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

Spirituality and Healing

I celebrated quietly this week. On Monday, I crossed the halfway mark. I completed the fifteenth radiation treatment, leaving only thirteen more. By tomorrow, I’ll be eighteen done and ten to go. That’s nothing, right? Even though each day of radiation and chemotherapy makes me increasingly fatigued, I can do ten of anything . . . except, perhaps, chin ups.
The days and hours from last March until two weeks from tomorrow feel like the longest, slowest period of time in my life. It also feels like it has gone speeding by. I want to ask: how did I get here?
I have had so many blessings along the way: doctors who are healers, compassionate nurses, the newest chemotherapy and technology protocols, health insurance and a loving, understanding workplace. (I think often of ill people without any of these essential pieces in place.)

BA205OrangetownJCOrangeburgNY-270x180

My family, friends, and OJC community have provided unstinting support.
My self-care practices of healthy eating, yoga, walking, journaling, and meditation have supported and eased the regimen of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

But nothing has been as powerful in my healing process as my faith in God.
Make no mistake: I am not saying that the seeming success of my course of treatment and potentially complete healing are the result of my faith. God did not make me sick and God is not healing me.
I am saying that my optimism, positive energy, gratitude and sense of blessing are all a result of my belief in God and that God cares about me.
My spiritual life does not remove moments of fear and despair, but does give me the ability to cope.
Spirituality allows me to experience transcendent meaning in this precious life. For me, it is expressed through my relationship with God. For you, it might be about nature, family, or community. – whatever beliefs and values give you a sense of meaning and purpose in life. When we attend to these beliefs, we feel a deep sense of belonging to something greater than we are.

Celebrating nature

For me, my spirituality translates into an unshakable trust that God has plans for me. This idea has carried me through my treatment for cancer. And it will carry me through the months and years ahead from scan to scan.
Praised are you, Adonai my God, Who has helped me feel safe and free from undue suffering. Thank you, God for helping me find moments of joy in the midst of this time of challenge. Amen.

 

The resilient child within

The nine year-old Israeli boy with the large soulful eyes stands alone on the stage, his teacher-counselor-accompanist off to the side on a stool with guitar in hand. The youth looks totally relaxed, the microphone a therapeutic pet in his hands.

The strings begin to reverberate their introduction and the child opens his mouth to sing. Time stops and the tears begin to flow from the eyes of the 18 American guests and the 12 Israeli teachers, therapists and foster parents in the audience. The children gathered as a makeshift audience put their arms atop each others’ shoulders and begin to sway side to side. The boy’s sweet voice ascends and descends like an angel on a ladder, and with it our souls soar, almost out of control with the swing of our emotions.

Knowing that the boy’s biological parents are not present, that the child has suffered emotional abuse (at the very least), that at a tender age his life is broken in so many ways, and that but for the presence of the caregivers in the room he might be totally lost, it is no surprise that the group is overcome with emotion in hearing his sweet and powerful voice. But to understand his Hebrew words is to be filled with awe, appreciation, inspiration and hope:

“Be not afraid to fall in love,
That the heart may break,
Be not afraid to lose along the way.

To get up every morning 
And to go out into the world
And to try everything before it ends

To search from whence we came
And in the end always return to the beginning
To find yet more beauty in everything
And to dance until overcome
By exhaustion or love.

(Before it ends, Idan Raichel)

Resilience has been defined as the power to be able to recover readily from adversity or challenge. And it is one of those human traits that I consider to be among God’s greatest gifts.

This past week, seventeen of our community members have been in Israel witnessing the power of resilience. We have seen resilience in the ability of an abused child to sing before a crowd of peers and strangers; in the work of Yoav Apelboim, the executive director of Kfar Ahava Youth Village who sees too much suffering, yet continues to make meaningful improvements in the lives of so many; in a society that resumes school and work a day after rockets rained down on its homes; in a kibbutz that has reinvented itself to stand as a beacon of religious pluralism and an advocate for societal change in the face of extremism.


We have seen resilience in ourselves: in our ability to make the sacrifices of time and resources to do the work that takes us out of our comfort zones year after year; in our willingness to suffer the emotional toll of being inside the suffering of children; in sharing the pains of loss, memory and empathy inside our own community family.

