Judith Orloff – Yehudit bat Binyamin v’ Lilli
May 1st 1939 – November 8th 2022
I have been feeling very daunted and unworthy of this awesome and ridiculous task to try to capture the essence of this brilliant, thoughtful, loving, hilarious, beautiful, complex, paradoxical woman Judith Orloff, and I keep imagining how she would react to my words, which ones she would edit, correct or challenge. I do wish I had spent more time with Judith before this sad and sudden decline, to discuss all those big existential questions and talk about her significant fear and unpreparedness to die. She was scared and felt like she still had so much to do. Years ago Judith was in our adult Bnei Mitzvah class for people who had not had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah when they were younger. It was designed to be a sort of introduction to Jewish ideas, texts and practices and from day one, Judith wanted to go deeper, much deeper, asking probing questions, not satisfied with any superficial explanations, yearning for the mystical secrets, the Kabbalah, challenging me and everyone in the class, disrupting the standard way of learning, needing more. This was Judith her whole life. Her sister Carol said that she had an unquenchable thirst for learning and knowledge from a young age and was always a great student and an amazing teacher, empowering everyone she encountered to be their best selves, even if it was uncomfortable sometimes to face her probing and direct questions completely devoid of any small talk, getting right to the point whether you wanted to go there or not. Everyone who was in any kind of relationship with Judith experienced this and those who stuck with it became better, more emotionally intelligent and authentic humans as a result.
V’teyn bilibaynu l’havin, u’l’haskil, lishmoa, lilmod, ul’lamed, lishmor, v’la’asot, u’l’kayaym et kol divrei talmud Toretecha b’ahavah. This line from Jewish liturgy says: “place inside our hearts the capacity to understand, to discern, to listen, to learn and to teach, to keep, to perform and to fulfill all the words of Your Torah with love.” Even though Judith was not traditionally religious, this phrase and these verbs describe her relationship to life and to the Torah in its broadest sense as ancient wisdom unraveled over time.
Judith was born in Philadelphia in 1939 to Lillian and Benjamin (Benny), mostly secular Jewish parents who had grown up more traditional, especially Judith’s Orthodox bubbie with whom she had a wonderful relationship! Carol said that Passover was her mother putting a box of matzah on the table. Judaism was somehow always important to Judith, with the mysticism and constant searching for truth and authenticity, often making up rituals to bring more meaning. Judith’s quest for truth of course was by no means contained only in Judaism, but other spiritual practices and beliefs, most significantly in recent years her studies of non dualism with Peter Fenner. Even though Judith’s spirituality was so deep, Adam said that his mother loved the Cecile B DeMille version of Judaism, romanticized versions of Jewish life and she loved sharing Charlton Heston’s Moses with the kids.
Judith loved, and of course was challenged by, Israel and she was there several times, including on our community trip in 2005 and Judith added so much with her presence and her curiosity. 8 years ago, she took the whole family to Israel and it was so important to her to give her family this experience. She characteristically argued with their tour guide the whole, but it was an amazing trip and she made sure to include holy sites in Bethlehem for her Catholic daughter-in-law Kimberly!
However much Judith, like all of us really, struggled with God, pushing everyone on what they believed, she really loved the ritual, and Jewish life-cycle in the family was important to her and I was recruited by her for Jenna’s baby naming and Arlo’s brit milah, circumcision.
She was always a great sister to Carol, who always admired, loved and respected her, even when in childhood Judith had her act as her slave, gettting her water or cigarettes and bowing down to her. Judith enlisted her younger sister to help her get boyfriends. She always had lots of friends growing up who all loved her. She was so smart from a young age that it was hard to trick her. For many years Judith and Richard, her brother in law didn’t get along, but in recent years they became really, really close and he is sad not to be here today. Judith and Carol were pretty devoted sisters, even through the occasional fights, they were always there for each other and in the last five years, they spoke every single day and Judith wanted to know what was going on with everyone, especially all the stuff that was too personal to share! Carol and Richard’s children and grandchildren all love Judith.
Judith had a difficult relationship with her father and moved out when she was 19 and went to New York where she met Alvin, Heather and Adam’s father, and they were married when she was 21. Alvin was the first of 5 husbands and this was the first of six marriages! The last two being with her beloved of thirty years, Jonathan.
As a sister, wife, mother, grandmother, aunt, great aunt, friend or student (and we were all her students), she wanted to know your deepest truths and if she didn’t like the answers to her questions, she would challenge you until you were more authentic. She liked to shock, asking directly about money, work, sex before saying hi, how are you.
