Category Archives: Wichita

Help this blogger raise money for Chai Lifeline

Dear Readers,

On Sunday, May 30, 2010 I will, for the third year year, join dozens of Chai Cyclists in Chicago’s Bike the Drive, a thirty-mile rally on Lake Shore Drive, to raise money for Chai Lifeline, a wonderful organization dedicated to helping very sick children and their families.

Last year was amazing. While I had only planned on biking 30 miles, I ended up biking all 45. This year I’m aiming for an even further distance. The experience of biking with friends and strangers for an important cause like Chai Lifeline was very rewarding. The weather was great and my family was so proud of me.  You can read the details here.

Many of you helped me raise money over the last two year and I was told that I actually brought in the second largest amount of sponsorship for 2009’s Bike the Drive program. Thanks to you, we made a difference.

Years ago, we purchased a car and got a “gift certificate” for a sporting goods store. Aside from skateboarding, I’m really not much of an athlete.  So, I ended up buying a bike (and one for my wife). While I do like to bike with my family around the neighborhood, I’ve very glad that I’m able to help Chai Lifeline.  To use my bike and get sponsors that can help Chai Lifeline is an amazing mitzvah opportunity.

Chai Lifeline provides year-round emotional, social, and financial support to more than 3,000 children and their families every year. In our area, Chai Lifeline Midwest offers access to two-dozen free programs and services that touch each member of the family, helping them to live full and happy lives despite the presence of illness.  I have seen how much they do for families, especially when the outcome is devistating.

My objective is to raise at least $2,500.00 by race day and I hope you will help me reach this goal. All donations are 100% tax deductible. If your company has a matching gift program, your gift may be doubled or tripled.

I know that time are tough, believe me. But your help in donating any amount can make a difference. Thank you for supporting me, and in doing so, helping children and their families cope with the diagnosis, treatment and aftermath of serious pediatric illness. Please feel free to forward this to anyone who might be interested in supporting Chai Lifeline.

When I train and ride this year I will be listening to lectures about Jewish thought and personal growth. In past rides I have been able to dedicate my biking as a merit for several sick children who personally get help directly from Chai Lifeline and also in memory of departed loved ones and others close to me.  So even if you don’t donate, please let me know if you would like me to have someone in mind when I’m listening to a shiur.

This year my ride will be much more personal, since my father, of blessed memory, passed away in early November of 2009. I’ve mentioned it a bit on my blog, but not the details.  He had very quickly gotten diagnosed with leukemia and while in the hospital he had contracted pneumonia. Sadly, it was too much for his body to handle. I’m fortunate that I was able to fly out to Wichita, KS to see him and be with him for his last 48 hours.  My father, Albert Lyon Harris, Avraham ben Zorach, was always supportive of me helping Chai Lifeline. He and his wife not only give financial support to my endeavor, but were very proud that they could help an important organization like Chai Lifeline. I remember calling my dad after last year’s ride and he was so thrilled to hear how far I had biked. So this year, I’ll be dedicating my ride to my dad.

If interested in helping me please feel free to click here or please send me an email. I would also be thrilled if you could forward this post to others (or even link). Thanks again for all of your help.

Neil Harris

Availing myself during aveilus

Rav Hirsch brings down the idea that the root of aveilus is the Hebrew word aval, which means “but”.  This is because while one is mourning someone, there’s always this feeling of “…but, I should have spent more time with the departed” or “…I’m doing ok, but, I still miss the person”.  There’s always a “but”.

My father a”h has been niftar for just over two months and I’m hoping that this post will be somewhat cathartic for me.  It’s been hard to actually sit down and write lately.  This is mostly due to the fact that my father, while in the hospital, mentioned to me that he has always enjoyed reading my blog (I had only become aware that he even knew about it at the end of the summer).  While I’m glad that he was able to let me know this, thinking about a post or even writing something reminds me of the fact that he’s not around.  It’s the same way with Sugar-Free Grape Kool Aid.  My dad, it seems loved the stuff.  It was about the only thing I drank, besides coffee, when I was in Wichita.  I’ve thought about buying it for home, but I can’t bring myself to do it.  Hazelnut coffee is also one of those things my dad loved.  He would mix Columbian ground coffee with hazelnut flavored coffee and that was his brew.  At work we have hazelnut flavored creamer.  I try not to even look at it.

Making sure that I don’t miss a Kaddish is constantly on my mind.  There’s a very strong sense of being alone, since I’m the only one (in Chicago) saying Kaddish for my father, but there’s also sort of an unspoken connection that I have to others who are also saying Kaddish in any given minyan.

The “no music” thing has begun to drive me batty.  I constantly have tons of music-mixes going through my head.  Mixes that, in a way, reflect different aspects of who I am.  I’ve got Carlebach songs that flow into a Husker Du/Bob Mould track that will then ease into Diaspora Yeshiva Band song which will blend into early REM tracks that slide into a Rabbis Sons song and finally ending (most recently) with something from the soundtrack to Blade Runner.  It’s the ultimate mega-mix in an odd way.  I catch myself humming niggunim around my office and in the car.  I was never into sports, so I’m stuck listening to news radio (which I don’t mind) in the car.  But (there’s that but again), there’s really only so many time I can hear “traffic and weather together on the 8s”.  

