It was Mother’s Day a little over a decade ago and Frances W. Schwartz, who had successful careers in news, marketing, and publishing, was feeling at loose ends. "I think it’s time for a change," Schwartz told her daughter Dana, who had surprised her by coming home from college. To which Dana replied, "If you could do anything, what would that be?"
That question drew Schwartz, a Montvale resident, to become a student again, a path that has led her to publish several books, including two with one of the leading theologians of the Reform movement, Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz. "A Touch of the Sacred," (Jewish Lights, ‘007) is their most recent effort.
Schwartz knew that she wanted to turn a lifelong passion for Jewish learning into a serious course of study. But with a daughter in college and a son about to enter, she figured the family didn’t need three people in college at the same time. But her husband, Stuart, a producer for "Good Morning America," insisted that if this were what she wanted, they would find a way to make it happen.
She enrolled at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Reform Religion in 1996 where she received a master of Judaic studies degree. There she also met Borowitz, one of her professors, with whom she was "instantly simpatico."
"People say ‘God is here,’" Schwartz said, placing her right hand up to indicate a level somewhere above her head. "And Eugene Borowitz is here," she continued, putting her left hand not far below.
"People were in awe, and I was no exception."
So when Borowitz asked her if she could do some writing for him, Schwartz figured that maybe he needed someone to help with editing at the well-regarded "Sh’ma," a journal of Jewish social concern, that he’d founded in 1970. When he suggested writing a book together she was "astounded."
That first effort was published as "The Jewish Moral Virtues," structured upon ‘4 virtues selected by a 13th-century Roman Jew, Yehiel ben Yekutiel, in his "Sefer Maalot Hamidot" (The Book of the Choicest Virtues), but using commentary and insights that make them relevant to a contemporary Jew.
Three years ago, Schwartz and Borowitz were looking again to collaborate. They were toying with an idea of expanding comments that Borowitz had made on his students’ papers and in e-mails over the years comments that Schwartz says they all treasure and save. The working title was "E-mail Theology," which morphed into "A Touch of the Sacred," when the editor was taken with a phrase from a section on "How to Comfort the Mourner."
The section discusses the death of Borowitz’s wife Estelle and his response to condolences. "They were overwhelmingly secular," he and Schwartz write. "They wrote about my wife living on in memory, or the immortal power of love, or the lasting effect of her good deeds, or the tribute I would render her by turning back to life.
"While I do believe in all these commonplaces of American condolences, now, face-to-face with her death, what I needed was at least a touch of the sacred."
The book is a collection of such observations, rendered in a decidedly Jewish perspective. Not necessarily meant to be read in a linear fashion, the book instead groups thought and scholarship according to subjects and subheadings such as "Where Is God? Answering a Nine-Year-Old," "A Mystical Model for Leaders," "Jewish Decision Making," and "The Messianic Hope Today."
While written in Borowitz’s voice, the book is definitely a collaboration, Schwartz said. Having worked on one book together helped them have a singular voice," but it "took us a while to find not only our melded voice but also our individual voices within our melded voice."
Writing Jewish books comes as naturally to Schwartz as her gracious manner and precise speech. Her journey from working at the ABC news affiliate in Chicago to author and adult-learning coordinator at the Union for Reform Judaism seems a natural journey for the oldest daughter of Holocaust survivors who grew up in an era when girls did not become bat mitzvah, but who nonetheless insisted on attending Hebrew school. She is an author in her own right, of "Passage to Pesach: Preparing for Passover Through Text and Tradition" (URJ Press).
A member of the now-defunct Reform Temple of Suffern in Rockland County, she belongs to Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, where she serves on the board as the adult-learning chairwoman. Her daughter, Dana Bash, is a correspondent for CNN and her son, David, shoots and produces videos for major corporations.
Both attended Reform Jewish overnight camp, as did she. She describes those summers as a "pivotal Jewish experience" because of the sense of community she found there. "It helps you to realize what you believe, but it also helps you live your Judaism."
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, attending a Reform synagogue devoted to social activism, Schwartz felt comfortable and safe in her Jewish identity. There was never a moment she was not aware of her Jewishness.
"Judaism was always portrayed as this very positive force in our lives," she said. "So I feel very blessed to have been born when I was born and where I was born."