Inspirational /Motivational Speaker
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Hanging on to Hope Through a Serious Illness

In 1978, I entered the New York City Marathon wearing a T-shirt proclaiming me “The Running Rabbi.” I was just as tireless in my calling as a rabbi in Newburgh, New York. I led a march against the Klan, rallied to free Soviet Jews, and visited our fifty-two Americans held hostage in Iran.

I’d never been sick in my life. I felt indestructible. That was then.
Two years after returning from Teheran I knew something was terribly wrong. Running on the beach near our home in Martha’s Vineyard, I felt strangely tired, and out of nowhere there was a strange telltale black and blue mark on my leg. I tried to ignore it, but soon I couldn’t keep up on the hills with my running buddies. As the days went on I was running out of energy and falling further and further behind. I waved to my friends to go ahead. I was breathing heavily and gasping for breath. Driving my daughters to summer camp, I fought to be alert and it was scary and alarming.

It was time to ask my doctor what this could this be. While waiting for the results of my blood counts, which were delayed, I took refuge in the movies right there. All alone in the back of the theater in the middle of the day I watched as the friendly alien ET reached out with his finger and magically healed a little child. I imagined it was me and I would be instantly healed. But, knowing my body so well, I instinctively felt there was something very wrong. The doctor breezed me off and said my blood counts were a little low but it probably didn’t mean much. A few days later I went to my friend in Poughkeepsie who was a pathologist. My daughter came with me and I asked the doctor to check my blood.

The results came back, and the doctor and the lab technicians had a strange somber look. My doctor even dropped the slides and then nervously apologized. Watching all this, my daughter with her childlike perception looked up and asked: “Is my daddy going to die?” In the privacy of his office Dr. Joseph was telling me that he saw hair like cells under his microscope and he believed I had a rare form of leukemia.

Even though the title of my first book was: “Why Me?” Why Anyone?” I really thought:

Why not me? As a Rabbi visiting patients for so many years I realized that anyone can get sick – the rich and the poor, the young and the old.
My childhood nickname was “Sunshine” and with my bright outlook and positive spirit I asked the doctor: “What can we do?”

But there was almost nothing that would help me. They took my spleen out hoping my blood counts would bounce back and I took oral chemotherapy but to no avail.

I refused to give up, and two years later, shaking with fevers of 105, and wearing a protective mask, I was flown on an “Angel of Mercy Flight” to Chicago where doctors were experimenting with a new drug for my rare leukemia. They even had to get emergency permission, “Compassionate Usage”, to put me on the protocol because I was too sick to be saved and I might ruin their experiment.

I was coughing terribly, and a lung operation showed that I had rare form of tuberculosis that turned out to be fatal for some of my fellow patients. But, miraculously, the injections of the drug they gave me over two months, combined with every TB drug they could think of, saved me. When my doctor and I testified before Congress my doctor said that being one of the sickest patients with this leukemia meant I had a stronger response to my treatment. I held up a pair of my running sneakers in the hearing room and told the congressman: I’m running again!

Yes, it’s a miracle that I was saved in the nick of time. I wouldn’t be the hyper Running Rabbi any more. I wouldn’t run past my congregants any more. I would slow down and really listen.

My illusion was shattered when I was diagnosed with leukemia. For more than twenty years as a rabbi, I had helped others through crises. I was supposed to have all the answers. Yet when I got sick, I discovered I didn’t have them.
I won’t claim to have it all figured out now, but my experience has given me some valuable insights on how to cope with a serious illness, or any adversity for that matter. I want to share some of them with you.

CHEER YOURSELF ON: Ultimately you must learn to comfort yourself. No matter how many people are around during the day, reality can be very hard to face in the loneliness of the night.

BE KIND TO YOURSELF: Don’t think of yourself as worthless, or worth less than you you were before your diagnosis.

DON’T BE PASSIVE ABOUT YOUR MEDICAL TREATMENT: Let your doctors and nurses know what you need.

LEARN TO CHERISH YOUR VERY EXISTENCE: Don’t feel guilty if you’re too sick to do something. You have value simply because you exist, even if you can’t be productive in the ways you were before.

