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November 26, 2014 | 4th Kislev 5775

Inside Leadership: A Message from Rabbi Jonah Pesner on Ethan Kadish

Last week doctors removed the ventilation tubes from Ethan Kadish and for the first time in almost two weeks he started breathing on his own; this week we're hopeful he'll transfer from PICU to rehab. As you may know, Ethan and two other children, suddenly and without warning, were struck by lightning at our URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) in Zionsville, IN. On an otherwise pleasant Shabbat afternoon, one shocking bolt rocked an entire community - and in some ways, tested us to our core.

The GUCI community - staff and campers alike - rose above and beyond our expectations. Hours of training in emergency protocol meant that the first responders (some not much older than the campers themselves) carried out their life-saving work flawlessly. Both the on-scene paramedics and the doctors at the hospital remarked that they were stunned and inspired by the camp staff's effective, life-saving response.

Later, we were tested in a much more fundamental way: spiritually. Why did this happen? How could three innocent children be so randomly struck? As a Jewish organization of congregations and religious camps, we can't help but ask: What kind of God would let such a thing happen?

I write these words in the days leading up to the observance of Tishah B'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is arguably the darkest day in Jewish history, and we read from Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. The name of the book means "how." And, indeed, how? How could this have happened? Soon, summer will end, and we will gather in our congregations on Yom Kippur to read the Una Tana Tokef, which asks, "Who shall live and who shall die?" As we do every year, we will struggle with these words, more agitational and challenging than comforting, and repeat the most ancient Jewish question: Why?

There are simply no answers to the cruelly vexing questions of random, tragic suffering. But what I have witnessed over the past two weeks are the redemptive acts of grace, courage, and kindness that restore hope and meaning, despite the suffering.

When my colleagues Paul Reichenbach, Mark Pelavin, and I arrived at GUCI in the hours after the accident, we had no idea what we would find. We were inspired by a sacred community that had immediately moved from effective rapid response and emergency management into healing. After lunch, Rabbi Mark Covitz, the camp's director, led the entire camp in a Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing to support the three children who were injured. It helped the campers and staff begin to wrestle with what had happened to their beautiful community, and to begin their own healing. Together, with all the ruach (spirit) they could muster, they sang "Kehila Kedosha," which means "holy community," and they embraced and danced, overflowing with love. I couldn't help but break camp rules and stand on a bench to capture the scene on my iPhone. If you want to be inspired, watch the video.

Paul, Mark, and I knew that as much as the sanctity of our camp community was being tested, so, too, was our Reform Movement. As we sat at the bedsides of the three children, we joined hands with their parents and prayed. We promised them that they would not only have the support of GUCI and the URJ, but of the entire Movement - and we were right. The Indianapolis Jewish community mobilized, offering meals, hospitality, and pastoral care. The rabbis of the injured campers responded immediately, and the communities of St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati sprang into action, too. The GUCI family's many rabbis, cantors, and educators pitched in. Across North America, and even in Israel, people have followed this crisis and offered support to the families.

One of the most poignant moments of this ordeal came when the counselors who had administered CPR came to visit at the hospital. These remarkable young people, several college students and an Israeli shaliach who served as a medic in the Israel Air Force, were embraced by grateful, weeping parents. Ethan's mom explained that his Hebrew name is Eytan Chaim, which means "strong life." She and Ethan's dad thanked these heroic young people for helping Ethan fulfill his namesake, to stay strong in life.

Of course, no one is being tested more than Ethan and his family. They are a remarkable model of strength for all of us. They have allowed their congregation, their camp, their rabbi, and the broader Movement to support them as we confront the pain of this crisis together. They invite all of us to pray for Ethan on his path to healing .

In my recent ordination sermon, I presented HUC-JIR's newly ordained rabbis with this charge:

The antidote to consumerism... and to secularism... is covenantal relationship. In the next chapter of Reform Judaism we must disorganize and reorganize our congregations and institutions to re-form Judaism once again... with a rigorous practice of building covenantal community.

However we make sense of the ways our faith is tested in moments like these, let us be sure of one thing: that the kehila kedosha, the sacred community we are building passes the test of actually being sacred, judged by how we care for one another.

In honor of the three children injured in the lightning strike, their families have established the GUCI Miracle Kids Medical and Rescue Fund. I encourage you to read Rabbi Mark Covitz's letter to camp parents and to make a donation that will help ensure world-class medical equipment and safety supplies continue to be available for staff and campers.

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