Caring and Caregiving through Covid-19: Kitra Cahana with Artists 4 Long-Term Care - Conversation with the Rabbi

Episode 6

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Published on:

29th Apr 2021

Caring and Caregiving through Covid-19: Kitra Cahana with Artists 4 Long-Term Care

Rabbi Michael Beyo and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk with Kitra Cahana of Artists 4 Long-Term Care about the devastating impact of Covid-19 on long-term care homes and the role of visual art and poetry in responding to crisis.

The statistic is shocking: only 1 percent of Canadians live in a retirement or long-term care home, yet 69 percent of Covid-19 fatalities in Canada have occurred in these facilities.

Kitra Cahana is an award-winning photojournalist and the daughter of Rabbi Ronnie Cahana, who has lived in a long-term care home in Montreal since he experienced a massive brain stem stroke in 2011. Kitra joins us to share about her work, her family's story, and her latest project: Artists 4 Long-Term Care, an art and storytelling initiative to advocate for residents and workers in long-term care facilities during Covid-19 and beyond.

Kitra is a freelance documentary photographer, videographer, a photo/video artist and a TED speaker. She is a contributing photographer to National Geographic Magazine. She has a B.A. in philosophy from McGill University and a M.A. in Visual and Media anthropology from the Freie Universitat in Berlin.

Kitra is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including two Canada Council Grants for the Visual Arts, a 2016 TED Senior Fellowship, a 2015 Pulitzer Center for Investigative Reporting grant, a 2014-2015 artist residency at Prim Centre, the 2013 International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award, first prize for the 2010 World Press Photo, a scholarship at FABRICA in Italy and the Thomas Morgan internship at the New York Times.

Additional Resources:

Conversation with the Rabbi is a project of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, neighborhood organization that has served individuals and families inclusive of all races, religions, and cultures since 1972. Visit us online at https://www.evjcc.org

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Phoenix, Arizona. Learn more at https://phx.fm

Transcript
Announcer:

From PHX.fm, this is Conversation with the Rabbi, featuring open, honest dialogue, and sometimes unconventional perspectives on the world we all share.

Adrian McIntyre:

Welcome to another Conversation with the Rabbi. I'm Adrian McIntyre. Our featured guest for today's show is Kitra Cahana, a Canadian photographer, visual artist, filmmaker, documentarian, someone who has a unique view on the world she sees around her, and the way she shares that view with us is incredibly compelling. I'm looking forward to this conversation. Our host, of course, is Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center. Hi there, Rabbi.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Good morning, Adrian, and good morning, Kitra. Thank you very much for being with us today.

Kitra Cahana:

Thank you. I'm so glad to be here with you.

Adrian McIntyre:

I'm struck by some of your previous work and I know we're going to talk a lot in this conversation, Kitra, about a more recent project which found you the way, I guess, it found all of us but with a unique twist which is long-term care facilities, the situation for humans living in those environments and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on them. But I would love it if you could just give us a bit of your backstory as we start this conversation because your relationship with your father is central, not only to some of the work that initially put you on the map but also some of the work you're doing right now. There may be other things as well you want to talk about. But how do you explain what you do to people who you've just met? How do you talk about your work?

Kitra Cahana:

Yes, I'm trying to think how to start the story. I'm the daughter of a Rabbi and as a rabbinic family what often happens is you end up moving from community to community. That was the case in our story. And so I grew up moving every few years and in that moving and traveling that we did as a family, I fell in love with exploration, meeting people, being in the world, seeing more, feeling more, expressing more. And that wonder of the out-there led me to, I guess, the career that I have now which is in photojournalism and in filmmaking and storytelling. I started as a documentary photographer, as a photojournalist when I was 16. I was living in Israel at that time and started documenting and that's been the last, close to two decades of my life, of being with people, getting very close to them, and really having the privilege to share their stories with the world.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Kitra, once again, thank you very much for being with us today. I went into your website and I also found two TED talks that you gave, I watched them. And first of all, I don't know if you ever considered to be a poet rather than a photojournalist because when I was listening and watching your TED talks, the way that you were expressing your thoughts and the way that you were painting the situation sounded a lot like poetry. And so I congratulate you for that ability. You started by saying, "I am a daughter of a Rabbi," which clearly puts your relationship with your father at the center of your life, and that's how you deeply identify yourself with. When somebody asks me who I am, I don't say, "I am the son of a businessman," but you started with that. I don't know if you started with that consciously because of the topic and the project that you're currently involved. As a Rabbi psychoanalyzing, you I would say this is wonderful how deeply you connect to your own identity with being a daughter, but not only daughter, a daughter of a Rabbi. Could you talk more about that?

