Don’t Act on Fear: Catherine Fischer’s Torah in Honor of Her Retirement

Don’t Act on Fear: Catherine Fischer’s Torah in Honor of Her Retirement delivered by Rabbi Maderer

When, almost 2 decades ago I came to know Catherine Fischer, she was working at the Union for Reform Judaism’s then regional office as the part-time coordinator of Outreach.  I remember our 1st phone call.  It was early on in my time at Rodeph Shalom and she was preparing me to teach the Introduction to Judaism class.  What could have been simply a perfunctory conversation quickly became a trusted bond as I listened to her speak about synagogue affiliation, engagement, commitment, and a sense of belonging. At that point, Catherine had only just begun to enter her life of Jewish professional leadership.

When it comes to the next steps, I like to take credit.  Because some time after her work at the URJ, I was sitting in a Kehillah oversight meeting — the Kehillah is the network of synagogues and Jewish organizations based in each region of Greater Philadelphia.  About to hire a new coordinator for the Center City Kehillah, the oversight group established 2 descriptions of the ideal candidate.  They said: we are looking for someone young, and someone who lives in Center City. (Descriptions that probably are not kosher, actually)…  But anyway, after they said, “someone young and in Center City,” I replied:  I have the candidate.  She is not young and she lives in NJ.  But trust me.  We’re calling Catherine Fischer.

Catherine brought the Kehillah to new heights, and to this day, clergy of all denominations, throughout Center City, admire Catherine.  When it came time for Catherine to complete her time at the Kehillah, Rabbi Kuhn, and all of us, knew enough, to recruit her to Rodeph Shalom.

Catherine has brought superior vision, strategy, practice, integrity and joy to our congregation.  And I believe she wins the award for the most times anyone in history, has spoken the words “profound connections.”  Catherine’s accomplishments abound and, in many ways, you are her accomplishment– every one of you who feels her impact so deeply in your own sense of belonging.

Ask her, what is her secret sauce, what is at the foundation of every Catherine Fischer email, event, meeting, phone call, and her answer is clear every time: Catherine roots her work in vision– in Torah.  In these moments, I would like to lift up Catherine’s Torah.  There is the Torah of listening.  There is the Torah of relationship.  And there is the Torah I’d share tonight– Catherine’s Torah of faith over fear.  It’s found right in this week’s Torah portion.  

The story in this week’s portion, Beshalach is the very story we tell at the seder table.  After generations of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt, God hears their cries, sends Moses, Miriam and Aaron to lead them, sends plagues to the Egyptians, and finally guides their escape through the parted waters of the Sea of Reeds.

Now, picture the moment just before the Israelites enter the Sea.  Frightened, the people long to turn around to go backwards.  Moses’ response?  He instructs: Al tira-u / don’t be afraid.  Rabbi Alan Lew teaches: “Don’t be afraid” does not mean, “don’t feel fear;” it means: Don’t act on fear. 

And he expands: An inconsistency in the Hebrew makes the point more provocatively.  At first in the story, both noun and verb are plural: Egyptians pursue.  But a couple sentences later, a change to the singular: Egypt pursues.  Bothered by the switch, medieval commentator Rashi explains: the Torah must be trying to emphasize the Israelites’ perspective.  In that later sentence, when the Israelites gaze upon the enemy, they see not the Egyptians themselves, in the plural, but the spirit of Egypt, in the singular.  They see not what is really there, but a phantom– their idea of Egypt.  They see the Egypt where they cowered as slaves, and were abused for generations.  They saw– or perhaps, they conjured — their fear

Egyptian chariots pursuing, or not, every one of us can be threatened by a paralyzing fantasy we convince ourselves to fear.  And a community, too, can stop in its tracks, long to turn around, surrender to fear.

But Moses says to the people, and Moses says to us: Al tira-u / don’t panic.  Don’t run away from worry.  Don’t submit to phantoms.  Don’t let fear decide your future.  Push through it and transform it.

In every moment, when our Rodeph Shalom professional team and leadership, ask important questions about our next initiatives in community building, Catherine brings Moses’ message: Al tira-u / don’t act on fear.  When we face the waters, Al tira-u / don’t act on fear.  When we worry that people won’t commit to Jewish life, Al tira-u.  When we conjure the phantoms of scarcity, Al tira-u.  When we are reluctant to challenge the community, or to take a stand, Al tira-u.  When the old status quo feels less risky than the new innovations we need to experiment with, Al tira-u / don’t act on fear.

Years ago, when our Caring Community wanted to create a meal delivery initiative for members recovering from illness, but we feared that a mitzvah meal would invade people’s privacy, Catherine helped us see: Al tira-u.

When, in our commitment to include everyone in membership, regardless of financial capacity, we have wondered whether everyone will really contribute, Catherine has helped us see: Al tira-u.

When we sought to commit to having greeters at every service and program, but we worried that our members might not come regularly enough to guarantee that we would have greeters every time, Catherine helped us see: Al tira-u.

When we envisioned deeper connections among members, but we felt uncertain whether congregants would bring their vulnerability into their relationships with each other in the BoomRS in Transition discussion group, Catherine helped us see: Al tira-u / don’t act on fear.

For when Catherine sees us, she feels inspired by faith.  She opens every possible door for members, because she has faith.  She sees the good in us, because she has faith.  She believes we will rise to the occasion of Jewish life and commitment, because she has faith.  Faith in God, faith in the Jewish people, faith in humanity, faith in every one of us who walks through our sacred doors, and faith in every person who has yet to walk through our doors.  

Catherine’s actions are bold, and she seeks out study for creative thinking. Leading thinkers in the broader Jewish community have taken note of Catherine’s work and thought leadership.  Scholars from the Reform Movement and beyond, have engaged her in think tanks, and sought out her mentorship.  Catherine Fischer’s contribution has not only been transformative for Rodeph Shalom, it’s been transformative for the American Jewish community.  We decided Catherine needs to go down in history!  And so we have created a piece for the Jewish Women’s Archives.  Their website now includes a tribute that reads: Honoring the retirement of Catherine Fischer… Thank you for your bold thinking and action,that has us helped to live with faith over fear, and to build a joyful place of belonging and becoming for Jewish community.

To Richard, and the whole Fischer family, thank you for sharing your beloved Catherine with all of us for so long.

So how will we get along without Catherine?  In Catherine’s well-earned retirement, she leaves us strong, because she taught us her Torah.  (also, I still have her phone number).

And we get to be her legacy.  

Catherine, know that you have taught us well. 

And that we know, the best way to honor you, is to bring our love and commitment

to our community. 

May you, and we all, go strength to strength.  Amen.