We have seen resilience from afar, as the natural elements have wreaked havoc across the ocean, from fires on the west coast to snow on the east coast, families have abandoned homes to survive and begin anew, and individual acts of kindness and sacrifice have eased the burden of others.

There is something within the human spirit that enables us to get up every morning, to go out into the world, and to try everything before it ends. Despite the disappointment, despite the pain, despite the knowledge that we may not complete our task and that our hearts may be broken yet again. To me, there is nothing more miraculous or more divine.


Join us on Monday night, November 19 at 7:30pm, as we explore “Community preparedness and resilience in the face of threats: Lessons from Israel” with Dr. Danny Brom, Director of the Israel Psychotrauma Center. Please register at OJCcares4U@gmail.com for an evening of learning, reflection and discovery. From the scientific to the spiritual, we’ll learn a little more about what keeps us going, and what we can do to bolster that ability “to dance until overcome by exhaustion or love.”

Oh, by the way, the little boy with the angelic voice? His name happens to be Or, meaning light. And as is his name, so is he. May he always know it, and may he always be.

Shabbat shalom from Israel, and hope to see you on Mitzvah Day Sunday!

Rabbi Craig Scheff

You don’t know me

Thank you to the hundreds who showed up for Shabbat this past weekend to hear our message, and to know and to love one another a little better. The following is the message I shared:

You don’t know me.

As I stand here on this Shabbat morning welcoming those who have come to celebrate with our Bar Mitzvah and his family, those who chose to show up for Shabbat with their synagogue community, and those who have come from our neighborhood or larger community, Jewish or not, in order to pledge solidarity and unity in the face of hatred, I realize you probably don’t know me. Not the way I’d like you to.

If you did, you’d know that last Saturday, while I was reading a story in my synagogue about my ancestor Abraham—how he welcomed strangers into his tent, providing them food and shelter from the heat of the day—eleven members of my extended Jewish family were being executed for no reason other than that they were Jewish, and that they were learning the value of welcoming the stranger.

You don’t know me.

If you did, you’d know that while I was learning this week about my ancestor Abraham and how he purchased a burial place for his wife Sarah, how he saw himself as a stranger amongst his neighbors and thus insisted on paying the full price for his plot so no one would ever question the legitimacy of his presence in their midst, my extended family was burying its dead, suddenly feeling very much like strangers themselves and, by extension, shaking my own sense of belonging.

You don’t know me.

If you did, you’d know the pain I feel as a result of having been offered more wishes of congratulations on my favorite baseball team’s victory than wishes of condolence on my sense of personal loss because of the murders in Pittsburgh.

You don’t know me.

If you did, you’d know that in the week ahead I’d be commemorating the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a night that signaled the start of the Holocaust, sending my grandparents into flight from their home in Poland, to Russia where my mother would be born in a labor camp, then to a displaced person camp in Germany, and finally to the shores of these United States.

You don’t know me.

If you did, you’d know that this past week I made a donation to HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the same organization that my fellow Pittsburgh community supported, because I too believe in protecting refugees, and because without its support my family would not be here today.

You don’t know me.

If you did, you’d know that this past Tuesday Rabbi Drill and I took our sixth and seventh grade students around our OJC neighborhood to extend personal invitations to our 35 neighboring homes to join us this Shabbat in solidarity, and again on our Mitzvah Day in two weeks for breakfast, just to know one another and share in doing some good.

You don’t know me.

If you did, you’d know that when I was growing up here in this community, I knew my neighbors by name, but my children have grown up in this neighborhood not knowing the people who lived across the street.

Winter is coming. (Yes, I am a fan of Game of Thrones.) And while this winter may not be ushering in the ultimate battle between the forces of good and evil, I do believe we are on a dangerous path. When I was a child, winter meant shoveling my own driveway and going to my neighbors with a friend to ask if they wanted their driveways cleared or their cars cleaned off. Today, winter means locking your doors, lowering your shades and communicating with a friend virtually.

