As I searched for something meaningful to share as the Jewish holidays approach, I chose the topic of love. Even during COVID, love is what keeps us together.
Love grows in small spaces through tiny cracks we have left open even during difficult times. I love out loud to honor the memory of my own beloved parents Phyllis and Jack Freedman, who poured enough love into me for a lifetime. As we enter the Jewish New Year, I think of family and friends and pray for less suffering. I hope that our mask-covered smiles, hidden expressions and social distancing will not take too much of a toll on us. And as a writer and lover of words, I hope we all take this important time to really listen to each other.
Recently, one such story stood out and profoundly moved me. In 2003, the son of Atlantan and former South African native Sheryl Westerman, Darren, tragically died as a passenger in a car at the age of 18. After the service, she distinctly remembers Rabbi Yossi New sharing sage advice, “Try not to say, ‘Why me?’ Instead, say, ‘What now?’”
These words stayed with Sheryl as she took them to heart. She put her grief and talents to work and planted a beautiful garden for her Congregation Beth Tefillah at Crest Lawn cemetery. For the past 18 years she has passionately pursued this and incorporated Judaic pieces to enhance this garden. Sheryl incorporated the daffodil project Am Yisrael Chai and during Purim all the yellow daffodils come back as resilient as ever. She shared, “I think nature helps you heal, and this was a way to keep my son’s memory alive. It looks like a little garden of Eden. During COVID, this has been a particularly good place for me to spend time outdoors and feel safe.”
As a tradition each year, Rabbi New does a pre-Rosh Hashanah service commemorating those who have passed. This year, the outdoor socially distanced service continued. Sheryl said, “This year with the uncertainty of COVID, and what has happened with synagogue due to the pandemic, the garden will give people who have lost loved ones the opportunity to recite the ‘Kaddish’ prayer surrounded by beauty.” She added, “There is always an opportunity to do good things in one’s darkest hours of sadness. The world carries on no matter what, and I try on a daily basis to spread kindness.”
Sheryl’s gardening, which surrounds her home, is pure love. For me, love is prayer. It’s an action that asks G-d to bless us, give us strength and is the deepest form of gratitude. This year, I offer virtual honey. As the New Year arrives, I pray for the front line, the everyday heroes and hold in the deepest place in my heart my beloved ones, our children and grandchildren, plus all individuals and families overcoming challenges or facing illness. I pray for and marvel at my beautiful, awe-inspiring daughter Ali, working hard to fight cancer and triumph. I am touched by my son’s at-home garden he planted with his daughter, my granddaughter Dani. I am amazed at all of our children who have become their children’s teachers and dedicated protectors. And I am encouraged how each of us can brighten even a corner of this chaotic world with love and holiday traditions and give tribute to the best of those who lived and loved before us.
As we welcome a new year, I hope we will be better, not bitter. I pray to God for small and large miracles for everyone. I feel reassured by the kind actions of caring individuals like Sheryl Westerman that fall will arrive and spring will return. And last but not least, I believe in the flowers that will bloom once again.
Robyn Spizman Gerson is a contributor to the Atlanta Jewish Times and author of “Loving Out Loud: The Power of a Kind Word,” www.robynspizman.com.