Rebecca Roberts Cohen: Memories of a 23 Year Friendship

Becca Roberts Cohen 5/11/58-11/18/10 from the family collection
Becca Roberts Cohen 5/11/58-11/18/10 from the family collection

Becca Roberts and I became friends when I moved to Berkeley from Arcata in 1987 to study massage therapy and to find a larger Jewish community with whom to connect.  We were students at Gail Stewart’s Re Source School and we spent the year learning our soon to be new vocation.  We seven students were spoiled by the low student-instructor ratio, with a dedicated team of teachers – Gail, Patrick and Jill and another from whom we learned Anatomy & Physiology at her home in Moraga.  We trained in Gail and Harris’ cozy, fireside living room in the Berkeley Hills, behind the Claremont Resort.  Through Re Source we connected with the Bay Area Body Therapy Guild, a network of professional body workers with whom we both stayed connected as we built our careers.

We finished the 200-hour training and were certified in the summer of 1988 and we wondered how we could find bodywork jobs with no experience.  Becca was the first to be hired – at the Albany Sauna. That helped me also get a foot in the door.  When we started they paid $11 per session, and the owner, a creep, made a fortune on us.  The place was kinda run down and the work demanding.  Among the regulars there were a lot of burly guys.  The tables were makeshift and the ergonomics pretty lousy, so I left after each night sore and exhausted.

Soon Becca got a second job – this time at the Berkeley Sauna which was owned by a woman named Elizabeth and her sister.  I followed Becca and started working there too.  It was a much nicer place and it was closer to my home on Ashby Ave.  They also paid better; around $17 or $18/massage and the tips were also higher.  Lot’s of regulars came in so the therapists shared clients.  I worked on Steve and so did Becca and they were married a few years later.

Not long after, I joined the bodywork team at the Courthouse Athletic Club.  I tried to bring Becca aboard, but she wouldn’t go near the place. The owner, an orthopedist, had misdiagnosed a cyst in Becca’s knee several years before and this had ended her professional cycling career.  I went on to build a practice in Kensington with a small group of women practitioners and Becca continued teaching PE part-time at Berkwood Hedge School.  My godson Lev Hirschhorn and his older sister Talia were two of her students.

Becca and I shared a bond in that both of us had degrees in PE and neither of us were at ll embarrassed by it.  Actually, it amused me because between the two of us, Becca was the jock.  I had started out studying music and recreation at Humboldt State while Becca got her undergraduate degree in Adult Fitness from Sonoma State.  I then returned to study at San Francisco State, supporting myself as a body worker and completing my BA. I  took endless prerequisites for a Masters program in Physical Therapy –  Human Anatomy in the cadaver lab, Exercise Physiology, Kinesiology, Adaptive PE and others.  When Becca decided to get her certificate in Adaptive PE at State, I connected her with Dr. Tina Summerford, who had been one of my advisors.  It felt good to finally give Becca a hand up like the many she had given me.

As a transplant from the East Coast, I loved that Becca was practically a Berkeley native. She had grown up here and her mom, Janet, lived close and knew a zillion people.

Becca was on the Aquatic Master’s Swim team and when I moved to North Berkeley I joined the Hopkins pool and tried to do the same.  But I had been injured in a bike accident and that was exacerbated by my Aikido training so Ihad to give up the intense workouts.  Occasionally Becca and I still swam together at the Strawberry Canyon Recreation Area behind the stadium at Cal.

Becca then started rowing crew at Lake Merritt (which was never my thing) but  I was impressed by the discipline and commitment of her teammates – rowing at all sorts of crazy early morning hours!   Once I joined Becca for a killer workout with her trainer at the Berkeley Tennis Club and gave up half way through. When Becca took up Iyengar Yoga I sometimes joined her at the Yoga Room at the Julia Morgan building including some with Rodney Yee.

It’s surprising to realize how many new things Becca introduced to me.  When she took up Macrobiotic cooking, I got seriously interested too.  For a while I cooked Macrobiotic food for our bodywork friend, Joan Marie Passalacqua.  Becca taught me how to make mochi and the last time we pounded rice was at Maryclare’s birthday party a couple of years ago.

Becca knew the guy who started Clif Bars and when she launched her business making Sesame Chews we believed she could be just as successful.  I wholesaled them to the SF State bookstore.  To her increase her business savvy Becca decided to study at WISE, Women’s Initiative for Self Employment, in San Francisco.  When I graduated from State and started a practice in on-site (chair) massage I also took the WISE training and I learned tons about how to be a business entrepreneur.

