Do Not Stand Idly By…

For me, this was most definitely a first: a protest chant anchored in daf gemara (a page of Talmud). Rabbi Marcus Rubenstein, of Temple Sinai, Middletown, New York had gathered two hundred Jews and allies from the Orange County Hispanic community to protest inhumane conditions for incarcerated undocumented immigrants throughout the United States.


The Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Sanhedrin 73a asks, “From where is it derived that one who sees another drowning in a river or being dragged away by a wild animal or being attacked by bandits is obligated to save him? We learn it from: ‘You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother.’ (Vayikra 19:16).” Now Rabbi Rubenstein led us in chanting, “Lo Ta’amod” – “Do not stand.” Do not stand idly by. Do not stand for it!
With police protection and a designated area in which to meet, we stood at the edge of a field, up the road from the Orange County Detention Center which glowed eerily in the evening sunset. A volunteer protest band held our attention and kept us motivated. Rabbi Rubenstein had reached out to the Rockland community to invite us to join the protest. Four carloads of my congregants answered the call.


Why were we there?
For me, the answer is best provided in a famous quotation from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who asked, “What is a sin?” Heschel’s answer was, “The abuse of freedom. A failure to respond to God‘s challenge.”
This time in which we are living presents just such a challenge from God. How are we responding?
If all of us indeed are created in God’s image, then how can we bear to see children separated from parents and suffering alone? How can we read about overcrowded, hopeless conditions for incarcerated individuals? How can we hear that people are detained without representation and languish, with no clear path forward? We can no longer read the news and just turn the page with a sip of our coffee.
The inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants in our country is not about political party. It is not about ideology. It is about basic decency.
Anonymous emails and several comments on our synagogue Facebook page focus only on the political quagmire that surrounds the questions of immigrants, asylum seekers and borders. It is easy to use immigration issues for political posturing. American leaders on both sides of the aisle have been doing that for years. Meanwhile, human beings are suffering, human beings created in the image of God. While they keep talking, people in custody are languishing in untenable conditions.
I did not go to Goshen, New York to speak against Republicans or Democrats because this is an American problem. I did not go to speak against ICE who are charged with a problem they have no power to fix because this is a mess created by our government. I did not go to speak about a brand new problem because this situation has been building for more than a decade.
Heschel said that few are guilty, but all are responsible. I feel responsible. And so I went to the protest and brought my congregation along.
I went to the protest because it is time to stop wringing our hands. It is time to stop copying and re-posting to the echo chambers of our Facebook pages, waiting to count the “likes.”
I went to the protest because we are American citizens who have rights that are also obligations. In order to change impossible situations, every individual must exercise his and her right to claim a voice in our government.
I went to the protest to tell everyone that it is time to write and call our representatives as our consciences dictate and to do so in a non-stop persevering manner. We must demand that Congress act quickly and responsibly to address the crisis in the conditions of incarcerated undocumented immigrants.
In the Torah we read, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him… You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And in case we have any doubt, this statement is punctuated with: “I am the Lord your God.” (Vayikra 19:33 – 34)


Our leaders can disagree and debate about immigrants, borders, the asylum process. While they are busy talking, however, human beings are languishing. We must write letters. We must make phone calls. We must do so without stopping. We must make a loud noise, loud enough for our elected officials to stop posturing and start acting. Our noise must be loud enough for God to know that we are responding to God’s challenge.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

The Power of Two

Eldad and Meidad are infused with the spirit of God, and they go about the camp in an ecstatic state (in last week’s parasha, Beha’alotecha). Joshua is concerned, but Moses doesn’t see the two as a threat to his leadership or to the community. In fact, he expresses the wish that everyone would be so graced.

Caleb and Joshua scout the Promised Land along with ten other spies. In contrast to the ten who see the challenges presented by their destination as insurmountable, the two urge the community to trust in God and to take what God promises to deliver (this week’s parasha, Shlach).

We often reflect on the difference that one person can make in the world. The influence of our actions ripple across distance and time. The work, however, is not easy. Though it might not be our individual obligation to finish the task in which we engage (“Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor…” Pirkei Avot 2:21), it is challenging to remain engaged when we feel alone, isolated, unsupported, suspect in others’ estimation, and perhaps even doubt in our capabilities.