I’ve felt pretty detached from things at home.  Even though my wife is great about it, it bothers me.  On the flip side, though, I’m trying to become much more “communal” in terms of my thinking about what I can offer my own community, as well as getting more involved in things.

My drive home from work is tough.  I’m lucky that I have a commute that is under 20 minutes, but I use to call my dad (almost daily) on the way home from work.  I’m fortunate that I can call my brother and shmooze with him, but it’s not the same.

Two friends (and bloggers) sent me a copy of Out of the Whirlwind by Rav Soloveitchik zt”ll.  I’ve found the sefer to be very insightful.  I’ll end with a quote from the last chapter, titled “A Theory of Emotions”:

Avelut denotes the critical stage of mourning, the grief awareness, and at this level, we will notice at once that avelut contains its own proper negation-solace and hope.  Avelut in Halakhah is interwoven with nehamah, consolation.  They are inseparable.  The latter is not a frame of mind which displaces grief; there is rather an inter-penetration of grief and solace, of forelornness and hope, of mourning and faith.  Immediately upon closing the grave, the line is formed and comfort is offerend to the mourners.  What is the Kaddish pronounced at the grave if not an ostentatious negation of despair?

I’m thankful that I live in a community with so many friends who helped me during shiva and continue to do so.  I attempt to remember that I’m loved by my creator and that this current situation is a really springboard for growth on many different levels.  But…

Home on the Range

Sometimes I kid myself and think of this is a “mussar blog”.  It’s really just a personal blog with a bit of mussar that I give to myself thrown in from time to time.   Like now, for example.

Just over two weeks ago was the first time I had been back in my hometown of Wichita, KS in exactly twelve years (to the Parsha). My dad a”h had been hospitalized and based on what I had heard from family members and at the suggestion of my wife I flew out to be with him.

Waiting to board the plane in Chicago, people were dressed up in costume (as it was October 31). I was even asked if I was “dressed as an Orthodox Jew”? That in and of itself made the trip worth it, as a mussar lesson. After an hour and twenty mintues I landed.

As I got off the plane and walked past the TSA check-point, I could only smile, remember the dozen water guns that I had packed for family vacations in the 70s and 80s and how all of those water guns had been confiscated. At the time, it seemed like a big deal. In retrospect, most airlines would probably welcome a water gun these days. Not much had physically changed in the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport since I had been there last. They still had coat hook right inside the restrooms (which implied that crime was still low in the city) and the chairs throughout the airport were still the same. The phrase that came to mind was, “if it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it”.

A majority of my time was spent at the hospital with my family. Driving back and forth to the hospital I looked at the streets and buildings. Some had been torn down, many businesses had closed, with others opening up in their place. Certain professions seemed to have stayed afloat over the years. Most accounting, real estate, and dentisty businesses seemed to have stayed the same. Several indepenant “fast food” places closed only to have similar businesses open in their place. Aside from having several Starbucks locations not much had really changed. I drove past my old house, the flood prevention program (really it was a creek in my neighborhood that provided my bother and I with hours of adventure), and my old schools.

I also connected with a few close family friends from when I was growing up. One of them actually gave a beautiful hesped for my father a’h. I was reminded about the importance of community, specifically a Jewish community. The community in Wichita is pretty much made up of about 1000 Jews split almost down the middle as either reform or traditional. It’s a close knit community where people connect as Jews. Not so much in terms of observance or rituals, but because they are serious about their Judaism.

All of my aunts, uncles, and cousins came in for the funeral, as well. Most of them I hadn’t seen since my own wedding almost 13 yrs ago. It was comforting to see them, even under the above mentioned situation. Family comes together when it’s important, but you have to make it important (a lesson I’m learning now).

The morning after my father a”h was niftar I stopped off to buy a copy of the local paper at Starbucks (to have a copy of the obiturary and an article that was written about him) and the young man behind the counter introduced himself to me and said that he was sorry to hear about my dad. The manager at the Starbucks was also working and introduced herself as the wife of the Reform Rabbi in town. She also expressed her deepest condolences. That’s the community were I grew up.

My family lived in Wichita for 35 years. My father a”h went to the same shul with many of the same people for 35 years. To me that was impressive. Talk about lifelong friends. Wow. I hung out with two old friends that I had lost touch with years ago. We all had good memories growing up of our families doing things together. I’m fortunate that my kids have similar memories with close friends of ours here in Chicago.

I ended up spending a just under a week in Wichita. Had it been under better circumstances, I probably would have gotten together with a few old friends from high school. Instead I simply came back to where I was from and now I’m trying to move forward.

