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Winning Her Poignant Battle To Become Jewish Storyteller — In Shadow Of Cancer

For several years, Phyllis Binik-Thomas dreamt of becoming a storyteller, or maggid, to take her commitment intergenerational Jewish communication to another level.

She wasn’t going to let cancer prevent her from reaching that goal.

As beaming family and friends gathered in her Cincinnati living room, Binik-Thomas was ordained as a maggid educator on Tuesday afternoon in an emotional ceremony held as she battles against a rare and fast-moving form of the disease.

“She was filled with light by what happened,” said Rabbi Goldie Milgram, who led the course for the Reclaiming Judaism organization. “I felt the love and compassion of God as present between and within us as people flowing through me and emerging from everyone there.”

Binik-Thomas, 63, the director of Cincinnati’s Conservative movement-affiliated Mercaz High School, had completed three years of rigorous coursework to become a maggida, the feminine version of a title traditionally conferred on Jewish storytellers.

After she had finished her classes, and prior to the ordination ceremony for her and other students, she was diagnosed with cancer, leading Milgram to organize a hasty event in Binik-Thomas’s living room.

Binik-Thomas spoke little during the ceremony, and was unable to comment, because of her condition.

She smiled throughout Tuesday’s event, as her four grandchildren chattered in the living room and her classmates and teachers offered words of love and encouragement via a video conference call.

“I want to be your student and then I want to grow up to be you,” said teacher Batya Podos, who addressed Binik-Thomas as an “artist, teacher, sister, friend.”

The ceremony included the formal conferring of the maggida title and the singing of the Shehecheyanu blessing and the Mi Shebeirach healing chant.

Sprawled on a red recliner, Binik-Thomas also shared her personal motto: “I am here to make connections.”

A native of Cincinnati, Binik-Thomas grew up in an Orthodox family and married Mike Thomas, with whom she has two sons. She started her working life as an artist, running a county arts commission. Later, she directed after-school education programs at Mercaz High School and served as education director at Temple Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue.

Participants recalled her work in the community, sharing memories of how she had started an intergenerational storytelling program between senior center residents and high school students. Binik-Thomas continues her work as an artist by doing the calligraphy and illustrations on ketubahs, Jewish marriage contracts.

Her far-reaching Jewish spirit apparently carried over into the maggid educator program. For the program, she helped organize a retreat in which students and teachers came together.

“She was our big mama. I felt so nurtured by her, and was so taken by how she was concerned for the well-being of all of us,” classmate Rina Daly said.

The Reclaiming Judaism initiative is aimed at resurrecting the maggid tradition, which flourished during the Middle Ages and saw itinerant preachers wander from town to town to offer Jews moral and spiritual education through stories.

With Binik-Thomas facing the prospect of death, it’s uncertain that she will physically work as a storyteller.

But participants in the ordination exhorted her to communicate with them in other ways.

“Please speak to us, give us blessings and insights from olam haba [the after-life],” teacher and fellow maggida Cassandra Sagan said. “We will be here telling your stories, teaching as many of your lessons that we can get down.”

Milgram, who told a tale during the ceremony about a woman walking down a “narrow bridge” separating life and death, said the experience would stay with her.

“There was something about this experience that allowed her to be fully present,” Milgram said of Binik-Thomas, whose treatment has led her to go in and out of consciousness. “She appeared radiant, caressing my hand, holding my hand.”

“This was her dream, to be an ordained maggid educator,” Milgram added. “And for us to be able to fulfill it, it felt like love.”

Contact Daniel J. Solomon at [email protected] or on Twitter, @DanielJSolomon

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