What Now? Episode 8 podcast transcript
The following is a transcription of episode 8 of the podcast What Now?, “From Loss to Action” with Stephanie Ruskay, provided for accessibilty for all website visitors.
Sara Beth Berman: Welcome to What Now?, a podcast from the Jewish Theological Seminary that asks how we respond when it all goes wrong. I’m Sara Beth Berman, your host, and a graduate of the Davidson School at JTS, and I’ve been searching for answers for a long time. Several years ago, my fiancé Rafi, a fifth-year rabbinical student, died after a year of suffering. My desire to engage in Jewish life was shot. Over the years, I’ve worked hard to figure out how to be myself: all of the pieces, broken and repaired, in equal parts.
I’m still asking the questions though. Specifically, why tragedy, and why do we suffer, and what now? How does our tradition help us to tackle this complicated and fundamentally human experience? Tragedy and misfortune strike all of us just about every day. On a scale of one to 10, where one is that piece of cake you were saving under some plastic wrap on the counter, and then it gets eaten by a mouse the night before you were going to eat it, and a 10 is that time I was widowed before my wedding.
So I’m meeting with professors and teachers from my beloved alma mater, JTS. Each professor and each person has had their own struggles. My professors have applied their wisdom and scholarship to finding answers. After years of banging my head against the wall while I whine loudly about tragedy, I’m hoping that they can help me out.
In this episode, I sat down with Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, who works in the Rabbinical School, and for a new social justice center at JTS. Rabbi Ruskay and I talked about all the tiny terribles in our lives, and the giant grinding losses that churn us into who we will ultimately become. I’ll let her introduce herself.
Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay: I’m the Associate Dean of the Rabbinical School, the Associate Director of The Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, and the Executive Director of the Hendel Center for Ethics and Justice.
SBB: That sounds like a lot of stuff. Can you tell me about your work that you do here?
SR: Yeah, I have kind of the best job here. I get to work with students. I teach our rabbinical school fourth-year seminars, so students have internships in all different kinds of areas in which they might serve as clergy. And then we added, in the last several years, one hour of training every week on community organizing and social justice, and I teach that.
SBB: Can you tell me what type of social justice work JTS is involved in these days?
SR: We’re doing some work in the local community. Our hope is to make it a model, so that students experience opportunities to connect to other religious communities and civic engagement in the neighborhood, on the Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, Harlem. And that they’ll get chances to practice and then they’ll expect that this is what they go out and do, when they go out, wherever they work in the country or the world. So we did, two years ago, a STANDING UPtown for Justice and Religious Tolerance March, which was when the Muslim Ban was happening. So it was a chance to say that we are for religious tolerance, as religious communities, that we were standing together as civic leaders and religious leaders, and that we thought that we could offer leadership by being in relationship to each other.
And so now, out of that, we’ve started collaborating with lots of the various institutions in the neighborhood. And we’ve started an arts and justice collective. So it is artists who are in relationship with various faith-based and civic organizations in our neighborhood who come together to share their resources. And our hope is that they’ll be able to respond to what’s going on in the world in a collaborative way that none of them could do by themselves. What they say—and I’m not an artist, I’m an organizer of artists, apparently, in this particular project—but what they say is that being an artist is really lonely. You do your art, and often when you’re doing it, it’s you and whatever your medium is, but it’s not other people.
And so what we’re trying to offer is a way, first of all, for those artists to invite religious leaders to respond in a way that may not be their most natural, but is very fruitful. And then also to be in relationships so that as things happen in the world, we could be in solidarity with each other and doing things that are related to art and justice.
SBB: How many years have you been working at JTS now?
SR: It’s my fourth year.
SBB: So after four years, have you seen any of your students go out into the field and demonstrate to you what they learned through the social justice work that they did here?
SR:Well, yesterday I had a student tell me—and this is a student who is in a pulpit right now as an intern. He said, you know, I came to rabbinical school and social justice was not, I didn’t really think about it. It was not my orientation. And now, one of their assignments in the class is to give a d’var Torah about something related to justice. So they can choose, whatever they feel moved around justice to talk about. The challenge is, give a d’var Torah to the class that you’d be nervous about giving in a community.
