(JTA) — At the height of the pandemic, I remember maddeningly washing, scrubbing and antibacterial-spritzing my hands in a bathroom along the New Jersey Turnpike. I then Olympic speed-walked to my car and rubbed my hands down again with a disinfecting wipe.
In those days of social distancing, the basic Jewish ritual of handwashing before meals — tossing water three times over each hand from a communal pitcher — felt to me like an extremely low standard of cleanliness.
You may know the ritual, even if you don’t do it regularly: It’s the second step at the Passover seder, right after the blessing of the wine and just before you dip the parsley in salt water, when guests line up at the sink or someone passes a bowl of water and a towel around the table.
The rest of the year, the Jewish hand-washing ritual is usually associated with substantial meals (at minimum, a meal that includes bread). During the height of the pandemic, I was rarely sitting down for meals — at least not breakfast or lunch — because most of my daylight hours were in Zoom-land and most of what I was consuming was microwaved leftovers. This left me feeling disconnected on multiple levels. Me and millions of other people.
I needed to find ways to reconnect. I started taking more meetings on the phone and I decided that I would try to slow down and eat lunch with a little more mindfulness — even if I was just making myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And that is when I reluctantly rediscovered ritual handwashing.
At first, I stood at our kitchen sink and tried to reconnect to the simplicity of the act — just slowing down and breathing as I poured water over my hands from a vessel. I knew that the ancient origins of ritual washing take us back to the practice of one kohen (priest) washing the feet and hands of another kohen before engaging in the work of the sacrifices. I started to think of this act as some form of sacred self-care where my left hand was caring for my right and vice versa. I started to make a habit of washing my hands with a vessel and I started to read more about the ritual.
One element of the washing is called “shifshuf yadayim,” which literally means “rubbing the hands,” and is initially described in the Tosefta (Yadaim 1:2), a 2nd-century CE compilation of Torah law. In an 18th-century text, Pri Megadim, there is a teaching that the rubbing is done so that the water touches every part of skin on the back and front of the hands and in the nooks between the fingers. This led me to become more mindful of the ways that rubbing brings your consciousness to the contours of your hands and to the act of caring for your hands. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) taught that when the rubbing is done with intention, it helps you to obtain a “tahara yeteira” — an extra level of purity.
I slowed down even more. I started using the minimal amount of water, turning my hand gently as I poured the water, and focusing on the sensation of the water covering the entire surface of the hands. In doing so I felt more connected to water’s miraculous power to cleanse and to refresh. And as I did this again and again, it became more than just a conscious moment of self-care and connection to water — it was as if I were awakening the deadened nerves in my hands and healing from the psychic wounds of those many months of lockdown and general fear of others. Through this gentle cleaning and attention to my hands I was experiencing a rebirth and a return — two themes that take us to the present moment.
In the Brenner home, we are frantically zipping about preparing to host the extended clan for Passover, a massive Tetris game of rearranging furniture, shlepping folding tables from the basement and cramming just enough chairs for three generations to sit together in a charming old house in New Jersey that sadly lacks “flow.”
Having guests find their way out of this maze and parade through the kitchen to wash is not feasible. Still, I want to share my newfound love for handwashing, so I will be passing out small cups with 3.2 ounces of water (the minimum amount required) so that everyone can fully engage with that often overlooked second ritual of the seder, known as urchatz. I even went so far as to work with an artist, Helene Brenenson, to design a guide to handwashing that includes a series of wellbeing-centered teachings to accompany the four essential steps of the ritual: lifting the vessel, pouring the water, rubbing the hands together and lifting the hands.
As I worked on this guide, I had a minor epiphany: Giving this water ritual, urchatz, a prominent spot at the seder was a brilliant rabbinic move. The Passover story begins with a drought (lack of water) that brought the Israelites to Egypt, ends with the miraculous crossing of a sea (walls of water), and eventually leads us to a land described in Deuteronomy as having “streams of water, of springs and underground water bursting forth from valley and mountain.” Urchatz connects us to the water imagery of the Passover seder and both physically and spiritually prepares our hands to take hold of the parsley (or other vegetable) and taste the “Spring” that symbolizes this time of rebirth.
Now I look back on those months of frantic pandemic handwashing and feel gratitude. My disconnection not only helped me seek out new ways to approach a basic pre-eating ritual, but led me to appreciate something that was always right there in the seder but I had never truly bothered to appreciate. This year the number two ritual in the seder’s order is number one in my heart.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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