As Rabbi Darah Lerner prepares to lead Bangor’s Reform synagogue through the holiest time of year for Jews starting Monday, she’s discovered that what Jews experience on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, doesn’t happen just once a year.
She has spent much of this year undergoing treatment for aggressive ovarian cancer.
“One thing I learned from my diagnosis and treatment is that every day is Yom Kippur,” said Lerner, 61.
In addition to atonement, Yom Kippur is a time when Jews are supposed to be aware of their own mortality, she said.
“Because one wears very simple clothing or white clothing or a robe — the same kind of thing one would be buried in — and because one fasts and one turns from all earthly activities and the normalacies of life, it is a time when you are supposed to experience a little death,” Lerner said. “And what that is supposed to do for one is to get you to take your life seriously in ways that many of us don’t do unless we’re confronted with a profound something like death.”
Lerner, who has led Bangor’s only Reform synagogue — located on French Street — since 2005, was diagnosed in January. She sought treatment at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center in Albuquerque to be near family in that state. She had surgery in February followed by rounds of chemotherapy.
When Lerner announced her diagnosis on social media, she asked for healing prayers — a custom at Friday night services observing Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. She quoted author and Rabbi Steven Leder to explain why.
“’Prayer pierces isolation, surrounding us with swaying, songs and comfort when we pray with others and with peaceful solitude when we pray alone,” Leder wrote. “Prayer says to the [one] on whose behalf we pray, I care for you. I am thinking about you. You are not suffering alone and unnoticed. Prayer is hope.’”
Because services went online last year during the pandemic, Lerner became used to seeing the names of people for whom congregants were requesting healing prayers pop up in the chat feature on Zoom. She had not seen her own name before.
“And it’s kind of amazing, I have to say, to see your name repeated by multiple congregants and friends asking for prayers of healing,” Lerner said.
Because of those online services, she knew that her congregants were praying for her healing. But through Facebook and email, she knew that other clergy and members of the Bangor community who are not Jewish also were praying for her. She also received cards in the mail, sometimes from people she did not know or remember.
“I would sometimes look at an envelope and wouldn’t know immediately who that person was,” she said. “Then I’d open it and find out they were students [I’d taught] from Senior College, workers at businesses I’d interacted with, people who’d experienced a social justice event I was involved in.”
Lerner has been active in social justice advocacy in Maine for years. She and her longtime partner Kelly Quagliotti were married in August 2013, a year after voters approved a change in state law allowing same-sex couples to wed for which Lerner had advocated. The couple invited the Bangor Daily News to chronicle the event.
Tim Reagan, president of Beth El, said Friday that the congregation “managed to get by” without their rabbi for the past seven months. Lerner was able to lead some services remotely from New Mexico but lay leaders in the congregation stepped up, and non-Jewish members of the community were invited to give sermons.
But it was not the same as having their rabbi present.
“We are incredibly happy and delighted and grateful that she’s back,” he said. “We missed her terribly.”
Reagan speculated that the broader community felt her absence as well.
Lerner said that she is looking forward to leading her congregation again, even if she continues to do that mostly virtually. The rabbi also will be involved in the broader community, sharing how the Jewish faith views many of the issues Mainers are facing today.
Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown Monday while Yom Kippur begins at sunset on Sept. 15. Services at Congregation Beth El will be remote. Congregation Beth Israel, Bangor’s Conservative synagogue, will hold hybrid services in-person and online.