Perhaps that is why the Torah presents so many examples of people working in tandem—for good or bad—to achieve a common goal. The solitary figures are often models of the exceptional. The duos, however, find strength and support, clarity and confidence, in each other. “Two are better off than one, in that they derive greater benefit from their efforts. For if they should fall, the one will raise up the other, as opposed to if one falls when there is no one to raise him” (Ecclesiastes 4:10-11).

 

Moses struggles with frustration and anger in his efforts because he is so alone. Time and time again we see that the weight of the burdens he bears is too much for him to carry alone. And delegating only goes so far in its effectiveness. God also experiences this frustration: “How long will they frustrate me? I’ll destroy them and start over with you,” says God. But Moses doesn’t want a new people to lead; Moses wants a partner. I imagine that when Moses calls upon God to show God’s strength through a display of compassion, he is actually saying to God: “We are both frustrated, we are in this together, we need to hear each other, learn from each other, and make this work.” God heeds Moses’ plea, anger is assuaged, and a partnership is born.

We can’t bear the burdens of our challenges alone. Creating partnerships and finding allies helps us become more self-aware, more reflective. Sharing our passion for a cause with another affords us the luxury of checking ourselves, of measuring our opinions and responses, of learning from another’s experience how to better achieve our goal.

As a faith community, we take our role of being a prophetic voice to the world seriously. While we are made up of many individual and diverse voices, we tackle issues and challenges as one. But working as a community alone can feel isolating and frustrating, often leading to feelings of anger, resentment and hopelessness. And that is why we have been so dedicated this year, and are so dedicated for the future, to building organizational partnerships. In the past week alone, we have partnered with the Rockland County Pride Center, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, and VCS (Volunteer counseling Services) to create opportunities for education, advocacy and empowerment and to serve those who find themselves on the margins of our society. We have stood for equality, learned how to better protect and advocate for the innocent, and feed the hungry. Thanks to these other organizations, our capacity to serve has increased.

 

As our tradition demands, we will love our neighbors, we will pursue justice, we will serve as a light to others in darkness. As these times demand, we will extend our hands in partnership to those who seek to do the same. And as we do so, our compassion, our power, our confidence and our love will only grow. And the Promised Land will not appear to us as an unattainable goal.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Learning for Today’s Reality

I find it useful to start at the end.
At the conclusion of the American Jewish Committee Global Forum, before we boarded buses for the Hill to complete our advocacy assignments, CEO David Harris told the gathering of 2500 people from 39 countries what the purpose of this forum had been. Rabbi Scheff, Leslie and Allen Levinson and I had travelled to Washington DC from June 2 – 4 for days packed with inspiring plenaries and thought-provoking learning sessions with AJC experts, foreign dignitaries and policy analysts. At the closing plenary, David Harris told us that the days in which we live have created an atmosphere of confusion and conflict for the Jewish community. His goal for this year’s Forum had been to get inside the zeitgeist of the American Jewish community today and offer meaningful education and answers.
He then challenged us: the real test begins now. What will you do with all the information you have gained? My first step is to share my learning with all of you.
With anti-Semitism on the rise, global democracy in disarray, and partisanship at an all-time high, I found AJC’s clarity to be effective and refreshing. I strode past the Capitol and into the Senate Office Buildings for my lobbying meetings feeling empowered and ready.
It is difficult to encapsulate two and a half days of learning, but I will highlight three experiences that will provide a sense of what it was like to learn with AJC.
Sunday evening was the first annual gathering of the Community of Conscience. AJC had envisioned an assembly of people from many faiths and ethnicities to speak to the key values of our day. The event was planned for the Lincoln Memorial, but a hail storm kept us instead inside the Hilton. There in front of a jumbo screen showing the Lincoln Memorial, we listened to invocations from two clergymen who know firsthand the trauma of hatred in our country. Reverend Eric Manning, Senior Pastor of the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, Rabbi of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh spoke eloquently about the need for diverse communities to stand together.
Dr. Bernice King punctuated their messages by telling all of us that hate is too great a burden to bear. She told us, “I have decided to love. He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.” As her powerful words rolled over us in a cadence reminiscent of her father, in front of an image of the very place where he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, I knew with certainty that she was right. It is a long arc toward justice indeed, but love and righteousness will ultimately win over hatred.
Early (very early!) the next morning, Rabbi Scheff and I attended a Rabbinic Round Table on the rise of global anti-Semitism. Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, Director of AJC Europe, and Daniel Elbaum, AJC Chief Advocacy Officer, presented a sobering view of the situation around the world. As Daniel Elbaum said, history does not repeat, but it certainly does rhyme. Our task, of course, is to stay alert, speak out, and parse between the various layers of messages being put out into the world.

