Debbie Akerman

Spiritual Show and Tell

At the memorial service, a woman approached us and asked, 'May we make you a cup of coffee?' That was when I began to cry
Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, shot dead during the Jersey City kosher market attack after helping a wounded customer escape. (Courtesy)
Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, shot dead during the Jersey City kosher market attack after helping a wounded customer escape. (Courtesy)

I’m a Beatles fan, an Orthodox Jew, and a professor of social work. Thirty-nine years ago, on December 8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered in front of his residence, in Manhattan. Every year people gather in Central Park in front of the hotel for an informal memorial service. I’ve never gone, but I’ve thought about it.

One of the classes that I enjoy teaching is Philosophical Foundations of Social Work. On the last day of class, one of my students suggested that we have a “Spiritual Show and Tell,” an opportunity for each person to share what spiritual insights they wrestled with during the semester. I was very intrigued by the idea and thought of what I could contribute.

Last Tuesday, December 10, 2019, peace was once again shattered by hate. Two members of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement shot and killed a Jersey City police officer and then proceeded to a small kosher grocery, killing the owner of the store and two others. It was later revealed that the real target of the terrorist was a Jewish elementary school atop the grocery.

This past Saturday night my husband, my 15-year-old son, a friend, and I went to the memorial service for one of the victims, Mr. Rodriguez. We were strangers and non-Spanish speakers desirous of showing solidarity and respect, to extend our condolences. I listened to the songs and eulogies. And I prayed. I noticed the similarities between our communities. A gathering filled with families and beautiful children. Adults taking turns watching the children. Caring parents picked up crying babies and toddlers and hugged them tight.

And then a woman approached us and simply asked, “May we make you a cup of coffee?” That was the moment I began to cry. Unabashed tears coursed down my cheeks at the simple and powerful gesture of connection. Our hands grasped and we expressed how sorry we were for the passing of Mr. Rodriguez. The woman told me that her community was praying for the husband and children of the store owner and she expressed her concern for the family’s welfare.

We hugged. Our tears mingled. We blessed each other with healing and peace. Mrs. Rodriguez and her daughter appeared and we told Mrs. Rodriguez (with her daughter translating) that we were Orthodox Jews from Passaic, New Jersey. Mrs. Rodriguez had one message for us: My husband died for love. He loved another human being. He tried to help another person, and he died doing that.

Spirituality is something much bigger than any one of us. It cannot be touched or measured, but it is big and it is powerful. It is healing. It is two families, two communities, coming together with language barriers, without any knowledge of the other. We had knowledge only of our feelings, the tug of crying babies and toddlers. We all deeply felt the love of family and community and the searing pain of blameless lives cut short by hate. We will do everything in our power to stand together.

I related this Spiritual Show And Tell to my class: All you need is love.

About the Author
My name is Dr. Debbie Akerman. I am a social worker with a doctorate in social welfare along with a clinical license in social work. I specialize in addiction and marriage and family therapy. My dissertation centered on the lack of treatment centers for addiction in the orthodox Jewish community. On a personal level I have eleven children and eight step children. I am personally and professionally comfortable with topics of addiction trauma and bereavement. I have taught many classes at the masters a level at several universities and also engage in public speaking and professional panels.