Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Both of their names were Michael. One was a boy, 13 years old. The other was one of the largest tropical storms to hit the U.S. in recorded history. Their paths converged during a fateful week in October, 2018.
Michael, the devastating Category 4 Hurricane, hit the Florida Panhandle on October 9th, 2018 – four days before the boy named Michael’s Bar Mitzvah morning.
Michael is a highly intelligent, engaged student, deeply immersed in his Jewish studies. He took to Hebrew almost as a second language. As an 11-year-old student in my 5th Grade class at Temple Israel in Tallahassee, he talked eagerly about becoming Bar Mitzvah. He already knew the date and what his Torah portion was going to be, two years in advance.
But then came Hurricane Michael.
It hit the Florida Panhandle region, hard, then moved North, leaving a brutal legacy in its wake: Closed airports and widespread power outages. Streets blocked by felled trees. Hotels and restaurants could not take reservations, nor prepare any food.
Michael’s family considered rescheduling the ceremony, but ultimately decided the storm would not deter them. (Oddly enough, they originally scheduled Michael’s service for the previous weekend, but then moved the date back one week when the original date conflicted with a local university’s homecoming!) All of the hotels were booked, and Michael’s family had many relatives and guests coming in from out of town. They didn’t want to cancel.
So I received the first text at 11:00 AM Friday: “Hi this is Michael. Bar Mitzvah still on. Hope you’re safe. Can you come tomorrow?”
I responded: “I will see you tomorrow morning, Michael! I wouldn’t miss your bar mitzvah for anything, even a Hurricane named Michael!”
To which he responded: “Thanks! It means a lot for you to be there.” I texted back: “It means a lot to me, too.”
Then a few hours later, another text: “We are having a small group lunch and if you want to come you can.”
I said that I did not want to impose, but would be honored to join them for the lunch celebration. I received his response, which brought it all home: “…you’d blend right in. You’re like family to me.”
How do you describe the meaning of a sentence like that? Four years ago I was a total stranger to Michael and his family; now, he tells me that I am “like family” to him. I never considered how a natural disaster could lead a young boy to evoke such heartfelt feelings.
Saturday morning arrived; piles of branches and leaves covering the Temple grounds were a stark reminder of the huge storm we had all just survived. But the service went smoothly. The power was still out, but enough sunlight streamed through the windows and skylight to allow the service to proceed.
I was summoned by the Rabbi to make a presentation to Michael on behalf of the Board of Trustees. As I looked out over the darkened, sparsely populated sanctuary, I shared my own heartfelt words.
”Michael, we all know the ironically-named Hurricane that just passed through here disrupted a lot of your family’s plans for today. But I want to make sure that you know, and that your family knows, that in spite of the fact that a lot of your family and out of town guests were unable to be here to share this special morning with you, that does not detract one iota from what you have accomplished this morning. You stood before your congregation and led us through this service with poise and confidence. You exhibited the wisdom and insight that so many of us saw here as your teachers. This is a very special morning, perhaps made even more special in light of the fact that you stood up to a major Hurricane and refused to let it deter you from what you had worked so hard to achieve. And let that be another lesson for you too: Set a goal, work hard to achieve it, and don’t let anything – not even a hurricane – stand in your way.”
The Bar Mitzvah ceremony symbolizes many things, not the least of which is the transition from adolescence to adulthood. On his special day, Hurricane Michael required new-Jewish-adult Michael to summon an extra measure of inner strength and maturity.
There is a classic Talmudic saying which sums up the story of the two Michaels: “Gam zu l’tova. This too is for the good.” (Nachum Ish Gamzu, Talmud, Taanit, 21a). While there are different ways to interpret this sentence, I like to think that in Michael’s case, he learned that sometimes forces beyond your control can strike at any time and disrupt your plans. But he also learned that when that does happen, you still move forward – take a detour, maybe, but don’t let any obstacle stand in the way of what you set out to achieve.
The rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Michael are ongoing. Learn how you can help here.