And the idea is that, some of them will say crazy things, I’m sure, that they would not say in a community. But it’s a chance to practice, so that they don’t become so timid that they can’t take a stand on anything. And so he said, you know, I didn’t come here thinking about this piece of it. I was very immersed in Torah. I was very immersed in the Jewish community. I didn’t think about social justice. I didn’t think about race and class and power as they play out in the Jewish community or between the Jewish community and other communities. And I’m starting to think that way and look at the congregation where I’m serving now as an intern.
So that’s one example that just happened, and I felt excited. I get calls from alumni who are interested in thinking about how to do it, and sometimes they’re already doing it, and sometimes they’re calling to dream together.
SBB: It sounds so cool that you get to engage in these conversations with students and with people once they’re out in the field wherever they are. Here on the podcast, we ask all of our guests: on a scale of one to 10, where one is something minor, like a run in your stockings—I don’t know if people still wear those. I hate them. And 10 is the Book of Job, if you have some examples on the one end, and then the 10 end.
SR: Sure. So on the one end, I seem to have a tradition of sometimes having an idea in mind about what something will look like, and then when it arrives, it maybe is a little bit smaller than I had imagined. So when I was in Bulgaria doing a year of service after I finished college, I was teaching in the Jewish community. And I had this idea that in the community building, we should have a gigantic bulletin board that covered a whole wall, and we could have all kinds of interactive things, so while people were hanging out in the hall, they’d have an opportunity for education and conversation about things that were related to the kind of Jewish learning that we were doing all year.
And we asked for this bulletin board. It was coming, it was coming. It took many, many, many, many months. And I was really imagining something that covered a full wall. And when it arrived, it was the size of a piece of paper. Like eight and a half by 11. And after all of the waiting, it had been so built up in my mind, that it was just absurd. Like what was I going to do with a bulletin board the size of a piece of paper? Nothing. I primarily laughed about it, and every once in a while we say, remember the bulletin board? Which has just become sort of a symbol for me of not getting your heart set on something that you have imagined and deciding that that’s going to solve all of the problems. Like, the bulletin board wouldn’t have solved all our problems. But we imagined it to be a panacea.
And then this year, I came to JTS, and I really came with the idea of helping to make social justice more central to how we train rabbis and cantors and educators and lay leaders. And I wanted it to be true that people would take the Torah they were learning here and bring it out to the world. So when Torah moved them to act in the world and take a stand on something, they would bring JTS.
And so I had this idea that we would get buttons and stickers that would be like marching buttons and stickers. So you go out, you take your button and sticker, and you put them on you so that in a crowd you would know these were all JTS folks. And the buttons and the stickers say “Kumi, tze’i mitokh ha’hafekha,” it’s from Lekha Dodi in Kabbalat Shabbat. And it’s about rising up out of the destruction and picking yourself up and dusting yourself off and taking action when things are bad.
We placed this gigantic order. We were all ready for the buttons and the stickers, and they arrived and they were very small. The buttons were little. But the stickers, it’s like the size of your fingernail, basically. Nobody would see it if you were marching anywhere. They would think you had a speck of dust on your jacket. And so I just laughed, because what else could you do, really? But again, it was like, I had this outsized idea about what these stickers and buttons were going to do. And sometimes you just have to laugh. But I did order bigger stickers. And when I run out of buttons, I’ll get bigger buttons.
SBB: So those are excellent ones. In general, and also they’re tiny, which is great, because ones are really not major, they are little.
SR: Those examples were tiny and minor tragedies.
SBB: Yeah, and ultimately they’re fodder for good jokes. A lot of ones, actually, are fodder for good jokes. If you’re interested in comedy, that is a thing that you see, people complaining about tiny things that don’t matter, and also large things that do matter. But it’s a good place for comedy.
SR: So my 10? My 10 was when my father died. And I was in my early 20s, and it was a shock, and surprising and unexpected. It would still be a 10 if it was expected. For me, I think, I had planned to go away and do a year of service right after. In lots of ways, I felt like I needed to try to go and fulfill a commitment I had made, see the world in the way I had imagined. But I wasn’t quite sure where to put the grief. And when I got there, the rabbi there in the secular Orthodox community—a bunch of secular people who had an Orthodox shul—the rabbi there said, you know, “girls don’t say Kaddish here.”
So to me that was a sign that I needed to just put a lid on it and figure it out some other time, but not in Bulgaria. And when I was coming back, in lots of ways I had all of this unprocessed grief that I had not been addressing, which reared its head. And when I came home I was having a theological crisis. My whole life had been organized, my friends were observant, that was the community I felt most comfortable in. And I needed to look for a job. And so putting my new young adult life together when I was in the midst of a theological crisis was tough. Lots of young adults do this. This was my version of it. So my version of it was tough for me.
