My hope is that all of us will find the spaces where we can forgive without forgetting.

Will I Be Forgiven…Will I Forgive Others?

Mahatma Gandhi The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

Kosher Fitness is supposed to be about Judaism and Fitness…so you may be wondering what the connection to forgiveness is.

Fitness and health don’t just refer to our physical being; it also means being spiritually and emotionally sound. No small part of mental illness is related to an inability to forgive others–hanging on to anger and disappointment–or an inability to receive forgiveness–or feel that we are unworthy of it.

This has been on my mind a lot since reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. This true story follows the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete whose plane was shot down over the Pacific in World War II. He underwent an ordeal that most of us would not have come close to surviving; he saw terrible cruelty that was reminiscent of what was happening in concentration and death camps throughout Europe at the same time. After the war, he was able to find a way to forgive those who had done him so much harm; it was a way for him no longer to be controlled by them.

I learned about this in a class for rabbis many years ago that focused on anger. The teacher asked: Would you tolerate a renter in your home who never paid the rent? We answered: No. What if the person was loud and made noise at all hours of the day and night? Again, we answered: No! What if this person trashed their room and did damage to your home too? We answered: No way! And yet, our teacher pointed out, that is what many of us metaphorically do. We allow others to live in our heads rent-free, harassing us, giving us no piece and making a mess of our lives. One of the ways that we can “evict” them is by finding a way to forgive them. It is an act we do not so much for them, as for ourselves.

This is a very Jewish way of looking at things as well. Every year at the High Holidays we focus not only on the sins we may have committed against God, but also the ways in which we may have hurt or offended others around us. We should seek forgiveness from the Lord (only after we have done everything possible to rectify the situation), but we must also be willing to forgive others and ourselves. Every year, we engage in this process so that the hurt, estrangement and emotional pain do not fester. It is not easy, but it is rewarding and a HEALTHY thing to do.

Of course, this is also on my mind when I think about the heightened awareness in our nation around racial injustice. We have a system of justice that is broken; it does not treat everyone the same. Those with privilege (read, white skin) have much greater access to justice than people of color. It is a sad reality and it is long overdue that we deal with this.

Where does forgiveness fit in here? All of us have made mistakes. We have been insensitive. We have been unaware. We have looked the other way. This is true even for those of us who consider ourselves champions of justice and equality. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we cannot know what we do not know. But ignorance is no excuse. We have heard the cry of the oppressed (knowing what it is like to be oppressed since we commemorate it each year at Passover), and now we must act.

Are our past mistakes forgivable? Can we be released from the guilt of centuries of injustice–in which we have participated either wittingly or unwittingly?

A good Jewish answer: it depends. First, there is a difference between forgiving and forgetting. The first we are bidden to do, the second forbidden. Memory is essential to prevent the repetition of past wrongs. Second, certain sins cannot be forgiven: murder, sexual molestation, genocide, etc. The Talmud teaches that God Godself will deal with those who have committed these crimes. It is outside of human hands. For example, I cannot forgive the Nazis for murdering my great-grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins; the ones who would need to forgive were turned to ash and rest now in shallow pits in Europe. I leave this forgiveness (if it exists) to God.

This still leaves us a lot of room for our own personal interactions. When we wrong someone or offend them, when we are insensitive, when we fail to see the suffering of others…what should the reaction be? Is there room for forgiveness from others? What about when we are at the receiving end? Can we forgive?

Sometimes there is a vibe out there that when someone makes a mistake (not out of meanness, but out of ignorance or lack of sensitivity) that this person must be destroyed. Fire him! Ban her for life! We won’t be happy until that person is reduced to dust!

There is an expression (wrongly attributed to Ghandi, but it sounds like something he might have said) that says “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Is the goal when someone “sins” to crush them? The prophet Ezekiel taught that the Lord does not delight in the death of the sinner, but rather that the wicked repent of his/her ways.” Instead of trying to destroy a person, are there opportunities for teaching and learning? Can we help them repent? Can we turn enemies or bystanders into allies?

It is not for me to dictate to others how to carry out a movement for racial justice. I only hope that there is room for listening…for atonement…for teaching…for compassion…and forgiveness. I know that I have not done as much as I should in the past–and even now; I understand that this should be met with righteous indignation, but I also hope it is accompanied by help and guidance. This is the Jewish concept of Justice AND Mercy.

These are Jewish values but also human values. We live in a society that is unwell; the fever is getting worse, but there are signs of healing as well. I want to be part of the healthy nation that will emerge. I hope that I am up to that challenge and will prove a worthy ally.