I do not believe that we find ourselves today in the winter of 1938 Nazi Germany. Most importantly, the police and the law are here to stand with us and to protect us, as they have been throughout this week. Our Town Supervisor and neighbor Chris Day is with us today to assert that an act of hatred against one of us is an act of hatred against us all. Our sisters from the Dominican Convent in Sparkill are here with us to share our pain and our mission in combating violent acts of hate with loving acts of kindness. Our Rockland Human Rights Commissioner Constance Frazier is with us today to share our outrage and determination not to let our community be home to those who target the weak, the aged, the young, those of a particular religion, gender, race, sexual identity or political persuasion.

If you don’t know me by now, I bear partial responsibility for not knowing you, for not introducing myself and giving you the chance to know me and what I value.

If you don’t know me by now, let me share with you that my faith commands me to love my neighbor and my tradition teaches me that I cannot love whom I do not know. In the days ahead may we come to know one another, so that our love for one another and for our neighborhoods, communities and country will truly come to be stronger than the hatred that seeks to tear us apart.

I can go to the polls this Tuesday and vote according to my values and who I am, but that is not going to change my relationship with you. And so I beg of you—as we leave here today and as we head to the polls in the week ahead to elect those with the power to shape our communities on a policy level—to knock on a neighbor’s door this week, to make an introduction, to maybe even extend an invitation, so that we may know one another again.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Answer Hatred with Love

We heard about the shootings in Pittsburgh at our synagogue after services during kiddush. Not yet knowing details, and a bit in shock, we sang Shabbat songs with joy, belting out medieval poems to the tunes of the Bumblebee Tuna jingle and “Sloop John B.” That’s what we do when we gather to celebrate Shabbat: we pray, eat, laugh and sing.

On the way out of synagogue, our security guard filled us in a bit more. An Orangetown police car, he told us, would be staying at the synagogue all afternoon. It started to become more real.

After Havdalah, I turned on my phone and found a plethora of messages on Facebook from colleagues and friends, expressing a range of sorrow, outrage, and fear.

I reached out to a dear friend who lives in Squirrel Hill with support and concern. Though her family attends another synagogue, I know that everyone in that close-knit community knows each other. She appreciated my contacting her, and wrote back, “It could have been any synagogue anywhere in America.”

Over this past day, I have heard many versions of that sentiment. “They are my family members.” “I am connected to them all.” “What happens to one Jewish community happens to us all.”

Israelis who come from Pittsburgh organize a vigil in Kikar Rabin, Tel Aviv

What do Jewish people do with this overwhelming sense of connectedness? How do we respond to a tragedy when we live by the dictum:

‏כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה

All of Israel is responsible one for the other.

We seek to be together as a community. As one of my congregants said to me, “We need to claim our seats after something like this happens.”

And once we are together, what are we meant to do?

How do we cope with the feelings of sorrow and helplessness when confronted with senseless hatred? We look hatred in the face and we answer it with love.

How do we grieve?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “There are three ascending levels of mourning: with tears — that is the lowest. With silence — that is higher. And with a song — that is the highest.”

It was perhaps a coincidence, but I believe it was Providence… the OJC had planned our singing extravaganza, Kol OJC, the Voice of OJC, for this morning. Amichai Margolis, our Music Director, had been rehearsing with our band for a month. We had videography and sound engineering in place. 175 of us, of all ages, came together to learn a song in five parts in under an hour. We began with a moment of silence and dedicated our singing to the Pittsburgh Jewish community.

And once again, Providence played a hand in the songs that we sang: “Hineh mah tov,” How good and pleasant it is to sit, brothers and sisters together, and “V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha,” Love your neighbor as yourself. The messages could not have been more meaningful or more timely.

Koolulam, the amazing Israel project which inspired us to organize Kol OJC, gathers thousands of singers. But we had just as much excitement and energy in our sanctuary as Koolulam gathers in any stadium throughout Israel. (Watch for our video around Chanukah time!)

When we feel afraid, sorrowful, and devastated by events over which we have no control, we have a choice about how we will respond. We can despair or we can take action.Today, at the OJC, we powerfully experienced the way that taking spiritual action can lift up a community.

May we go from strength to strength. May the community of Tree of Life Ohr L’Simcha Synagogue feel our solidarity and support in the face of their devastating loss. May the Squirrel Hill community, and Jewish people everywhere discover reservoirs of strength and optimism. May we remember that we are God’s partners in repairing our world. May we never give in to despair.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

 

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