Sunday, September 15, 2013

When Lightning Strikes - Yom Kippur Morning 2013

On the afternoon of June 29, Shabbat, with not a storm cloud in sight, a bolt of lightning struck three campers who were playing Frisbee at Goldman Union Camp Institute GUCI including two nine year-olds, a girl from St. Louis named Lily Hoberman, and a boy from Louisville named Noah Auerbach, as well as a 12 year-old from Cincinnati named Ethan Kadish. The lightning strike that hit the camp was the only lightning strike in the area at all according to news reports and no storm at all was close to the camp at the time. Not only was it not raining, the skies were clear but for a few clouds. This was a "bolt out of the blue."

Rabbi Ron Klotz, recently retired as Director of Goldman Union Camp Institute, wrote in his blog a little over week later that:

I guess one could say that this is an ultimate teachable moment.  I've had numerous conversations this week with friends who question, "How could God let something like this happen?" and, "How can one have faith in the midst of so much doubt?"  With the High Holy days approaching early this fall, I know that many of us will be wrestling with such questions.  When we read the Unetane Tokef on Yom Kippur..."Who shall live and who shall die.  Who by fire and who by water, etc?" 

In speaking to those who were at Goldman Union Camp when the lightning struck and seeing what went on during the weeks that followed, I think it important to discuss with you another theme of Yom Kippur. Not about the Unetaneh Tokef with its stark treatment of life and death and its troubling assumption that God decides fates, but instead I would like to speak about the theme of the afternoon Torah portion, “It is not beyond you,” not too distant, not too difficult. I do not want to talk about why lightning may have struck. Today, I want to talk about what happens when it does.

For the past twelve years, I have spent two weeks each Summer at GUCI. Of those roughly 180 days give or take a few, I probably spent a hour or more on over 100 of those days at the pool or at the sports fields within a couple hundred feet of where the lightning struck. As I stand here before you this morning, I can imagine in detail the entire day. In my mind, I can see the campers shuffling in to the dining hall for the late wake up breakfast wearing pajamas, most with flip flops on their feet. They eat bagels and cereal set out on a buffet and sit with their friends at whatever table they like. Breakfast ends and there is a short time before services begin. They go back to their cabins and dress for the day gathering at the Beit Tefilah where GUCI campers enjoy music filled services.

After services, the camp would have Kiddush over very sweet and usually very warm grape juice and do the Motzi over tiny mostly dried out pieces of Challah. Then everyone heads to get lunch. During Shabbat lunch, one can sit wherever one likes outside near the dining hall. It is a relaxing time at camp. After a brief menucha, a rest period, campers change into their swim suits and head down to the pool and sports fields. From 1:30 pm to about 4 pm, every Saturday the kids play games on the fields, swim in the pools, and, if they would like, they can attend optional mini-groups which include everything from arts and crafts to discussions about the world of Harry Potter, singing popular tunes like an opera singer, playing your belly as a musical instrument and my kids’ favorite, the Clergy Kids Support Group.

That afternoon, like every Shabbat, at 1:30 pm kids were just entering the pool, a game or two would be just beginning on the basketball courts, and half a dozen to a dozen kids would begin playing Ultimate Frisbee. There were a few clouds in the sky but not many. The sun was shining. It was a warm and sunny end of June day.

Ethan Kadish was teaching Lily Hoberman and Noah Auerbach how to play Ultimate Frisbee. Suddenly, there was a flash of light and a loud bang. A neighbor said it sounded like artillery going off. The lightning did not strike the six story high climbing tower which was a couple of hundred feet away. It did not strike the line of trees near-by, nor the basketball courts, where a game was underway. Instead, the lightning struck three children playing Frisbee on a sun drenched field. From this point on, I cannot imagine. It is difficult for me to even visualize what happened next even after hearing about it from multiple people.

That is, however, what I think is vitally important to discuss. What do we do when there is a bolt out of the blue in our lives? Would we be prepared to face the challenge?

It just so happens that only a few days before the lightning struck, some members of the camp staff had finished their recertification for CPR. At least one of them was playing basketball not much more than a hundred feet away. There were a number of other staff members who also knew CPR who were nearby. All three campers received CPR within a minute and all three of camp’s Automated External Defibrillators or AEDs, were put into use shortly thereafter.

