Mitzvah Day by the Numbers and So Much More

Sunday, November 20 at Orangetown Jewish Center was a hub of activity as mitzvoth of every kind were accomplished. One way to try to describe the day is by the numbers. Our annual Breakfast Run brought 18 large bags overflowing with new and gently used coats, clothing, socks, and toiletries, together with a warm breakfast, to people who are homeless in NYC. This mitzvah was accomplished by 18 hearty volunteers from the age of 15 through 75.

34 congregants were blood donors who helped save over 100 lives in total!

 Over 20 children of all ages who handcrafted 40+ colorful Thanksgiving turkey decorations to share with residents at The Esplanade, and 40 congregants, young and old visited with Esplanade on the Palisades residents, singing and interacting with them.

6 Chumash miracle workers mended the book spines, covers and pages of 34 Chumashim that were in disrepair.

12 Rhoda Bloom Kosher Food Pantry packers stood in the cold to load boxes of donated kosher food into recipients’ cars. OJC also collected 70 cans and boxes of food for the Rhoda Bloom Kosher Food Pantry.

10 participants learned with Rabbinic Intern Ilana Sandberg and 8 giggling yogis, raising funds to benefit The Rockland Pride Center.

18 congregants learned with Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein about making every day a Mitzvah Day and 30 Phone Buddies connected and celebrated at the Chesed Committee’s tea party in memory of Madeline Roimisher.

90 homemade muffins, 14 children’s coats, and various children’s clothing and shoes were delivered to the Martin Luther King Multi-Purpose Center in Spring Valley and Proyecto Faro in Stony Point.

Almost  20 knitted and crocheted hats and scarves will be gifted to The Rockland Pride Center Youth Program for the December holidays.

So that’s one way to understand the day – by the numbers. We can also understand the day by the emotional experiences and amazing moments felt by  everyone participating: the joyful noise of a room full of children creating a craft for an elder, the power of Amichai’s guitar and children singing as Esplanade residents sang and swayed… and some even danced, the full room of people donating blood, the quiet concentration of repairing sacred books, the delight of two congregants meeting face to face for the first time after being phone buddies for two and a half years.

But I actually have another way to comprehend Mitzvah Day 2022. As the building filled with people, as we worked side by side to make this world a little bit better, we all remembered something. We remembered who we are.

For me, Mitzvah Day reminded all of us at OJC that we are who we think we are. And I thank God for that on Mitzvah Day and every day.

With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

A time to change, a time to refrain from changing

It started with a pop-up tent in the lot and a friendly greeting; it ended with ice cream sundaes and circle dancing. This year’s holiday season was the culmination of staff, professional and volunteer hours of planning, programming, and executing. The results exceeded our hopes and expectations in so many ways. We gathered in large numbers with enthusiasm and energy, with consideration and sensitivity, to reconnect, reflect and renew our commitment to tradition and community.

For some of us it was the first time in the building literally in years; for others of us it provided just the sense of “normalcy” we had been craving. It was exciting, energizing and comforting to experience the power of hundreds gathering in our physical home these past weeks. At the same time, we remained keenly aware of the absence of those who were not able or ready to join in person. We hope that those who joined us remotely had a meaningful holiday experience, and felt considered, acknowledged and valued.

We are counting on that momentum, energy, enthusiasm and good will as we “reboot” our “new and improved” in-person weekday minyan! Beginning November 1, our daily minyan will return to the traditional model of requiring 10 people physically proximate to each other at OJC, while welcoming virtually our friends who join remotely from near and far. With new technology (thanks to the family of Jack Miller z”l), we will continue to build upon our model of daily praying and learning in a “hybrid” fashion.

As the holidays, Shabbat, Men’s Club, Sisterhood, Naaseh and Kulanu have all returned to in-person programming, adult education (almost entirely) and our weekday evening minyan (entirely) have continued virtually via the Zoom Meeting platform. There are indeed great benefits to having use of this technology. Since the spring of 2020, our daily minyan, teaching and weekly programs have provided connection and comfort to so many who otherwise would have lived in isolation. We have learned so much from this experience about what is possible in terms of building virtual community and building out a virtual synagogue platform (OJC+)! And we are so indebted to those households that regularly supported our virtual community, many of whom were mourners and relied upon those present for their minyan, or required quorum for prayer, for kaddish. Our online portal to daily prayer will continue. The ability to participate virtually and feel the power of OJC’s community is, and will remain, an important piece of how we maintain and grow our community. As we return to our in-person minyan in keeping with Jewish law, we are certain that the 10 or more of your fellow friends who gather in the Daily Chapel will be strengthened by the presence of those who continue to join us remotely.