Kitra Cahana:

Yeah. We feel, I say we, I have four younger siblings and it really feels we're a part of a little clan, everyone's very interconnected and very close to each other. I think my identity really does come from family and the legacies and the mythologies that you inherit. So my father's identity as a Rabbi was very central because it also shaped how we moved every couple of years to a different community. So when I look back at my life story, I think that is so central and it's interesting you're speaking about the poetry of my TED talk. In a way, I feel so much of my aesthetics is been inherited or something that's been passed down. And really, I mentioned as the first layer my father but my grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and after the war she painted her experiences and she wrote poetry and told her experiences. And I would say the emotional landscape of my childhood was, of course, there was a lot of love and a lot of joy but it was also tinged with this very deep awareness of holocausts and genocide and the potential for those two things, the potential for the far evils of man. But then, what was also implanted inside of me was this answer to that evil, that you take the clay of that trauma and you take the clay of that unimaginable horror and you turn it into art, you turn it into storytelling, you turn it into poetry so that other people can understand it. I see that as the lineage, the aesthetic lineage that I've inherited. There was actually a book that just came out this year that looks at that very thing in our family, that looks at how art is transmitted specifically in our family post-Holocaust art and poetry.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

And you chose to focus less on the written or spoken word and focus more on images.

Kitra Cahana:

I always said I became a photographer because I didn't have the guts to become a writer or a poet.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Okay.

Kitra Cahana:

In some ways I felt images could be interpreted more and in some ways being a writer or a poet felt even more intimate. I think it was a fear of mine, being so exposed in text, in writing.

Adrian McIntyre:

Well, let's talk about this for a minute because I'm fascinated by a number of the different subjects you've tackled with your visual art, with your documentary/artistic touch. They're not easy subjects. You've explored ways to visually represent your father's experience with Locked-in Syndrome which is something foreign to most people's direct experience. You've focused on intentional nomads, this kind of network and community of folks living outside the boundaries of what most people would consider society, and shown them in their environments which you're humanizing them but also exposing some of the, for those who know what they're looking at, exposing some of the structural conditions in which it's untenable to be that kind of person living outside, encounters with police, uncomfortable nights on bathroom floors in a rest stop, things of that nature. Even the work you referenced, your earliest work in Israel, documenting conflict. You are capturing and representing, both realistically and artistically, in a wonderful blend, things that challenge the viewer. Or at least I assume they do. They challenge me, and I've spend a lot of time in difficult environments. So are you really afraid? There's something very brave about what you're trying to do with those projects. Talk about that.

Kitra Cahana:

Yeah. I think because of sitting with my grandmother for all of those years, any interaction with her was an opportunity for her to tell her story of the Holocaust. She was a witness and then she asked of us to be witnesses as well to her story. I feel very comfortable sitting in intimate situations with strangers and that can be quite difficult. It doesn't make me uncomfortable to be engaged with some of the more difficult aspects of life that we all have to encounter.

Adrian McIntyre:

I mean, there are certainly something to be said for the fact that capturing the world visually requires a co-presence that a writer doesn't have to have, although she can. You actually have to be there with a camera in places where stuff is going down.

Kitra Cahana:

That's very perceptive. That's true. And that is the aspect of being a storyteller, being a photographer, being a filmmaker that I find most compelling is being able to be present with others in those intimate moments, sometimes very, very challenging moments.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

But I also will add, it seems to me, that one of the difference between written words, poetry, and what you do is that you're not only there physically with a camera but your subjects need to agree to be co-authors of your art.

Kitra Cahana:

That's true.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

And so, there is this symbiosis that starts to develop because you are asking their permission and receiving their permission and cooperation in creating the work that you do. And so, you're both creating a story that then you tell. And while I'm saying all of this, I'm reconnecting to what you said in the beginning, "I am a daughter of a Rabbi," as if you're always trying to find a partner in telling your story or you're telling the story through different partners that you find along your journey.

