A Jewish Mother’s Lasting Influence
by Rabbi Larry Karol
This past Friday night, I planned for an early Simchat Shabbat service with the inclusion of some of my favorite melodies. Julie Silver’s “Shir Chadash” melody began our worship, with Debbie Friedman’s recent “Shalom Aleichem” tune preceding the chatzi-kaddish. When we came to the prayer for thanksgiving in the T’filah/Amidah, I was set to sing my own “For Your Gifts,” an “embellished chatimah/conclusion” for the Modim prayer. I realized that it was eight years ago that week that I had composed that melody as the beginning of a path of a remembrance for my mother, Ruth Karol.
At her funeral, my brother, Rabbi Stephen Karol (of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, N.Y.), and I had spoken about her extensive involvement in Temple life over the years, mainly at Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City, Missouri. She taught Religious School; served as Sisterhood President after many years as gift shop chairperson, Ways and Means Vice-President, and a Board Member; led a large chavurah group along with our father, Joseph Karol; and developed a “Mix and Mingle” program for senior adults. She believed in Sisterhood, and she primarily believed in the importance of Temple as a place for building Jewish identity and connections and seeking the support and solace of community. Her intentions were always pure, her heart was in the right place, and her efforts had a great effect on several generations of congregants.
As I sang “For Your Gifts” at our service this past Friday, I introduced it with comments about how, in my experience, women had made a significant impact in the Reform movement. That was borne out further while I was at the Hava Nashira songleaders workshop at Olin-Sang-Ruby Camp several weeks after my mother’s death in 2004. In a songwriting workshop, it was Debbie Friedman who sent the participants out to find a place where we could sit and create an idea for a song. She told me, “Larry, you should write about this,” pointing to the k’riah ribbon that I was still wearing on my pocket. I didn’t realize that Debbie knew just how to challenge me to do the right thing.
I created a melody for the phrase from Psalm 118, “Zeh hayom asah adonai nagilah v’nis-m’chah vo – this is the day that the Eternal has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I had also written a list that summarized the eulogies for my mother in single words: challenging, serving, leading, helping, creating, sharing, rejoicing, remembering, visiting, traveling, kvelling, worrying, healing, hoping, encouraging, teaching, hosting, loving, mourning, overcoming, renewing. Several weeks later, I translated each thought into Hebrew, strung them together in two verses, and the song was complete. It remains, for me, a tribute to the leadership of Jewish women in musical creativity (with my gratitude to Debbie for leading me at the moment in the way I needed to be led) and in dedicated service to a congregation and a strong belief in a temple’s role in nurturing the greater Jewish community.
Those values have continued to come alive as my wife Rhonda (a Jewish educator and graduate of the Brandeis Hornstein program in Jewish communal service) and I modeled and transmitted our passion for Judaism to the Reform congregations I have served. Our son, Adam, had the opportunity not only to experience our commitment to Jewish life, but also the enduring involvement of Grandma (and Grandpa) in temple life. As Jewish men and women in the Reform movement strengthen their ties to Jewish life and their congregations, I have great faith that the principles that I learned from my parents will continue in the coming generations.
Rabbi Larry Karol was ordained at HUC -JIR in Cincinnati in 1981 and has served congregations in Dayton, OH, Topeka, KS, Dover, NH, and now at Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces, NM. His album “A New Beginning” is available on iTunes, oysongs and cdbaby.com.