HANG ON TO YOUR FIGHTING SPIRIT: I really believe my fighting spirit meant the difference between life and death for me. My nurses told me that once, when I was delirious, I pounded on my bed rails yelling, “Come on Hirshel!” I was cheering myself on like my wife and daughters cheered for me when I ran in the marathon.

CONVERSELY, REMEMBER THAT ATTITUDE ISN’T EVERYTHING: Having a good attitude can help you make the best of every situation, but it may not help you change your situation. You can’t control everything, only some things.

SET GOALS FOR YOURSELF. No matter how small, reaching any goal helps you feel a sense of achievement.

WRITE ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE: Writing a book about my illness gave me something to live for. Some days it took a lot out of me to write even a few words, but completing my book helped me to keep my fighting spirit alive.

KEEP SOME NORMALCY IN YOUR LIFE: If you’re able to use your energy in some capacity, do it, even if you have just five good minutes a day. If physical limitations prevent you from doing usual tasks, try to devise new ways to do them.

DO WHAT MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD ABOUT YOURSELF: When my physicians noticed how depressed I was in the hospital, they said, “Be a rabbi. Go counsel other patients.”Doing that made me feel important again My friends who are fighting cancer tell me the same thing: helping others is one good thing they can do and find real fulfillment in doing.

DON’T LOSE YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR: Learn to laugh at yourself and enjoy life. One morning in the hospital as the doctors made their rounds, I said to them, “I think these antibiotics are doing something to me! Something strange is happening to my body!” They burst into laughter. I was wearing a Frankenstein mask!

BE THANKFUL FOR EACH DAY AND GREET IT JOYOUSLY: Live your life to the fullest. Since my diagnosis, every moment has been special to me.

DECIDE WHAT’S IMPORTANT IN YOUR LIFE: I’m learning to say no to people. I don’t want to fritter away my life letting others tell me how to live. For me, being with my loved ones is most important. And I make a point of telling these people how I feel about them often.

ACCEPT THE SUPPORT OF YOUR FRIENDS: The strong support of everyone who loved me and prayed for me kept me going through my darkest hours. Don’t be afraid to let others know how vulnerable you are; it’s not a sign of weakness to accept help.

SEARCH FOR MEANING FROM YOUR ADVERSITY: We can find meaning and hope even in our darkest days. I didn’t ask for this painful experience, but I can choose to grow from it and shape it into a positive force in my life.

By facing death, I learned how to live. @TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)
My illness taught me the deepest meaning of being a rabbi. It’s who can touch people, who can comfort them. I hope that as you walk your own path through illness and adversity, you let the power within you carry you over the rough spots, and I hope it stays with you too.

My Special Eleven Day Mission to See the Iran Hostages

The BBC interviewed me for a Documentary Special about my visit to the 52 hostages held captive in Iran and released after 444 days in January 1981, when President Reagan invited me to greet the liberated Americans in a White House Ceremony. Below is my blog about my 11 days in Teheran.

This is a A Call From The Hostage Takers airs Saturday June 15 and Sunday June 16th. Click here for more information.

From the BBC: “40 years ago, the Iranian hostage crisis gripped the world, with details unfolding nightly on television. But one story remains untold. Desperate to get their message out, the hostage takers invited 50 ordinary Americans to visit Iran. For the Americans, this high-risk trip held the tantalising possibility of securing the release of hostages. What transpired was a journey quite unlike any of them had planned. Using archive of the visit and fresh interviews with former Iranian hostage takers in Iran and their American visitors, we hear about their hopes and misgivings at the time and their reflections 40 years on.”

Department of Defense
Freed American hostages disembark from a plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Jan. 27, 1981, one week after being released.

The year was 1979, and like every other American I was gripped by the hostage crisis. 52 of our guys were captured and blindfolded before the TV cameras when armed Iranian militants, followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, scaled the walls of our U.S. Embassy in Teheran. Members of the Revolutionary Guard managed to seize the attention of the entire world on that infamous November 4th.

I heard the media mention a professor from Kansas who was arranging a humanitarian visit. I decided to call him and I said: “Professor, you don’t know me, and you realize there are four Jewish hostages.” I must have embarrassed him, because he answered defensively, “Thinking about it Rabbi, you’re right!” Then, unexpectedly, he added, “OK, Rabbi, stick around.”