One of the most inspiring sessions was called: Ghosts from our Past: The legacy of American Racism and a Call for Unity. We were privileged to learn from Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans from 2010 until 2018. Author of In the Shadow of the Statues, he provided an engaging and inspiring story of his personal journey growing up as a white child in the South in a neighborhood of African-Americans. He described how he came to understand entrenched racism and to use his position of power to fight back against it. Put his memoir on your reading list!
All of the conversations and lectures prepared us for lobbying on Capitol Hill. In our senators’ and congressmen’s offices, we asked for support of the Protecting Faith-based and Nonprofit Organizations from Terrorism Act and for the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, a bill that my own Senator Menendez co-sponsored. With the power of AJC behind us, we felt affirmed and acknowledged.

David Harris told us that our work comes down to following the Golden Rule. The problem, he said, is not in finding the right words, but in actualizing them. Because we are all created in the image of God, desecrating even one human being is equal to desecrating God. He charged us to delete and discard the word tolerance. No person or group of persons should merely be tolerated. Rather, we must seek and offer respect, understanding and love. That is the work that lies ahead of each one of us.
That is the work that we must do in every interaction every day.
With friendship,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

I pledge allegiance to three flags

I pledge allegiance to three flags:

Of the United States of America
And to the republic for which it stands
One nation 
Under God
Indivisible
With liberty and justice for all;

Of the State of Israel
And to the hope for which it stands
One People
Sharing a prophetic vision of God’s sovereignty 
United in diversity
With equal rights and religious freedom for all;

Of the Rainbow of Pride
And to the sexuality and gender identities for which it stands
One emanation of God refracted in a multitude of ways
Indistinguishable as humans in the Divine image
With love for and inclusion of all.

My allegiance to any one of these three flags does not preclude my allegiance to any other. I can raise them side by side and pledge myself to each, for they are in consonance with one another. In fact, each demands my allegiance to the others. To believe in that which the American flag symbolizes is to believe in that which the others symbolize.

And though we sometimes fall short—as communities and as individuals—of the ideals to which we profess to aspire when we wrap ourselves in those flags, in pledging our allegiance we nonetheless commit ourselves to working towards the realization of the aspirations each represents. We pledge to respect the rule of law; we pledge to exercise our right to advocate, educate and vote; we pledge to demand that every person be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender or romantic orientation.

In the short span of seven days, I will have paid honor in memorium to those who sacrificed their lives so that we could breathe freely as Americans, even as I lament the treatment of families at our borders; I will have marched up 5th Avenue to celebrate the State of Israel and its remarkable achievements, even as I let it be known that I am a concerned stakeholder in the ongoing Zionist project; and I will have celebrated “Pride Shabbat” at our synagogue as an introduction to a month of events in and around our community, even as I know we have so much education to do before “inclusion” no longer needs a committee of its own.

So the next time someone asks how it is that one can pledge allegiance to three different flags, tell them that it is your God-given right and responsibility to do so. And then ask them how it is that they don’t.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Lo Levad, You are Not Alone…easier said than done.

When I think about my dad at home through all the years of my growing up, I think of him as alone. And when I think about my mom through those same years, I think of her as lonely.
Living with bipolar disorder, my dad spent months at a time inside our house, often in his bed, almost always alone. My mom went out to work every day, and my brother and I went to school. When we got home, there he was, on the couch, watching television. I was a kid. It never occurred to me to wonder about how alone he was.

Dad

In the 1950s and 1960s, no one understood my father’s mood swings. My parents’ friends wondered and perhaps pitied, but mostly stayed away. My dad‘s parents fretted that they had done something wrong to cause such brokenness. My mother’s parents urged her to leave my dad, and bring my brother and me to live in their house. Instead, my mother stood by my father, the love of her life. She held him and us together. There were no support groups for her; synagogue was not a safe place; and her friends were not equipped to understand. I wonder who could have possibly listened to her without judgment even if she could have articulated her sorrow and her rage. She must have been very lonely.
I thought a great deal about my parents yesterday as we celebrated a beautiful Shabbat of mental health awareness at OJC.

