Dear Friends and Readers: This past Rosh Hashanah, here, in this column, and in remarks addressed to my congregation, I wrote the following words:
“What is the difference, what is the gap, between celebrities and famous people, betweeen a Rosa Parks or Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela, and you, and me? Is it real power? Is it the scale and stage on which their lives unfold?
It is neither. The gap is unreal, the difference illusion. It is only the accidental focusing of the lens of history. All that separates your daily routine from a history book of the future is chance, and opportunity. So be prepared. A moment may come. A building may burn. A phone may ring. A movement may start from a casual comment. For better or for worse, your time, your turn may come with no warning at all."
I wish I had not been so prophetic. For the lights that go with that lens can glare brightly indeed. And this past week, the lens of history has been focused with great intensity on my community, on my congregation, and, in particular, on a grieving family in my synagogue.
I open with excruciatingly painful irony: on the very day that would later see a good man shot dead, I received a phone call from another congregant. Her daughter is eighteen weeks pregnant. She is a diabetic, so it was a high risk pregnancy to boot. The fetus has now developed a very large tumor. Some treatments that might have been possible are precluded by her diabetes. The fetus stands little chance of surviving. The pregnancy may pose a danger to her life. Her Catholic ob/gyn, in personal agony, is advising her to terminate her pregnancy.
That was a week ago Friday, during the day. Then came Friday night.
Yes, Bart Slepian and his family were members of Temple Beth Am of Williamsville. But they were relatively recent members, having come over from Temple Beth El (Conservative) around two and a half years ago. (The synagogue they attended that night was Beth El... because his father's name was read for yahrtzeit this shabbat at that synagogue). In addition, I am fairly new in the Buffalo area, having come to Beth Am only in August of 1997. So, although I officiated at Brian's (the second oldest of the four boys) bar mitzvah last year, I did not know the family too well. The family remains personal friends of their former rabbi, Rabbi Robert Eisen. I officiated at the funeral along with our Cantor, Barbara Ostfeld; Bob did the eulogy. The most powerful words at the funeral came from Dr. Slepian's niece, Amanda Robb, who lost her own father when she was very young, who was cared for as a daughter by her uncle Bart Slepian, and who addressed herself to Dr. Slepian's four boys, ages 15, 13, 10 and 8. When she was done speaking, I was, simply, sobbing. I am glad I did not have to stand up to follow her; no sound would have come out of my mouth. She spoke of the boys' father as the last star they would see at night. But I can not -- and should not -- convey more of what she said.
What I do know about Bart Slepian is this: to portray him as an "abortionist" is an added obscenity on top of a nightmare. He was not "pro-abortion," he was pro-health care. I am told that he was troubled by a complex moral issue, that his greatest joy was bringing babies into the world -- he was a fertility specialist, for God's sake -- one of Rabbi Eisen's comments was that he cared for women, "he delivered their babies, and he saved their lives." My friends who were his patients tell me that he was caring in a rare and old fashioned kind of way -- showing up to be with them when they had unrelated procedures performed by other physicians, spending whatever time was needed and not making you feel part of a medical factory. Abortions were probably five percent of his work. Maybe less.
To say this has been a big story would be to call Niagara Falls large rapids. I have never before witnessed press harassment to this degree. There is no other word for it, except, perhaps, exploitation. When the media could not speak directly with the family, they went anywhere else they could. My wife Julie had to have received sixty calls at home, at all hours of day and night, and we received an equal or greater number at the congregation. Cameras and reporters showed up on Sunday morning, Religious School was disrupted, reporters walked into our offices and sat down to use our phones. That is minor, compared to the casing out of the family's home, the long distance lenses used at burial, and the gauntlet of satellite dishes and cameras the mourner's had to run in order to reach the funeral home.
In the meantime, in the midst of tragedy comes a bandwagon effect of another kind... of people feeling a need to express something, and being unsure how to do so, or what to do. Being with the family here, I see a fine line between the undeniable... I hate to use this word... but "opportunity" that this singular moment, this window in time offers those who believe in a cause -- and the fact that the family doesn't give a hoot about causes at the moment, and needs their space. Call it the prophetic versus the pastoral, if you will; I have never felt that conflict so keenly before.
And so, "events" are happening all around us, as different groups a) feel the need or b) seize the opportunity to express themselves. Many organizations in Buffalo have learned about the concept of shivah (the traditional seven day period of intense mourning) this week -- don't plan a community memorial service until the family can be involved, and leave them alone for right now. Of course, this flies in the face of everyone's desire to get something down on their calendars and move forward fast, while the emotion is high and the wound is fresh. I have heard about three different dates for events, scheduled by God knows whom for God knows what purpose.
On the communal front, can we come to some common understanding with other religious communities? Rabbinic colleagues of mine met late last week with a representative of the Buffalo Area Metropolitan Ministries. They clearly conveyed the balance between the needs of the family and the needs of the community to do... something. They have planned a Vigil Against Violence, as some kind of communal response that would not necessarily involve the family's input. But it will be a silent vigil. For what words could be said that someone would not disagree with? To be blunt: could other faith communities come forward and condemn this violence, without also attacking what they consider to be violence in a different form, the performance of abortions? Sadly, perhaps not. And would we stand for any statement that equated the murder of a real human being with a medical procedure? Of course not. We want to come together as a whole community. And so only silence stakes out our common ground.
I did make one mistake this past week -- at least, one that I am presently aware of. A woman called our congregation, and identified herself only be her first name. She said she was a member of a local Catholic church. She asked about the Jewish position on abortion. Foolishly, putting our own community at risk, I answered her. (And I will address this subject in an upcoming column as well. It is actually a complex question, but I will make two comments now. First, Judaism does not consider abortion to be the equivalent of murder. And secondly, there are times where all branches of Judaism would agree that an abortion is not a choice, but is required. But more on this later.) I am fairly certain that no harm will come of answering her questions; still, what I should have done was demand her last name, call her priest, and assure myself that she was, indeed, who she said she was. For we live in a world of madness. And you never know where danger lurks.
A family grieves. And everyone around them has an agenda.
It is hard not to walk a little taller, to stand a little straighter when the lens of history focuses on you. Exploitation meets temptation. But cursed be the one -- whoever it is, the friend, the neighbor, the activist, the politician, the colleague, the clergy person -- cursed be the one who forgets that the family comes first.
The question remains, and many have asked: what can we do? Well, a cause survives. The family has asked that donations be made to the Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, P.O. Box 461, Buffalo, New York, 14209.
There is so much more to say, and there are no words adequate to the moment. All I will add for now is this: may each one of us go home every day and say to those around us three simple words that cannot be said enough, nor heard enough. "I love you." For we never know what tomorrow may bring.
L'Shalom (in peace)
Rabbi Michael Feshbach