I thought that would be the end of it, but two weeks later I got a phone call: “Was I interested in a special eleven day mission to see the hostages?”
It was February 5th, and we were on a plane to Teheran, praying to see the hostages and the day they would be set free. We landed on a bleak cold day at Mehabad Airport and entered a huge terminal whose walls had been stripped bare and plastered with pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeni.

We were immediately surrounded by the Revolutionary Guard brandishing machine guns. I got a lot of stares wearing a yarmulke on my head. After some tense moments we were driven to a dilapidated hotel in downtown Teheran with sand bags around the pool and machine gun posts. The militants had renamed it “Hotel of the Glorious Revolution.”

The next afternoon we were taken to a mosque to meet with an Imam. He harangued us in a shrill voice that Israel was a tool of America and the Zionists who exploited his Muslim brothers and sisters.

I could hardly contain myself. I stared at the bearded Imam and blurted out, “If you call yourselves Compassionate Sons of Allah, then why don’t you treat my people with compassion?” One of the American ministers touched my shoulder and whispered, ” Hirshel, you must feel very lonely here as a Jew.” I don’t know what stirred within me, but I answered him, “No, I’m not alone. I am accompanied by the souls of my people who have been oppressed throughout history.”

It was February 11th and we were being driven on a bus to a huge anti-American demonstration outside of Teheran University. The revolutionaries had renamed it “Freedom Square .” As we snaked our way through the demonstrators they shook their fists at us and pounded violently on our bus, yelling, “Down with America. Death to President Carter.” We were almost trampled as we struggled to climb the rungs of a rickety platform hastily erected for us the foreign visitors.

The rain was pelting us and the agitated crowd pressed against our platform. Suddenly there was a shudder and the stands started to buckle and collapsed. There were screams and moans of people being crushed underneath us. As the scaffolding came crashing down I jumped instinctively about ten feet to the ground. Luckily I wasn’t hurt but two of my companions were injured in the melee. Someone shouted over the commotion, “Rabbi, get out of here!”

After wandering through the streets of Teheran for hours I finally found our hotel and was overjoyed to be reunited with the other Americans who feared something ominous might have happened to me.

Three days later, on February 14th at 5 AM, there was a sudden knock on our door. It was one of the militants announcing, “You clergy people wait here, because soon we’re going to take you to visit the poor souls who were injured when the stands collapsed at the parade.” I had a gut feeling. Turning to Father Jack, my roommate, I said, “You know Jack, that’s just a ruse, They’re taking us to see the hostages.”

There was a priest with us who was acting strangely. He over-identified with the militants and bought their line that the hostages were somehow guilty of something. There, in the back of the van, I confronted him and asked: “Does it not say in your New Testament -Judge not lest you be judged?”

We came to a screeching halt in front of the towering walls of the American Embassy. There were the armed militants with machine guns perched on the walls high above. They looked like they were 11 years old . We were led to a room with blankets covering the windows and the ever present pictures of Khomeini.

After an anxious wait the militants led in some of the American hostages. We decided to make small talk with them about life back home to ease their fears. So we chatted informally about basketball scores and McDonalds. I was close to tears thinking, my God, when will they ever go free?”

The guards were going to allow us to take letters the hostages had written to their loved ones back in the States. I was sitting right up front and one of the hostages handed me a sheaf of letters, I clutched the letters and gave a final embrace to the hostages, whispering, “The American people are praying for you and you are not forgotten.”
I managed to hand one of the captives a Hebrew prayerbook to give to the Jewish hostages who were kept back in their cells. Ten months later, in the White House, the Jewish hostages revealed to me that the militants had deceived them about my being there. They told me the prayerbook lifted their morale and gave them hope and the will to survive.

As we were preparing to leave the militants suddenly and unexpectedly barred our way and detained us. They said accusingly: “You clergy people can’t leave. We have seen one of you receive a secret message from one of the hostages.” They were pointing directly at me. I thought, my God, did they plant something on me? Am I going to be made a hostage too? I decided to tough it out and call their bluff. So I rose to my feet and said indignantly, “I am here on a humanitarian visit and will not be treated this way!”

Despite my protest they separated me from my fellow clergy and led me into a courtyard out of view. I was made to strip down to my shorts and they searched me and all my belongings thoroughly. It was lucky I had crossed out the names of the Israeli Secret Service who briefed me in New York before I left, because they went through every name in my address book. I was sure they were itching to hold me hostage as a Zionist spy. As they were leading me back to rejoin the other Americans I couldn’t resist tipping up my yarmulke, as if to say: ”You forgot to look under here boys!”