Mom and Dad

Thanks to the dedication and planning of #OJCSupportsU chairs Miriam Suchoff and Mark Brownstein, congregants experienced a wealth of opportunities to open our hearts and minds, and to create feelings of well-being and happiness – keystones to nurturing and sustaining good mental health. Through meditative prayer, singing, text study, and guided building of relationships, we practiced experiences that promote resilience.

We walked in silent meditation from the Daily Chapel to the bima in the Sanctuary to receive Torah, a powerful reenactment of Mount Sinai where everyone received Torah in his or her own way. God does not see anyone as broken; everyone is created in God’s image. We walked together as a community, from the four-year-old twins skipping to the 90-year-old couple walking carefully with canes. Being together in a community where everyone is accepted as “just fine,” just the way they are, is a most powerful sustainer of mental wellness. Everyone who was in synagogue yesterday felt this crucial teaching in our very souls.
But what about everyone who was not able to be in synagogue with us? What about the people who struggle with mental illness in their homes or in facilities and cannot leave, trapped there, unable to enter into our community of faith? What about the caregivers of those people, too exhausted and fearful of stigma to come out and join us in community? They probably do not see a sanctuary, rather they see an unbearable barrier to entry. How can we begin to change this reality for Jewish people who feel isolated due to mental illness?
We must continue to speak out. We must work hard to enable people to feel safe enough to be vulnerable in our sanctuary spaces.

Mental Health

There are many opportunities in the month of May, #MentalHealthAwareness.
Wednesday, May 15 at 7:00 pm at the Rockland Jewish Community Campus, Rockland Jewish Family Service and Board of Rabbis present Lo Levad, You are Not Alone.
Thursdays, May 16, 23 and 30 at 7:30 pm at OJC, join Rabbi Scheff to study Jewish sources and mental health issues.
Thursday, May 30 at 6:30 pm at OJC, join me and Amichai Margolis for a spring time service of healing and harmony.
If you are struggling with mental health issues and you feel alone, reach out to your rabbis or to #OJCSupportsU in any way that you feel able so that we can meet you halfway. Even if you can only reach out a very short distance, we will meet you the rest of the way.
If you are lonely because you are a caregiver for someone you love struggling with mental health issues, we invite you in to listen, share and strengthen yourself.
You might feel alone and you might feel lonely. We want to provide a community for you in whatever way we can, not just in the month of May, but always.

Mental Health Month

Yesterday, before the Musaf Amidah, Mark Brownstein read Merle Feld’s poem, “Dreaming of Home.” To me, it reads as a clarion call to all homes of worship to be places where people are safe and known.
We want so much to be in that place
where we are respected and cherished,
protected, acknowledged, nurtured, encouraged, heard.
And seen, seen
in all our loveliness,
in all our fragile strength.
And safe, safe in all our trembling
vulnerability. Where we are known
and safe, safe and known —
is it possible?
In closing, I dedicate this post on Mother’s Day to my mother, Frances Weisberg Mack z”l, a woman of extraordinary strength and dedication.
With prayers for a refuah shlayma, a complete healing, a healing of body and healing of spirit,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

 

Finding solace after Passover

On a 30-mile sunrise trek out of and back into Mitzpe Ramon, my colleague and fellow rider Rabbi Ed Gelb introduced me to the idea of the “solace of silence.” Or was it the “solace of solitude?”

Reflecting on my recent participation in the Ramah Israel Bike and Hike in the Negev (which included 250 miles of biking over 5 days the week before Passover), I sat with my memories of the silence, the solitude and the solace I experienced in the open spaces of the desert. Given the timing of the trip, I was particularly excited to travel along the Jordanian-Israeli border and the Egyptian-Israeli border at the same time of year the Israelites of the Torah would have exited Egypt. Due to this year’s very wet winter in Israel, the Negev was green along the “river” beds that would carry the rains. I was reminded of the words of Psalm 104, which we read just this morning in celebration of the new month: “You make springs gush forth in torrents to flow between the hills.” I imagined the flock that accompanied the Israelites feeding on the greenery, the children picking the purple and yellow flowers. I wondered whether the winter that preceded the exodus was an unusually wet one in God’s anticipation of the challenging journey.

As I rode with my group (we “Bogrim” were the intermediate riders, encompassing a wide range of biking abilities), we’d often get spread out along our route. Sometimes we’d be divided into small packs, where we could push, encourage, joke with, and occasionally sing to one another. Sometimes we’d feel entirely alone on the road, though there was always someone just a minute ahead or a minute behind us.