At the outset of the pandemic, the rabbinic authorities of the Conservative Movement responded swiftly and boldly to the times by declaring a ritual state of emergency, thereby authorizing the creation of “virtual community,” in particular for the purpose of saying Kaddish during weekday prayer. We as a community proudly followed their lead. And we succeeded at creating that community with astounding consistency and participation. At the same time, I was so proud that the OJC community supported my position to maintain the sanctity of Shabbat—by distinguishing the way we used technology on weekdays from the Shabbat webinar format we adopted—while so many other communities seized the rabbinical leniency as an opportunity to ignore our halachic strictures altogether.

Now, on the heels of the holiday season as hundreds have come together in our building, it is evident that the state of emergency upon which the 2020 legal leniency stood has passed. We no longer have a legal, social or moral imperative that demands or permits our creation of a prayer community via virtual attendance. We are blessed that we have the ability to continue including and welcoming remote participants, students and teachers from wherever they may choose to join us  – AND WE WILL!  We are shaped and enhanced by their presence. As we reassert our core value and primary purpose as a Beit Tefillah, a House of Prayer, we are stronger by virtue of our experience.

It is also important to recognize that while some of us have regularly relied upon a virtual minyan for prayer, there is an equal number among us for whom Zoom is inaccessible or feels impersonal and further isolating. Moreover, for some there is simply no substitute in community for an empathetic ear, an open heart, a shoulder to lean upon, or a hand to hold.

Returning to a daily weekday 7:30pm minyan that will have 10 attendees in person and also welcome virtual attendees will not be an easy feat to achieve. We are hoping that, just as the OJC found a way to be there for you during these past 2+ years day in and day out, you will have been inspired to find your way to being here for us. Perhaps once or twice a week, perhaps once or twice a month, any regular commitment on your part will bring us closer to achieving our goal.

Please click on this link where you will find a Fall/Winter minyan calendar, with 12 spots per day to be filled (yes 12, we are adding 2 extra spots per day just to cover any last minute conflicts!). Please commit to as many evenings as you wish, and check in as often as you wish to see when we may be in need. While you can obviously attend whenever you want, we are only recording 12 spots per date so we know we’ve reached our minimum of 10! This link will live on our website as well, so you can always visit there to see when we may be in need of more participants.

This morning I began taking down my sukkah; the “season of our joy” has reached its conclusion, but I hope we can carry elements of all we’ve learned from this holiday season into the future. In the weeks and months ahead, may we have the opportunity to share many moments of joy with one in another,

In community, good health and peace,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Antisemitism Hits Home

I’ll just say it in a straightforward manner: I was completely shocked.

Perhaps I should not have been. Like you, I read every day about the uptick in antisemitic actions and bigoted verbiage on social media. Maybe I should have been shocked that I am almost 63 years old and this is the first time I have been a target of an antisemitic incident. 

I was enjoying a Shabbat walk in the OJC neighborhood, strolling down Lester on my return to the Scheff house at about 3:45 in the afternoon. I looked like any other neighbor out for a walk, sneakers, shorts and a T-shirt . . . except that I had a kipa on my head.

A dark navy Jeep Wagoneer passed me on the street, windows down, and filled with teenage girls, maybe three or maybe four.

The girls screamed out the windows as they passed me, chanting, screaming horrible curse words punctuated with “Jew.” After two very long sentences were spewed, they broke into wild laughter and drove on. 

Teenage girls just having a fun afternoon?

Only after they were out of sight did I realize several things. First, my eyesight was not good enough to see the license plate except to know that it was New York. Second, they were chanting in unison, in rhythm, clearly words that they had chanted before. And third, I was shaking. I felt victimized and angry. I honestly did not feel afraid, but I felt emotionally violated in our sweet, quiet neighborhood.