Her own academic, professional and writing achievements were remarkable with three published books. She earned a Masters of Education from the University of Vermont and was the co-founder of Burlington College without the real academic credentials and she finally got her Phd in education from Fielding Institute at 80 years old and for five years has been obsessive in her learning about non-dualism. Judith was relentless about education for herself and her family.
In her work running the Choices Seminars all over the world, she literally transformed and saved lives. Judith has patents on 6 principles for overcoming trauma and built the very successful business Educational Discoveries with 80 employees, helping organizations transform their culture.
Judith had stunning physical beauty and one of the great paradoxes of Judith Orloff was that as deep as she was spiritually and emotionally, she was, and these are Adam’s words, extremely vain. She would do anything to keep looking good. She would say “Adam, it is far more important how you look than how you feel.” She cared so much about appearance as well as what was happening on the inside. She was deep and superficial at the same time.
Perhaps this is related to the fact that she was always so afraid of the physical world and its dangers – swimming and hiking and the outdoors were frightening for her. Heather told the story of the ropes course, which was meant to be a family team building experience and the guide, an ex boyfriend of Heather’s, said “we cannot manage your family!” Judith’s great attraction to Jonathan was that he represented a world utterly different, physical and embodied, while Judith was so metaphysical and cerebral. The home that they created with such beautiful access to the outdoors opened her up to such deep wonder at small things like birds gathering at the bird feeder and big things like seeing whales in the Caribbean. Judith’s fear of the physical included her fear of leaving her body, which has been so hard for her family to witness and we hope that she is at peace.
The Judith paradoxes were not just about the physical and the spiritual, she also cared so deeply about rights for women, the LBGTQ community and everyone’s right to be who they truly are, and yet she was also very traditional about marriage, about a woman taking her husband’s name, even though she was such a feminist. I suppose none of it is a contradiction as she embraced it all at once. A non-dual embrace of opposites because she was too large a soul to be put into any box.
All of Judith’s family and friends would say that they are more authentically who they are because of her. Rithy said that his mother taught him about unconditional love, a true sense of care and respect and, he said, the most important lesson of my life – getting myself out of the way. Rithy, like so many of us, always appreciated the conversations and wisdom that she shared even if it took months to get it. Judith always challenged everyone to live more meaningfully. She couldn’t help herself being a therapist as much as a sister, mother, grandmother and some of her relationships were hard, like with Jonathan’s sister Shelley, who was so scared of Judith for years, but more recently, they fell in love!
Judith’s grandson Jack shared that safta, as she always wanted to be known by her grandchildren, always made him feel very comfortable being himself, pulling it out of him, and Jenna spoke of her grandmother’s loving, welcoming presence, helping you work out problems at your own pace and she loved watching movies (another great love of Judith’s) together with safta, as she took care of her when she was sick. At the end of our conversation the other night with Judith’s family, Jack looked up at me and said, “can I ask you what motivates you to do this work?” I was thrown by the question and as I started to formulate my answer, I felt Judith’s yearning for understanding and truth living on in her descendants and it made me smile.
Jonathan, who has been unbelievable in his devotion, love, care and presence throughout all of this, has had many conversations about God with Judith in these last few years of Judith’s cancer and Covid lockdown. He shared that in recent days in hospital, he asked Judith “have you been talking to God?” Yes, she said. What about? Going home. What did He say? Good move.
This is so hard. Judith didn’t want to die and none of her devoted family and friends wanted her to leave this world, but there is some comfort, perhaps, in thinking of her going home, whatever that may mean. In our weekly portion from the Torah, the phrase v’yissa einav, and he lifted up his eyes, she lifted up her eyes, is repeated several times. Abraham and the outsider Hagar both lift up their eyes when what is in front of them seems impossible and cruel, and they see something that was always there, but they had failed to notice – an oasis just as a mother and son were going to die of thirst, a ram caught in a thicket as Abraham was going to sacrifice his son. Judith, through her relentless questions and wrestling for meaning, helped all who knew her lift up our eyes and see another way when we were ready to give up on it all. Judith has inspired so, so many people and her legacy lives on in all whose lives were touched by her and in all who became better versions of themselves because of her challenges.
Judith is deeply mourned and missed by her loving family; husband Jonathan, sister Carol, brother-in-law Richard, children Adam, Heather and Rithy and their partners Kimberly, Mike and Karla, grandchildren Montana, Jack, Jenna, Julie and Arlo, along with many nieces, nephews, great nieces and nephews and many cherished friends.
Hamakom y’nachem – we wish comfort and strength to all who mourn and may Judith’s soul soar high and send the light of blessed memories to us below.
The memorial and celebration of Judith’s life at UUCB can be seen on YouTube here:
Wow, Rabbi Marc, you really captured a little of the essence of Judith! She will be sorely missed!