Sadly, our Americans stayed there for four hundred and forty four days. When they were liberated, President Reagan sent his plane for them. Amazingly, they landed first at Stewart Airport in Newburgh. A few days later the President invited me to go to the White House reception to greet the hostages before the nation.

There, in the White House, the Marine band was playing. I was wearing a silver bracelet for one of the hostages. He was a brave American and he was isolated and beaten by the militants, but he never complained. He said, “Rabbi, others had it worse than me.” His mother had given me the bracelet to wear for her son while he was imprisoned. It said very starkly “William J. Dougherty, (taken prisoner) November 4th 1979”. Bill was staring at the bracelet on my wrist. I said, “Bill, would you like to come to Newburgh? We’ll have a ceremony and I’ll present the bracelet to you.” He answered “ Rabbi, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have the bracelet now!”

I’m looking at the letter Bill wrote me after that time at the White House. It’s on the wall of my study in the Temple and it reads. “Rabbi, thank you for all your efforts and for the love shown to us by 250 million Americans while we were held hostage. As far as the bracelet, when you took it from your wrist and put it on mine, the pain began to go away.”
A few years after the ordeal I officiated at the wedding of the son of one of the Jewish hostages. As his father rejoiced I thought of the biblical verse: “Those who sow in tears, shall reap in joy.”

* Originally published on

My Rescue In The ER and the Faces of Courage

As a Senior Citizen and a cancer survivor with a weakened immune system I am considered one of the most vulnerable in the Covid-19 crisis. Despite our careful seclusion at home I found my self in jeopardy recently and was rescued in the Emergency Room at the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

The heroism and sacrifice of the medical team was truly amazing and we call them courageous and wonder what we would do if ever called upon.

What does it mean to act with courage?

A recent op-ed in the New York Times suggests:

“We find it easier to admire physical bravery than moral courage. It’s hard for us to see our leaders as courageous. Perhaps we have seen too much, grown too cynical about the inevitable compromises of power. There are no Gandhis, no Lincolns anymore. One person’s hero is another’s villain. We no longer easily agree on what it means to be good, or principled, or brave.

When leaders do take courageous steps, there are as many who doubt as approve…courage, nowadays, is almost always ambiguous.”

And yet-just at that moment of confusion or frustration – we witness an act of courage so unexpected, moving and clear, its grace penetrates our souls.

The morning after the violence and terror at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a presiding Elder in the Church gave a rousing sermon.

“I want you to know,” he spoke through tears, “the doors of Mother Emanuel are open.”

The Reverend’s message and the city’s banners echoes the words of Isaiah, whose message of courage reverberates.

In the words of a Rabbi the truth is, we have been courageous.

We have taken care of parents as they have aged, we have helped patients heal; we have represented those seeking justice, we have sought forgiveness from people we have hurt.

Can we be courageous?
Can we accept our failings and flaws – and those of others – and decide to love anyway?

Can we be honest with our spouse or partner?

Can we set a vision for our life’s work and pursue it?

Can we ask for forgiveness, and forgive generously?


Overcoming Depression

Pain, medicine, and depression were overwhelming me. The doctors told me I was winning my battle with leukemia, but I felt I was losing emotionally. The depression that had overtaken me seemed worse than physical disease.

As a rabbi I thought I had been trained to deal with depression. I was used to members of my congregation coming to me in times of suffering. People counted on me for comfort and understanding. Yet, here I was, unable to deal with my own depression.

Gradually, I was able to summon the strength within me. “God,” I prayed, “I’m trying to get up this mountain, but every time I get near the top, I get knocked down again. And, I’m not asking you to get me all the way to the summit, but could you hold my hand, and, please, don’t let me fall any further into the abyss?”

As I prayed, I searched for the divine spark within my spirit, for the power that I possessed, and which I believe all of us have. And within myself I found the courage and strength to keep fighting and not give up.
In the Jewish tradition, prayer doesn’t mean somehow finding God’s unlisted phone number or rubbing a magic lamp to bring forth a genie. It means looking into yourself, determining the meaning of your life, finding out what really is of value, and discovering what you believe. Prayer is the “self-judgment” that empowers us to reach higher, search deeper, and be true to ourselves.