And I did not think I wanted to work in the Jewish community, but ultimately I did work in the Jewish community. I worked at American Jewish World Service, which in lots of ways was an opportunity for me to work out some of my theological angst. And to make connections that I actually wanted to be making around justice and Judaism. It was 1998. It was a time when it seemed like a lot of Jews were restarting to think about how social justice might be connected to their Jewish identities. And it was a moment where that was essential to me, because some of the other, more traditional ideas that had been part of my Jewish upbringing and life weren’t working for me as much, but I wasn’t ready to throw the whole thing out.
So prayer didn’t work so much for me. It was terrible, to go on the High Holidays, where the themes are all about who is going to live and who is going to die, and your deeds will be judged. And I was mad, so I didn’t want to say it, but I also didn’t want to not be there. So doing this work with Jews who were figuring out how social justice was related to their Jewish identities was really significant and nourishing for me.
I had the opportunity, I would say some of when it became most real and sort of idea-shifting for me, when I was in El Salvador and met poor Salvadoran peasants for whom the Passover story was actually very alive. They read that story and saw poverty and economic enslavement and saw a religious path to freedom and holiness. And I thought, I’ve been talking about that story in our prayers and holidays for a long time, and it never meant as much to me as it appeared to mean to them. And for me, the reaction of having a shared story that was so powerful for someone else and so common, or frequently repeated, for me, but not meaningful, was just a paradigm shift.
So I think I started to reorient how I understood how social justice and Judaism were related, largely out of the experience of having a shared story that now felt more important to become more meaningful for me.
One of the things I got to do, I met Barry Shrage, who was then the director of the Federation in Boston, who has a habit, or did then, of giving out books to people. Things that he was reading then that he thought people would like. And I was just one of many people he met at that time who then he sent those books to. But one of them was called Why Should Jews Survive?, and it is a comparison that lots of people have made but it was the first time I encountered it. Sort of asking the question, why should we survive as a community? And saying, well, there are some people for whom the reason they think we should be Jewish is because our community has been targeted, people have tried to kill us, we should survive because we’ve survived. Which didn’t speak to me, but for lots of people, that doesn’t really feel nourishing.
And so he was making the argument that a people that understands their master story to be having been slaves, having been redeemed, for the purpose of becoming a people who are pursuing holiness and justice in the world—that was much more nourishing. And that was how I started to understand the work, doing international development work alongside Jews, as being a living out of trying to bring that kind of holiness to the world.
And I would say, another thing that happened for me there, and part of why I’m sitting here right now, is I like studying Talmud. I liked Jewish learning. And one thing I saw happen there is students would come on our alternative breaks who—they came for lots of reasons. Some would come because anything Hillel did, they were going to do, and they never thought social justice could be Jewish, but like, alright, Hillel is going, I’ll go, and that was mind-opening for them. Other people really were not that interested in the Jewish community on campus. But they were interested in international development and social justice. But sometimes those kids came on those trips and got exposed to a whole different way of understanding Jewish life and tradition and text and how Jewish text actually talks about how you would prioritize need, and who you’re obligated to. And that moved them, and they would say, I want to learn more about that. This Judaism thing actually has something that speaks to what I care about.
And so for me, that was exciting, to be part of both my own Jewish re-putting together how I understood the world, in the context of having experienced this deep grief for myself. Which, while I knew bad things happened to good people all the time, when it happens to you, you can’t just ignore it. Or you can for a little while, but then you can’t. So I think I was having my own theological re-putting together of things. And also, I was seeing that I could be a helpful vessel for other Jews, starting to understand their own identities differently in a way that incorporated social justice. And that was powerful.
And then in addition, I met a whole bunch of rabbis who came with us to El Salvador as part of an AJWS delegation, for whom social justice was a key part of how they led as rabbis. It wasn’t the only part for sure, but it was a big piece. And that for me was another vision of what a rabbi could be. And I thought, I love Jewish learning. I am successfully serving as one vessel for helping to train young people in a vision of social justice that is really deeply embedded in Jewish tradition, and I need to know more.
