Columbus, Ohio native Brenda Luper (“go Buckeyes!”) was a relatively new arrival in the Seattle area in 2007 when she learned her mom had pancreatic cancer.
“We had no idea what that meant,” she says.
Sadly, her mother died four months later and “we spent much of that time trying to figure out what we were up against.” Finding the right answers was hard.
In 2008 her son Nathan raised $2,000 for pancreatic cancer research for his Bar Mitzvah service project. By donating the money to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (www.pancan.org), Brenda first learned of the organization. In 2009, her dad organized a fundraising walk in Tempe, Ariz., where her parents had been living.
“If my son can do this, if my dad can do this, I can do this,” Brenda thought.
When she found out there was no local walk, “I said, ‘Let’s get a walk started.’”
With volunteers and staff from PanCAN’s Puget Sound affiliate, she helped plan the Nov. 2009 event in only eight weeks. Expecting 50 participants, the committee was amazed when 500 people registered “five days before the walk,” Brenda says. And last month’s walk attracted 1,500 participants, raising $150,000.
Because of her mom’s death, Brenda also got involved in the daily minyan service at her synagogue, Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation.
“Right after mom died I started to go say Kaddish,” she says. The Herzl minyan, she said, provided much-needed support.
By the way, research shows a connection between pancreatic cancer and Ashkenazi Jews. “Out of the regular minyan-goers at Herzl,” Brenda says, “I have met 12 people…who are directly connected with pancreatic cancer.”
Though the minyan was welcoming, as a newcomer she found it difficult to make a strong connection with the rest of the congregation. Also, she says, the minyan was struggling with mostly older participants and dwindling attendance.
“So I decided, being the renegade that I am, that I was going to change things,” she says. After approaching Bob Zimmerman, who runs the services, Brenda started writing a brochure called “The top 10 reasons not to go to minyan,” and introduced a different type of service one Sunday a month called the Minyanaire’s Club. It’s “more interactive,” she says, with more English and “more ruach-y, upbeat tunes,” followed by a brunch.
Brenda works at Franklin Moves, which specializes in managing business moves, and enjoys spending free time with husband Steve, and kids Nathan, 16, and Jessica, 13. The family enjoys skiing and traveling, and visiting synagogues at their destinations.
Next up? “We’re going to Australia in December and we’re going to The Great Synagogue,” she says.
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The Balkan folk music ensemble Dunava. (Photo courtesy Dunava)
If you glanced at our arts section first, perhaps you were surprised to see a listing for a Dec. 10 concert of Balkan folk music performed by Dunava, a women’s choral ensemble.
In fact, three members of Dunava — Bulgarian for “Danube” — are Jewish, and there is more of a Jewish connection than you would think.
“Some of the Balkan melodies are reminiscent of Eastern European Jewish folk melodies,” wrote Meredith Selfon in an email, “and so they feel like home to me.” Meredith met her husband Scott through Hillel at the University of Washington’s former a capella group and observes, “though I am not religious, singing…[gives me] a spiritual connection to fellow singers, audiences and the universe.”
Israeli-born Hila Lenz, a founding member of the group, says she didn’t realize the music and folk dance of her youth had Eastern European roots until she joined Dunava, but finds that connection “was very cool.”
Hila’s family moved to Boise when she was 9, where she sang in Ahavath Beth Israel’s choir, which her parents directed for a while. She sang in choirs at Seattle University while getting her Bachelor’s degree, and is just finishing a Master’s in Middle Eastern studies at the UW.
Jill Cohen’s involvement in the choir grew out of her connection to dance.
“I grew up doing Israeli and international dancing and the music is integral to that,” she says.
She first heard Balkan women’s music on the radio in the mid-1980s, and found it “unearthly beautiful.”
She got a chance to dance and sing folk songs as a member of Radost, the Balkan folk dance troupe, and was delighted to have the chance to sing more complex choral pieces in Dunava.
“The music in the style of the female vocal choir is heart-wrenchingly beautiful, incredibly complex,” says Jill, who is also president of Seattle’s Congregation Beth Shalom.
All Balkan peninsula countries had Jewish communities, and all were decimated by the Holocaust. Jill and choir director Dina Trageser are interested in finding Balkan Jewish women’s songs that the choir can sing. If you can help, please contact Jill at firstname.lastname@example.org.