My hesped for my father a"h

Delivered last Wednesday (Nov 4th) in Wichita, Kansas

I want to thank everyone for being here today. It’s a true testament to the type of person that my father was.
It is written in the Ethics of our Fathers, Pirkei Avos that:
Rabbi Shimon used to say: There are three crowns–the crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a good name surpasses them all. (Pirkei Avos 4:17)”

I cannot stress how many of you have spoken with me about the high level of respect and love they had for my father. Growing up he was just my dad, who shlepped us to the Gypsum Hills and other exotic sites on Sundays, Shocker games, family gatherings, and always took us to great places to eat that were well “off the beaten path”. I was blessed to have not only know him as a father, but also as a grandfather. Grandpa, as we called him, loved his grandkids. He would always talk about sports with my son, and loved to watch my daughters dance, sing, and play. He was very proud of their Jewish education. My Dad and step-mother always made the most of their visits , even their last one in July when we spent an early morning at a flea market and then the rest of the day and evening at Six Flags. But there was another side of him that was fairly public, despite his attempts to keep it private.

He was a person who truly lived up to his Hebrew name, Avraham.
Avraham, Abraham, is known in the Torah and throughout Rabbinic writings as embodying the essence of Chessed, the Hebrew word for Kindness. My Dad never was one to seek out fame and pats-on-the-back for his deeds. He quietly, and many times behind the scenes, did many acts of kindness for everyone he came in contact with. No matter if it was a smile, a greeting when you came to into the Synagogue, offering advice, maintaining the cemetary erev Yom Tov, before a Holiday, making sure food was prepared just right, or simply thinking about how he could help someone else, he was constantly doing chessed. Even when it came to shipping out artwork sold on eBay, he would take time to make sure that each piece was packed in a way that it would arrive intact to the buyer. The truth is, most us of will never know of the chessed, the kindnesses, that my father did for others, as he was not one to ever broadcast what he did. That was the type of person my father was, thus, earning the “crown of a good name” as a brother, husband, father, uncle, friend, and especially as a grandfather.

There is a book in my dad’s basement titled “The Bar Mitzvah Treasury”, printed in 1954, that was given to my dad as a Bar Mitzvah present. In it there is a story is the following story about Rabbi Israel Salanter, a Rabbi who lived in the 1800s and started an Ethical movement within Judaism. It seems that one day, even though there was a full pail of water in the house, he used very little of it to wash his hands prior to eating bread. His pupils were quite astonished that their revered Rabbi, know for his pious acts, did not perform properly the commandment to wash thoroughly before eating bread.
Hesitantly they turned to him and said: “Please forgive us for asking you this. But we cannot understand why you used so little water to wash your hands.”

Rabbi Salanter replied: “I saw that their maidservant delivers this water to the house from a far-off well. She, poor creature, bends low under the heavy load when carries the yoke on her shoulders. I do not think it is right to perform a Mitzvah at the expense of some else’s shoulders!”
This story totally encapsulates my father. Always thinking of others and not wanting to burden anyone.

As my step-mother said to me last night, and I quote, “Random acts of kindness don’t only change the world but they elevate people.”

The true greatness of a “Ba’al Chessed”, the Hebrew term we give to a “master of Kind Acts” is that even after he leaves this world, his acts of kindness continue. I am truly blessed, that even at this difficult time, he has allowed me to reconnect with family and friends whom I was very close with when I was growing up. The crown of his good name, Avharam ben Zorach, Albert Lyon Harris, can live on in each of us, if we simply think about what we can do to help someone else.

My penchant to rant…

… or why I don’t blog Anon

This is actually my second blog. My first blog was back November 2004 and I did not use my name. The blog was called “Out of town Yid” and constisted of only one posting. The blog was put to sleep after about two days. My ‘post’ was basically about how middos and basic ethical concepts in Yiddishkeit should, in theory, get passed on to one’s children, students, congregants, or receivers of ‘Jewish outreach attempts’. When this doesn’t happen, it’s a disaster. It was not what I would describe as as a “happy go lucky post full of sunshine”. After rereading it I, as mentioned, pulled the plug.

For some, the ability to blog anonymous works to their advantage. For me, it brought out a dark side, that gravitated towards the sarcastic, a place were I might be prone to use my “wit to abuse, not to amuse.”

I know, for myself, that blogging under my name helps to (hopefully) keep me in check and for lack of a better phrase, not do anything foolish. When one puts themselves out in the public, on the web, on You Tube, Facebook, at the grocery store, at work, in shul, or in line somewhere for coffee, we do not only represent ourselves. There is a bigger picture.

That picture, may include our family, spouse, children, or the general category of “Torah observant Judaism”. Chillul Hashem is never a good thing. Rav Yisrael (Lipkin) of Salant (I know it’s not Sunday) said:
When Lashon Hara is spoken in Vilna, the effect will be Chillul Shabbos in Paris.

If, chas v’Shalom, this is true, then the best way to counter such a thing would be for me to remember that the opportunities that I can use for a Kiddush Hashem, or the learning I do, or the davening I do, or the mitzvos I do can have a very global effect. Can a Jew davening in Yerushalyim have an impact on another Jew in Wichita, KS? I like to hope so.

I’m not so global of a thinker tonight, though. I’d rather think more locally, like about my kids sleeping several rooms away. I hope I can affect them positively.