Not every sin is forgivable. My hope is that all of us will find the spaces where we can forgive without forgetting.

All Lives Matter…really?

In prison, those things withheld from and denied to the prisoner become precisely what he wants most of all. Eldridge Cleaver

I remember hearing a great explanation as to why “All Lives Matter” is not helpful…and, in fact, may truly be the antithesis of helpful. The story is as follows. It was the middle of a funeral and the rabbi was giving a eulogy, recalling the life of the departed. Suddenly, a woman stood up and yelled, “My father died too!” While this woman was right, it was not appropriate for the issue at hand. Yes, lots of people die, but at that moment we were concerned about the one whose funeral this was. We all suffer injustices during our lives (at least I think most of us do); it’s just that the focus of Black Lives Matters is the proverbial deceased laid out in front of us.

Another analogy is that of the fire department getting an alarm for a fire and going out and spraying down all the houses with water. It is true that all houses are important, but the one on fire deserves more attention at that moment. The African American community is the house on fire now.

The other thing about All Lives Matter, is that most people (IMHO) who use that phrase don’t really believe it or understand what it should really mean. Do the lives of homeless people on the streets really matter? Do the lives of immigrants coming to this country without proper documentation really matter? Do the lives of schoolchildren whose classrooms are scenes of horrific gun violence really matter? All Lives Matters is a phrase that gets bandied around in certain corners of society, but if these folks really believed it, our nation wouldn’t be in the mess in which we find ourselves. As a society, we behave is if there really are lives that don’t matter.

Here’s a true story to taught me about the value of life. About 20 years ago, I met a man who was serving a very long term at a local state correctional facility. The chaplain at the prison contacted me because this man was Jewish and he, along with a few other Jewish prisoners, were hoping that a local rabbi might be able to visit every now and again. I had been visiting him for a couple of years when, I left that community and moved to another part of the state. I figured that would be the last I would see of him. A few months later, I got a phone call from a corrections health care facility in my new community; the chaplain said that this same inmate was being treated for a very serious cancer and was requesting that I come and visit. I was saddened to hear this news and figured that I was going to have to do some end-of-life counseling with him.

When I got to the medical facility, we went back to his dorm and had a conversation that I will remember as long as I live. He was trying to decide whether to undergo treatment for the cancer. In my mind, this was a no-brainer. Dealing with cancer is hard enough for the typical person; how much more difficult would it be without the support system of family and friends, not to mention the inability to make major decisions about where to get the proper care? On top of that, his sentence was so long that it didn’t seem to make sense to try to get better, only to have live behind bars the rest of his life anyway. I assumed he was seeking some kind of religious “permission” that would allow him to refuse treatment.

The conversation could not have possibly unfolded in a way that was further from my expectations. He had already decided to undergo treatment and wanted to let me know so that I could be part of his support system. I asked him why he had decided to go ahead with chemotherapy and all the rest. He told me that during his prison term he had the opportunity over the years to interact with younger inmates–especially Jewish ones–and sort of “mentor” them; he got them involved in religious life at the prison; he tried to counsel them not to make the same mistakes that he did; he tried to inspire them to live a better life once they were released. He told me that if he were to get better and inspire just one other inmate, it would be worth it.

I was ashamed of myself. I had assumed that his life was not a life worth living. How wrong could I have possibly been? My worldview changed and I have never been the same. I realized that the life of a convicted felon matters. Is that included in All Lives Matter?

I am heartbroken about the killing of George Floyd and so many others. I am trying to listen and learn…as I did that one afternoon at the corrections medical facility.

Black Lives Matter.

It is true that All Lives Matter–even the homeless, the undocumented immigrant, innocent children at school, convicted murderers. I challenge those who say All Lives Matter to really live up to what they are so cavalierly saying. If they do, they would realize that right now, our attention belongs squarely focused on the African American community and the injustices that have been and are heaped upon it. All houses matter…but the one that is on fire and has been burning for a long time needs our attention now.

Black Lives Matter.

COVID-19 Silver Lining

DSC09140.JPG

The current pandemic has been like a giant cloud hanging over the planet. No one quite knows when or if it will drift away. We don’t know where or how hard it will rain or storm. Even so, some have found silver linings in those clouds. For example, many older adults became proficient with technology that previously seemed too overwhelming. Others took the opportunity to make exercise and diet a priority. The aftermath of the killing of George Floyd has awakened in many a greater sensitivity to the suffering and injustice endured by those around them. People are trying to make sense out of all of this and find a positive along the way.

In Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, he argued that we cannot fully control what happens to us; there is a great deal of uncertainty and randomness in our world. What we can always strive to control is how we react to what happens. Even in places where it appears that we have very few choices (in his case, the Concentration Camps of the Holocaust of WWII), we can choose how to face adversity.

I have been thinking about the silver linings that have come out of this pandemic for me. There are more than a few for sure–some trivial and some more weighty. I had a chance to try making some baked goods; the dandelion rosemary shortbread was a win, the citrus carrot cake…not so much. I got to spend a lot more time with my wife–a big deal since we spent the first 10 years of our 12-year relationship living in different cities. I got to read some great books: In the Garden of Beasts, Unbroken, Letters to My Palestinian Friend, A Little Life; I got to watch some interesting movies and shows The Hunters, Citizen Kane, Pandemic.

The biggest win for me, was really upping my game in the realm of Personal Training. I got certified as a TRX coach (have been wanting to do that for 2 years). I completed a number of CEUs. I did personal research on a number of issues that my clients are facing. I learned how to use a new high-tech device that measures body fat in a sophisticated way that will help me guide my clients to live more healthfully. I started my own FB Group to do a daily online workout; I am hoping to restart that in some shape or form. I learned how to effectively train clients over Zoom. I created workouts day-in and day-out for clients who had no equipment at home at all–did you know that a couple of bottles of cabernet savignon are quite effective for doing Triceps Kickbacks?

I feel like I’ve had a chance to really “hone my craft,” and I look forward to using what I have learned to ensure that my clients see the results they want and deserve. I feel more confident about my skills. As someone relatively new to the Fitness Industry, I feel like I have “arrived.”

From a financial standpoint, having the JCC close just as my business was really beginning to build was a real setback. I did feel sorry for myself for a few days. Then I realized, I cannot control what this virus will do…what I can do is control what I want to do with the extra time I have available. I feel like I am coming out of the pandemic better than when I went in. I have found my silver lining. I hope we can all do the same.

Personal Training in an Operating Room

The Operating Room

That’s kind of what it feels like.

The Mandel JCC “opened up” on Monday. I put that in quotes because it is just Phase I and it is not really open. The only thing that is available right now is personal training by-appointment-only during limited hours (less than half the pre-COVID-19 schedule).

The first time I came in on Monday morning it was more like walking into a morgue than an OR. The place was eerily quiet: no one at the front desk, no folks milling about, the Subway sandwich shop is closed. Just one security guard. The hallways are all but empty; some maintenance employees are here and there.

Downstairs in the fitness center, the bright lights (like in an OR) are on and the room is flooded with the whiteness of the sunshine and the floor tiles. The machines are distanced from each other adding an airiness that did not exist before. All the trainers and other employees are in masks and gloves. Only the clients are unmasked (not all of them). It really felt more medical than fitness-oriented.

Add to this that we have to carry a bottle of spray disinfectant with us at all times as well as a towel to wipe down equipment (there are also disinfectant wipes in various locations), and it is purely antiseptic. Only the music seems louder than usual.

It takes some getting used to, but now on my third day it is not really that big of an adjustment. It’s actually a pleasure to not have to wait for a machine to become available. I am not grossed out by sweaty folks who get up and don’t wipe down their equipment. There are no lunkheads crowded in front of the mirrors checking themselves out.

I could get used to this, but I recognize this is not a viable business model. More people will need to use the facility and pay their membership dues for this to make economic sense. As a first step, though, I am impressed with my gym for all the steps that have been taken. I feel a lot of things when I’m at work, but fear isn’t one of them.

I know other gyms just threw their doors open. I cannot imagine the public health hazard that creates. I am glad we are taking it one step at a time. Let’s hope we do more good than harm in the long run.

Shema Yisrael, Listen Jews…and White People

Ear

Like most of you, I am heart-broken. Yesterday, after the conclusion of the Festival of Shavuot (during which I do not typically use electronics), I heard about the destruction occurring in many cities across the US, including here in Cleveland.

I wish I knew what to say or do in this moment. I feel despair. Racism has been an issue here for over 400 years–since the first European explorers arrived and met the people who had been living here for generations and generations. The legacy of the enslavement of Africans is a stain on the history of this nation; there has never been a true reckoning among Americans that the greatness of the country was in large part built (literally) on the backs of those of African descent. Even though slavery ended with the Civil War, even though there is a Civil Rights Act, even though the 44th President was a black man, the inequalities, cruelties and injustice persist. We don’t learn. (Just as we don’t learn after dozens and dozens of mass shootings). We are outraged for a few days, and then everything goes back to “normal” for those of who have the privilege to not be personally affected.