In my world, the words “shut up” are considered curse words. I do not like hearing curse words and tend to feel it as a punch in my body. The words that these girls used felt like a powerful blow.

It took me another short while to realize that I had just experienced a bias incident. It’s strange how our minds work, trying to protect us from the stark reality.

Today, 24 hours later, I am thinking about appropriate reactions. The incident has already been reported both to the police and to our own security team at OJC. I have made a solemn promise to carry a phone at all times, even on Shabbat, for safety sake. 

And sharing the experience in this blog feels particularly important to me. If you have students in middle school or high school, please share this blog with them. The girls in that car are in their peer group. They certainly go to school with some of our children. Make sure that your children know that they should tell you or a responsible adult about anything of a biased or antisemitic nature that happens in their school or social circles, even if it seems insignificant to them at the time. Children might tell you that their “friends were just kidding.” We must educate our youth about what is funny, and what is most certainly not.

And finally, remember Rabbi Scheff’s and my teaching about being proactive rather than only being reactive when it comes to prejudice and bigotry of any kind. We can all make alliances in our own way; knowing our neighbors, participating in civic events, being curious about other minorities. We can show our Judaism proudly for the many beautiful ways in which it teaches us to be good neighbors and citizens.

I am truly fine. And I am also more motivated than ever to be a positive and educative force in our community.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Visiting God’s creations

I had the good fortune this summer to travel to Venice and Greece with Nancy and four longtime friends ahead of our “Double Chai” (36th) wedding anniversary next month.

The 10-day respite offered me the opportunity to witness the kind of natural beauty I had only seen in movies or on postcards. We stood atop soaring mountains that drop precipitously into white beaches, then descended to wade in azure seas that caress the shore. The experience brought to mind a story told of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the nineteenth century founder of Neo-Orthodoxy. Reflecting on the end of life, he is said to have taught: “When I stand shortly before the Almighty, I will be held answerable to many questions. But what will I say when God asks – and he is certain to ask – ‘Shimshon, did you see my Alps?’”

Unlike the monastic traditions elevating a religious life that rejects the earthly pleasures of our physical world, Judaism embraces and celebrates creation as a reflection of the divine. We recite particular blessings upon seeing natural wonders and upon witnessing human achievement. We honor those who give honor to God’s creations.

Of all that I enjoyed taking in on this journey, there were two experiences that left a deeper impression on me than any of the ancient ruins or medieval artistry we saw. The first occurred in a glass shop on the island of Murano off the coast of Venice, where I met a glass blower named Luciano Orovetro. He shared his handiwork with us, telling us—with a child’s wide-eyed exuberance—about this profession that had run in his family for generations. The joy and pride he exuded in describing his creative process made it clear to me that his physical work was a spiritual endeavor. The beauty of his creations reflected that divine light.

The second experience occurred in a place of natural beauty on the Greek island of Kefalonia. Melisani Cave, known in Greek mythology as the Cave of the Nymphs, opens from above to an underground lake fed by subterranean waters. Seeing the marvel of clear sun-lit spring waters that filled the cave from a boat that seemed to be floating on air would have been enough. But what transformed the time on the water was the “captain” of our boat, a master oarsman with 35 years of sharing his sense of awe and appreciation for the passage of time, and its effects on the walls, the water and the world within the natural wonder. His fifteen minutes of guiding a group of tourists—something he probably repeats thirty times a day—lifted our spirits, transporting us in wonder and joy to a realm that we rarely visit.

I can’t tell you that Rabbi Sampson Rafael Hirsch actually believed that God expected us to travel to Switzerland in our lifetimes. But I can appreciate the sentiment that we need to visit that which is beyond our familiar surroundings, to meet and experience those whose interests and passions are different than our own, and to search for and recognize the wonders that are all around us.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

A Blizzard in Summer: After SCOTUS Overturned Roe v. Wade

Consider that feeling of waking up on a frosty January morning to find that three feet of snow has fallen. The Weather Channel predicted a blizzard all week, yet when we see the landscape completely transformed, we feel shocked. And then, of course, we have to get out the shovels and start digging out.
We knew that Roe v. Wade was going to be overturned. Justice Alito’s majority opinion had been leaked. Every news article and radio talk show began with: “In the likely event of the end of Roe v. Wade protections…” And still we were shocked when the SCOTUS opinion was issued. Two weeks later, it is time to start working.