Kitra Cahana:

Yeah, I feel like I grew up with the camera. I started when I was 16 and so, in many ways, it was my vehicle to connection to others and the world and almost the most immediate connections. I didn't always feel I connected to my peers. I always felt like I was very uncomfortable sitting at a party or sitting at a dinner party just talking to someone next to me. But the camera almost gave this mission, this purpose, this ability to get to the core.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Let me transition just a little bit. This past year has been a difficult year for everybody. Most people in the world are still in the midst of Covid-19. I know that I have friends and family in Europe that are going through their fourth, fifth lockdown, who knows. And for you, it must be extremely even more challenging maybe, because being a person that likes to travel and to see people in different situations and document that, you couldn't do that throughout this year. So how do you cope with that? And then, maybe, you can tell us about your most recent project.

Kitra Cahana:

It's interesting. Yes, I spent my whole life on the move traveling from place to place, but once I'm focused on a project, a story, it's very quiet ... it's a quieted life. Yes, at the beginning of the pandemic I had a lot of projects that were canceled and delayed. That was complicated in its own way. But this year became its own focus and I haven't felt like I've been missing being somewhere else. I don't think I had a choice. It was just, okay, everything became so existential all at once, that became mission number one was how are we going to survive this, how are we going to ensure that my father got out a year later now and he's alive.

Adrian McIntyre:

So tee up the specifics of this situation because it has some dynamics that we understand because we know what you're talking about but the audience quite surely doesn't realize what we're talking about. So your father, whose story you shared with the world in 2014 in one of the TED talks Rabbi Beyo referenced, has been in a long-term care facility in Montreal?

Kitra Cahana:

Yeah.

Adrian McIntyre:

And you have been back and forth between Montreal and Tucson during this year. It evolved into something more than just photography and documentary film. There's an activism to what's happened around long-term care facilities, a group you've formed, Artists 4 Long-Term Care. All this kind of stuff. So tell us about the situation, how this project got started, how it's unfolded, what it's been like for you?

Kitra Cahana:

At the very beginning of the pandemic, even before the lockdowns, as soon as we started and I say we, it's really anyone who's connected to a long-term care facility - workers, residents, family members - as soon as we heard about the pandemic, it was this immediate feeling, "Oh no, we know what's coming. We know how vulnerable these facilities are." It's something that long-term care facilities deal with all the time like infection control and how to prevent spreads of diseases within the space because the thing about care homes is the residents require such high-levels of care that there's no way to social distance. Workers are going from room to room, they're coming in from the outside. Immediately, it spelled the conditions for a disaster. And there were geriatricians that were saying early on, "If you have a loved one in a long-term care facility, maybe you should see if there's any way you can take them out," and this is even before the pandemic, before the lockdowns began. And so immediately our family started thinking, okay, is there any way that we can bring my father home? And it's a lot bigger task than anyone would imagine because he's 6'3", fully quadriplegic, he requires basically around-the-clock care in order to do almost everything in his life. And so, even if you bring him home, you're still relying on the system to have workers who are available to come, those workers are still going from home to home. So suddenly, you have ... my mother would have to become his case manager. What if the workers weren't able to come? It's very complicated and very expensive as well. And so it became obvious to us quickly that we couldn't bring him home, that he would have to stay. And so in my mind, it was then, okay, how do we ensure that he and all the other residents at his facility and all the workers are as protected as possible. And this isn't just his facility, what we learned very quickly, what the world's learned very quickly was how vulnerable these institutions were to Covid. Very early on, there were reports coming from nursing homes in Europe, even one here in Montreal where Covid had entered the building, workers became afraid to go into work and those facilities became short-staffed. Workers weren't coming in, and suddenly, you have an entire institution where people are dying, not being cared for, no one's there to change diapers, no one's there to provide any kind of basic care and so it was really some of the most horrifying scenarios that you really can imagine. People dying in beds and no one's coming to retrieve them. And so, we started sharing those stories as well and so it's, okay, how do we ensure that nobody falls through the gaps like that.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

In your opinion, Kitra, as the recipient, co-recipient of these services or lack of services of the situation in these long care facilities, was it just that or we as a society and the managers in those long-term facilities did not plan correctly? Or was it that it was something that a pandemic of such scale would have crippled anyone?