Here are my suggestions for lifting yourself up in times of adversity:
LET YOUR SPIRIT SING. You don’t need a designated place or specific words. Sometimes the song we sing is joyous; sometimes it is a lament. Sometimes the song is loud and strong; sometimes it is weak and weary. Be in touch with your feelings and help yourself by opening your heart.

BE YOUR SPECIAL SELF. The story of the creation of the first human being, Adam, reminds us that each of us is unique.

Every human being represents the potential of the whole world. @TheRunningRabbi
(Click to Tweet!)
I vividly recall the time when a young woman came to me talking about taking her life. She was very depressed and felt worthless. I told her that no matter how low a person sinks there is always something special and worthwhile in everyone. I took note of her smile, commented on her touching way of revealing her feelings, and told her that she was special. When she left my study I prayed I had said the right thing. Years later there was a knock on my study door. She had returned to thank me for helping her get through a very difficult time in her life..

REMIND YOURSELF WHAT REALLY MATTERS. When I was depressed in the hospital, I called to mind the good things in my life, what I had to live for. I pushed myself to remember Thanksgivings with my family, vacations in Colorado, running up the ski lift in Aspen, my daughter whirling around the ice skating rink. I thought of my wife and friends who were praying for me. I thought of the nurses who comforted me, and the doctors who struggled to keep me alive.

CONFRONT YOUR FEARS. When one of my congregants asked me, “What do I do in the middle of the night when no one is with me and I’m scared?” I told him, don’t try to run away and hide under the blanket. Sit up in bed and let all the nightmarish things play out before your eyes. Visualize everything that terrifies you. Then, when you have all this in front of you, acknowledge your fears. You have a right to feel frightened and depressed about awful things that have happened. But then realize that despite all that you are still very much alive!

GIVE OF YOURSELF. After my illness, I rededicated my life to helping others, especially those with cancer. Someone is always in need, someone whose plight is worse than our own. By helping others we give meaning to our lives.

LEARN SOMETHING NEW. A young woman, the mother of four children, came to see me. She had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Along with her chemotherapy treatments, she treated herself to ski lessons. She wanted to experience something new to take her mind off her illness, to reaffirm her life. “There I was,” she told me, “hanging onto the tow rope, climbing that hill, exhilarated by being outside on a crisp winter day – thankful for the day, thankful for my life.”

Through my illness and depression, I learned to see the true worth within myself, to reflect on the meaning of my life, even to find meaning in my illness.
In a sense, my weakness made me a stronger person. I have learned that what “doesn’t destroy me, strengthens me.” Now, I empathize with other people in a way I was never able to before. I look for the goodness in people and in life. I look for the oneness of all humanity, and I find it.

When you are down, may you find strength in all you do and say and feel and think – and then the miracle will happen; the sun will shine for you; the world will once again be beautiful. Look for it. It will happen. I know.

Who is Truly Religious?

These days I wonder if people who choose wounding and hurtful words wrestle with their demons.

In the Jewish tradition, when we wake up in the morning we say: “Let me be swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of the Holy One.”

We realize that every day is a struggle between our good and bad impulses and although many things are predestined we have the innate power and freedom to make moral choices and follow the path of goodness.
What is expected of us, according to the Hebrew prophet, is to “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Holy One.” When the Sages tried to distill the essence of sacred teaching they quoted this along with: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I believe that you may not call yourself religious or pious or faithful members of any denomination if you hurt others, because as it is said: “God wants heart.”

Often my congregants would approach me apologetically and say: “Rabbi, I’m not religious.” My response was to ask; do you care about others and are you troubled by the pain in our world? Because if you are then you may be very religious even if you don’t belong to a house of worship and despite your lack of ritual observance…or for that matter, even if you have your doubts about God.

And although I am a rabbi and proud of my Jewish heritage, I have evolved spiritually to believe that we are all children of the Eternal, no matter what religion or belief system, because the true heart of “religion” is human goodness and decency.
When the groom breaks a glass at the end of the wedding ceremony I say this signifies that our broken world is not yet at peace and still needs healing. In the Jewish mind a central belief is “Tikun Olam”… Repairing a troubled world…through our deeds of justice and compassion and loving-kindness.