Together with Rabbi Scheff, Rabbi Hersh, and more than 1500 Jewish clergy from across the streams and across the States, I signed the NCJW-sponsored Rabbis for Repro pledge. #RabbisForRepro. This statement says that I pledge to use my voice as a rabbi to teach, write, and speak out about reproductive rights and Judaism in the United States and in the Jewish community.
Yesterday in synagogue, I started fulfilling my pledge by educating our Shabbat minyan about Jewish law and reproductive freedom. Today I continue by writing this blog with three basic points about abortion in Jewish tradition and a list of resources for you to begin taking action. I’ll continue taking action together with Rabbi Scheff as we plan a year of education around issues of Judaism and pro-reproductive health and abortion access.

Many people begin thinking about abortion access at a very personal level. Would I? Could I? While those are natural and perhaps interesting questions, those are not the right questions to address the recent shut down of our personal freedom regarding autonomy and choice. The questions are more universal. When does life begin? Who should have control over people who need abortion access – the patients and their intimate partners and doctors or police and courts? The overturning of Roe v. Wade affects not just a person considering whether to continue or end a pregnancy, but patients requiring every kind of reproductive medical care from managing miscarriages, fetuses with stopped heartbeats, ectopic pregnancies, rape and incest victims, dangerous results of self-managed abortion attempts, and people seeking fertility treatments. In what ways will the overturning of Roe v. Wade threaten an entire category of personal freedoms? We all heard Justice Clarence Thomas loud and clear. Next in his sights are frozen embryos, contraception, intimate partners, and same sex marriage.

It is essential to state unequivocally that our tradition and Jewish law protect the right of a woman’s control of her own body in opposition to those who use religion as an excuse to restrict this right. What follows are three sweeping educational points. Keep in mind that we will be teaching the details of throughout the year. If you would like to study on your own, I recommend NCJW Abortion Access Resources or Rabbinical Assembly Resources on Reproductive Freedom.

Point 1. ABORTION IS PERMITTED AND SOMETIMES REQUIRED BY JEWISH LAW.

Rabbinic opinion from Talmud to modern day responsa depends upon Torah verses in Parashat Mishpatim https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.21.22?lang=bi&aliyot=0 that require capital punishment for causing the death of a pregnant person, but only monetary damages for causing a miscarriage. From the ultimate understanding that a fetus does not have the status of personhood, halakha consistently teaches that the life of the pregnant person takes precedence over the existence of the potential life within. Abortion is considered self-defense when the pregnant person’s life is at stake, a situation that many modern responsa interpret broadly.

Point 2. ABORTION ACCESS IS AN ISSUE OF PIKUACH NEFESH (Saving Life).

Forcing people to give birth regardless of the situation is not only unjust, it endangers lives. Doctors, fearful about legal ramifications, deny medical treatment. Emergency rooms turn away women in the midst of miscarriages. In the most extreme of cases, we read about a ten-year-old victim of sexual abuse who had to be taken 12-15 hours out of state for abortion care. Sadly, the United States has the highest rate of maternal mortality among industrialized countries, with Black Americans and Native Americans three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white Americans. Denial of abortion access will continue the shameful patterns of systemic racism in American health care.

Point 3. ABORTION IS A JEWISH ISSUE.

As I said in synagogue yesterday, some congregants would rather hear from your rabbis about loving kindness and Torah law on a Shabbat or in a blog post. We teach about those topics very often. Sometimes, however, we must raise up our voices with “moral authority”. We study Torah and find within our particular texts certain universal values. So, yes, abortion is a Jewish issue.

One in four people who can become pregnant will have an abortion by age 45. This includes Jews, and therefore members of our Jewish community. Abortion is highly stigmatized in our culture, and this impacts Jewish spaces where the stigma is perpetuated by talk about Jewish “continuity.” Signs now hang in your rabbis’ offices ensuring that those who need abortion access will feel supported as they attend to their reproductive health care. Together over the next year we will learn how to avoid harmful and stigmatizing language. We will make space for the range of experiences that people have with regard to abortion: conflicted, clear-minded, grieving, relieved, grateful, or liberated.

