Hanging with Nonagenarians

My parents in 1990

Both of my parents died in their early 60s. My father died at 61, just the age that I am now.
His yahrzeit, the 16th of Sivan, is this coming evening through tomorrow. It is his 30th yahrzeit, a fact that I can only describe as surprising. How is it possible that my dad has been dead for so long?
Today, my dad would have been a nonagenarian.
If that word does not sound familiar to you, it is because we did not used to have so many of them in our lives, even just a decade ago. According to the Census Bureau, people 90 and older now comprise 4.7 percent of the older population (age 65 and older), as compared with only 2.8 percent in 1980. Driven by improvements in health care and medical breakthroughs, by 2050, this share is likely to reach 10 percent. Today, people in their 90s, if blessed with health and intellectual faculties, are among the most wise, vibrant, and inspiring people I know. By the time I get there in 2050, I’m going to be surrounded by my peers!
I love to spend time with nonagenarians. I seem to seek them out. Until I received the reminder for my father’s thirtieth yahrzeit, it did not occur to me that he would have been one of them.
I wonder quite often about who my father would have become through these many years of change. Who would he have been for his grandchildren? I know that he would have continued to be my sounding board, confidant and cheerleader.

Dancing to “Oh My Papa” at my wedding, 1985


In all of these 30 years, I have consistently sought out people who were the age he would have been. In my monthly call list, so many of my treasured congregants are well into their 90s, filled with wisdom, humor, and plans. This year of the pandemic has taken a toll on many of them, yet there is always an ability to have perspective and to adjust expectations. These calls often feel that they are much more about my needs than theirs.
Four particular nonagenarians are my teachers and parent-replacements. (The surprising realization that we never outgrow the need for parents is an idea for another blog post altogether.) Phil, Arthur, Reggie and Joseph give me optimism about my next 30 years, and teach me a lot about who I am today.

My father-in-law, Phil, is a whirlwind of energy who still works full-time in his third-generation commercial construction company, takes Pilate classes twice a week, walks his dog and rides his bike. Yes, when he turned ninety three years ago, his kids asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He told us he’d like a new bike! When Phil stops by for lunch with Jonathan, he always leaves with words that go something like, “I have to get going; I have too much to do.”
My mother-in-law’s partner, Arthur, not only survived her death in November, but also survived Covid-19 that sent him to the hospital the day after her funeral. I worried that, having lost his best friend, he would not find the will to go on. But here he is, gathering his vast library of artistic photographs into self-published books, learning new skills in watercolor and moving last week into an independent living apartment… a decision he made and carried out independently! When I visited him to see the new place, he was busy watching a YouTube about different types of clay that are useful for sculpture.
My daughter-in law’s grandmother, Reggie, is that person who gets adopted by every person who meets her. I could not love my daughter-in-law more than I do, but it sure does add something fantastic that her grandmother came along with the package. I look forward to my long phone conversations with Reggie, whom we all call Grandmommy. She is always interested and interesting. When I speak with her, it is as if I am speaking with a sister, not a woman who is the age my mother would have been.
My dear friend Susan’s father, Joseph (who for reasons that I can no longer remember we often call George) has been a friend of mine since Susan and I became friends 30 years ago. Joseph attends minyan daily here in Caldwell and for years, has taught the nursery school children how to keep a garden. And he shares with me his memories and stories of survival through the years of the Holocaust. When we used to attend services regularly here in Caldwell, Joseph always saved the seat next to him for me. Susan was on one side and I was on the other. He was the dad I had lost. He even has a little white goatee just like my dad.
These nonagenarians offer wisdom, experience, and perspective. When they reminisce with me about their lives, I feel immense gratitude, as if I am recovering something I lost 30 years ago. When they share with me their solid perspective on today, I am able to breathe easier and gain perspective. When I think of my own life, I see that I still have so much time to grow and learn just as they have. Thanks to inspiring nonagenarians, I look forward to 2051!

A tale of two sirens

I welcome my younger sister, Randi Galron, as a contributor to this post. Her words will appear italicized in the text.

The first siren introduced herself into my life with no warning. On a quiet and sunny Tel Aviv afternoon in October 1973, as the nine year-old version of me was busy playing a board game with my older sisters, she came through our living room windows, bounced off the walls and took up residence in our floors. The siren grew stronger as she grabbed hold of my feet, causing me to lose my balance. The room had tilted, or so it seemed, as panicked neighbors stopped at our door just long enough to tell us to move down the apartment house stairs to the bomb shelter in the building’s bowels. We sat silently in the dark, dank space for hours until the siren returned to inform us we could emerge, but only to prepare ourselves more adequately for the many times she would return over the next few weeks to send us scurrying back underground.

