Health and Healthcare

You can help create healthy and sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond.
An opportunity to support Hazon.

You may know of my passion for great food: organic fruits, vegetables and unprocessed foods. Hazon, a wonderful Jewish environmental organization, is doing great work as a leader in the Jewish Food movement and environmental education. With the help of Hazon, we can create systems for sustainable, ethically produced, healthful food so that future generations can continue to enjoy the earth’s bounty, as we do.

Hazon raises funds annually through a Labor Day Weekend bike ride in New York. I will be riding in this two-day Hazon NY ride – on the “Recon Riders” team, to support Hazon’s inspiring work.

I invite you to contribute to this cause. It’s a great way to make a difference.

If you would like to donate to Hazon as a sponsor for my ride, follow this link:

Or checks can be sent to Hazon.
(Please include a memo designating your donation to Amy Small’s ride.)
Makom Hadash
125 Maiden Lane Suite 8B
New York, NY 10038

If you would like more information about Hazon, visit their website:

Our community was blessed by the opportunity to learn from a gifted spiritual teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold, during this Shabbat. Shefa taught us about the spiritual practice of chanting; teaching us beautiful melodies with inspiring words to help us access God’s love. “It’s all about love,” she taught us. What else could Judaism be about, if not God’s love? The chants Shefa has composed use short phrases from the liturgy or other sacred texts, extracting the essence from an otherwise wordy tradition of Jewish prayer. Prayer shouldn’t be about “reciting” words, about being “yotzei” (having completed an obligation), or just saying a lot of words without opening our hearts. Prayer is a practice, and the practice of meditation and chanting helps us to open our souls to open to receiving and giving love.

I think it’s hard to know what this means without actually experiencing it. With kavannah/spiritual intention fueling each word, melody and motion, we are transformed. Scraping away the mundane “stuff” of everyday life, these repetitive, uplifting chants help us to get down deeper to the realities of our soul. Chanting with Shefa was like peeling away the onion of inner defenses to get down to our core, contemplatively, reaching for wholeness. Singing with community was like being in a chorus of angels.

So when I came home tonight after two glorious days of learning and singing with Shefa, I was still feeling this when my friend called. This friend had just had major surgery, and she called to thank us for supporting her and for providing a homemade feast for her family for Shabbat dinner. She talked about how difficult it had been for her to accept help; she likes being independent and doesn’t like to impose on others. It was not her way to allow others to take care of her. But once she was convinced to allow friends to help, she was able to experience something she never would have known before – the unbelievable power of the generosity of friends. Acknowledging that this is still something she struggles over, she said it has been a remarkably transformative experience. For many reasons she knows that she will never be the same as she goes forth in her life from this trauma.

I told her that allowing us to care for her was a gift she gave to us – everyone who loves her wanted to care for her and it gave us all great satisfaction that we could do something to nurture healing for our wounded friend. It was a gift we both gave each other. I encouraged her to allow herself to be open to receiving love – hard as it was for her, it was what is true and real – we are all here to share love.

I thought about Shefa’s teachings and my friend’s emotional/spiritual challenge. We are so often boundaried by our defenses, shielding ourselves from our pain, from our fears and anxieties, and resistances. Our culture teaches us to take care of ourselves; to be self-sufficient. But our tradition teaches us to reach inwardly, through the words, melodies and experiences of prayer. It teaches us to reach outwardly by helping and loving each other. Both practices cultivate compassion. Both practices open us to receiving love – from each other and from God. When we receive love we are so much more able to freely give our love to others. What a liberating way to live.

With love – to my friend with our prayers for complete and speedy healing, and to Shefa, for teaching us to open our hearts.

During my seventh grade class “Ask the Rabbi” session last week, one of the kids asked what I would do if I was not a rabbi. I quickly answered, “I’d bake muffins.” The kids were amused. I explained that I inherited my love for nurturing with food from both of my grandma’s and I would so enjoy the simple opportunity to just take care of people with delicious muffins. I have enjoyed baking since I was their age, and so the fantasy of getting a chance to bake all day, creatively thinking of new recipes, ah, well that feels like heaven!

In truth, I have come to use the refrain, “I’d bake muffins” as my expression of exasperation when I have a rough day. I recently came home late from a long and challenging day, and the first thing I said to my husband was, “In my next life, I am just going to bake muffins!” He laughed, lovingly supporting me as he always does and I was ready to let go of the day.

My husband Bob and I used to share a fantasy about our retirement: we’d buy a Bed & Breakfast in Vermont, where Bob would raise Alpacas and build furniture. I’d bake muffins and run retreats for rabbis, who need a break from their hectic lives. Of course, since the fantasy is intended to imagine a simpler life, it is just a fantasy. Owning a B&B is hard work.

