AJWS Rabbinic Convening: A Civics Lesson and More

It was not the most difficult question our American Jewish World Service lobby team faced during our day of advocacy for human rights issues on the Hill, but arriving at an answer required consensus.
Where were we going to eat lunch? Three rabbis plus the AJWS Director of Rabbinic Engagement – four Jews and six opinions.
We agreed to eat in the cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building. I was glad.
It is hectic and crowded in the cafeterias of the office buildings on Capitol Hill; but there, more than anywhere, one senses her place in the experience of civic engagement.
As I looked around the large room, I saw Americans of every age and ethnicity, from all over the country, spending time in Washington to advocate for their vital issues. I overheard conversations about leadership training for teachers in struggling school systems, sanctuary cities, and Medicare funding of psychological services. Sitting in the midst of New York physicians in their white lab coats, Kentucky firefighters, and environmental activists, we ate our lunches and discussed our meetings in the afternoon ahead.

As part of the AJWS Rabbinic Convening, we had been educated on crucial issues: Burma and the Rohingya crisis, Guatemala and the Rule of Law, and the repeal of the Global Gag Rule. AJWS is an international human rights and advocacy organization operating in 19 countries in the developing world which supports grassroots organizations fighting for human rights. The work of AJWS is inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice.

Almost thirty rabbis accompanied by AJWS staff held 63 meetings with Senate and Congressional offices, reflecting our values through discourse regarding global human rights.

We had access because of the communities we represent (8500 families in our synagogues and organizations). We had moral authority because we spoke in the voice of Torah and Jewish tradition. Senators, congressmen and women and their staff were surprised that rabbis were on the Hill speaking out on issues beyond what they expected – Israel and anti-Semitism. Certainly those critical questions are our core values and concerns. But on this day, we were looking beyond our community to the global community. The world Judaism dreams of is a world where all people are acknowledged as precious creations in the image of God. The human rights issues for which we were lobbying were not about Jews, but we lobbied for them because we are Jews.


In grammar school, I learned a subject that is no longer taught in schools: Civics. More than fifty years later, those lessons came to fruition for me in three days of life experience in civics. Access to elected officials and the right to make our concerns known are two principles of democracy that make our government work for all of us. Even during difficult days in Washington, the privilege to bring our concerns to the public square works. It works for all those people in the cafeteria of the Longworth building, and for thirty rabbis working for the human rights of many of the most vulnerable on our planet.

And now I hope that it will work for the community of OJC as I work to educate and energize our congregation. Together I hope that we will heed the call of our tradition: Justice, justice pursue!

(*Pictures of the entire group in front of the Capitol, of Congressman Engel and of two icons: Engel with Ruth Messinger courtesy of Chuck Kennedy for AJWS.)

With passion and excitement, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Local Jews

It’s a cold Sunday morning in February, the time is 8:55am. Sitting by the window in our Daily Chapel, I have a good view of the synagogue driveway.

Unfortunately, there are no cars entering. From my spot, I can actually see two blocks down the main street that approaches the driveway. Not a car in sight.

And we have 8 people in the room.

And 2 of the 8 are saying Kaddish.

Just up from shiva for their loved ones, they have come to the synagogue on this morning to find solace in community, and I am afraid we are about to fail them.

I pick up my phone, open my texts, and call up my chat group “Local Jews.” These are the families with younger children who have moved into our synagogue neighborhood over the last few years. They walk to synagogue on Shabbat. They tailgate with Rabbi Hersh and his wife Loni in the parking lot after services when the weather is nice. Their children wait around for me to change my clothes and bring out the boxes of Good Humor eclairs. They share coupons to the food store in our text group, and debate whether hot dogs are sandwiches. They wish each other a Shabbat shalom.

I’ve never used this particular forum to seek support for the synagogue, so I hesitate. I don’t want my neighbors to feel that I don’t respect the boundaries between the social neighborly connection we share and the synagogue connection we have in common. I don’t want them to feel any sense of guilt if they must turn down a rabbi’s request.

But time is growing short. And the window of opportunity is closing. So I text:

“Good morning! Don’t usually (ever) do this, but there are a couple of people saying Kaddish this morning and we are 2 short of a minyan. Can anyone drop by for 15 minutes?”

I hold my breath.

Seconds later my phone buzzes: “Gives us a few minutes. Dragging kids from beds.”

