The Yiddish word bashert means “intended.” It has the connotation of a connection that was meant to be. Destined. Guided. Two people intended to find one another. It is usually used for those romantic connections when a seemingly random series of events brings two people to reach for the same copy of a rare lithograph at a second hand bookstore and they end up sharing the rest of their lives together. The story I want to share with you is not nearly as romantic but is, I believe, bashert.
Thanks to the good work of the DJC Accessibility Initiative, for the last few years the DJC has participated in Shabbat Itanu, a city-wide project of UJA Federation encouraging congregations to hold an inclusion-themed Shabbat service each year and to develop year-round education and initiatives to become more welcoming and inclusive to those of all physical and intellectual abilities. At our May Shabbat Itanu service, we had two guest speakers: Mel Kirzner, a Jewish man with intellectual disabilities who has been living at a L’Arche home; and John Guido, an Italian man who met Mel when John came to L’Arche as an assistant a couple decades ago and has been deeply connected with Mel ever since.
When they spoke at the DJC, they talked not only about L’Arche’s important model of shared, integrated community and about their profound friendship, but also about Mel’s Jewish journey and John’s beautiful support of each stage of its development. Mel was the only Jew in his L’Arche community and he hadn’t been connected to Jewish practice for much of his life. Thanks to the leadership of DJC member Emil Sher, Mel was able to celebrate Rosh Hashana and Pesach with his fellow L’Arche community members over the past several years. Mel and John shared the story of Mel’s adult bar mitzvah. Though he had been told as a young person that he wouldn’t be able to become bar mitzvah, he worked diligently to learn the blessings and prayers, and, with his new tallit around his shoulders, he proudly stepped into Jewish manhood. They talked about how John and the L’Arche community supported Mel in sitting shiva when his father died, and about Mel and John’s trip to Poland and Israel, walking in the footsteps of Mel’s ancestors and claiming his connection to Jewish tradition and the Jewish people. They showed a glorious photo of Mel standing in front of the Kotel/Western Wall wrapped in his bar mitzvah tallit.
So I met Mel and John for the first time just a couple months ago. We chatted after the service and I invited them to come back anytime, inviting them to think of the DJC as Mel’s Jewish community whenever he wanted to join us. The thing that is interesting about a bashert connection is that you often don’t know the significance of that moment of meeting until later.
I received an email from John in the middle of June saying that Mel had been diagnosed with cancer. It was advanced, he was dying, and he wanted to see the rabbi. When I came to hospital, Mel was already in palliative care. I took out his tallit, which was sitting on the windowsill by his bed and I sang to him, Hebrew prayers that he had learned for his bar mitzvah. When I sang the words of the Shma, this simple and central uttering of “Adonai echad/God is One”, these words vibrated with particular resonance in the shared connection between Mel and I and John sitting at the foot of his bed and another close friend holding Mel’s hand and a holy Whole that embraced us. I felt a palpable, tender unity at the edge between life and death and a sense of the holy Whole that embraces both living and dying.
This was on Thursday. Mel died early Shabbat morning. We held the funeral service on Sunday. We sat shiva in his L’Arche home, just as he had asked. What an honour it was to have been part of this last segment of his Jewish journey, and to bring him to his final resting place with the traditions that brought him comfort, a sense of belonging, and empowerment in his later adult life. What a gift it was to me to meet Mel, to connect with John and know his gracious and big heart, and to connect with the people at L’Arche, understanding that we at the DJC have much to learn about inclusion and diversity from them.
Threads of connection weave us together in ways that I find mysterious and filled with chen, grace. While this particular web of connections feels bashert in the direct unfolding of right timing and circumstances and loving, I actually believe that every relationship that comes into our lives is bashert. The instant friendships, the conflictual ties (yes, particularly these), the person you see every year at High Holy Days but have never said more than a few words to – if we are paying attention and if we are open, every person we encounter is a teacher, a gift, a connection to wider community, a blessing, walking into our lives as we walk into theirs. We often don’t know how important these encounters are until long after the fact. And we miss many of them altogether. Who knows what learning and gifts were intended for us if we had just slowed down or reached out with more warmth or ease? Who knows what we were meant to offer someone else? When I am blessed to have a direct experience of it with one person, I am able to see it, or make the choice to see it, in more and more relationships. I think this is of central importance in building community.
With the summer upon us, things get quiet at the DJC and we don’t gather together until September rolls around. It is valuable to remember that we are still a Jewish community. You may be needed over the summer for a shiva minyan. You might need us for support in illness. This can be a rich time to think about how you want to deepen your relationships at the DJC in the coming year, reaching toward new connections, offering your presence with others, and weaving Jewish learning and relationships together as we transition from a year of honest and engaged wrestling together to a new stage of Jewish learning together. How beautifully bashert that we have each other.