Last week I went to a local tailor to alter a jacket. He is an older Italian immigrant who has a small storefront shop in our suburban town. He asked me for a deposit in cash – he doesn’t take credit or debit cards. I told him that I don’t carry much cash and didn’t have the money, but he was kind to me. He told me he is a simple old man, running a simple business. I told him I admire that he has a chance to run a simple business. (I thought, “I’d love to be just a tailor!”) With that, I unleashed something – he vented that he has such a hard life; I wouldn’t want to live his life, he told me. “Why?” I asked. “I have no life!” he exclaimed, “I run this shop all by myself and I have to work terrible hours and I never get a break.” I thought I was listening to myself at my exhausted lows for a moment. Then he said, “If I had a job with a boss, it would be so much better.” I chuckled. “If only,” I thought.

Many of us live complicated lives that can be exhausting. But simplicity may be an elusive fantasy. Maybe it is not just about doing fewer things, but about the way we construct our lives. Do we leave ourselves time for replenishment and renewal? It is not enough to do what we love doing. Just as my tailor loves what he does but hates the schedule, I love what I do and also need to find time to be “off.” How wonderful to just bake muffins sometimes. My tailor and I really do have a lot more in common that I thought.

Thinking about Food

My kids and I share an interest in food– in cooking, nutrition, environmental and justice issues in food production and distribution, and a passion for delicious vegetable dishes. All three of them are vegetarians. Our family is big on vegetables and fruit.

So when my eldest son read my blog post about my 1981 road trip (“A Mom’s Growing up Lesson”), he commented: “You brought broiled chicken legs with you on your road trip? The times they are a changin…”

Yes, they are. I now travel with nuts and fruit and vegetables (and I endure plenty of teasing for the fare I carry in my suitcases.) But more than that, I view food completely differently than I could have ever imagined just a decade ago.

Back then, when the Atkins Diet was all the rage, I ate salami and eggs for breakfast and dined on, dare I say it, hot dogs for an easy dinner. (No wonder my kids became vegetarians!) Having learned the pitfalls of that diet and the limitations of several others, I now avoid red meat, most starches, processed foods and sugar or sweetening, and I consume little salt. Vegetables and fruit appear in all of my meals, with careful concern for nutritional balance. I also eat only kosher poultry, preferring organic free-range choices to standard kosher chicken.

I am not an easy dinner guest, I am sorry to say. I don’t want to be a burden, but I feel very strongly that I have to control what goes into my body. I try to be polite about this, offering to bring food, and some people understand and appreciate this better than others.

But this is not just about me. It is about the way we produce and consume food in this country. I lost my grandfather, my father, and my brother, each to heart attacks in their early 50’s, following diabetes. My losses have made me meshugenah about nutrition and health. I am deeply concerned about our American diet of salt, sugar, fat, carbohydrate overloads, outsized portion sizes and lots of meat. We talk about getting a grip on what we eat, but until we tackle the deeper cultural issues, it will remain very difficult to recalibrate our way of life healthfully. It is not easy to be counter-culture.

Food issues go further, including: the ethics and climate-change issues resulting from mass meat production, food distribution, the wasting of food in America, and staggering statistics about hunger in our country and abroad.

There is a new and growing food movement that aims to take these problems apart and put our food culture back together in a better way. I applaud the work of Hazon, for example. I am proud of my kids for getting involved in this.

I am glad that my kids share this passion with me – a new generation can begin to right the wrongs of those who preceded us. And in the meantime, I’ve got to run back to the kitchen — it’s time to take the roasted red cabbage from the oven. Yummy!

January 20: I had trouble listening to the radio today on my usual station — public radio. I asked my husband to turn off the TV news. I barely scanned the newspaper, though I tried several times. I found the news and the banter to be pushing me past my threshold for patience and understanding. I usually devour any news and analysis that I can fit into my busy schedule. But analysis of the Massachusetts senatorial victory, in a race largely focused on the defeat of the healthcare bill, really caused me pain.

With the concept of “civil rights” in the forefront of my consciousness during this week of MLK’s birthday, I have been thinking a lot about what the term means. “Civil rights” isn’t just about race relations. It is about the creation of a just society. The dream of the civil rights movement was/is to transform our society to one that gives all of its people equal opportunity; to make it into a place wherein all people are truly entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But more, where these entitlements, these rights, are ensured and protected by the laws of the land.

So why is healthcare not a basic human right? How is caring for sick not about the protection of life, if not happiness? A society that does not take responsibility to care for its sick sand to promote health is a society that lacks compassion.

A society that struggles to be just — while also promoting individual responsibility and empowerment — has a critical challenge in balancing its resources. Our religious tradition teaches us the value of caring for the poor and the sick and the weak and the old. But it also instructs us to help the needy to learn how to support themselves. Yes, individual empowerment and responsibility encourage that. But it is not enough. We do not all have a level playing field. Socio-economic conditions and lack of equal opportunity are part of the reason. Individual differences in ability and sometimes just plain luck can govern how well we do in our own sustenance.