Ten minutes later, mom and her two young teens walk into the room, smiles on their faces, siddurim in hand. Imagine that, I think to myself. Teenagers who have just rolled out of bed, leaning into and giggling at their mother’s side. On a Sunday morning at 9am.

The sight takes me back to my own youth, to the many Sunday mornings I spent sitting under my father‘s right arm, surrounded by people a generation (or two) ahead of me. I recall how they greeted me with warm smiles and expressions of appreciation for my presence. They made me feel seen. They made me feel important. They made me feel connected.

My guilt over crossing some imaginary boundary dissipates, as I remember why this family moved into the neighborhood in the first place, around the corner from the OJC. They chose to make the synagogue and its community a focal point of their lives. For their own benefit and for the benefit of others.

Do I wish that people would want to come to services on Sunday morning for a half hour without prompting? Of course I do. But I’ll take neighbors who eagerly answer the call when they are needed any day of the week. And I’ll always cherish that moment when a teen sees the look on the face of an adult, telling them they’ve made a difference in someone’s life.

Local Jews, I promise not to abuse the privilege of having you as neighbors. Unless you give me permission to do so!

Rayna and Zev, I see you. You are more important to us than you know. And while you may not be able to name the feeling now, I hope that someday you will look back and recognize the way connection to community was cultivated in your lives. Mom, great job.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

It’s the 9th of Adar! What are you doing about it?

It is the ninth of Adar Alef on the Jewish calendar. According to the Talmud, almost 2000 years ago on this date, two famous houses of study, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, became so entrenched in ideological battle over eighteen legal matters that they turned to violence. Tradition tells us that their destructive impulses led to the death of 3000 scholars and students all on one day. This tragic day was declared a fast day in the Shulchan Aruch, but it was never observed as one. Perhaps the joy associated with the month of Adar stifled the impulse to commemorate a day of shame and sorrow.

Hillel and Shammai

To me, this day represents something especially tragic as the disagreements between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai are most often taught as representative of constructive conflict, the ability to disagree with respect for one another’s viewpoints. What could have gone wrong? I imagine that one scholar or another in either or both of the study houses forgot to practice humility. This scholar or that one influenced his students by appealing to their egos, convincing them that arguments were made to be won. Soon the legal scholars no longer abided by the simple rules of a makhloket l’shem shamayim (disagreements for the sake of Heaven). They no longer could argue the issues while respecting their opponents, maintaining good relationships with them, and even admitting to being wrong sometimes. The inability to engage in constructive conflict led to violence as it does to this very day.

In 2013, the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution declared the ninth of Adar as the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. 9Adar Project logoSteps

We are observing the ninth of Adar this year at Orangetown Jewish Center through a variety of educational opportunities. This past Shabbat, my 9Adar sermon was about civil discourse and the necessity to learn from multiple points of view. Rosh Hodesh Celebrations and OJSalon studied texts about constructive conflict and took pledges to participate on this day in a ta’anit dibbur, a “fast” from destructive speech. The Chafetz Chayim stated that if one chooses to fast for a spiritual purpose, it is far better to fast from speech than from food. We pledged to abstain from lashon hara, gossip. We have worked this past week to notice when we say things that are not truthful, positive, necessary, or kind. On this day, we commit to engaging either in positive speech or in silence.

Will you join us? Never before have the events of the ninth of Adar 2000 years ago felt more compelling and cautionary. In her book, From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, Rabbi Amy Eilberg offers ten suggestions for practicing the art of sacred disagreement.  (You can read all of them here: 10 Ways to Practice Peace on the 9th of Adar) I offer just three here:

  1. Invite someone of another religion or political perspective to lunch.
  2. Call or email a friend or relative with whom you have felt tension, expressing a desire to reconnect.
  3. If someone speaks sharply or critically to you today, stop and ask yourself what pain or pressure in his or her life might have led to that moment of harsh speech.

If you try any of these techniques and are moved, continue the next day, and the day after. As Rabbi Eilberg encourages us, the health of our community and our world may depend upon it.

handshake

Says Rabbi Tarfon in Ethics of the Fathers, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” Pirke Avot 2:21

Wishing you empathic, compassionate conversation on the 9th of Adar and all the days that follow,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

These are the Rules

Our grandfather, Israel Neiman, died the week the Ten Commandments were read in synagogue. Upon reflection and discussion as we find ourselves amidst the family’s observance of shiva, we realized that these mitzvot can offer important insights into the Jewish customs and traditions of mourning. As regular bloggers, and as brother and sister, we united our thoughts to co-author this week’s blog.