WHAT CAN WE DO NOW?

  1. Contribute or plan to raise money for the Jewish Fund for Abortion Access. 100% of the money raised goes directly to support those who need care through a hotline, travel funds, or money to pay for an abortion.
  2. Learn as much as we can about the implications of the decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Sign up to attend the NCJW Community briefing on Thursday, July 14 at 1:30. We will learn what the decision means, about the state of abortion access now, and what our synagogue community can do to adapt to this new reality. Register here for #JewsForAbortionAccess briefing.
  3. Contact Rabbi.Drill@theojc.org and Rabbi.Scheff@theojc.org if you are ready to roll up your sleeves and establish a committee at OJC to lead our efforts in education, action, and advocacy.

We have looked at the snow on the driveway for long enough. It is time to get out our shovels and begin digging out.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Love and cheesecake

“Moses spoke to the children of Israel, ‘Thus said the Lord: I love you. And all I ask is that you love me in return, and show the world how to do the same.’”

Millenia later, Jews around the world celebrate the occasion of this momentous revelation with … cheesecake?

It’s all about the branding. As Jews, symbols and rituals shape the experience of our festivals and holidays. The recognizable and often tangible and experiential aspects of these special days on our calendar add to the meaning and importance we assign them. The piercing blast of the shofar leaves an imprint on our hearts; the rustling of the lulav branches or the breeze that cuts through the sukkah remind us of our vulnerability and trust in a power greater than us; the tastes and sounds of the annual Passover seder create memories that define our identities. We play with dreidels and wear costumes. But … cheesecake?

The holiday that celebrates the love between God and the Jewish people goes largely unnoticed. Passover is celebrated as the birth of a nation; Shavuot, however, following seven weeks after Passover, is the birth of the Jewish nation. It is the time we remember that moment at Mount Sinai when God revealed God’s self to the assembled people through the utterance of the Ten Commandments; God and the Jewish people enter into a covenanted relationship. God shows God’s love for us by giving the Torah, God’s most precious gift; in return, we vow to love God and to follow God’s ways. How do we celebrate? With cheesecake.

Maybe it’s the time of year as we wish away the end of spring and speed towards summer, as we head into graduation season and finals, as we just had the Passover seders and a Yizkor service less than 2 months earlier.

Maybe it’s that we don’t really know how to celebrate love. 

When Rabbi Drill and I counsel couples in advance of a wedding, we have them prepare what I call a “relationship inventory.” Each of the partners reflects on the nature of the relationship, what brought them together, how their relationship has evolved, where they envision it going. The exercise is not easy. It requires honesty and reflection. It evokes memories and emotion. I recommend to the couple that they engage in this practice every year on their anniversary as a way of celebrating and renewing their covenant of love.

Shavuot asks of us the same. Can we stand in the sanctuary hearing the words of the Ten Commandments being read from the Torah and NOT be moved? Can we remember the Israelites falling back at the sound of God’s voice —amidst the thunder and lighting, and the mountain seemingly ablaze—without a sense of awe? Can we read the ancient words that have served as the basis for civilized societies for centuries and not feel pride that we were the ones to share it with the world?

The synagogue calendar for the year ahead is being assembled now. The calendar of our Festivals is waiting for us to incorporate into our Google calendar: Rosh Hashanah 9/25-27; Yom Kippur 10/4-5; Sukkot 10/9-18; Passover 4/5-13.

Our holiday celebrating the gift of divine love, Shavuot, falls on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend of 2023, 5/25-27. There will be cheesecake. There will be Yizkor. Far above and beyond all that, there will be Torah … and love.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Strategic Thinking to Stay Ahead of the Curve

If you have been an OJCer for more than a few months, then you have probably heard our origin story. It is a heroic tale that begins with a struggling synagogue made up of arguing congregants, a stream of short-term rabbis, and money woes that all turned around (trumpets sound!) with the arrival of Rabbi Craig Scheff in the late nineties. Congregants started learning, celebrating, and anchoring the synagogue in Torah and relationship. Drawn to this positive energy, people flocked to the shul. OJC began a path toward stability and growth that was supported with my arrival as a rabbinic intern and then rabbi in 2002. Rabbi Hersh’s bringing his family to “the house in our parking lot” added a vital and younger complement when it was needed. Sharon Rappaport (20-year Youth Director), Amichai Margolis (Music Director), and Rabbi Joseph Robinson (Kulanu Director) together with our office and custodial staff complete the tale of the successful, joyful synagogue we know today.