Every April I steel myself for the visit of the second siren. She comes to visit me in a different way, never catching me off guard. I can anticipate her arrival down to the minute; nevertheless, I am left feeling shaken when she passes. Over the years of my rabbinate, I have busied myself in the month of April with programs, speakers, and songs of Israel. Once the Passover dishes are put back into storage, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and even Lag B’Omer powerfully reconnect me to Israel and to my Israeli family, friends and places that have become such a foundational piece of my Jewish and spiritual identity. Nothing, however, brings me back to Israel more powerfully than the siren sounded on the morning of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). A small piece of me wants to avoid the moment, but the larger piece of me that is insistent upon standing inside it wins out every time.

April 8, 9:09 am, Tel Aviv, Israel

It’s 9:09 am and Craig just texted me. What’s he doing awake at this hour? It’s only 2 am in the States. Riiiiight, he’s the “Keeper of the flame,” a 24 hour vigil that his synagogue observes every Yom Hashoah. I join his “watch” on Zoom and we continue to text. As he writes to me about his reflections, I share my own feelings about what it’s like to have my two sons in the Israeli army at the same time. That both my boys are fighting for and protecting our Jewish homeland is a tremendous legacy to all those who perished. I share with him a picture or two to capture the meaning of this powerful day for me.

April 8, 2:46 am EST, Orangeburg, New York

In a few minutes, the siren will sound in Israel. Most of the country will come to a standstill. Drivers on the highways will pull over to step out of their cars. Merchants will cease their business dealings. The elderly will stand by the young, quietly paying their respects to the fallen.

9:53 am, Tel Aviv

Only 7 minutes to go before the siren. Just a few minutes to quickly finish up what I’m doing to prepare for a moment of reflection and to pay respect to our families and all those who perished in the Holocaust.  The time is 9:59 am and from my office on the 48th floor of the midtown office building in Tel Aviv I can already see civilians and soldiers lining the bridge that leads from the Azrieli mall to the Kiryah.

10:00 am, Tel Aviv

The sharp shrill of the siren that pierces the air. The steady siren that symbolizes our mourning and calls us to remember. It’s different from the rise and fall of the air raid “red alert” sirens we hear and heard only a couple of days ago to alert us that our small country is under attack. This siren pierces your heart and stops your breath for an instant. This siren causes the tiny hairs on the back of your neck to stand. This siren calls our entire nation to a halt. An entire nation stopping in its tracks – people, cars, radios, phone calls, the construction site I see down below – all of it. I stand with my head lowered, hands at my sides. I close my eyes. In the background I can hear the faint beating of my heart and I remind myself to take a breath. I try to settle the thoughts and emotions swirling  through my mind. I picture the faces of my loved ones, the face of my grandfather who is no longer with us, faces of friends, faces of those whom I don’t even know. But, I remember them. From my office window, I look out at the Ayalon highway. Cars are pulled off to the side, their doors opened, their passengers standing at attention like monuments. I feel a tear on my cheek.

3:00 am, Orangeburg

I stand in our sanctuary before the candles, and I listen to the siren from my sister Randi’s phone. As the alarm pierces the still surroundings, her reverberation connects her listeners one to another, across space and time. Though I stand here seven hours behind, I am transported to that time outside of time, that place outside of space, where the souls of the living and the dead come face-to-face. And even as they are bound up with each other in that moment, the one gazes expectantly, while the other averts its eyes. “Have you learned?” asks the one. The other holds its breath, releases and answers, “I thought I had, but perhaps not.”


While Yom Hashoah and Yom Haatzmaut are inextricably linked on the Jewish calendar, separated only by a week, and while it is so often said that the State of Israel arose from the ashes of the Holocaust like a phoenix, I do not like to perpetuate the idea that Israel exists today due to the Holocaust. There can be no denying that the Holocaust accelerated the realization of a dream that was centuries old, but that dream had already gained major traction in the years leading up to World War II. Even so, the siren of the 1973 Yom Kippur War that lives in my memory and the siren of our annual Yom Hashoah commemoration remind me that Israel’s security and legitimacy–her rootedness in our Jewish past and her aspirations for a Jewish future–are what ultimately give me the luxury of feeling secure as a Jew in the world today.

Randi, kiss your boys for me, and thank them for standing guard on my behalf.

Shalom al Yisrael,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

The Threshold to Freedom

The Kulanu 4th graders were competing in a Zoom scavenger hunt, and I had asked them to find something in their house that symbolizes what it means to be Jewish. One of the learners was empty handed. “I can’t bring it to the screen,” he said. When I asked him to explain, he said that it was attached to the kitchen door.

Mezuzah on a kitchen door.

A mezuzah! I was enthusiastic about his choice. In Deuteronomy 6:9, we read that we must write the remembrance of God’s law on the doorpost of our house and on our gates.