In the wake of loss, despite best intentions, many say and do the wrong things. This is true for those who want to comfort the mourners, as well as for mourners who receive the community that comes to pay its respects. Left to our own devices, we flounder in uncertainty and faux pas, the results of which cause anxiety and discomfort for all parties. During times of loss and grief, levels of anxiety and emotion are elevated; not a good time to “wing it” or propose constructive suggestions in the moment.

Time-tested traditions and mourning rituals are well-established to offer comfort and assurances to those who have suffered loss and are observing shiva. They also prescribe ways to receive expressions of sympathy and communal support without being overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful or burdened by the need to serve as host. These rules also benefit the community by enabling visitors to feel they truly bring comfort to the bereaved, even as they receive an opportunity for reflection and inspiration in turn.

In the spirit of the Ten Commandments, we offer these interpretations in the context of mourning:

1.     “I am the Lord your God.” There is a God that created us with a breath. The death of our Zaydie is the return of that breath to God. We stand in awe of the notion that our grandfather’s soul has been returned to its source.

2.     “You shall not create false images to bow down to them.” In the shiva home, mirrors are covered so we are not distracted from the deeper significance of the life that was lived. We are not meant to live in the physical world during the week of shiva. We tear our clothing to strip away the external; to live in limbo between the torn and the whole. Physical trappings—clothing, makeup and displays of materialism—are false images of existence that further separate us from the life of the soul we remember.

3.     “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” In remembering loved ones, the stories we share should not demean the memory of the person or disrespect the mourner. At times we feel the need to bring levity, but humorous stories at the expense of the deceased may be degrading and hurtful to a mourner.

4.     “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.” The public observance of shiva is suspended on Shabbat, though private mourning continues. Even mourners need to breathe in the sanctity of the day. Shiva is exhausting; physically and emotionally draining. Mourners need to “re-soul” themselves just like everyone else.

5.     “Honor your father and mother.” Parents anticipate the needs of their children. It is a rare opportunity to show honor by anticipating the physical and emotional needs of one’s parent during in mourning period.

6.     “Don’t murder.” Families have complex dynamics. The intensity of emotions at a time of loss can give way to conflict. The week of shiva is not the time to act on impulses or unpack baggage. 

7.     “Don’t commit adultery.” Mourn the relationship you had with the person you lost. Do not “reinvent” it. Treat the relationship with honesty and integrity, even if it was not ideal. If the relationship was lacking, honor that story too; recognize the pain that accompanies lost time and lost opportunity.

8.     “Don’t steal.” Grief in a shiva house belongs to the mourner. A visit is not the time to share your own stories or express your personal sense of loss; unless you are invited to do so.

9.     “Don’t bear false witness.” Offering that you feel very blessed to have known the deceased is very different than telling the mourners how blessed or lucky they were. Don’t offer that you know how a mourner feels because of your own experiences. This is plain false.

10.  “Don’t covet.” Saying Kaddish, as an example, belongs to the mourners. The loss is theirs, as is their obligation to mourn. While the community may stand with mourners as a sign of support, Kaddish is not to be recited with them. Only “Amen” is said to answer and affirm their prayers. Sadly and inevitably, we all will have our own times to mourn.

That being said, our modern sensibilities—often characterized by a sense of entitlement and a lack of empathy—require a redefined set of rules to correspond with a new reality. To this end, we offer ten helpful guidelines for the modern shiva house:

1.     You shall designate a non-mourner family member or friend as your Shiva Coordinator. You need someone to take charge of the details and schedule from meals to minyan.

2.     You shall set defined visitation hours. So that people won’t come too early or stay too late, consider two hours in the afternoon and two hours in the evening; leaving time for a nap.  Carve out personal mealtime – for you and your family – and stick to it. That’s it. (And don’t forget to put out the chicken that needs reheating, at least forty-five minutes before you want to eat.)

3.     You shall plan your own menus. Too much food causes too much stress. Notify friends of the schedule for meals. Specify that the food is for the number of mourners, plus four. If there are special food considerations (Kosher, gluten-free, nut-free, etc.), be specific and clear. 

4.     You shall affix a sign to the front door. It should read: “Please don’t knock or ring; come right in – but only between 2pm and 4pm or 6:30pm and 8:30pm. Otherwise, please wait outside or in your car. Or use your GPS to find the nearest coffee shop.”

