When the phone rings at an odd hour, it is not generally going to be good news. As it was when I got a late night text earlier this week from Meg Martin, the co-executive director of Interfaith Works and coordinator of the shelter and homeless services (and, in my opinion, local hero.) Adina Rosenthal had passed away.
Adina had been a guest at the shelter in recent times, but my connection with her goes back much farther than that—I first met her outside our old synagogue building three blocks away during my first year in Olympia at TBH, walking by with her big walking stick, a result of an injury from years ago that left her walking with difficulty. That was the beginning of our relationship, which continued up until her death this week.
Adina grew up Jewish in Chicago. I don’t know all the details of her life aside from what she shared with me over the years, but that was a big part of who she was. She had her challenges, and was experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity for all the time that I knew her, moving from situation to situation.
Over the years she would come in for assistance at times, but also just for conversation. I was, in all respects, her rabbi. She shared with me about her parents, and I learned about the death of first her mother Shirley and her father Paul. She shared with me about her husband Johnny, who survives her, and his art. She shared with me about her friends and community. She shared with me about what it was like for her to be Jewish, not just growing up, but also here in Olympia.
And sometimes we would have conversations about life and Judaism—about what Judaism thinks about X or Y—and trended into the theology and the traditions of our shared heritage. While she did not attend services, though I extended the invitation many times, she did always ask when the High Holidays were. She had a sense of the spiritual, the passage of time, and the ebbs and flows of the Jewish cycle of the year.
And all the times we talked she did so with the most beautiful smile, the most infectious laugh. She demonstrated a zest for life. She was creative, spirited, intellectual, kind, and thoughtful. When we met up she never—never—failed to ask how I was doing, and to ask me about my kids.
For about a year and half now I’ve been wanting to organize a night when we at TBH go down and cook for the shelter. I’ve even had sign-up sheets at various times and I have a list of potential volunteers. But with all that is going on, that project just took a back burner. I only originally pursued this project for one reason, and one reason only: Adina asked me to. She had dreams of being served matzo ball soup and sharing it with those she lived with. I deeply regret that I didn’t get to it while she was living, and I commit to do so in her memory.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is a series of laws and statutes that the Israelites, newly freed from Egyptian slavery, are to follow. It includes criminal and civil law, and also ethical precepts. Contained within the words of the various mitzvot (commandments) is the sense of equality: that we are all equal under the eyes of God, and therefore we need to treat everyone equally.
The portion also includes a reference to the ritual calendar, and the cycle of the holidays. In biblical times, one would observe the holidays through a pilgrimage to the Temple and an offering to God. In the recounting of the holidays, God says to the Israelites, “none shall appear before Me empty-handed.” (Exodus 24:7)
In other words, everyone has something to give. All of us have needs, and all of us have gifts to share.
In mourning her loss, I will think about the gifts that Adina gave to me. What I learned from Adina is that as a rabbi, I am to think broadly about who is in my congregation, that I am called to serve both those within and outside the walls of the synagogue. She affirmed for me that my job is to meet people where they are and honor all we come in contact with. Reflecting on Adina’s life, as I always do when mourning a loss, I am reminded that we all have our stories, our joys, our challenges, and our need for one another.
But truly these are not just the lessons I learned as a rabbi, but we all learn as human beings, who share space and time with other human beings in a mutual web of interdependence. For 15 years, Adina was a part of my web. For her 60+ years, she was connected to so many people. And in her death, she will continue to be a friend, a teacher, a community member.
I will miss her very much. Zichrana l’veracha. May her memory be for a blessing always.