There is a tale about a venerable rabbi who lived in a poor Jewish settlement in Eastern Europe during the harsh pogroms carried out against the Jewish people.The time is just before the High Holy Days. Suddenly, there is a knock on the door, and a poor disciple enters looking very downcast. “Rabbi”, he confesses, “I cannot direct my prayers to heaven on these Days of Awe in the face of all the suffering in the world and the cruel opression of our people.”

It is getting cold in the hut as the fire dies down and the rabbi gestures and gives an answer without words. He takes the poker by the fireplace and stirs the scattered embers. They burst into flame again and there is warmth and light where the rabbi sits with his student who laments the state of his world and cannot bring himself to direct his prayers to the Holy One.

And the disciple, watching this, realizes the rabbi is giving an answer to his pessimism and he declares: “Oh, now I see Rabbi.”

What does the disconsolate student see? What do we see? We are like the flickering embers when we despair because of all the coldness and indifference and cruelty in our world. But just as the embers bring renewed warmth and light when they are moved closer to each other so do we human beings when we encourage one another with acts of kindness.

“Don’t settle for a spark…. light a fire instead!”@TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)

What to Wish For

A Russian short story portrays an aristocrat who has only a few days to live. When he replays the tape of his life in his mind he realizes he has wasted most of his life in the pursuit of wealth and power devoid of real meaning. He is desperate to rewind the tape but it is too late.

So, think of the time you have until the tape runs out and contemplate how you spend your precious time. The Rabbis said: “Change for the good one day before you die”, and since we never know when that is:

We must treat every new day as an opportunity to measure the goodness of our deeds.
@TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)
This reminds us to be careful of how we spend our time and to value life and enjoy it, because once it’s gone it can never be retrieved.
A nurse named Bronnie Ware devoted herself to working in Hospice care in Australia. She wrote a book about what she witnessed first hand: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”. When she questioned those entrusted to her as to whether they had any regrets and if they would have changed anything, these are the themes that emerged.


“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”


“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”


“Many people supressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocore existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”


“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”


“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habbits. The so called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have stillness in their life again.”

Yes, death can instruct us how to live. We can follow the examples of others to live more meaningful and fulfilling lives. We can summon the strength and courage we have within to enrich our lives.

Whatever time you have remaining may you be true to yourselves and make every day a blessing.

What a Dying Christian Taught a Rabbi

When the doctors and nurses saw how depressed I was from the fevers and gnawing pain it worried them and they came to my hospital room to challenge me saying: “Why not be a rabbi and offer encouragement to your fellow patients?” But first we want you to get out of bed and go down for therapy to alleviate your pain.” I was kind of embarrassed and said I would try.

There in the basement of the hospital they lowered me gently with a sling into a pool of warm water and it really was helping. I happened to look up and there was a young patient seated in his wheelchair in front of a pair of wooden parallel bars. They were urging him to try to raise himself and calling out his name: “Come on Jerry, you can do it!” And Jerry gritted his teeth and with supreme effort it seemed he lifted himself up almost imperceptibly maybe a couple of inches at most.

At that moment I realized the cancer had probably affected Jerry’s spine and how brave he was. I thought to myself: What guts!

Later, back in my room, I remembered how the doctors and nurses challenged me to be a rabbi. I thought about young Jerry and wheeled myself down the corridor to visit him. He was all wrapped in blankets, and shivering, but he put himself out and asked me how I was doing.
Thoughtlessly I started to utter a littany of my own complaints and when Jerry inquired if the doctors had seen me I cynically answered: ” No, Jerry, I think the doctors must have bad news about my condition and they’re just avoiding me.”

Jerry looked at me straight in the eye and asked: “Isn’t your name Hirshel and aren’t you Jewish? And didn’t I hear that you are a rabbi?” Then Jerry took me by surprise and said: “Well, rabbi Hirshel, I’m Christian and I don’t know that much about the Jewish religion but aren’t the Jewish people supposed to be an example of hope to us because of how they have survived against all odds. So, Rabbi, why don’t you try to be more hopeful?” I thought that young Christian, Jerry, knew more about my religion than I did.