The moments of community and the moments of solitude in the open and quiet space of the wilderness gave me a new perspective on the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom. I’d always understood the desert as a necessary transformational experience for our people, but never fully appreciated the effects of the surroundings on the fledgling community. Barren, silent and expansive, yet beautiful, peaceful and awe-inspiring, the Negev invited me to clear my head, to shed my burdens, to breathe deeply into my faith and to connect at a soul-level with the land, the journey and the people sharing both with me.

Wanting to pursue the topic further, I searched for the book that Rabbi Gelb had mentioned. As it turns out, I had the title entirely wrong. The book he referenced that morning was The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, a collection of essays about the author’s life and encounters in Wyoming! My mistake, however, led me to two wonderful blogs. One was about the benefits of practicing silence, entitled “Finding Solace in Silence” by Kerine W. on wittedroots.com. She writes: “There’s always been more to silence than we think. It hasn’t been obvious because we’ve villainized it. We’ve given it negative connotations of loneliness, isolation, and the illusion that we’ll be missing out on all the things around us. I think we too often associate silence with loneliness, but a void filled with noise is still empty. I believe silence is recuperation.”

In the second, entitled “Finding Solace in Solitude,” Zat Rana comments on upliftconnect.com: “When you surround yourself with moments of solitude and stillness, you become intimately familiar with your environment in a way that forced stimulation doesn’t allow.

My time in the desert brought me a solace born of solitude, silence, open spaces, unbounded time, new friends, shared goals and purposeful community. In a sense it renewed my faith and my hope, both in God and in humanity.

Sadly, the events transpiring in the world around us on this new moon challenge our faith and our hopes. We don’t have the luxury of such time in the wilderness when rockets give only seconds to find shelter. And ceasefires rarely yield the silences that bring about the reflection and reassessment required for true transformation.

Then again, maybe a few days off will give everyone a chance to take a long bike ride in the desert. It certainly worked for me.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

OJC Pride – Our Youth will Lead Us

As a rabbi, one of my favorite things is when our youth lead Shabbat services. The high school leaders take ownership of the evening; they daven with authority, encourage our religious school kids to participate, and always create and perform an engaging parasha play.


This past Friday, April 12, was all of that and more. In fact, it was a great deal more. Not only was it Youth Shabbat at OJC, but it was also the Day of Silence nationally, and our youth wove these two experiences into one very special evening.
Begun in 1996 at the University of Virginia, the Day of Silence is now observed at colleges and high schools across America to spread awareness about bullying and harassment of people in the LGBTQ community. Students and teachers vow to be silent for the day, showing solidarity for LGBTQ students who are too often silenced.
At services, our OJC kids gave out rainbow stickers, read poems and quotations to educate our congregation, and taught sign language for Sh’ma. One teen read a poem she wrote; in part it follows:

One day a year my silence speaks more than I ever could out loud.
My silence speaks for those who stop talking,
those who are forced to stop talking by a world that can’t accept them
for who they are or who they love.

After services, the brother of one of our congregants shared with me that he had never felt so accepted as a gay man and a religious Jew. He was overwhelmed by the feeling of welcome and comfort that he experienced. This man has been looking for a spiritual home for years. I thank our kids for leading the way in establishing OJC as safe space.

Pride flag

We grownups are doing our part as well. OJC is one of sixteen Conservative Jewish congregations across America in the third cohort being trained by United Synagogue and Keshet to be an inclusive, safe space for people who identify as LGBTQ. During Pride month (June), we are planning a Pride Shabbat (May 31 and June 1) and an inclusion and advocacy training with our Board of Trustees, Pride Committee, and professional staff.
Four of our Pride Committee members are teenagers. They lead the way for all of us, teaching us about what they accept as a natural part of their lives: God created all of us in God’s image. Some of us have brown hair, some are blonde. Some of us have blue eyes and some have green. Some of us are straight and some of us are gay. All of us deserve a seat in a sanctuary. That’s why it’s called a sanctuary.
Please let us know if you are interested in participating in OJC Pride. Contact our chairs, Sabina Tyler and Doug Stone at ojcpride@gmail.com.
And if you have questions about the LGBTQ community, ask a young person. They will be our teachers!

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