You might think our narrative is a sweet and simple story of a community’s rise from a low point to high. Perhaps. I think there is more to the story than “rags to riches.”

Underpinning our story is the fact that since the beginning of our stability and growth, OJC has never rested in the comfort of our success. We have always worked to stay steps ahead of the curve. We did not depend on wishes and dreams. As a community, we thought strategically and critically about what was coming next.
This moment in time is no different. Despite the uncertainty and worry in our world today, we are embarking on a strategic plan once again.
Who could have predicted the turbulence of these past two years of the Covid pandemic? Who knew how difficult previously straightforward conversations about Israel, religion, and politics would become? Who could have envisioned a reality with security guards at our doors and in our parking lot at every gathering?
As a community, through these past two years, we never stopped providing our community with meaningful connection anchored in Torah, prayer, and loving kindness. How do we do it?
OJC leadership, volunteers, staff, and clergy are consistently poised to grow and change. Our ability to pivot is anchored in decades of staying ahead of the curve by thinking strategically.

We are envisioning a strategic plan for the next five and ten years. Our committee began work this past week under the able guidance and inspiration of our chairs, Steve Abrams and Benay Josselson.


OJC is consistently progressive and proactive. We are wondering about how to create a solid sense of belonging. We are thinking about new definitions of community beyond a physical presence in our building. We are taking lessons from the pandemic and looking ahead to the world that we are all moving toward. We are planning ahead for the needs of a younger generation. And most of all, we are here for what you are looking for. So please be in touch and tell us: what are you looking for?
Rabbi Paula Drill

A Ramah Shabbat-a-gram to my community

It started with a letter from my rabbi, Henry Sosland of blessed memory, to my parents. No emails or texts way back in 1976, just a typed letter. It was an invitation to send me to Camp Ramah in New England, accompanied by an offer of financial assistance from the rabbi to help make it happen.

My parents didn’t know much about Ramah. They knew it was a Jewish camp. I think (?) they knew that daily prayer, daily learning and Hebrew were part of the program. They knew the rabbi sent his own kids there. In fact, Rachel Sosland, who was one grade ahead of me, was the only person I knew who attended. I’m not really sure why I agreed at the age of 12, sight unseen, to be shipped off for the summer to a dust bowl in Palmer, Massachusetts. But it was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

This year, Ramah is celebrating 75 years of Jewish camping. Since the founding in 1947 of the first Camp Ramah in Wisconsin—intended in part as a training ground for future Jewish leadership and in part as an experiment in enhancing Jewish education for children—Ramah has grown into a network of five day camps, ten overnight camps, family camps, Israel programs, global partnerships and educational experiences that continues to shape the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, teens and young adults. Ramah has produced a foundation for Judaism’s Conservative movement and continues to be the jewel in its crown. Nearly one quarter of our own synagogue families share a connection to the Ramah vision through camping or staffing. Our proximity to Ramah Day Camp in Nyack in particular has led to a unique relationship that has been mutually beneficial to both communities. Over the past 26 years, our OJC professional staff has been fed by the Ramah pipeline of educators. Today, Rabbi Drill, Rabbi Hersh, our youth director Sharon Rappaport, our music director Amichai Margolis and I can all trace our earliest connections to each other through Ramah.

I learned about the creation of Jewish family and the Jewish home from my parents and grandparents; but I learned about the creation of Jewish community from my time at Camp Ramah. What stayed with me from my three summers as a camper was not the feeling of praying on a Friday night at the lake; it was not the thrill of intra- or inter-camp competition; it was not the excitement of camping out on a three-day canoe trip. What I took away from camp—and what has informed my life all these years later—was an appreciation of the power of Jewish community.