5.     You shall place a guest book by the entryway for visitors to sign in. This will remind you after shiva who came. But also, by the book, leave a sign that says: “Please find a seat facing the mourner. Limit your time to 15 minutes maximum. However, if others are waiting without seats, please limit your visit to 10 minutes.”

6.     You shall sit on a chair and stay put. Sit in a spot that provides access to visitors and offers limited seating around you. Do not get up except to go to bathroom, bedroom or to stretch (all of which are important). Visitors will get the message and limit their time with you when others are standing by waiting for a seat. If you are hungry or thirsty, ask anyone to get you what you need.

7.     You shall wear an amulet around your neck. It should say: “Please don’t hug or kiss me. I am immunosuppressed. And no one wants to see your behind or your cleavage as you bend over to comfort me.”

8.     You shall shut off all ringers and ask others to do the same. People should not call a shiva house (except family). If you wish to reach a mourner and can’t make an in-person visit, send an email or a text to someone else in the household. The incessant noise is unnerving!

9.     You shall not network. As a visitor, do not cultivate business opportunities or play Jewish geography upon visiting a house of mourning. The mourners wear a torn ribbon or article of clothing and sit on low benches (hopefully), so they can be identified easily. When visiting, make a bee-line for them, pay your respects, avoid side conversations, and depart.

10.  You shall celebrate the life of your loved one as you choose…even if that means ignoring rules 1 through 9. But don’t forget, it is a long week and you can’t party like you used to. So pace yourself!

Mom, thanks for allowing us to take this opportunity to teach with a little humor. And we pray that you find comfort in celebrating Zaydie’s 100 years of life, 79 years of marriage, 9 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and 4 great-great-grandchildren.

We love you very much,

Craig and Cheri

Marching Together, Alone

I’ve seen a couple movies recently that have moved me profoundly, so much so that they were sitting on my heart and in my head yesterday afternoon as I sat in the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Nyack, celebrating the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both films address the history of race relations, questions of identity, challenges to morality, and the ways in which American politics and society reflect these ongoing struggles.

Green Book and BlacKkKlansman tell the stories of two African Americans who confront racism, and who wrestle with the degree to which they will draw their own lines in the sand in pursuit of attaining their own personal goals. But in each story there is a white protagonist (one Italian, the other Jewish) who serves as a complementary role, but who undergoes an identity crisis and transformation of his own.

Most importantly, the fight against hatred, ignorance, oppression and marginalization has the potential to bring out the best in good people who share certain values. It is those shared values that enable them to overcome their other natural and nurtured differences, to march side by side, to learn from one another, to sympathize and empathize, to conquer biases and assumptions, to pursue shared goals despite approaching from different angles.

In advance of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, organizer Vanessa Wruble, a Jewish journalist, invited Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez (two activist women of color, for gun control and criminal justice reform, respectively) to be part of the leadership team that would organize the march. That first march, which was fueled by the response to the Election Day results, was a symbol of unity among women of all colors, the LGBTQ community, advocates of other social justice causes, and voices of progressive values in general.


In the wake of that first event, however, a rift developed within the leadership team. Mallory and Perez, along with Linda Sarsour (former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York), felt that Wruble could not be an effective leader of the march going forward given her status of white privilege and power, and that women of color would create a stronger coalition of voices from marginalized communities. At the same time, Wruble felt that she was a victim of anti-Semitism, being pushed out of the leadership because she was Jewish, and that the ties that Mallory, Perez and Sarsour had with pro-Palestinian causes, along with their connections to Louis Farrakhan, were strongly influencing the character of the coalitions they were seeking to establish.

Martin Luther King, Jr. seized upon the story of the Israelite journey from slavery to the Promised Land, which we read this weekend in synagogue, as a shared narrative between the Jewish and African American communities. He was vociferous in his support and admiration for the State of Israel. He did not marginalize the Jewish experience as one of privilege or power. “When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism,” he said, recognizing the tendency to label Israel advocates as oppressors. He saw the struggle for social and racial justice as a goal he shared with the Jewish leaders who marched at his side.
The rift within the Women’s March movement is, unfortunately, emblematic of the deteriorating state of relations between the Jewish non-Orthodox community and the larger progressive community.


As a rabbi and community leader, I have advocated for certain causes side by side and shoulder to shoulder with communal leaders who have shared my passion for those particular causes, though we may have stood opposite one another over other issues. I could overlook our differences, sometimes as admittedly with great difficulty and discomfort, for the sake of our shared goals and alliance in faith. I felt that sense of common purpose yesterday, sitting in a Nyack church, listening as pastors recited words of Torah.


