By Sharoni Sibony, Adult Education Coordinator
A few years ago, in a woodworking course at Sheridan College, I learned about Richard Serra’s Verblist – a list of verbs that animate the ways in which we relate to ourselves, to others, to place, and to the very process and materials of making. In class, I was given a block of cedar, a hand saw, a drill, some glue, and the instructions to manipulate the materials in response to one of the verbs. The structure I created, prompted by the verb “to enclose,” was a foot-tall prototype of a (not particularly kosher) sukkah. It was an enclosure that didn’t fully enclose: it was designed to be open to the elements, to honour the fragility and impermanence of life, and to create a space for contemplation and meditation. I titled the piece “in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,” after the third line of my favourite e. e. cummings poem.
Using pieces of soft cedar chipped off the block, drilled with holes and charred at the edges, I created a protective but porous, chrysalis-like space for the transformation of the soul. My design inspiration came from Mary Oliver’s image of a fragile “sky house” and from a beloved essay by Rodger Kamenetz, who survived Hurricane Katrina. Kamenetz became committed to collecting the slate roof tiles that had been torn off the roofs of New Orleans. He contrasts “the weird all-steel houses I see a few blocks from me, dropped down like alien life forms, guaranteed to survive any storm because they aren’t alive in the first place. Not houses but people-storage containers, closed systems, cubes of steel you can live inside for centuries. The wind can’t touch you; the water won’t wet you. They can’t be damaged, which is the problem: for everything that has to do with soul is thin and delicate and strong, like a slate, and can endure and can be damaged. And has holes in it.”
I’m one month into working with this beautiful community at Holy Blossom, and we’re now in Sukkot. Kamenetz’s words are sitting inside me once again, this time taking on new meaning as I think about the ways in which this synagogue has enclosed and embraced its members through a turbulent, grief-filled year that has tested our souls. One of the strengths I see in this community is its engagement with the world, a porousness that makes us both sensitive and durable. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we held a series of remarkable study sessions, headlined by the presentation of the Rabbi Gunther W. Plaut Humanitarian Award to Colonel Chris Hadfield, a man whose gaze has taken in the whole world at once. We also got to watch people like Alex Johnston and Devon Spier extend, with enormous vulnerability, their own “frail gestures” – their own expressions of grief in a panel on infertility and fertility – to reach us and connect us, to hold others of us who hurt, and to be held by us as a community.
Likewise, we’ve been building an important dialogue with our Indigenous neighbours, which didn’t only start with our panel on National Teshuvah and Indigenous Reconciliation, and won’t just end with this week’s memorial to the children of the Indian Residential School system.
In the coming weeks, we’re looking forward to sharing more education with soul. On October 26, hear from two masterful teachers of the Reform Movement at the Inaugural Annual Lecture in Memory of Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro z”l, featuring Rabbis David Ellenson and Michael Marmur. Rabbi Splansky’s course in faith and faithlessness lets us situate our own experiences within a Jewish tradition of wrestling with these questions. We’ll get to hear from two of our in-house cultural experts: Cynthia Good shares her favourite books of the season, while Gillian Helfield tells us what she’s watching on TV and film. Mark Goodman’s weekly study groups are always open to everyone – Torah and history on Wednesdays and Talmud and halacha on Thursdays.
The HBT Adult Education Committee – Cynthia Good, Gillian Helfield, and Les Rothschild – have welcomed me so warmly to the team, and have infused their fall program offerings with the same warmth they’ve shown me. I hope to meet you at a class or a lecture soon. Moadim l’simcha!