I wish that as a kid, somebody had said, our Jewish identity includes a commitment to social justice and this is how we do it in our community. So I felt like that was a big part of what Judaism could be. Not to the exclusion of more traditional things that I did get as a kid, but in addition. And equally as essential. And so I thought, well, who shapes what the Jewish community thinks about and does? There are lots of different ways to do it, but one way is as a rabbi. And I felt like I wanted to be one of those rabbis who would help shape it that way. And so I came back here really because I felt like I could contribute around helping to make social justice more central to how we trained rabbis and cantors and educators and lay leaders.
I see this work, and my dream actually is to be able to not only be training the clergy and professionals who we train here, but to be working in partnership with other parts of the movement. Because lay leaders and professionals really cooperating around justice is essential. Otherwise I don’t think we’re going to do it.
SBB: I want to know about bringing the grief and loss into your studies here. I’m thinking specifically, when you were saying how there’s certain times when it doesn’t come out, and you had to put a lid on it in Bulgaria, which made me think that Bulgaria is like the anti-Vegas, for grief. But you came back, and you were working at AJWS for a long time, and then you came back to school here. So how did your loss and the processing of your loss play into your studies here?
SR: Well, I think I only came back to school when I felt like I could look at liturgy in a different way. So rather than feeling like either it seemed untrue, right? All the things that we say in liturgy that felt like there was a direct correlation between how you behave and whether or not you’re going to live through the year. I started to see liturgy as aspirations by people who also suffered lots of losses. And that made it much easier for me to see myself in it. It’s not that we are asserting this is true. It’s what we wish was true. We wish that there was reward for people who act well. And we wish that we were those people who act well who get the reward.
But I think seeing myself as part of a story of people who had experienced loss and yearned for something different, but knew that it was part of our tradition and knew that is was who we are as a people, made it easier for me to find myself right back in the tradition, rather than feeling like I was at war with it. I think I only came back to school when I started to see myself in the liturgy that way. Otherwise it felt fake, and I wasn’t interested in doing something fake.
SBB: That makes sense. And then you were successful, you’re a rabbi now. Mazel tov.
SR: Thank you.
SBB: So before you came back to JTS, you were working for other Jewish social justice organizations. So how did that impact your work?
SR: Look, I kind of developed this theory that I think that people’s first significant loss often is, that’s the one where the fresh wounds are, and everything else—every other loss you have after that gets channeled back to that first one. But the first one, whoever it is and whatever it is, is often the one that’s the deepest wound that you continually come back to.
And I would say the reason I think that, and I was very close to my grandmother, and her mother died when she was a child. Subsequently her father died, her husband died very young, my father, who was her son, died. But all of it, I feel like throughout all of that, it was frequently her mother’s death that was the one I heard about the most. It was the first. And she was really young, and it shaped who she became. And all of those other losses were after. It was never the first time she grieved again, after that. It always was like she knew how to do this.
So for me, my father dying was my first very personal loss. But it made me see the world differently. I grew up kind of sheltered in the suburbs. I had two parents in my house, and we had enough money, we had enough food. I feel like I saw the work I was doing in the developing world, I saw families that were in lots of different circumstances. People who had to make a choice, I can’t afford, I can’t find a job in my home country, I can’t provide for my children, I need to go somewhere else. That’s not death, but you practically might as well be dead when you’re leaving and don’t know if you’re coming back and there’s lots of danger along the way and everybody’s going to suffer. The person who has to go work and live in complicated situation with not a lot of money, the family that’s waiting for the money to come back. So I think I would hear those stories, and I could imagine and empathize with the kind of pain and suffering they were experiencing was.
And even though I was already motivated just by the way I’m wired to want to be a person who was addressing need in the world, I think that it became even more powerful an urge, because I felt like I understood the kind of loss that happens when somebody disappears from your life. No matter what the reason that they’re disappearing is.
So that was, I think, how I started to understand the justice work differently. I think in the last year and a half, the kids separated from their families has spoken to me a lot. There’s a choice. Somebody is separating children from their parents, versus you have a heart attack. So I think all of us read the news and see the world through whatever lens of experiences we have available to us because we experienced them. So this is one that impacted me deeply, and that impacts how I see the world.
But what I also found when we were sitting shivah was actually everybody had lost. Everybody brought their own stories that they don’t just wear on their sleeves. People we’d known for a long time, once you are grieving, people share their own stories. So I would say, I have brought it to the justice and the pastoral work, in that I assume most people have had some kind of loss. They don’t tell you about it unless you find a way. One of you has to share first that you’ve experienced loss. But actually there’s nobody who hasn’t.