Kitra Cahana:

Every place is different and I absolutely, absolutely do not blame any of the workers on the ground because, for the most part, and I'm speaking more generally not only about our facility here in Montreal, it's the way that we treat elders in our societies, across societies, and it's not just elders. It's also people with disabilities like my father because these institutions are filled with both elders and people with disabilities. They're, by and large, treated as if they're disposable. They're warehoused, they're put away, and there had been so many documented issues prior to the pandemic in long-term care facilities be it exploitation of the workers who are not paid properly, being a care worker in a lot of instances that some of the lowest paying work and some of the most difficult work, really difficult backbreaking work, very physical labor. A lot of these facilities are understaffed. And so, what the pandemic has revealed is just we knew before how broken this system was but the pandemic really shone a light on it even further. So I think with the right type of preparation, yes, this too need to occur but I see it as it's our societal lack of care.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

And that's exactly where I want you to go because you started by saying that it seems to you that our society treats the elderly and the disabled, those that need additional help, as disposable. That's the term you used, if I'm not mistaken.

Kitra Cahana:

Yeah. And the workers. The workers are largely people of color and there's a lot of immigrants that work as care workers.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Right.

Kitra Cahana:

And so, it's this nexus of society that intersects some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

It seems like a huge cognitive dissonance because on the one end we claim, as a society, that we care for the elders, we care for those that are less privileged than us. And so we talk the talk, but then you say, "Look, in reality, we don't walk the walk," and it seems to me that it is, as you said, it is an attitude problem. It's a priority problem. So where should we move from here?

Kitra Cahana:

There are a lot of campaigns right now, campaigns to increase wages and conditions for the workers of long-term care and it's really care work in general. It's been theorized that it's seen as lesser work oftentimes because it's women's work. That's been one of the thoughts as to why maybe it's so ignored. And so, there are campaigns to improve conditions for the workers because ultimately, improving the conditions of the workers will improve the conditions for the residents. There have been campaigns to give people more choice. There's no reason why my father shouldn't have the choice to live at home, to be supported, and to not be institutionalized. Many people have fought for the rights for people of disabilities to live in the community, outside of institutions, and the outcomes of that fight haven't been realized yet in the Quebec context, in the case for my father.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Your father is in Canada right now where the healthcare system is very, very different than in United States. Do you have any experience on how these long-term facilities work, what are the problems in the United States, and whether a healthcare system like in Canada, is it better or worse in relation to these long-term facilities?

Kitra Cahana:

I'm not an expert on these topics, I know that there's a lot of tension between private and public facilities. I remember reading in the US that being in a private facility doesn't necessarily mean that you're receiving better care oftentimes and there's a monetary incentive to maximize cost. So putting profits before care. Early on in the pandemic, they actually found that there was more death that occurred in private facilities than public facilities. Now, I'm not sure and I haven't followed those statistics a year on, so I'm not sure how that has landed. Also in the States, there was a big problem early on where nursing home lobby groups were, I believe this was also the case in Arizona, were petitioning government to have immunity so that families couldn't bring forward lawsuits against them during the pandemic. Now, this was problematic because they incentivized a lot of nursing homes to then provide proper PPE for their workers.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah.

Kitra Cahana:

It's a very complex issue.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

We started the conversation with focusing on your career and what should do as a photojournalist, as an anthropologist using the camera to tell a story and to analyze human interactions. How do you connect that part of your life with your most recent experience with long-term facility especially related to your father?

Kitra Cahana:

My activism around this issue began right at the beginning of the pandemic with the question, how can we keep him safe? There was very little information that we were receiving right at the beginning from the facility and this is something that many families experienced. And so, one of the first things I did was I created a Facebook group for all of the family members at his facility and created like WhatsApp groups for everyone on each floor to be in communication with each other so that we could start understanding what was going on. And it was through those connections that we started doing a lot of initiatives to try to support the workers there. But because I have this more storytelling mind, I also started thinking about why this issue was happening and why so few people beyond our scope seem to understand the complexities of what was taking place in long-term care. And so, I founded, with a close friend of mine, Isadora Kosofsky, we started Artists 4 Long-Term Care which is an initiative to raise awareness through art and through storytelling about the conditions within long-term care facilities, the challenges specifically within the pandemic but also beyond the pandemic. And to just share the lives of the people on the inside because even within storytelling, it's a demographic that we rarely hear from. I started researching what type of art works already existed to speak about people living in facilities and very little was out there.