The Monday morning after the lightning struck, I had not seen much of anything written about what happened. I had seen the very brief statements from Goldman Union Camp and I listened to a conference call during which Rabbi Covitz read a prepared statement that offered less information than could be found in the Indianapolis Star. As it became clear that it was only the response of the staff of the camp that saved the lives of the three children and I read postings from friends on staff at the camp praising the actions of their friends that day, I was inspired to write an article about it on my blog. The article, “A Bolt Out of the Blue,” ended up being shared widely by the URJ and by Goldman Union Camp and read by thousands of people from around the world including hundreds of my colleagues and parents and alumni of camp. Most importantly, as I found out later, my article helped bring comfort to the leadership and staff at camp.

As I wrote in my article, when the lightning struck:

Life sometimes gives people the opportunity to demonstrate their best. On this day of challenge, in perhaps the most stressful moments of urgency that will occur during their lifetimes, [the first responders] showed that the preparation and training, compassion and passion, which have long been the hallmarks of Goldman Union Camp and its staff, when put into action can make a difference not just in theory but in real life.

Preparation, both preparing of appropriate skills and emotional preparation, helps. Feeling like you can accomplish the necessary task, feeling like you can make a difference, matters. Goldman Union Camp does a good job of making its campers feel empowered as Jews and ultimately as members of their communities. The staff of the camp includes many who have spent over ten summers at camp as campers, as part of Avodah, the camp service corps, as assistant counselors, counselors and leadership staff. Some on staff have spent upwards of fifteen summers at camp, coming as children with their rabbi parents and attending the camp for young children, Camp Katan. GUCI has had a major impact in developing the character of those who now serve on its staff.

As I wrote that day:

Every morning at GUCI, the camp sings “L’takein”, also known as the “Na Na Song” because of its introductory chorus. These are the words written by Danny Nichols [a well known Jewish musician who tours the nation every summer visiting camp after camp] someone who has been a part of the GUCI community since childhood. His words inspire the faculty, staff, counselors and campers at GUCI every day. [The song is but two lines long.]

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam shenatan lanu hizdamnut l’takein et ha’olam!
Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given us the opportunity to mend the world!

Sometimes, as the Summer drags on and the morning seems to come all too early, the hands may not be raised as high up in the air or sway as much from side to side, but the sentiment seeps into the thoughts of those who hear it. Each morning, those at camp hear, “I have the opportunity to mend the world today.”

Most of the time, the listeners probably think of large scale social action such as feeding the hungry or helping the environment. Some of them may realize that the words could apply to helping make their cabins better, their friends happier. Everyone at camp, all of the campers, all of the counselors, hear those words every morning. As I said in my blog:

Simply put, when [the] opportunity came with urgency on [one] Shabbat afternoon, people imbued with the concept that they could mend the world, saved the lives of three children.

Many of you have asked how the students affected by the lightning are doing.
Noah Auerbach from The Temple in Louisville, Kentucky suffered relatively minor injuries. When he returned to camp with his family for the final Shabbat of the first session so that he could thank the first responders and say a proper good bye to his cabin mates, counselors, and other good friends, he showed off the burned area on his foot where the lightning left his body.

Lily Hoberman from Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis suffered slightly worse injuries, including more burns. On the Friday night that Noah Auerbach visited camp with his family, Lily Hoberman attended Shabbat services at home and in front of a very packed congregation there to support her, recited the Birkat Hagomel, the blessing for one who has recovered from a serious illness. Imagine a nine year old girl whose heart had stopped beating a week earlier standing in front of her congregation reciting these words:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, ha-gomel l’hayavim tovot sheg’malani kol tov.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the world,
who rewards with goodness,
and who has rewarded me with goodness.
According to an article in the St. Louis Jewish Light,

Michelle Hoberman, Lily’s mother, said of the swift response of GUCI’s camp counselors and staff, “they literally saved her life. One young man, a wilderness specialist at the camp from Pittsburgh, administered CPR and shocked Lily back to life. He was the angel who saved her. Another young man from Cincinnati, Ohio, a college student, was there to assist him. Without those first responders, without those counselors, the result would not have been the same. They were trained so well. I am so happy that we got to meet the people who saved our children.

The Hobermans, along with the parents of the other two campers who were injured, the Auerbachs of Louisville, Ky. and the Kadishes of Cincinnati, issued a joint statement thanking camp counselors and staff.

“Their extensive training and the camp’s preparedness allowed them to be life savers when the urgent need arose. The way in which URJ quickly responded by bringing together the support staff and senior leadership was phenomenal and we are grateful for them for maintaining the safety and security of our children and for other concerned campers.”

