Yom Kippur 5780 Symposium by Karen Harberg
Yom Kippur 5780 Symposium by Karen Harberg
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Yom Kippur Symposium-2019
October 9, 2019
Yom tov, good afternoon. I am Karen Robinson Harberg and it is an honor to share my journey of “How Judaism has shaped my life” with you today. I was born in Houston in
1957, the 610 Loop wasn’t built yet and everyone I knew lived in the same zip code! It was a simpler time in Houston.
My childhood was perfect. I was the third child of four children. My first memory is of my naming when the rabbi charged my parents with bringing me to a life of Torah, chuppah (the marriage canopy) and ma’asim tovim (a life of good deeds). I was a good listener even at an early age. I loved school, loved being part of a big family, loved my friends, loved being Jewish. I was involved in everything.
My early childhood memories include family Shabbat dinners with my father’s parents who lived two blocks from us and Sunday night dinners with my mother’s parents, my
uncle and my great grandmother. I grew up at Congregation B’rith Shalom where my parents, Mallory (my mother is here today) and Sam Robinson (of blessed memory)
were founding members. When I say I grew up at B’rith Shalom, I mean it literally. We never missed a JEWISH celebration at B’rith Shalom.
We moved to Memorial in 1968, while I was away at Echo Hill Ranch-a non-competitive, Jewish ranch camp in the Texas hill country, my favorite place on earth! Shabbat at
Echo Hill was special and included the blessings over the candles, the wine and the challah. Creative services outside with music and guitars made lasting memories for
me. Several of my camp friends are still my good friends today, over 50 years later.
In 1970, I was called to the Torah (the first charge of my parents) as a Bat Mitzvah and took my place among the adults at B’rith Shalom, a very egalitarian congregation.
Women were not only allowed, but encouraged, to lead the entire service. Becoming a Bat Mitzvah was a defining moment in my life. I took the responsibilities of being an adult in the eyes of my JEWISH community to heart and have always strived to be a contributing member of the Jewish community.
In high school I joined the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. Following in my parents and siblings footsteps, I jumped into BBYO with both feet. I was every chapter officer, district president and attended every leadership conference and Kallah that was offered. BBG was my first experience being involved in service to others, which prepared me for a life of “ma’asim tovim” a life of good deeds. In the back of my mind I kept hearing the rabbi say, “a life of Torah, chuppah and ma’asim tovim”.
After graduating from high school I attended Tulane University in New Orleans. BEST. DECISION. EVER. Within a few days after starting college I attended a Jewish fraternity party. The usual questions at these parties were: “Where are you from?” and “What are you going to major in?” Since I was from Houston I kept getting introduced to this cute and funny guy who was also from Houston and had also graduated from Memorial High School. Yes, you guessed it, that cute and funny guy is still cute and funny. By the summer after my freshman year, I knew Jay and I were soulmates and we would marry.
After Jay graduated from Tulane University, he went to law school at the University of Houston and I transferred to the University of Texas at Austin to pursue a Bachelor of
Science degree in Nutrition & Dietetics. After my junior year, I transferred again to the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston and Jay and I married that
summer. Coming from a Conservative congregation, I have always said that “I had to convert when I got married” and Jay always says “he married outside of the faith”. Our
upbringings were very different-both definitely Jewish, but definitely different. Before we got married I agreed we would join Beth Israel where I had never set foot inside the
door and Jay agreed we would not have a Christmas tree in our home. We were married under the chuppah at B’rith Shalom with four rabbis officiating (Rabbi
Yoskowitz, Rabbi Schachtel, Rabbi Cahana and Rabbi Falk). I think that checks off the “chuppah” box.
Jay and I recently celebrated our 41st anniversary and as I often tell Jay, “We are off to a great start!” My favorite love quote describes how I feel about Jay: “If you live to be
one hundred, I want to live to be one hundred minus one day, so I would never have to live a day without you.” (Winnie the Pooh) I will never forget my first high holy days at Beth Israel. I walked in and was surprised to see the men were not wearing yarmulkes or talit. When the organist struck that first booming chord, I thought I was going to jump out of my seat. Beth Israel has been my spiritual home for over 40 years and I could not feel more comfortable if I had grown up here.
I have always loved the rituals, food and culture of being Jewish. Passover was a special holiday in our family that I looked forward to every year. When I was young the
Seder was at my grandparents’ home, then my parents’ home and for last twenty-five plus years, we have hosted over 40 participants each year for Seder in our home.
Chanukah was another special holiday for our family. From our son Michael’s first Chanukah through his Bar Mitzvah, our family hosted a big Chanukah Party with Latkes,
Chanukah cookies and craft projects. Each guest brought non-perishable foods which we donated to local food pantries. Our modest party grew from a handful of friends to
over 200 guests.
Jay and I both finished school in 1980 and started our careers. Our lives have always revolved around the Jewish calendar and Jewish life cycle events-most of them at Beth Israel. There was our son, Michael’s brit Milah, our two daughters’, Kimberly’s and Jamie’s namings, consecrations, bar and bat mitzvahs, confirmations, high school
religious school graduations, our daughter’ s wedding and now the “icing on the cake” the Brit Milah for our two grandsons and the naming of our granddaughter. Life is good.
In 1982 we were truly blessed with the birth of our first child, Michael. He was beautiful, bright, curious and a complete delight. Two years later we were again blessed with the birth of our first daughter, Kimberly. She was also beautiful, strong willed and quick witted. Three years later came our second daughter, Jamie. Our family was complete.
We were so busy with three children under 5 years old and two developing careers.
