Tuesday the rabbi had cancer...

This is not a sermon. I am incredibly excited about the future, about CBI, about my installation and about NEFESH MOUNTAIN coming to Tampa (at Congregation Kol Ami Feb 23 after Shabbat) and Saint Petersburg for MY installation! At the same time, the last few weeks have been rather strange for me. As a board certified chaplain (and now member of the Neshama/NAJC board), I am very happy to walk with people through their illnesses, their struggles, their challenges. I am perfectly content in medical settings, especially with a badge on my lapel. I am much less excited when I am the patient in a hospital bed, experiencing surgery, and now, as I continue to recover, finding myself completely exhausted from relatively simple tasks, banned from lifting more than 3 pounds (challenging with small children), and with less focus than I am used to. Two weeks ago, I shared the letter below. Last Tuesday I had my thyroid removed and today I received pathology confirming that I had cancer. While I am grateful that this cancer is treatable/curable and will not require chemotherapy, I may need radioactive iodine, which has some rather nasty side effects--including at least a day of isolation so as not to irradiate others!

The response to my note has been overwhelming. I have never felt as loved and supported as I have recently. As someone who lives much of my life online, I have so far kept this news offline. In a way, it made things more manageable. In a way, it made a challenging journey a private affair and even allowed for a certain level of denial. Thankfully thyroid cancer is not normally life-threatening, but it has caused additional reflection on mortality.

Those that know me well, know that while I love a great suit and a well tailored shirt, I am not a huge fan of ties. (I have come to love socks and am working on my collection of parsha socks (trademark soon??)). At the same time, the last few months (before diagnosis), I had a strange experience with ties. They became quite uncomfortable. Sometimes I even found myself light-headed with a tie on. Buttoning the top button of my shirt was a sometimes painful experience. I was starting to investigate finding a new therapist, wondering if I was anxious in my wonderful new congregation. After a routine exam, I discovered that rather than having anxiety, I had thyroid cancer.

As a rabbi, I am grateful to my experience with so many people in their journeys. I heard from people who lost their thyroids and lived decades. I discovered that one of the world experts on thyroid cancer was just across the bridge. (If that is not beshert, I don’t know what is!--For me, it is a miracle). I have seen what people wanted and didn’t want in their times of need. I now better understand the desire to retreat, to hide and to avoid contact with all. At the same time, I am so grateful for a community that reaches out, that brought me in and I cannot wait to return to services this Shabbat. I am grateful for colleagues and teachers who offered support--and have brought over delicious meals. I am thankful for calls and emails and texts and messages--and I thank you for understanding when I haven’t been up to speaking.

From rabbinical school to CPE, to a reminder at my coffee group on Wednesday, we are told to “put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” This is not an idle lesson. If we do not take care of ourselves, we physically cannot take care of others. On a plane we will actually will pass out while trying to help others if we do not put on our own masks first. In this case, I may not literally pass out, but I have discovered that recovering from surgery is a major ordeal. After having the privilege of spending the night in the hospital (least restful thing ever!), I spent a few days sleeping, reading, meditating, praying and watching Shtisel on Netflix. This week, I tried scheduling meetings again, although I am trying to schedule carefully, knowing that I must continue to leave time to rest and recuperate/recover. I have quickly discovered that if I do not leave enough time, my body reminds me. I will not ignore it again!

Amidst, the struggle of trying to rest, I am so excited for all that is to come. February 22-24 will be my installation at CBI. We chose the weekend very carefully. Shabbat will be the official Shabbat of Inclusion. We will hear from voices in our community who live and have dealt with differing abilities. They will help us continue to innovate and ensure that our community welcomes ALL. My philosophy of community is one of radical hospitality. In the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah, we strive to make CBI a place for all Jews and those who love them. We have a traditional perspective, live our lives in accordance with a modern understanding of Jewish law, bringing together the best of the wider world and our evolving Jewish traditions.

On Sunday, February 24, the weekend will culminate with a shared celebration. We will hear from one of best friends, colleagues and study partners, Rabbi Eve Eichenholtz, who introduced me to my wife. Dean will offer remarks on behalf of CBI. Jo-Anne Tucker-Zemlak will speak from United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Rabbi Luski will share his blessings for the future of CBI and I will continue to share my vision for the future. To conclude our festivities (besides dessert) we will have an incredible, joyful, lively performance from Nefesh Mountain. If you haven’t heard them, go on youtube now. I have known them for years and am so excited to celebrate with them

The position of rabbi is one that sometimes seems not quite human. Sometimes we even believe our own mythos. We are so busy being all things to all people, that we forget to take care of ourselves. If I learn nothing else from this experience, I will remember my own mortality. In addition to time for meetings, for study, for visits, for prayer, I also need a little bit more time to take care of the sacred vessel of my body. Maybe I’ll even join the running club--stride by stride at CBI--but not this week.

Letter to CBI:
Dear friends,

This is a letter of gratitude and personal news. My family and I are thankful to be in an incredible community. Celebrating Hanukkah together affirmed that we are home. In the last few months, not only have we met many of our members, but we have built real relationships, become friends and worked together for the common good.

I have struggled with how to share seemingly frightening and also relatively non-life-altering news. As part of routine medical care, I was ultimately diagnosed with Stage 1 Thyroid Cancer which will result in surgery next week. Fortunately, the treatment is straightforward with no expected long term side effects. As I have said to my family, this is the one time when ‘Dr. Google’ makes you feel better -- or as my initial doctor said “If you have to get cancer, this is the one you want.” While I expect to be out of the office for approximately one week, I am confident I will be back on the bimah in no time. I ask your patience as I return to my normal level of activity - and remain sans tie for a few more weeks .

I will admit that I have struggled with the idea of that word, “cancer”. In this case, it is thankfully not life threatening in any way. We are blessed to live in an incredible community here at CBI and I am grateful for all your support and love. As a rabbi and a board certified chaplain, I have walked with many people through their difficult times. I have encouraged them to ask for specific help, so that people can assist them most productively. I promise to ask for help as I need it, but at the moment I simply ask for privacy and your patience as I return to my normal business hours (24/7).

I am overjoyed to celebrate and dance with you at my installation the weekend of February 22-24. , It will be a truly joyous weekend including a Congregational Shabbat of Inclusion Dinner following Kabbalat Shabbat, a festive Kiddush lunch following our Shabbat morning services, and an Installation ceremony and dessert reception including musical guests, Nefesh Mountain. We continue to plan for an incredible future at CBI and our family looks ahead to a long and healthy lifetime of sacred moments together “Side by Side at CBI.”

With love and blessings,

Rabbi Philip Weintraub