Adrian McIntyre:

I'm really struck listening, Kitra, to this and reflecting on my own experiences both in North America and places much further away that there's so much of the status quo, what most folks take for granted as the way things are that is structured around some inherent and perhaps intentional blindnesses, some things we don't want to see. And even some of those rhetoric has been adopted, for example, in conversations about racial justice starting in the '80s, elevating this idea of color blindness as the ideal. Well, I don't see race, I'm color blind was the way that the whole hegemony, White supremacy was being held in place. Blindness reinforced the problem. I'm reflecting here, without having a clear idea of where I'm going with this, on the fact that in situations where the blindness to poverty, the blindness to differently abled, disabled people, the blindness to the inequity that's baked in, even the designation of this essential care as women's work in the way in which that creates its own blind. I think there's just so many layers to this and here you are making things visible. That's your craft, that's how you approach it. There is something inherently provocative, I don't know if radical is the word I or you would choose for this, but something that challenges the complacency that comes with blindness by putting something in front of people and saying, "Look! Just look."

Kitra Cahana:

Every social movement has its artist, its iconography that becomes the visual language that moves people, moves people to action. And in surveying the landscape of activism happening around long-term care, I felt we could be a part of creating those icons that speak in people's minds, those images, those stories. It'd be interesting to see if there had been social movements that didn't have any artists that were attached to it, that didn't have any poets writing about it, song writers singing songs about the struggle. I see myself as just playing a small part in trying to push more people and especially people of my generation to care about this issue.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

What is the realistic goal that you want to achieve?

Kitra Cahana:

I mean, I think for most social movements if you ask really what do they want, they want dignity, dignity for human life. That's what we don't see here. That's maybe not a practical, a tachlis goal but that is what we have our eyes on.

Adrian McIntyre:

The act of seeing, bearing witness changes this year, changes the witness interacts with histories of trauma in our own personal experience from the time we were little till now as well as generational as you alluded to with your own grandmother and your own family. This can play out in lots and lots of different ways and this was personal for me too. I want to talk a little bit about mental health and care of the self as you are bearing witness to things that are difficult, that are troubling, that challenge so much of what we think about the way things should be. And I'm just reminded and I don't want to be too dark about this, but I'm just reminded of folks like Kevin Carter, the South African photojournalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo of a Sudanese child, and I'm just moved by this because I worked a lot in Sudan, who then died by suicide at the age of 33. My own experience, having spent 14 months in Darfur and the dissociation that that created for me, that took me what I don't think I've done. I'm winding to try to find some balance and care for myself. You're someone whose craft and whose life experiences have gotten entangled in difficult topics, in difficult places and I know you can't be immune to some of the darkness, some of the challenges that come with that. What are your thoughts on this matter? How do you take care of the self as you're trying to elevate care for others?

Kitra Cahana:

It was a very traumatic year. There is about 70 residents who ended up dying of Covid in my father's facility, hundreds more had Covid, many who are forever impacted, and because I created this Facebook group and this online community of all of the families, we all became very intimately connected to each other's stories and daily traumas and nightly traumas of whether their closest loves were going to die, whether they're going to survive. So it was a very difficult year being so connected to a community suffering so deeply every single day of the pandemic, and I think we were all forever scarred by this experience. My father is extremely optimistic. To me, that's his spirituality, his faith has come through, experiencing his feasibility and even this past year as with hope, with dignity, with laughter, with connection. And so, throughout this year, in addition to doing a lot of the activist type of work, I spend a lot of time on Zoom with him, interviewing him, transcribing his poetry, and also recording him, and so I'm making a film from afar. Even though we weren't able to be together for months on end, I filmed him remotely and making a poetic ode to longing, to document this experience. And so when I said before that my grandmother went through the Holocaust, through the hells of Auschwitz and the death march in Bergen-Belsen but then she turned her story of hell into poetry and into art, that's really what has been the legacy in our family of how you handle and get through trauma. At least, that's what I've taken of it is I feel more stabilized if I can create something of the experience. The TED talk that I do with my father telling his story, that was really my way of neutralizing the pain.