When I finally chose the rabbinate as my career, I knew that my goal in serving a synagogue community would be to help fashion a community in the image of camp, the kind of community that I experienced and loved as a child. I also knew that the way there was not to bring a lake or a sunset to the synagogue, as some suggest. The emotional attachment to a physical space is insufficient for the purposes of creating holy community, though our stained glass windows certainly provide a beautiful focal point for gathering. For me, camp was—and synagogue would need to be—about empowerment, acceptance, and inclusion; about passion, care and connection; about experiences, growth and aspiration. Ramah taught me that Judaism is not a spectator sport, that prayer is best practiced and best received as a communal endeavor, and that Torah is best understood in the context of our personal interactions and shared moments.

Nancy, our four sons and I have 125 combined years of Ramah experiences. This summer, as Jason and I head to Ramah Sports Academy (RSA) for the summer and Nancy continues in her post as Communications Director of National Ramah, that number will climb a little higher. The Hebrew word ramah literally means “level” or “height.” As we give of our passion and experience to raise Ramah, its staff and campers to new heights, I know that we will bring back to our communities a renewed appreciation for what it means to be in kehillah kedoshah, holy community. I know that we will continue to learn, grow and be inspired by what Camp Ramah is teaching us about Jewish living.

Join us this Shabbat as we host Ramah‘s National Director Amy Skopp Cooper and celebrate our community’s connection to Ramah. Hopefully, together, we will continue to reach for new heights in Jewish learning and living, bringing us closer to each other and to the realization of our Divinely imbued potential.

And if you happen to get a letter from one of your rabbis….

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

So how was your sabbatical?

I have been back at the OJC for two weeks and cannot count the number of times I have been lovingly asked, “So how was your sabbatical?!” I found myself answering the question with some version of: it was meaningful and valuable and I will tell you all about it soon.

Putting off the description for the future started feeling more and more troublesome until this past Friday. I experienced one of those sacred rabbinical days that make me feel grateful for my profession and also put into perspective the gift of the past three months.

I will start with a narrative of Friday and work backwards to the delayed description of my sabbatical. Early in the morning on Friday, Rabbi Scheff and I met our colleague Rabbi Mark Cooper and a wonderful young man with his family at the Temple Israel Center mikvah in White Plains. Jason* studied for two years in preparation for conversion and then found the conclusion of his journey delayed by Covid. He spoke with intelligence and thoughtfulness about becoming the Jew whom he has always felt himself to be. The privilege of sitting on his Beit Din (rabbinic tribunal) and granting a Hebrew name to a person of deep integrity lifted my soul.

Back in Rockland County, I visited the hospital room of Janice*, a congregant who had survived a life-threatening illness. When I walked into her hospital room, she wept tears that had been stored up for the past three weeks. She was surprised to find herself weeping, but I understood. I represented her community, her Jewish faith, and perhaps even God. We sat together, speaking quietly. Her heartfelt response to being granted a second chance opened my soul.

I drove to the home of Susan*, a congregant who has been isolated for the past two years due to Covid precautions. As we sat and talked about matters serious and not, I felt the importance of connection face-to-face. Her friendship and her optimism despite difficulty filled my soul.

Just before Shabbat, I welcomed into my office Harry*, a man who has been investigating Judaism. He described the study, prayer and experiences he has been seeking. Perhaps wanting to show how much he had learned so far, he offered to chant Shema for me. When I heard his beautiful voice, I closed my eyes and felt tears well. My soul was connected through his words of prayer to God.

As I led the Ma’ariv prayers for our in-person and virtual minyan, I reflected on the very full soul with which I was entering Shabbat. Throughout the day, my soul had been lifted, opened, filled and connected. Such intense interactions with people is a privilege and a gift. I am granted a window into their souls. Their thoughts, hopes and prayers pour in to me; and at the same time, my energy must pour out to them.

As I began to pray the Amida, I suddenly understood how to answer the question, “So how was your sabbatical?” My sabbatical lifted, opened, filled and connected my soul for three months without requiring me to give back anything. I was filled to the top so that I have plenty to give back now.

I studied virtually and privately. I traveled, hiked and practiced yoga. I did a great deal of writing, reading, and spending time with family, most preciously my grandboys. I was filled up.