Within a few weeks after Jamie was born we knew that she not developing like her older brother and sister. The contrast was stark and we began a lifelong journey. When Jamie was about four months old a bird struck a window in my parents’ home. The sound was like a sonic boom, and yet Jamie, who had been lying on a play mat in the same room … hadn’t flinched. We realized that Jamie was virtually deaf, with severe asymptomatic ear infections. What followed were years of treatments and various surgeries.
When Jamie was about 6 months old, Jay’s father (of blessed memory) who was Chief of Surgery at Texas Children’s Hospital, referred us to our pediatric neurologist and
wonderful friend, Bob Zeller. Years later we would learn that Jamie had a genetic chromosome abnormality; however, at this point, we had been told by other wellintentioned
doctors that Jamie would likely never learn to talk, certainly wouldn’t read or write, probably would not walk and that we should consider finding an institution which
would take care of Jamie for us.
Dr. Zeller’s advice was to take Jamie to physical therapy, “it won’t hurt her,” he said, “and it might help her mother!” My father-in-law often said, “the Lord helps those who
help themselves”. Truer words were never spoken. This set the wheels in motion of 18 years of physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and academic support for Jamie. There has never been a day since Jamie was born that no matter what happened good or bad that I don’t go to sleep without thinking, “But oh my G-d, what is going to happen to Jamie?”
When I first began taking Jamie to physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy there was a story titled, “A trip to Holland” posted on the “sign in” window. It
goes something like this: You spend your entire life planning for a trip to Holland. You read about Holland, learn the traditions, customs and history of Holland in preparation for the trip of a lifetime to Holland. You get off the airplane and you have arrived in Italy. Well, Italy is nice, but it is not HOLLAND. I had planned for a trip to Holland and I was in Italy. I loved Italy, but it was not Holland.
This metaphor was life changing for me. I recognized at that moment that we would be responsible for Jamie for the rest of her life. I kept hearing the words that this time,
Rabbi Karff spoke at Jamie’s naming…my responsibilities as HER Jewish parent was to bring HER to Torah, chuppah, and ma’asim tovim.
When Jamie was three we were looking for a new home. I discovered that I knew more about homes than the agents, so I decided to get my real estate license. Guess what? I was right. SECOND. BEST. DECISION. EVER. I started my second career in 1990 selling real estate and never looked back. This career has been rewarding to me and has allowed me to be a partner in providing for our family for the last 29 years.
While working full time selling real estate, I was involved at Michael, Kimberly and Jamie’s schools, Beth Israel Sisterhood, various committees at Beth Israel, the Board of
Trustees of Beth Israel, the Chevrah Kadisha (Jewish burial society), Jewish Family Service and other community organizations including the Juvenile Diabetes Research
Foundation. Being Jewish is part of my every day existence and giving back to others and the community is part of my Jewish fabric. Check off Box #3-Ma’asim tovim-living a life of good deeds.
Jamie continued to develop and thrive along with her brother and sister. Jamie became a Bat Mitzvah on this very bimah following in Michael’s and Kimberly’s footsteps. Jamie read and chanted her Torah portion expertly and when she was finished with her d’vreh
Torah-“Honor thy father and thy mother”, spontaneous applause erupted and there was not a dry eye in the entire congregation. Jay tells me Beth Israel charged us extra to
pick up all the Kleenex, but it was worth it! Jamie graduated from Memorial High School and, following in her brother’s and sister’s footsteps, insisted on a college experience. We found the Chapel Haven School in New Haven, CT, where Jamie spent 2 years in a college like experience, learning independent living skills. Jamie is now 32 and recently completed a one year hospital employment internship at Yale New Haven Hospital. If you don’t know Jamie, despite the dire predictions, she not only talks, reads and writes, but is inquisitive, funny, social, has an amazing memory and a fabulous singing voice and, given the opportunity, will talk your ears off!
Jamie lives a productive life she loves, in a community of adults with cognitive disabilities. Thanks in large part to Beth Israel’s inclusiveness in the Religious School
program, Jamie loves being Jewish and celebrates Jewish holidays at her synagogue and at the Jewish Family Service of New Haven. Just as Italy isn’t Holland, New Haven isn’t Houston, but it’s a great place for Jamie.
God made me Jamie’s mother for a reason and Jamie my daughter for a reason! We have been good for each other. Jamie brought to our family a culture of patience,
kindness and an appreciation for every individual’s special abilities. We would not be the same family without Jamie. Faith, a lot of determination, and not listening to the
nay-sayers has paid off!
When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, our home had no flooding; however, I experienced my own “personal flood” with my health, I couldn’t breathe! As Harvey moved through, I began a six month journey that included six visits to the emergency room, including a terrifying 911 emergency ambulance ride, multiple hospital admissions, open lung surgery, pulmonary rehabilitation, massive doses of steroids and full time oxygen use for months (I named the stout oxygen tank I dragged around “Altuve”!). I spent months recuperating, and working from home.
I know it was the hospital visit from Rabbi Lyon that initiated my road to recovery. Each week throughout my recovery, I found great joy and comfort in participating, via live
stream, in our Shabbat services, and the High Holy Day services. I had never missed a High Holy Day service in my life and my illness wasn’t going to stop me! I love the
spiritual music of our liturgy and I especially appreciated the rabbis and cantor saying and singing a special mishaberach for me to have a refuah schlemma (full recovery). I
am happy to say I am fully recovered.
While life has certainly presented us with challenges, we consider ourselves to be extremely lucky and very blessed. When I hear people complain about trivial things, I
think to myself:
Life isn’t perfect, maybe you noticed?
Life is what you make of it!