Songs and Suffering

I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Is this it? Am I going to die? What will my mom say at my funeral? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?

I can see them, huddling together over cups of coffee in a campus coffee shop. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Will I pass my chem final? What should I do when I graduate? What if I don’t want to go home? Where is home anyway?

It’s cold, the first real rain California has seen in a long time. Stanford’s campus is relatively quiet. There are only a couple of days left before Thanksgiving, and people are mostly inside, studying for finals, buying their plane tickets for winter break. Meanwhile, at Florida State University, the students are wondering why it happened. A school shooting. It’s always another campus. It never happens here. Until it does.

I remember when it happened at Columbine. I remember how I suddenly felt cold in the middle of April, the kind of cold that makes you think you’ll never be warm again. When it happened at Virginia Tech, I kept refreshing the news websites, unable to look away from the rising body count. I thought about my friend who had died, young and unexpectedly, just two years earlier. The loss had shaken me to the core. When the death of one person can turn your world upside down, what does it mean to lose so many? I talked about it with my rabbi at a beach Shabbat retreat that weekend. The Torah reading for that week discussed the rituals that Jews perform after seeing or touching a dead body. Jews must complete these rituals before they return to their community for prayer. The ancient ones knew. A brush with mortality can shatter us. We need rituals to remember how to be whole again.

School shootings always raise questions. Is it because of guns? Is it because mental illness is stigmatized? Is it both? Maybe school shootings affect me so strongly because I can relate to students, and I’ve made a living out of it. I’ve worked on a university campus for the past seven years, and I was a university student for the six years before that. Students are the reason I get out of bed every day. Their lives are my calling, and their stories are a gift.

Over the past seven years, I have gained their trust. I have heard about their fears and their successes. I cheer them on in their campus musical and theater performances. I support them when they’re stressed about their exams. I coach them through interpersonal challenges. I give them feedback on their application essays and I write their letters of recommendation. I hold them when they cry because a friend has committed suicide or a grandparent has finally succumbed to terminal illness.

This week alone, I have had three conversations about grief, and one about depression. I listened, I validated, and I offered advice when they asked for it. This week I am including a memorial ritual for Transgender Day of Remembrance in my Shabbat service. We will think about this year’s 226 victims of transgender discrimination. We will think about Ferguson, and about the four men who were murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue two days ago, and we will think about the victims of school shootings, and the victims of genocide, about the Kesem campers who lost their parents this week, and about the Stanford alumnus who was found dead in the Bay. We will remember the ones who have no one left to remember them. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that no one should have to grieve alone.

When I read about a school shooting, my first impulse is to reach out. I desperately want to support the students who survived, I want to make sure they have someone to talk to, to process the trauma, to remind them that love exists in a world doesn’t appear to be loving. I imagine what would I say if it was one of my own students in the hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound. I wonder what I would say to the family. I visited a student in the hospital this past Sunday. It was an infection, and he’s mostly all right now. Healing takes time.

When the children and teachers were murdered in Newtown, it was in the week leading up to Chanukah, our Festival of Light. I remember going from one synagogue to another, looking for a place to say the mourner’s prayer. All three synagogues were hosting celebrations for the first night of Chanukah. The laughing and singing children and families felt like a punch in the gut. Wait, I wanted to cry out. How can you sing when so many are suffering? Then I remembered that it wasn’t right for me to think that way. People are suffering everywhere, and always. That doesn’t mean we should decrease our joy. It means we should increase our awareness, we should choose to bring light into the lives of others.

There was another school shooting today, and the rain is still falling. There is work to be done, and there are stories that need to be heard. We cannot suffocate under the weight of these losses when there are days and months marching ahead of us.

We need to remember, and we need to step forward, bravely, one smile at a time. We need to be the miracle, the moment of hope, the brightness bleeding through cracks in the darkness. We need to love in the face of loss, whether or not it touched us personally. We need to laugh sometimes, and cry, and hold onto each other. Because when it comes down to it, we are all we’ve got.

Kesem Farewell Speech

Delivered at Kesem Senior Luncheon, 2014

Oh Hey Camp Kesem! I’m Heather, or “Autumn,” and I have been the director for Camp Kesem at Stanford for the last four years. That means that I get to work on Camp Kesem year-round with a group of the most amazing students I’ve ever known, and it means I get to watch Camp Kesem change and grow over time. It also means that at senior luncheon, I get to take a few moments to thank the seniors and co-terms who are part of our Kesem family.

This is my fourth senior luncheon speech, and this time, unlike previous years, I am joining you in saying goodbye to Camp Kesem. I went back and read my previous speeches, which were filled with positive and hopefully inspiring advice to graduating seniors and co-terms. As with most advice, I found it far easier to share with others than to heed myself. Bring Kesem with you, I told them. You are the reason this community is so special. Kesem is what it is, for campers, counselors, and parents, because of what YOU bring to it. You can create caring communities wherever you go because you know what it means to be part of something like Kesem. The world needs more people like you and more communities like this one – more openness, more generosity, more compassion.

While I still believe this to be good advice, I also want to acknowledge that what we have at Kesem is special. As I’ve tried to imagine bringing Kesem into the rest of my life, I’ve realized that deep down, I know there really is no place like Kesem. We all understand that Kesem is so much more than a week long summer camp. It’s the way a camper smiles when he sees a group of his counselors who showed up to cheer him on at his middle school musical. It’s when a camper’s face lights up when she sees 15 of us at her dad’s funeral. It’s the comforting comment one parent offers to another who tells his story at New Family Orientation, while his son is outside playing his first round of Gaga. It’s the silence that falls on the room after the common ground activity at counselor training, when we understand for the first time just how much we share. The magic of Kesem is the community, and this community is a blessing to those it serves, but also for those who participate in building it.  As much as I’d like to think we can bring that community out into the rest of the world, there’s also magic in knowing that it exists in sacred space, and that nothing else can replace it.

So with this in mind, I turn to one more lesson I’ve learned from Kesem and our campers, perhaps the most important lesson of all – that letting go, like holding on, can be an act of love. Letting go does not mean forgetting. It means that our hearts surge with gratitude in moments of grief because we are so lucky, so deeply fortunate to have been part of this community. Four years ago, I chose Autumn as my camp name because change and transition are challenging for many of us, myself included. The trees are going through an immense change in the autumn season and they respond to this change with beauty – with vibrant oranges and deep reds and golden yellows. It’s a reminder that change can be a beautiful thing, and that at some point, we all must let go of our branches and catch the next gust of wind.

Seniors and co-terms, I’m so grateful that you’ve been on this journey with me, and I’m so excited for our last week of camp together. Thank you for holding on and letting go with me. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Edited to add/explain: I have been promoted within Hillel at Stanford. I will be supervising and supporting the new Camp Kesem director, who has been involved in Kesem for three years and is perfect for the job. I will stay involved in Kesem as a member of the advisory committee and I will provide support in any way that I can while empowering the new camp director, who deserves to have the amazing experience that I had. I will miss my direct and daily involvement with Kesem with all of my heart but I know that wonderful things are ahead and that I can support Kesem in other ways by supporting the new camp director.