Those of us who work have demanding jobs. Many of us who are retired have time-consuming volunteer positions and caregiving responsibilities to family members. Sabbatical is a great idea for all of us.

For clergy, three months without waiting for phone calls with someone else’s emergency is a respite that is more valuable than can be described. It is a complete rest of the soul.

I do not want the precious gift of sabbatical to be lost amidst the rush and intensity of work. I have dedicated myself to taking full advantage of the weekly opportunity for sabbatical that we Jewish people call Shabbat.

I encourage you to take the time to enter into Shabbat in the way that feels most reasonable for you. However you do it, practice self-compassion and care. Feel yourself lifted, opened, filled and connected. If you are not sure how to do this, ask Rabbi Scheff or me. We have lots of entry ways into Shabbat to suggest. I guarantee you will have more to give to others if you begin by taking care of your soul.

With a full soul, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

*All names and circumstances have been changed for this blog post.

A little more Purim fun before she’s back

The following is a reprise (slightly edited) of a blog I published seven years ago. I figured I’d share it again in the spirit of Purim before Rabbi Drill’s return from her sabbatical tomorrow. Enjoy!

Growing up on the mean streets of New City, New York, I learned the hard way what it meant to be Jewish, short, skinny and unable to jump higher than 8 inches off the ground. In other words … wait for it . . . “scrappy” was my game. The experience hardened me to the outside world’s cold reality. A jaded, chip-on-my-shoulder, eat-or-be-eaten attitude pervaded everything I set out to accomplish. I learned to control most of my impulses, assuming a mild-mannered, soft-spoken persona everywhere I went. Everywhere, that is, except on the basketball court. Between the lines, I could be myself, let go of my inhibitions, run wild, heatedly pursue, charge at the hoop, display my bumps and bruises as badges of honor. Ironically, all that pent up anger, frustration and aggression that found its expression in my game was lauded as something good, something to be admired and copied.

jekyllandhyde

Those of you who have seen me play over the years (with the 9- and 10-year-olds at recess, especially) have called me competitive, like a Mr. Hyde to Rabbi Jekyll. What you see is nothing, however, compared to the dark madness that once lurked in the soles of my high-top Converse sneakers (the white canvas ones). That’s just me having good, clean fun. Once I retired from competitive hoops at the age of 28 (the year I started rabbinical school), the cloud that once enveloped my heart lifted, and the beast was gone forever. Until . . . .

referees

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, who’s been with our OJC community for 20 years now, began her professional relationship with me at Camp Ramah in Nyack some 22 years ago. She was Program Director as I was Assistant Director, and Assistant Director (a position formerly also held by our own Rabbi Ami Hersh, the topic of another Purim spoof one day soon) as I was Camp Rabbi. We always had a great, easygoing, complementary style of working together. From Day One, people referred to us as the “Craig and Paula Show.” That relationship carried over into her internship here at the OJC, where I functioned formally as her mentor for the Seminary. The day she was ordained was a great day. I should have known something wasn’t quite right, however, when she informed me that her JTS GPA was .0185 higher than mine.

Crazy Paula

That single fact was the beginning of a disturbing pattern. Two-letter words like “XQ” were suddenly making their way into our Shabbat Scrabble games on triple word scores. She would casually mention to each congregant we met that she was older than me, taller than me (she took up heels), and could stand on her head longer than me. She would give her students colorful stickers and point out that I offered them nothing for their efforts. At the end of a day’s work she would ask me how many hours I had billed, as she filled my e-mail inbox with cc’s of every e-mail she sent out. I lashed back by working later, sleeping less, and leading more trips to Israel. I could feel the old Craig emerging, and it wasn’t pretty.

Crazy Craig

Rabbi Drill’s popularity has grown over the past 20 years. As has my therapy bill. But I have learned how to control the beast. Looking in the mirror each morning, I remind myself that I am good enough, that I am smart enough, and doggone it, people like me. Then I steel myself for the day ahead, trying to appreciate how good each day can be with Rabbi Drill at my side.

Purim 2

And then I pray . . . for the moment I will get her on the basketball court.

Converse

Happy Purim to all, and welcome back Rabbi Drill with us this Shabbat! Rabbi Drill, Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise–I’ve missed you and the many ways in which you enrich each of us and our community!

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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