Weeks later, after my blood counts recovered, the fevers abated and I started to gain weight, I convinced the doctors that I was strong enough by climbing a little flight of stairs in the hospital and they finally said I could go home. It was a bitter winter in Chicago and I was all bundled up and clutching the experimental medicine that saved me from this rare leukemia. Two months before, with high fever and wearing a protective mask I was transported from my home in New York on an “Angel of Mercy Flight” and that very night the doctors received emergency permission to treat me as a “Compassionate Use” patient.

After my rescue I agreed to fly to the Midwest every month to be studied and tested as an experimental patient so the doctors could learn more about how the drug was working and the side effects. I remembered Jerry who was still there struggling to survive and I went to see him after they drew my blood. I could see he had grown weaker. As soon as he saw me he said: “There’s my friend the Rabbi. You made it and you had a lot of courage.

“No, Jerry, you are the one with courage” and I admire you so much. I’ve been praying for you a lot.” I left to fly home feeling so bad about my friend Jerry and made up my mind to always see him if he was still there while fearing the worst?

When I returned the next month the first thing I asked the nurses was: “How’s my friend Jerry?” And they said: “Rabbi, Jerry didn’t make it.” I broke down and the nurses said they thought I would be able to hear that because I was used to hearing that as a Rabbi. But of course I was human and they showed me into the Chapel so I could have some moments to recover from the sad news about my friend.

On the way home I resolved to always keep the memory of that brave young man in my heart. But, I thought I wanted to do something more that I had never done before. I would mention that young Christian’s name aloud, along with the Jewish names, just before the “Kaddish” memorial prayer.
That very Sabbath I called Jerry’s name before leading my congregation in the Kaddish Memorial Prayer my people have proclaimed through the ages in memory of our departed along with the martyrs of our people who never abandoned hope in the Holy One.

And, yes, Jerry’s name is there as it will be in every year to come because I have come to believe that my prayers as a rabbi should should be inclusive and reflect our shared humanity. For surely:

We all suffer and rejoice in the same way and that surpasses all religious distinctions.
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I Would Be Happy If Only…

Maybe I had to endure serious illness in order to help people find meaning and strength in adversity. In the words of Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter I found there was within me an invincible summer.” Finding meaning requires that we overcome our self-absorption with material goods. We spend too much time dwelling on what is missing. We worry and complain and anxious over trivial pursuits. We count our money instead of our blessings and appreciating all that we have.

We are continually dwelling on what we don’t have. We all think: ”I would be happy if only…”
According to Psychology Today, fifty books were published on happiness in 2000 as opposed to last year when more than 4000 books appeared. My prescription for happiness is not sugary promotions. It is not the power of positive thinking. It is not to be beautiful, wealthy and successful.

The key to living a meaningful life is the same as it always was. It is learning to do the tough work of mastering our baser impulses and nurturing our most exalted selves by refusing to indulge in fear or anger and opting instead to feed our capacity for kindness and compassion.

It is to recognize all the gifts that come your way and appreciate those gifts and those around you. My prescription is contrary to much of what pop psychologists preach. I teach that what we do in this world matters. Our words have power: Power to hurt or wound, but also the power to heal and comfort. We wish we could be perfect but we are not perfect. We hurt people we love and we lose our temper. We speak with sarcasm. We can be petty and small minded.

But if we realize what we said, and regret what we did, then words can have a tremendous power. And if we admit the things we have done wrong and change the the way we act then life is not absurd.

Our words and actions, our thoughtfulness and compassion, can fill our lives with meaning.
In the Jewish tradition, when we wake up in the morning we say: “Let me be as swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of the Holy One.” We realize that every day is a struggle between our good and bad impulses, and though many things are predestined:

We have the innate power and freedom to make moral choices. @TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)
The Sages made sure to point out that both the bad inclination and the good inclination are essential aspects of our humanity. Whether we like it or not, these impulses are part of us – much like the hemispheres are essential parts of our brain. The point is not to deny or repress the bad inclination, but to channel and master it.

The Sages ask: Who is mighty? The ones who master their inclination.”

Making Our Lives Matter

When I was diagnosed with leukemia I thought, “Why not me?” As a rabbi visiting patients for so many years, I realized that no one is immune and anyone can get sick – the rich and the poor, the young and the old. My childhood nickname was “Sunshine”, and with my bright outlook and positive spirit I asked the doctor, “What can we do?”

