Below is the interview which originally appeared in the June issue of the Adas Israel Newsletter, The Chronicle:
Ma Tovu: Edie and Arthur Hessel
HONORING OUR LEADERS AND VOLUNTEERS
Interviewed by Marcy Spiro, Director of Membership Engagement
Adas Israel: The Hessel family has been a member of Adas for over 30 years. And now your younger daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter are new members. Why was synagogue membership important to you 30 years ago? Why did you choose Adas?
Art Hessel: We were familiar with Adas because our daughters went to the Gan. We belonged to another congregation, but needed a place for Edie to say kaddish daily for her father who passed away in 1986, and we joined Adas.
AI: Edie, you have been the Chair of the Bereavement Committee for several years. And you have joked that nobody wants to talk about bereavement with you when you bring it up. Now nobody can walk away. Please tell us about the bereavement committee, all that you do for our community and how others can get involved.
AH: Marcy, thank you for asking. The Bereavement Committee was started by Sybil Wolin about the time that we joined Adas, but I didn’t become involved until about five years later. I was asked to come to a meeting that I frankly thought was to learn about tahara, the ritual washing of the body. I was a nurse, and had been thinking that tahara was something that I could do, but I am not sure I would have volunteered if I hadn’t been asked. The meeting was at Sybil’s home and the women there were all familiar to me because they were active at the synagogue. They weren’t there for tahara but to be “chaverim,” members of the community who go into the home, shortly after the time of death, to help the grieving family make funeral arrangements.The first thing I read at that meeting was this quote from Sybil: The essential requirement for doing this work is neither a genius for detail, nor some special expertise about death and dying. What’s needed is to be a “mensch.” How could I say that this wasn’t what I signed up for? Chaverim go into a family’s home, working from a detailed checklist, meeting people at perhaps their most vulnerable time. Other synagogues may have a chevra kadisha, or Bereavement Committee that performs tahara, provides shomrim, or helps serve as pallbearers, but as far as I know, we are the only ones who have people go into the home to assist with the funeral arrangements. We always welcome volunteers- for chaverim, for tahara, for shomrim, to be pallbearers, to introduce a new mourner to the daily minyan, to provide comfort through a Sisterhood/Hesed gift on the first Shabbat after the death. We believe that comforting the mourner is the responsibility of all of our community. There is some place in this for everyone. And, if you are reading this have not been asked to join our committee, but think that you would be interested to take this on, let’s talk.
AI: Art, those of us who are lucky enough to be friends with you on Facebook love your daily postings. Whether it’s political commentary, sculptures around the DC area or just any little tidbit you want to share. Why did you choose to start this daily project? And what daily postings can we look forward to this summer?
AH: Marcy, my Facebook postings simply divert me from the other things I am doing with my life. In the past, I have been a board member and officer at Adas, and a board member of the Jewish Primary Day School of the National Capital. I am currently the President of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington, a non-profit with 50 area synagogues who are members. We have the contracts with Hines Rinaldi and Cunningham Turch Funeral Homes to provide traditional Jewish funerals at a reasonable, below-market cost and we sponsor educational programs and training. I am also Vice-President of the Foundation for Jewish Studies, which for over 30 years has provided quality adult Jewish education to the Washington Jewish community, and I am on the Board of Directors of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, an extraordinary Israeli educational institution which I hope everyone visits when they travel to Israel. These are the things that really keep me busy. But any Adas member who wants to be my Facebook friend…..that’s fine with me.
AI: I’m fortunate to know both of your daughters. I worked with Hannah at Shakespeare Theatre Company and through her met Michelle who I now have a Kennedy Center subscription with. Theatre is a very important part of all of your lives. How did you introduce Michelle and Hannah to the performing arts? What are some of your favorite theatre memories with them?
AH: Good question, and one we often ask ourselves. I think with Michelle, it was our listening to a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan when she was young, and the discovery that she had an exceptional singing voice. With Hannah, I think theater came about as a result of her looking for a way to direct her wide intellectual interests into a challenging field. Many memories, including a childhood Michelle Peter Pan, and a childhood Hannah constable in a summer camp Pirates of Penzance.
AI: In addition to being active at Adas, you both are involved with other Jewish organizations. What do you think makes the DC Jewish community special?
AH: DC is privileged to have a large, active, engaged and growing Jewish community, consisting of young and old, and an array of institutions which they support and which, in turn, support them. When we talk to friends in other parts of the country, where synagogues struggle to maintain membership, and children tend to all move away, we realize how lucky we in Washington are.
AI: Shavuot is this month! For this holiday we are supposed to stay up all night studying and eat dairy. What would be your dairy meal of choice for an all-night study session?
AH: Maybe we are mixed up. Are you supposed to continue to eat dairy at night while you are studying? Does coffee count as dairy? If you drink it black?