The Mi Shebeirach Quilt

Inside Leadership

The Mi Shebeirach Quilt

by Shelley Schweitzer

May the Source of strength,
Who blessed the ones before us,
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing,
And let us say: Amen.

The year was 1999 and the NFTY-Northeast Lakes (NFTY-NEL) community learned that there were big changes ahead. Long-time regional advisors Terry Pollack and Neil Poch would be retiring at the end of the calendar year. As the community’s members began to process that news, they learned, too, that a member of their NFTY family was ill – Terry’s wife Maxine had cancer. Teens from around the region wanted to do something, and youth workers were looking for ways to help the NFTY-NELers respond in a Jewish way.

The Mi Shebeirach prayer had, in recent years, been re-introduced to the Reform community through the words and music of composer and songwriter Debbie Friedman and her collaborator, Drorah Setel, herself a NFTY NEL alumna. As congregations began to incorporate the prayer into their worship experiences, people came to understand the power of prayer and the role that each person can play in helping others to heal.

With a focus on Jewish healing, the NFTY-NEL community decided, at its March 2000 Debate Weekend Kallah, members would craft a Mi Shebeirach quilt for Maxine. Teens would complete squares that would be sewn together so that Maxine literally could wrap herself in our prayers and wishes for r’fuah sh’leimah, her complete and speedy healing. Sadly, it was not to be. Maxine lost her battle just days before the teens were to gather to make the quilt.

We decided, nonetheless, to go ahead with the project and use the quilt to honor and remember Maxine, even as we used it to envelope others in prayers for their healing. And so, the community came together and began its own healing process with the Mi Shebeirach prayer as the catalyst for conversation and sharing.

By the time teens convened for their annual summer camp experience, the quilt had been completed and a new class of students had entered the community -- a group of teens that did not know Maxine or Terry Pollack. As we approached the Mi Shebeirach in our Shabbat morning service, the quilt was unfolded and its history was shared. Anyone who was in need of healing was invited to come forward and stand under this sukkat shalom -- this shelter of peace and of healing.

More than half the group came forward, some with tears already dripping down their cheeks as they felt the power of the community holding them close. We sang for them and for all those they represented. As we did so, I thought about the incredible legacy of Maxine Pollack, borne from a love and respect for her husband, our teacher and mentor for 35 years, Terry Pollack.

Today, NFTY-NEL teens continue to come forward to be blessed under that quilt, a custom that truly enables them to feel the power of the community supporting them in times of need. As they do so, each teen places a hand on the shoulder of someone near-by so that the connection is made both physically and spiritually. To accommodate the need, additional squares have been added. Still, there are those who cannot fit underneath. Hundreds have now stood beneath that quilt with thousands praying for them. Each time the quilt is held high, it represents hope and family and community, reminding us all of the power of prayer and the role that we each play in healing and caring for others.

Bless those in need of healing with r’fuah sh’leimah,
The renewal of body,
The renewal of spirit,
And let us say: Amen.

Shelley Schweitzer is the director of the URJ’s Congregational Networks. She previously held several other positions with the URJ and NFTY.


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