Becca’s parties were low key with a colorful mix of really interesting people. And because she was a foodie you could count on the yummiest and most nutritious food and drink. Back when thirty was still a big deal I attended Becca’s 30th birthday celebration at her mom’s.  I was at her 40th just before I left for Rabbinical School in Philadelphia and also I also came to her and Steve’s wedding reception in Redwood Park.  I am so glad I made it to her 50th birthday in the back yare of their Derby Street a couple of years ago.  Even though Becca was undergoing cancer treatment by then she looked fabulous in a cropped white wig and sexy black spotted dress.

Other than her knowing  she was born Jewish, Becca was not much into organized religion.  One winter she had a Holiday party at her apartment which was around the corner from my flat on North Street in Rockridge.  Janet had given Becca a pit-fired ceramic Hanukkah menorah, made by my good friend and homeless rights activist Susan Felix.  Hanukkah was over by then, but Becca happily displayed her fully lit menorah on the mantle. I had never seen someone simply bypass the traditions associated with its lighting, but Becca was so gleefully displaying it that I just bit my tongue.

During my rabbinic training in Philadelphia I visited and stayed with Becca, Steve and Abby. I’d been in seminary for almost four years and we’d been lousy correspondents, but when we got to talking it was as if I had never left. We hiked up Claremont Canyon as we’d done many times before and Becca commented on my powerful stride and pace.  Becca was half my weight and althout I’d been living asedentary life, on those steep trails I was somehow able to keep up with her.

Becca told me about her cancer diagnosis shortly after I returned to the Bay Area in the summer of 2006 to begin serving as the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco.  Coming back meant we were able to pick up right where we’d left our freindship.

I am so incredibly grateful for the gift of Becca’s friendship and for being able to enjoy her company during the final years of her life.  There was noone else quite like her – humble, strong, courageous, gutsy, kind and caring – and I am still astounded by the many ways she influenced my life.  I will miss her tremendously and savor the memories.


Spiritual Community and the Generosity of “Strangers”

Ongoing acts of kindness and generosity literally turn strangers into friends and transform a random group of folks into a real community.

“We can only create and maintain community if we share both the dream and the commitment to work for its realization…Community life needs to offer the affection and support that is normally provided by extended family members living in close proximity. ” – Rabbi David A. Teutsch

After helping someone in need recently, a BIJ member told me that the line between giving and receiving had been so blurred that she did not know who had benefitted more. In response all I could say was that to know this feeling is to be truly blessed. Not long ago, I also learned of an informal gathering of BIJers who assembled spontaneously to offer healing prayers for someone who had received a difficult diagnosis. I was deeply moved at hearing this since it affirmed what I know to be true of BIJ: We are a caring congregation. The peer-led prayer circle affirmed my long-held belief in the importance of spiritual community. It further reminded me that while a leader’s role is to serve as a teacher and mentor, acts of leadership both great and small are initiated all the time by members of our community.

According to the Sages, gemilut hasadim, deeds-of-loving-kindness, is one of three categories of mitzvot that sustain the world. Whether it is by supporting a member whose child is in distress, visiting or delivering food to a fellow congregant who is ill, providing a ride to shul for a synagogue elder, comforting the bereaved, attending a shiva minyan, helping an unemployed congregant find a job, assembling and dropping off mishloach manot on Purim or delivering seder sacks on Passover, hundreds of mitzvot are performed at BIJ every day.

These ongoing acts of kindness and generosity literally turn strangers into friends and transform a random group of folks into a real community.

The list of tasks required to run a congregation far exceeds the number of available staff hours. Whether serving on the Board or a committee, helping with administrative duties in the office, planning and organizing special events and programs, greeting fellow congregants and visitors at services, preparing and serving an oneg Shabbat, kiddush or meal, washing table cloths or kitchen towels, selling coffee and bagels at the Micha Mocha café, chanting Torah or haftarah on Shabbat or holidays, setting and cleaning up before and after shul events, kashering the kitchen for Pesach, planting shrubs and new seedlings in our garden, repairing broken or damaged furniture and fixtures, BIJ depends on our volunteers.

The Torah describes a ‘volunteer’ as one who is nediv lev, moved by the heart. The term first appears in Exodus, parashat Vayakheil, during the building of the mishkan (tabernacle) where a call for contributions is answered to such excess that a moratorium on giving is declared. While BIJ has never faced this happy dilemma, our community exists only because our members are continuously moved to give of their resources, time and talent and by so doing have built a spiritual home that this far greater than our numbers betray. At BIJ members feel a true sense of belonging and our palpable warmth and hospitality is what makes our community attractive to potential members and guests.

Thank you for all you do and give to sustain our spiritual home. The generous offerings of the heart that each of you brings to our congregation are appreciated far more than these words can adequately express.