And then there is the complex issue of healthcare. The linking of healthcare to employment and to the fortunes of an employer can even further erode – or destroy – the chances for millions of Americans to be able to afford health insurance. Without that, healthcare is limited or unavailable. Haven’t we heard the stories of those who have suffered? Healthcare should be a basic right, an entitlement of all people, not the privilege of the well-to-do or fortunate. How can we abide by watching this issue tossed about as a political football so fiercely kicked back and forth that the air is seeping out of it? How can we justify – yet again — defeating the opportunity to ensure this basic human right?

If only we could use the might and resources devoted to war to help heal. If we devoted ourselves to our stated values of love and compassion, wouldn’t we agree that caring for the health and well-being of our people is the best demonstration of greatness?

The prophet Isaiah dreamed a vision that “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” How about an added verse: “they shall beat their swords into stethoscopes and their spears into medicines.” Ah, now that would be world that would make me proud.

I care very passionately about the issue of healthcare, and yet, in my dismay over the harsh and unforgiving rhetoric of the political conversation, I temporarily held back from making public statements on the issue. I did not want to feed the frenzy of those who have assumed a posture of attack without consideration to the complexity of this pressing issue.
I regret my avoidance. This is a pressing moral issue. From my perspective, Jewish tradition requires that we care for our bodies as the sacred vessel loaned to us by our Creator for the life of our souls. We are bidden to do everything possible to save a life when we have the ability to do make a difference. The sages of my tradition talked about concern for personal and public health, for the welfare of the community, and for the need for government’s compassionate exercise of power. These are all inspiring messages and religious responsibilities that echo throughout Jewish sacred texts.
My conscience has been weighed by the heart-wrenching stories of real people whose lack of adequate healthcare have left them either economically or physically devastated. There are so many dreadful stories of preventable disabilities and long-term, sometimes catastrophic consequences of untreated or under treated illnesses and conditions. How could it be that the richest and most powerful country in the world, a nation that prides itself for providing opportunities for all, could so long avoid making choices that would make health care accessible to all who dwell here? I know these choices are difficult, but we can no longer justify avoiding them.
There are legitimate political reasons why some oppose aspects of the healthcare proposals circulating in Washington. The ideological divide over the proper role and function of government could be debated compassionately. Why can’t we have collaborative conversations in which the consequences of increased government spending for health care could be reasonably fleshed out?
I recently found myself unexpectedly dragged into one of the verbal “fist fights” of this debate. I was invited to offer an invocation at a special event for a Jewish women’s organization. In typical style, my invocation highlighted the work and the causes of this organization through words of prayer. I had learned that a major concern of this organization is healthcare. Therefore, my invocation prayer expressed appreciation that proposed the healthcare legislation had just made it to the senate floor, celebrating the opportunity for a full hearing of the issues. The audience broke into loud applause. I continued, beseeching our Creator to guide our lawmakers in their deliberations, that they may find a way to provide healthcare for all who need it. Again, I was interrupted by applause. The camaraderie was uplifting.
My feelings of satisfaction were short-lived. Just two days later a man appeared unannounced at the door of my synagogue demanding to see me. He told me his wife was involved in the organization that sponsored the event at which I spoke and he wanted me to know that I had deeply offended her. He said, “You had no business bringing politics into a religious event.” I apologized for causing any hurt to his wife, and then offered, “I do believe that healthcare is a religious issue.” He said that I had ruined the event for his wife by politicizing it. He hastened to tell me his rabbi’s name – perhaps suggesting that I was not worthy of the title. I let it pass, and said, “You know, even the rabbis of the Talmud were concerned with healthcare.” Well, that was like dust in the wind. The man once again accused me of being inappropriate. He angrily said, “We have healthcare for everyone in this country. You just have to pay for it!!” So I stepped back from aruguing, told him once again, that I was deeply sorry that his wife was offended and I hoped my words of apology would be conveyed.
The synagogue member whose meeting with me had been interrupted by this confrontation observed, “Wow, there were so many things wrong with what just happened!” Yes, there were. But the most distressing was how much it reflected the culture of our day – in which the tenor of conversation over such a fundamental human right as healthcare has become a knee-jerk, angry, confrontation. What happened to sacrificing some of our personal comfort for the common good? What happened to compassion, humility, and justice?
I feel sad for those who are so blinded by their own fears that they project them angrily onto those who are trying to do some good in this world. I feel sad for our nation that we are stuck in this narrow place. I pray that our leaders may be guided by conscience and wisdom and that Americans can once again come to respect the democratic process by which these difficult decisions are made. And I pray that we may find the courage to stand up to those who wish to silence the debate, to thoughtfully and compassionately push forward for a common good.