SBB: What else would you like to tell me?
SR: Well, I think that, you asked how was I able to integrate the commitment to justice and the more traditional aspects of being a Conservative rabbi. And in addition to being able to re-understand what I saw was motivating the liturgy and seeing myself in it, I also think, something I learned when I was studying Talmud, that just for me was strangely, I don’t know. It sort of just loosened some of the struggle that I was having with traditional Judaism.
Just, the rabbis talk about—very matter-of-factly—they’re talking about, will there always be poor people or not? Is it ever going to be possible that there won’t be poor people? Are poor people just baked into how the world is formed and the relationship between the giver and the lender? And are you doing God’s work or what’s your role and how much compassion do you have to bring to the world?
And they say sort of in passing, well, you know, the world’s a wheel. And you might be lucky right now. You might not be poor. But if you’re not poor, probably your kids will be, or your grandchildren will be. And if you are, well, then your grandchildren and your children probably won’t be poor. But it’s all like, that’s just how the world is. Not, you’re so great and that’s why you’re being rewarded right now. Or you’re so not great, and that’s why you’re not being rewarded. But every family will have times that they’re up and times that they’re down. And that’s the way the world works.
And I think for me, when I was struggling so much with the tradition and my role in it, and feeling mad, it was like an injustice against me. And there was something about seeing the rabbis who were very committed to Torah and to the struggle and to this way of life, and hearing them say, you know, some of us are poor and some of us are rich. Some of us are sick and some of us are healthy. All of us are somewhere along that line, and we don’t have any idea, but we’re sure that our children and grandchildren will have some different version of more or less luck in that destiny.
For me, somehow that was just like, I don’t have to chuck the whole system. There were other people who also had great misfortunes who somehow were able to still be in it wholeheartedly and grapple. And that, for me, was extremely freeing.
SBB: Yeah, I’m here now, aren’t I? Like something terrible happened to me right after I graduated, and it’s almost 10 years, and I’m here back at JTS. It’s amazing to be able to get to the place where you can identify that and see that. And identify with the generations of our tradition. We can talk about inherited trauma and inherited grief and loss. And we can also talk about the inherited gifts that come along with the interpretation of that.
Rabbi Ruskay, thank you for talking with me and meeting with me, and re-recording with me and for teaching me, and I will take your lessons with me. Thank you very much.
SR: Thank you.
SBB: What now, Rabbi Ruskay? This episode was hard to record. Not only did our first taping get lost to a corrupted storage device, but that meant I had to poke Rabbi Ruskay multiple times to talk about her father’s death. Sure, he died over 20 years ago, but triggers gonna trigger, and in each recording we had to go back to death, back to death, back to death.
I learned from my teacher Jonah Canner about how to discuss creatures from Harry Potter called thestrals. If you haven’t read Harry Potter, hit pause right now and go read all seven books, or at the very least go watch all the movies. I’ll wait. In the first couple of books, there are these creatures called thestrals that Harry can’t see, and then, once he’s seen death, there they are. There are two types of people: the ones who can’t see the thestrals, and those of us who can. And before you feel too sorry for us, or for yourself, you can learn about processing grief, about moving through it and repurposing it. Becoming deeply involved in teaching and social justice work because, among other things, it honors the memory of the person whose loss was the biggest 10 you’ve ever felt.
I learned what I knew I would. I sort of became the teacher. Not just because of my degree in Jewish education—thanks, Davidson—but because I’ve seen thestrals. I’ve had to figure out how to honor Rafi’s memory. I’ve burst into tears knowing I couldn’t show off some Torah to someone who hasn’t talked to me in nearly a decade, and then I’ve remembered I could teach my students, my friends, and my family in his honor.
And then, let’s be real. I still bang my head against the wall. More professors, more questions, more why, tragedy, why? It won’t stop, so neither will I.
What Now? is produced by Michal Richardson, with editorial oversight by Rabbi Tim Bernard. Funding for this series is provided by JTS’s Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, and suffering is provided constantly by the human condition. What Now? is recorded by JTS’s jocular and capable new media staff, Larry Cameola and Brian Hart. Hit subscribe, give us a review, help more people find answers to the big questions. This has been your host, Sara Beth Berman, JTS Davidson class of 2009. It’s been real banging my head against the wall with you.