There comes a point, however, where I cannot ally with those who subscribe to the opinions of haters. Holocaust deniers, conspiracy theorists and other dehumanizing anti-Semites, and those who offer a platform for their views, are beyond partnership. Marching side by side with disseminators of hate would be a denial of my identity, and an insult to those I consider my constituents and to the legacy of Dr. King, no matter the cause.

I will continue to work for change from within, to influence opinions from a place of engagement. But when social justice leaders and organizers succumb to ignorance and hate, forgetting the human dignity inherent in each of us beyond the narrow labels that may be assigned to us, I will choose to march separate and apart. And, if necessary, alone.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Healthy Body, Healthy Soul

It is that date on our calendars, December 31. If you are like most people on New Year’s Eve, you will be setting resolutions before the ball drops in Times Square.

Times Square

Many of those resolutions will be some version of being more healthy. We pledge to start a new exercise regimen, eat a healthier diet, relax more, etc.

Healthy Living

And if you are like 80% of people, by February you will no longer be meeting your goals.
I suggest that health and wellness are more achievable as a way of life rather than as a goal to be achieved in the first weeks of January. One of my yoga teachers encourages us to see changing our patterns as a curious experiment. She says that it is more effective to be gentle with ourselves and take several small actions in the direction we want to go rather than setting impossible long-term goals.
“Fine and good,” you say. “But what are these sentiments doing in my rabbi’s blog post?”
I’m glad you asked!
Jewish tradition teaches that our body is the Temple of our Soul. God created each one of us in God’s image; therefore, our body is part of our sacred being, the place where our Godly spark resides. As Rabbi Simon Jacobson has written Read More…

At the intersection of life and Torah

Please, God, not this week. 

I see my daily life through the lens that Torah provides as a construct in time. The parashat hashavua (weekly Torah portion), divided into seven parts, often provides daily insights and a thematic through line for the seven days of my week. There was a time when I considered the connections of my life with Torah teachings as coincidences. But that is no longer the case. Now I look for the connections, and they are usually pretty easy to find.

But this week, I don’t want the connections to be made. This week, I don’t want the story to fit my life. 

This week’s parashah, Vayechi, reads: “Vayikrevu yemei Yisrael la’mut,” “The time approached for Israel to die….” After Jacob/Israel gathers the strength to bless his grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh, he offers insights into his sons’ lives, and he dies.


My grandfather Israel has reached the end of his years at 100, possibly the end of his months, maybe the end of his weeks. His children and grandchildren have given him their final blessings. His soul knows it has  our blessings to be joined with his ancestors and loved ones, to take its leave when it so chooses.

But please God, not this week. 

After all, Israel is 147 when he dies. My grandfather Israel is only 100.

Israel calls his son Joseph to his bedside, then fails to recognize Joseph’s children. My grandfather Israel saw his son Joey on Sunday, and recognized his grandchildren without a prompt.

Israel blesses his sons with the prayer that their offspring should multiply for generations to come, having lived only to see two great-grandchildren. My grandfather Israel has lived to see great-great-grandchildren, and has no such need for such prayers. His have been answered.

Israel dies in a foreign land, his descendants about to spend centuries in exile and enslavement. My grandfather Israel brought his family out of exile and enslavement to a land of freedom and prosperity.

Israel looks back on his life as difficult and frustrating, filled with challenges and suffering. My grandfather Israel considers himself the luckiest man alive, blessed with a wonderful life despite having lived through the Holocaust, illness and loss.


My Israel, son of Abraham has so little in common with the Torah’s Israel, son of Isaac. My Israel is a man of generosity and vision; the Torah’s Israel is a man of limited sight and spirit. My Israel is a patriarch who has been loved and respected by the generations that have followed him; the Torah’s Israel spent most of his days as Jacob, forging a twisting path through difficult relationships.

So you see, God, this week’s parashah Vayechi (“And he lived”) should stop right there as far as any connection with my grandfather Israel goes. Next week we’ll begin reading the story of Moses. As far as I’m concerned, his is a story that is a far better parallel to that of my grandfather Israel. Especially the part that we’ll read at the end of Moses’ life:  “For there never arose in Israel another prophet like Moses, whom God knew face to face.”

Ken y’hi ratzon, so may it be Your will.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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