Adrian McIntyre:

I'm struck by images that I've seen of Japanese internment camps where there's lots of little folded cranes hanging everywhere, and certainly, the visual images from Europe during the Holocaust have moments of beauty amidst the absolutely horrific mise en scène. You mentioned earlier poetry and some of your father's poems. Would you have any of those poems that you want to share?

Kitra Cahana:

Sure. I'd love to. I think it's telling because these were the poems that we wrote through distance but through the connection that Zoom has granted all of us in our isolations. So I'll read one from July of last year because it's dedicated to me. It says, "For My Call Bell, dedicated to Kitra."

Kitra Cahana:

[reading a poem] "Underneath the air is whatever lies above it. I swear there is a stretch in the neck elongating to a future. It is a signal to mother comfort. You are a soldier's explosive, you are within a chamber of sturdiness, you are mankind's becoming. I will boomerang to you all my love, little child. I am forever and I will be father-abiding. Lonesomeness be gone, I will blow away your fears."

Kitra Cahana:

I think that's a telling one because we're talking about caring for the self amidst trauma. Even in the distance there is a comfort that can happen. Even reflecting now upon it, that is probably what I needed in that moment because it was in the midst of all, in the eye of the hurricane that we were, during this day, we practice of transcription and writing poems. Here's another one.

Kitra Cahana:

[reading a poem] "To the songwriter of perfection. I am the sun that glows darkly surprised by half truths. I stay in corners, in shadows, under tables wandering in the unregarded excitements of life. What will I show to God of this daze? I want the cold breath of humility. You are a stranger in other worlds, but there you keep company with electricity. If you wake up, you will die. But if you stay second guessing, you will become a man again."

Kitra Cahana:

[laughs] I have written here, I had asked him to explain that poem and he had said, "How to manage your own birth."

Adrian McIntyre:

That's poetic and philosophical all at once.

Kitra Cahana:

Yeah. It's a real treasure to be able to transcribe for him.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Are you going to ultimately publish this?

Kitra Cahana:

Yeah, maybe. It's interesting. I actually had a project over the last couple of days scanning all of his archives, his poetry archives because he's been writing, I mean, as I found out this past week, he's been writing since he was five or six years old, and so many of the poems are in relationship. They're always dedicated to an intimate, one of his intimates. So many poems to his mother, to his father, to my mother. There is a whole volumes can be publish on the number of poems he's written to my mother. It's a holy practice.

Adrian McIntyre:

Back in my academic interlude, I spent a lot of time reflecting on personal archives and the way in which collections of texts and artifacts, and fabric. I did a huge project on traditional policy in embroidery, collections of these old dresses and the way in which the collector and the collection emerge as a storyline, mostly based in Jordan at that time. And I'm just struck by the way in which these archives and these memories, these collections can be an expression of something so deeply loving, so connected and so caring. And so, thank you for sharing some of that love and some of that care with us.

Kitra Cahana:

Yeah. I see the transcription, the storytelling of his story as an extension of my role as a caregiver. So sometimes I'm working on range of motion therapies, so building up muscle mass or extensions of the finger, but these are also extensions that need assistance. It fulfills me to do this side of the work as a caregiving daughter.

Adrian McIntyre:

Rabbi Beyo, my question as we wrap up here is really for you. As someone so profoundly connected to texts and stories and to communities that you've led, past and present, what are some of your thoughts and reflections here? Share with us a little bit what's going on for you as you hear Kitra sharing some of her experiences?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