The belief in the possibility of hope is the narrative of the Jewish people. We have historically been geniuses of hope. The gateway to Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy has the inscription, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Playwright Eugene O’Neill said, “Human hope is the greatest power in life and the only thing that defeats death.”
False hope is dysfunctional, and can lead to to disillusionment. False hope makes people vulnerable to hucksters and simplistic “pie in the sky by and by.” But we can believe in the extraordinary around us.

The quality of hopefulness should not be left to chance. Hopefulness comes from immersing our lives in values larger than ourselves, enabling our lives to touch the eternal and leave a lasting impression on the world.
One of the problems of living in a self-centered culture is that we avoid dedicating ourselves to changing the world for the good of others. Why is it that so many World War II veterans are reported to have looked back on their experience as the best part of their lives? Why is it that many people do not start living until they face the end of their lives?

It is because deep within us we want our existence to matter. We worry that we may leave without having and impact, that the fact that we lived will never be noticed or remembered. That we may have lived for nothing.

If my people could overcome the despair of the death camps, then certainly life can be filled with hope each and every day. The song of the Jewish partisans during the Holocaust proclaims, “Never Say You Walk the Final Road!”

As long as we live and breathe, hope glimmers within; with our every act and encounter we can touch other lives. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” the psychiatrist Victor Frankl describes how he endured the Nazi concentration camps and lost almost all of his family in the Holocaust.

While Frankl was in Dachau and Auschwitz he observed that how the prisoners reacted differently to the same conditions of great suffering. Frankl discovered that he people who had a greater chance of surviving were those who set a purpose for themselves. Their positive attitude attitude helped the to triumph over their circumstances; for example to cling to the hope that they would be reunited with their loved ones.

Frankl says we can’t always chose the circumstances of our ordeals, but we can and must chose how we will react to suffering and adversity.
No matter what our plight, we are free to chose our attitude toward the tough times. @TheRunningRabbi
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So we can find meaning and hope even in the darkest days.

In the words of the Psalmist. “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.”

Overcoming Loneliness

A Rabbi said: “The way we usually approach loneliness is mostly by avoiding it, because we have all seen lonely people sitting next to other lonely people on lonely park benches, and they are the people we would least like to be. So we shy away from the subject altogether because in our idealized, packaged version of healthy adjustment, there is no room for loneliness, not even a little bit.”

The author Thomas Wolfe wrote in an essay entitled “Loneliness,” “that far from being a rare and curious phenomenon,” loneliness “is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

How sad that in the digital age the more we are connected to everything – the more we feel detached, isolated and separated. And we stare at our phones and hide behind the digital screens.
How often to I pass a bunch of teenagers sitting on the steps and not looking at each other or talking to their friends right there next to them.

“How is this a life?” asks a 30-something blogger.

It’s not a life, actually. We cannot spend our days hunched over a screen forging a sense of human interaction. This is not what we are made for. I can guarantee all your best memories live within the moments with others.

Recently, a congregant of mine suffered a loss and only found out about their bereavement when I happened to go on Facebook. I wrote to my Temple families and sermonized pleading with them to at least call me and the people close to them to hear our voices and let us go in person to comfort them.

The blogger Jamie Varon asked perceptively, “When you look back on your life will you be happy about how much you binged on Netflix? Will you be happy about the graveyard of plans you let fall by the wayside? Will you be happy when you are surrounded by no one because we’ve all pushed each other away?”

That’s an excerpt from her essay entitled, “This is the New Loneliness.” A New Loneliness has seized a new generation.

And maybe, when we ditch our phones and stop surfing and posting and liking, we should ask ourselves: why?
My wedding couple tell me that they met the old fashioned way because online dating – searching for suitable people all looking anonymously – only intensified their loneliness.

Now loneliness is viewed as a public health issue because researchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to cognitive decline.

A Rabbi asks us to examine ourselves honestly. How much loneliness have I brought upon myself through narcissism and a lack of self-awareness? Why not set aside your loneliness by doing something for someone else.

Anyone who serves at a homeless shelter, or tutors disadvantaged kids, or volunteers at a hospital, knows this.

From time to time, we are all lost and lonely in this impersonal world. So make real friends and reach out to the strangers and the estranged. And find your path in life together.