The African-American community and others of goodwill are fed up with the injustice. I get it, but as a white man I cannot fully comprehend it. I’m trying to educate myself, to learn more, to LISTEN.

Many in this country–but particularly people of color–are mourning, not just George Floyd, but mourning the thousands of others whose lives were taken, whose dreams were crushed, whose opportunities were denied, whose justice was withheld. There is sadness not only for what has happened, but also for what could have been, and for what should be and is not yet.

Jewish tradition teaches us a lot about how to approach loss. Two teachings in particular are worth remembering. Sefer Hasidim, is a collection of the teachings of great rabbis assembled by Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg (12-13 centuries). One of the teachings is that we are to say nothing to a mourner while the deceased still lies before him/her. In other words, in those moments of extreme pain and grief (before even the burial has taken place), we are bidden to keep our mouths shut. Anything we say, will not be heard…or it may be heard and do more harm than good. Don’t try to pacify someone in a moment when their emotions are valid, when they need to be experienced and expressed. We are not there to speak…but to LISTEN and simply BE THERE. There is another well-known law that when one goes to a Shiva House (a house of mourning) one should not greet the mourners, but rather wait for the mourners to greet them (Shulchan Aruch). Again, this experience is not about what we have to say, but about what those in mourning have to say. It is up to us to LISTEN and BE THERE.

There are times when we simply don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say to my African-American friends and acquaintances. “I’m sorry” doesn’t seem right. “How are you doing?” seems ridiculous. So I will take my lead from Jewish tradition. I will be present however I can; I will BE THERE in meaningful ways. And, instead of pretending I have the answers or that something I might say will make things better, I will LISTEN. I will listen to the needs of those who are suffering…and then respond–not with words as much as with action.

As a rabbi, there are few times when I am at a loss for words. When I am, I do my best to just listen and be there. Then I will know what best to do next…and with God’s help, actually make it happen.

I’m listening now.

Use That Sunscreen

Today was my 5th Mohs procedure..and it was a doozy.

For those unfamiliar with Mohs, it is a surgery that removes layer by layer of skin in order to excise cancerous cells. First, you or your doctor may see something that looks unusual on the skin; s/he may decide it’s nothing or that it looks suspicious in which case it is removed and sent to a lab. The pathology can come back as benign (nothing dangerous) or cancerous. In my case, it was a basal cell carcinoma–the fifth one I’ve had. In order to make sure all the cancer has been completely removed, the dermatologist or a specialist will perform the Mohs procedure. One layer of skin is removed and if the edges are cancer-free, you’re done; you get a band-aid and you go home (well, it’s a little more complicated). Every other time I’ve had a Mohs, that is the way it went down. If, however, there are still cancerous cells on the periphery, the doctor will do another layer. This keeps going until the peripheries are clear. The average number of times a patient will have a layer removed is 1.8. Today, I set a personal record with 4! I was at the surgeon’s office for nearly 4 hours…and if you think the bandage looks bad, you should have seen what the wound looked like before it was closed!

The doctor and I had a conversation about why I was on my 5th procedure (my first being about 20 years ago and the last 2 years ago). I am fair- skinned and as a kid no one really paid attention to UV rays or sunscreen. It was a regular occurrence for me to get a sunburn; sometimes quite painful. Who knew that 40 years later this would be the result? Now I have to be especially careful.

What I did not know is that all that sun damage has actually altered the DNA of my affected skin cells. Some of them are OK and will never morph into anything else. Others, however, may be at the edge (99% and ready to go) of going cancerous. What will determine the next steps? It is entirely in my hands–literally. Sunscreen.

From here on out, I will be wearing it on my face (a special one designed for that purpose) every day. I will also wear an over-the-counter on my other exposed body parts. Windshields and car windows, as well as clouds, do not filter out the damaging radiation that can trigger these cells. Only a good sunscreen with a high enough SPF will work.

I am getting to be pretty high maintenance! Actually, this is a relatively easy step to add to my routine each morning…and later in the day if I am outside quite a bit.

I have been fortunate. So far, all have been basal cell carcinomas–easily treated. Next time, who knows?

My warning to you, my readers: the future of your skin is in your hands too. Sunscreen every day!