With an outpouring of support and a desire to donate funds following the event, the three families created the Miracle Kids Medical and Rescue Fund at GUCI to help fund the annual rescue training of the staff and to provide new and additional medical equipment for camp.

The leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism demonstrated a high level of caring and concern both for the families of the affected children and for the staff at camp. Immediately after the event a senior staff team including the Director of Camping and a leading crisis counselor came to GUCI to provide support for the staff there as they addressed the psychological impact of the event on both their campers and themselves.

While the recoveries of Noah and Lily were relatively swift and complete, Ethan Kadish faces many challenges ahead. Evidently taking the brunt of the impact of the lightning, Ethan’s injuries were much more severe and his recovery will be measured in increments over many months and years. He suffered a traumatic brain injury in addition to other ailments that have left him unable to speak or move voluntarily as of yet and he requires hours of therapy each day. The URJ recently sent out a letter asking for funds to be donated to Help Hope Live, a catastrophic injury fund, in the name of Ethan Kadish to help the family pay for his extreme medical bills in the years ahead, bills that have and will continue to dramatically exceed the cap of available insurance coverage.

One morning, while I was at camp, Danny Nichols, who spent the week at camp, and Camp Director Mark Covitz drove to Cincinnati to visit Ethan and his family in the hospital. Ethan’s younger sister was also there with her parents and brother. She had been attending camp along with her brother and had remained at camp during the week after the lightning strike. The family members, associated with GUCI for many years, are big fans of Danny Nichols and are particularly fond of his song, “Chazak.” Danny recorded a special version of the song and dedicated it to Ethan. The chorus of the song is “Chazak, Chazak, v’nithazek. Be strong, be strong, and we’ll strengthen one another.” These are the words we traditionally say when we finish reading a book of the Torah.

Danny Nichols sang the song with the family at Ethan’s bedside and I can only imagine the strength of the emotions present. Recently, I contacted Alexia Kadish, Ethan’s mother, letting her know that our congregation sends its prayers to her family and for her son’s continued healing. The family greatly appreciates the outpouring of support that they have received from our congregation and from many others. Today, we continue to think of the Kadish family and wish them strength and courage as they face the challenges ahead. I think as well of Rabbi Sissy Coran and the rest of the staff of Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati who have been of immense support to the family since the lightning struck. Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazeik. Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another.

I concluded my article written two days after the lightning struck with words in which, having heard more about what happened since, I have even more confidence. That Monday, I wrote:

There are going to be times in our lives, hopefully very few, when we will be struck by a bolt out of the blue, suddenly confronted by a difficult challenge. For most of us, those words will only be idiomatic. For three children on a Shabbat afternoon at camp, it literally happened to them. When such an occurrence happens to us, may we be blessed to be among those who have the compassion and care to reassure us as we face the difficulty and the ability to help us to overcome the challenge. [That] Saturday afternoon, Goldman Union Camp Institute proved what I have known for many years: that it is such a place. It is why I send my kids to camp, why I spend time on faculty at camp, and why I encourage others to send their kids to camp. GUCI is a special place and its faculty and staff are exceptional people.

It is my hope that I, our staff, and you the members of our congregation and our community will be able to provide compassion, caring, support and comfort to each one of us individually and to each of our families during our times of need as well. That is the kind of environment that we work to create and maintain.

When lightning strikes, we put our preparation into action. We rely on the people with whom we have surrounded ourselves, our friends, our neighbors, our congregation, our community. We pray and we hope. We cry. We hug. We seek out support. Like the Kadish family does through Ethan’s Caring Bridge page, we offer thanks for the blessings that we have even amid the curses we have faced. We go on, though it may be difficult or more than difficult.

This High Holidays, I have spoken to you four times. On Rosh Hashanah, I noted that we should care about what is going on in the world and act to make our world a better place. Last night, I spoke about what it means to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All of the sermons that I have offered this year tie in to this one. They are all at their heart about one theme: preparing yourself to be ready to help others and to give them strength when they most need it. If you are ready to care and ready to act, you can be of help when lightning strikes. You can help to strengthen others.

Today we join with those around the country sending strength and comfort to the family of Ethan Kadish and let us make the promise to work to strengthen one another. It is not beyond us, nor too distant, nor too difficult.

May this year be a year in which we bring blessings into the lives of others.

Gamar Chatimah Tovah, may we help to inscribe one another in the book of our lives for a good year. Good yom tov.

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