It's been a little bit of turmoil in my mind because as I'm listening to the wealth of data that was coming from Kitra that touched and I listened to a lot of nerves in me. I'm not an artist, I'm far from being an artist but one form of art that I connect very well that speaks to me are pictures. So I love and I went on your website, Kitra, and I looked at some of other projects that you have done and I could really appreciate those pictures and the stories that those pictures give so I love that. But at the same time while we're talking about long-term care facilities, I could not not think of my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor similar to your grandmother that survived the war, survived the horrors of the war. Ultimately, she had a dementia and Alzheimer, dementia. At that time, she couldn't live at home anymore because of the care that she needed and she went into a long-term care facility and I was living here in the States at that time and I couldn't go and see her and visit her. But what was constant in my mind while you, Kitra, were talking was how we found out later that she was abused physically and mentally and in a lot of way abused in that long-term facility in Israel which then ended up being in the news and they ... lawyers ... of course it was big, big thing about that specific long-term facility. So I was thinking about how she survived the Holocaust and instead of being able to pass away, die peacefully in her last moment of her life, she was abused. And unfortunately, we don't control everything in life. And to go back to your question, Adrian, also the same time while I was having these images of my grandmother, she was probably more a mother than a grandmother. And so while I was having these images, I was thinking how we started by this conversation with a central figure of the Rabbi. Kitra started by saying, "I'm the daughter of a Rabbi," and I couldn't dissociate that from the oral tradition in rabbinical Judaism. And the oral tradition comes through the poetry of your father, I'm sure, through the stories of your grandmother, through the images of the pictures, and the films and the documentaries that you do. So I'm not sure exactly what the full connection is there but I am sure that there is some form of connection that as our tradition says that we have received the written Torah and we have received the oral Torah that there is something there about what you're trying to do and what your grandmother tried to instill in you. This passing of important values through our oral tradition, and I think that in a way, in a small way, we all try to do that with our families, with our friends, with our congregants, and you are doing it also in your way through those images, through the poetry of your father. That's what I have to say and I stick by it.

Kitra Cahana:

I felt betrayed by the Jewish community because one of our holiest tenets is Kibud Av V'Em, honoring thy mother and thy father. And part me would have expected that more people from within the Jewish community would have surrounded these facilities, they would have heard the death rates that were taking place, and it would have become more of a rallying cry amongst Rabbis, amongst the community. I felt there was a real lack of honoring thy father and mother, protecting thy father and mother. I saw a lot of hashtags, a lot of activism from within that community, protect our elders, protect our language keepers, these are our connection to the past. Are we really going to allow them to die with so little dignity that they're dying behind a piece of plastic with no burial rights, religious rights, with speaking to their loved ones on an iPad? There's a big conversation for the Jewish community to have after what's taken place this year.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I completely understand what you're saying. I could conjure some hypothesis of why that is so. In all my life I never stop being disappointed by our religious leadership including myself. We are in need, as a Jewish community, of much stronger leaders, leaders that are not afraid of where their next contract is going to come from because ultimately, that is part of the problem, that rabbis needed to support their families and they can do that if they are employed and their employment is dependent upon a board.

Adrian McIntyre:

Imagine a world in which there was more fierce leadership because what you're saying applies equally well to many other structures. Imagine a world where elected officials were focused on serving the communities that elected them rather than getting re-elected in four years.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah, a Congressperson goes through election every two years, and so by the time that they're elected they're already thinking about the next election. They don't have time to work.

Adrian McIntyre:

I think what you are both saying is incredibly useful as a specific and deeply problematic example of something general and deeply problematic in the world which is we don't have the kind of leadership or I'm not inclined to only lay this at the feet of the leaders although that's appropriate and necessary, I also think, I heard in Kitra's comments a disappointment with the community, that's all of us. That's every one of us in whatever community we're referring to. And whether we're talking about police brutality in the city of Phoenix or Chandler or Colorado, whether we're talking about gun violence, whether we're talking about the way we care for people who are vulnerable and need our help, the way we talk about education and how children are raised. I mean, we are in a world of dehumanizing, uncaring institutions. Criminal justice, education, and we've all been shaped and conditioned by our own experiences, traumatic and otherwise, in those environments to where we all have to fight to keep that humanity alive for ourselves. So I don't know that we're ending this on a very upbeat tone here, but I do feel like the cry is there, Kitra, I hear resonances with other profits who have said the unpopular thing which is, "Hey, the structures, the government, the leadership, the whatever, this is broken and must change." And to the extent that your project and collaborations with others and Artists 4 Long-Term Care is doing that in a narrow slice of what needs to change on so many levels, I think the bravery to return to this word, to stand up and say something unpopular and to show something uncomfortable, and to make your own lived experiences, and that of your family part of the vehicle for activism and advocacy. I think it's admirable and it really speaks to something that I hope people can find within themselves, whatever their version of that calling is, to see something, say something, do something and care for ourselves and for others.

