Yom Kippur 5775
October 3, 2014
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen
The End of An Era – The Rebbetzin Era
There are those moments I realize I know what I’m going to write. Last October 31, as I drove to the hospital, I knew what my Yizkor sermon would be for the next High Holy Days – for this day. We are witnesses to the end of an era in the Reform movement, the end of the Rebbetzin era.
It was Halloween, or what I like to call, the Festival of Chocolate. I was out with Yoni and his friends and Matt at a Halloween party in the neighborhood next to our own. I was dressed as a zombie that night, white face and all. It was a wonderful evening with friends and watching the kids parade throughout the houses, hear the nervous laughter as they walked through haunted houses and the cheers when they made it out. I always carry my cell phone and I felt the vibration. I looked at the screen and it was a friend and congregant. I answered the call and heard, ‘you need to get to the hospital now, it’s not looking good.’
We had walked to the other neighborhood from the gate on the other side. There was something in our heads earlier that evening that said, take the car, park it near the gate and crawl through. I quickly found Matt and Yoni, said goodbye to our friends and headed for the gate. I squeezed through and found the car. First instinct was to go straight to the hospital, but was not sure that the rabbi showing up as a zombie was the best idea. I prayed I had a few minutes. I ran into the house, washed my face, threw on less tattered clothes and out the door in three minutes. I promise, I drove within the limits but made it quickly to the hospital in Anaheim. My worst nightmare was realized, Cookie was already gone. I felt guilty that I stopped and changed clothes in those three minutes, but then heard that she was already gone when the phone call was made for me to come. The nurses did not want to tell any of us that she had already passed and having us too upset to drive to the hospital.
Cookie had been sick for so many weeks before. She and I spoke about the challenges that were before her because the diabetes had taken a great toll on her body and infections coursed their way throughout every part of her. She underwent surgeries to try and stop the infection, but to no avail. The battle was lost. But she never gave up. Cookie was a fighter, always! Cookie always taught us, never give up!
Grandma Cookie, as she was so lovingly referred to by so many in our congregation, was an amazing Rebbetzin. She believed in the model of supporting the rabbi and her family being an example of a committed Jewish role model for others. She and her family, especially her children, David and Debbie, knew that it was not easy being the rabbi’s family. There is a lot of pressure to always be presentable and proper. Trust me, my own family knows this pressure. But Cookie taught me to always remember, we’re human. I get dressed the same way as all of my congregants. My kids are normal and will not always make the best choices. But then again, no one in this room can say they are perfect and have never made a poor choice. And no child is ever perfect. The reality is, even the decisions we might not always be so proud of, teach us how to be better people in the future. She gave me the gift of knowing I am allowed to be human, but also, to respect the role in which I have chosen to live. Always be present, know that there are many times that I will have to drop whatever I am doing, even to the sacrifice of myself or my family, and love my congregation with a full heart.
Even after Cookie was no longer the Rebbetzin, per se, she still lived her life as this role model for years after.
Cookie was the first teacher for many of our children. Starting the day around the tree on the preschool playground singing, “Good morning, boker tov tov tov, good morning boker tov!” to teaching our youngest the importance of tzedakah with stories and song, “penny in the pushka, penny in the pot, we give tzedakah right before Shabbat.” She taught our older children about the spice of Jewish life through her cooking classes in our kitchen. Even when she started to decline, she came in weekly with David as her ride, to be in the kitchen and ensure that we all were enticed by the amazing smells emanating from the kitchen. She was not deterred, even when she had trouble standing or walking, because she taught the students how to chop, mix, cook and clean. It was the ultimate experiential learning.
She was our Grandma Cookie. She was the Rebbetzin in so many ways, bringing Jewish values, teachings, songs and inspiration to generations.
At the beginning of last month, we lost another Rebbetzin – Penina Bergman, of blessed memory. Penina was the wife of the late Rabbi Robert Bergman who was responsible for building the school building at TBS and creating deep interfaith connections and establishing Jewish educational programs for not only TBS but for our entire Orange County community.
Penina was born Finny Horowitz in Chernowitz, Rumania. Esther, Penina’s daughter, shared how Penina and her family moved to Bucharest in order to evade the Nazis. She had dreams of a career in medicine which were quickly abandoned. They lost many family members to the Holocaust, but because of her father’s forethought, they were spared.
At the end of World War II, Penina and her parents moved to Palestine which quickly became the Jewish state of Israel. It was in Jerusalem that Penina would meet a young Rabbinic student, Robert Bergman, and their love quickly grew. They were married in Jerusalem and Penina accompanied Robert back to Cincinnati to conclude his rabbinic training and her own learning about the life of a Rebbetzin. After ordination, Penina and Rabbi Bergman made their home in Pennsylvania, where they grew their family by four, explored other small congregations around the country, and landed in Orange County in 1963.
Penina had a deep love for educating our children. She taught in all the congregations her husband served and together they founded the Israel Academy in Irvine and were actively involved in Camp Swig in Saratoga, California.