Kitra Cahana:

Yeah. I mean, care is the central word in all of these first topics that you mentioned - education, criminal justice, reform, long-term care - is putting human dignity back into the center. And as our vision for the future, many people have spoken about or ask the question, what will a post-pandemic world look like? The one that we hope for is one where care is at the very core of everything that we do, every institution, every sector of society focuses on how can we ensure human dignity and care at the core.

Adrian McIntyre:

And care for the caregivers, and that's the other theme here I think is so important.

Kitra Cahana:

A hundred percent.

Adrian McIntyre:

I said schools were uncaring, and I really do mean that and I will stand by that. But I also want to acknowledge the individuals who care within the very uncaring environment, how much they struggle to keep that care alive and present in their work when the institution as a whole is broken.

Kitra Cahana:

Yeah. I mean, some of the people who do the absolutely most grueling work in our society, caring for our loved ones, are being paid some of the lowest wages. It's a mirror to our society. It shows us what we value and who we value. Absolutely, caring for the caregivers is step number one, that's the most basic foundational step in dismantling these systems of injustice.

Adrian McIntyre:

Kitra Cahana is a photographer, visual artist, an activist, an anthropologist, a filmmaker, a creative, caring and caregiving human being. Thanks so much for joining us for this conversation.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Thank you, Kitra.

Kitra Cahana:

Thank you.

Adrian McIntyre:

If you enjoyed today's show, please subscribe to Conversation with the Rabbi on your favorite podcast app. You can also find the latest episodes online at ConversationWithTheRabbi.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I'm Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Conversation with the Rabbi.

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About the Podcast

Conversation with the Rabbi
Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, talks with an eclectic mix of faith-based and secular leaders from around the world.
In an era of political division and polarized debate, we are losing our ability to hear each other. The volume of our disagreements is at an all-time high, while our ability to communicate with kindness and empathy is at an all-time low. This podcast seeks to change that by engaging people from different backgrounds and beliefs in good old-fashioned conversation.

Listen in as Rabbi Michael Beyo and anthropologist Dr. Adrian McIntyre spend time listening, sharing, and discovering common ground in an effort to understand and appreciate the wondrous diversity of our human family. From interfaith dialogues to discussions with business and nonprofit leaders, this podcast shines a spotlight on the different ways we can learn to live, work, and worship together in a contentious and conflicted world.

We invite you to use these conversations as a lens to open up new understandings of self and the other, to develop empathy for diverse viewpoints, and to explore what is possible when we listen to others with respect.

Conversation with the Rabbi is a project of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, neighborhood organization that has served individuals and families inclusive of all races, religions, and cultures since 1972. Visit us online at https://www.evjcc.org

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Phoenix, Arizona. Learn more at https://phx.fm

About your hosts

Rabbi Michael Beyo

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Rabbi Michael Beyo is CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center in Chandler, Arizona. He was born in Milan, Italy and has lived in Italy, England, France, Israel, and the United States. An Orthodox Jewish scholar with a successful career providing religious guidance to all the Jewish denominations, he was ordained as a rabbi in Israel, where he earned three Rabbinical Ordinations of the highest honor. In 2015 Rabbi Beyo moved to Arizona from Atlanta, where he had served as the Chief Development Officer for Hillel of Georgia, overseeing 12 colleges and universities. Prior to that he served as the Executive Director and Rabbi of Boston University Hillel, as well as the Jewish Chaplain for Boston University. Rabbi Beyo brings over 25 years of professional, entrepreneurial and non-profit experience in education, cultural, humanitarian, social and religious sectors. He successfully ran several start-ups in Israel before dedicating his career to the nonprofit world.

Adrian McIntyre, PhD

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Dr. Adrian McIntyre is a social scientist, storytelling strategist, and internationally recognized authority on effective communication. His on-air experience began in 1978 at the age of five as a co-host of "The Happy Day Express," the longest-running children's radio program in California history. Adrian earned his PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a Fulbright scholar and National Science Foundation research fellow. He spent nearly a decade in the Middle East and Africa as a researcher, journalist, and media spokesperson for two of the largest humanitarian relief agencies in the world. Today he advises and trains entrepreneurs, executives, and corporate teams on high-performance communication, the power of storytelling, and how to leverage digital media to build a personal leadership brand.