As Penina’s children grew, her passion for learning also grew and she went back to school earning her degree in Counseling from CalState Fullerton and finally realized her dream of working in the medical field as she became a medical assistant working with young couples in need of fertility treatment. She was always excited about bringing more life into the world.
After Rabbi Bergman passed away in 1989, Penina became the B’nai Mitzvah tutor for TBS and then later for Bat Yahm and Congregation B’nai Israel. She loved her role as the one who would teach these children to read from Torah and know that they were all super stars. Every student would leave her house with banana bread in hand, a chopstick to follow along with the words on the page, and knowing that Penina would be there, sitting in the fourth row – her purse in the third to make sure she had a clear view – ready to give each student a shekel, reminding them that they are counted among the people of Israel and what an awesome responsibility that is and what a blessing they are.
Penina had not been around for a number of years as her health declined so too did her memory. But while she may not have always remembered the name of the person in the room with her, she always remembered the neshama, the spirit of the one who sat with her.
Penina was a Rebbetzin who brought the passion for Torah to all who she taught and her voice as she sang along in services and laughter continues to resonate within all those who knew her.
Today, we don’t have Rebbetzin’s in the Reform movement like we did in past generations. Sure, you can call Matt a Rebbitz, a term coined by a professor from HUC whose wife is a Rabbi, but I think Matt prefers lucky.
The Rebbetzin’s role was different during a time when the wife of the rabbi was able to be at home, care for her home and children and have ample time for caring for the congregation alongside her husband. And yes, today, as my family has embraced, the rabbinate is not only the career of one person, it is the life of the entire family. But there was something very different and endearing to the role of the Rebbetzin of the past. She not only cared for the family and took care of the house but she too was learned and the congregation turned to her just as they turned to her husband as teacher, counselor and leader. The Rebbetzin was a role model for the establishment and maintenance of the Jewish home. And yes, it was what we would call a sexist role, but this was a different time. However, when we think about both Cookie and Penina, these were two women who were far from subservient to their husbands. They each had powerful and influential voices and were leaders in their own right.
Today, spouses of rabbis are not all homemakers, not all of them can cook, and entertaining short of calling the caterer is not their forte. Life changes, evolves, grows as we all know. But there are lessons from our past that will truly inspire our future.
This time of memorial, we remember those who have shaped our lives. Who reminded us to dress warm when there was a chill in the air, who taught us the importance and responsibility of caring for others, who insisted we treat everyone as we want to be treated, whose arms and embrace made us feel safe and like nothing could ever penetrate their fortress of love and protection. And the memories we have of our loved ones, of our teachers are precious and beyond value.
Each of our families is made up of those who help us recall the memories of generations past and empower us to create new memories for the future. We are the curators of the memories and stories that have been shared with us and that we create and now which we must instill within the next generation. For if we lose these memories, if we don’t share the stories, the songs, the words of Torah, the trope – the musical notations, then who will carry it for the next generation?
While yes, things change over time, that our world evolves with the passage of each generation, there is something to be said about nostalgia and acknowledging and sharing what or how it used to be. While we can never return to those days that for some were the greatest moments in their lives, we sit here as the sun starts to descend into the evening sky, into the evening of some of our lives, and we hold on with all of our might to the memories so as never to forget. And as our lives continue along their path, the scariest moment is the one in which we can’t remember; that moment when a song, a story, a smell, a voice, once so prominent in our lives, is no longer accessible. That moment when we realize our memory has failed us and we might have forgotten. And we pray for that trigger to bring that memory back into focus and when it does, we must quickly share it so that we are not the only one with whom the memory resides.
The Cookie’s and Penina’s in our lives are there to remind us that memory is truly precious and we can’t afford to forget. We are lost when we have no story to tell, no song to sing. We are alone without the touch of a beloved and that feeling can be overwhelming and all consuming. And as we wish with all our might to hold on to the past for as long as we can, yet we know the importance of change and growth if we hope to continue to be creators in our world.
Both Cookie and Penina always knew that their time with us was limited, just as we all know our lives are but a passing shadow. But they used their time to instill, create, and encourage new memories. They each, like our own dear family and friends who are no longer here with us in body, knew how important it is for life to change and grow. Nothing will ever be like it was before, but what remains are the values, the teachings, the passion for life and g’milut chasadim, doing acts of loving kindness as the Jewish people. Like Cookie, like Penina, like all of our family and loved ones, they gave us the blessing of memory and the encouragement to create change. They empower us to be the best we can be and even when we falter, we are still good people. We are still capable of greatness. We are still blessed.
With their songs, their stories, the scent of them as they envelope us in their embrace, we remember them for the blessings they were and the blessings they allow us to be. Every era comes to an end, but what always remains are the memories given to us and the memories we share with one another. May these memories be blessings and the souls of each of our loved ones rest in the comfort of knowing that their lives were blessings always.