During this Passover, our second pandemic year of celebration in strangely isolated ways, Zoom seders and brisket for one, I have been thinking a great deal about doorways.

When we enter or exit a Jewish space with a mezuzah on the door, we are meant to touch or kiss or look at it, pausing to reflect on God’s covenant with us.

The mezuzah is also a continuous reminder of Passover and the experience of enslavement. How so?

On the night before our exodus, we were told to paint our doorposts with the blood of a lamb to save us from the Angel of Death who would mysteriously kill all the first born of Egypt but pass over the Israelite homes. Moses and Aaron had been told by God an important piece of the puzzle, but the people did not yet know. Within hours, we’d be girding our loins, wearing our sandals and eating that lamb hurriedly as we got out of Egypt, leaving slavery behind that very night. The sign on our doorposts would save us from death, and we thought that was enough. We could not even dream of freedom until we were told to run out the door toward it.

It was a liminal moment: we were no longer slaves as we were taking matters into our own hands, but we were not yet free.

One year later in the Torah, (in the maftir aliya) we were told to honor that liminal moment by sacrificing a paschal lamb and celebrating a festival every year on the anniversary.

Of course, today we no longer make animal sacrifices but we still celebrate that very festival called Passover. At this time of year, each time I pass through a doorway with a mezuzah, I think about the moment when my ancestors walked out of their homes in Egypt and out into the frightening unknown of something called freedom. We know from reading about their grumbling, ungrateful, contentious behavior in the desert that it was a very difficult transition. Many of them wanted to turn around and go back to Egypt. As terrible as Egyptian enslavement was, it was known.

And here we are, at the end of March 2021, more than one year after the pandemic began, once again at a transition point. Many of us have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Unlike so many of our family, friends, and neighbors, we have been saved from the Angel of Death. With care, we are told that we can begin the process of leaving our quarantine and isolation.

We know very well what has been experienced in the past year, but we have no idea about what lies ahead. Like our enslaved ancestors in Egypt, we know what we are leaving behind but have no idea what lies ahead. Many of us are having trouble passing through the threshold toward freedom. Like those unknowing, hurried slave ancestors of ours, we might have moments when we want to return to the safe haven of living separate and alone.

Judaism, however, is meant to be lived in community: in minyans of ten and many more than ten, at shared meals in our synagogue simcha room and around crowded dining room tables, in classrooms for children and for adults, in horas danced with joy, in Jewish camps and on trips to Israel. It is toward the sacred goal of kehillah, community, that we will keep intending. As much as we don’t know about the world beyond sheltering at home, we will cross this threshold. And as we are passing through our doorways, let us meditate on our mezuzot. Let’s talk about our relationship with God, our gratitude for our lives, and our dedication to participate in an all-inclusive kind of freedom as we sit in our houses and walk on the way, as we lie down and rise up… and we shall write our post Covid stories on the doorposts of our house and on our gates.

Drawing near in the second year

“On the first day of the first month in the second year….” (Exodus 40:17)

Millenia ago, we are told, Moses erected the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, on the first day of the month Nisan, one year out of Egypt. This portable sanctuary would replace Mount Sinai as the location at which which the Israelites would draw close to God.

On the same day on the Jewish calendar, earlier this week, we opened the doors to our sanctuary after having closed them one year ago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One by one, over a two-hour period of time in the afternoon, our inheritors of the Israelites’ legacy entered the synagogue to draw close in prayer before the open ark.

When Moses completed the Tabernacle’s construction, the cloud of God‘s presence filled the tent; so thick was it that no one could enter. True, our building has been closed to unfettered entrance for a year now, but our community has felt the presence of the Divine at its center. We have traveled this past year‘s journey with a shared sense of connection, care and trust.

As individuals emerged from the warm building into the chilly afternoon air on Sunday afternoon, several inquired from behind their masks when we would be resuming our in-person, indoor services. My initial response was to remind the inquirers that we are blessed to have a relatively full calendar of lifecycle events. Between now and the middle of May, we have families celebrating lifecycle events in the sanctuary almost every Shabbat, albeit with limited attendance, masking and physical distancing.

I followed this response, however, with a question. What does “returning” look like? We are accustomed to Shabbat mornings that are uplifting, inspiring and intimate. Hypothetically, if we were to resume services in May with 50 masked people dispersed in a space that holds 300, would we achieve any of the goals we aspire to in our congregational services? Moreover, are we prepared to have services that are accessible only to the vaccinated, thereby excluding a large segment of our community?

The varied responses of the people who attended our Sunday afternoon “open house” program were also telling. Some felt filled up simply by having a few quiet moments in the sanctuary. Others felt deeply saddened by the sense of lost time, friends and community that our largely empty sanctuary represents. Still others came simply to express gratitude for the ways in which the Divine presence has extended beyond the walls of the building and permeated the walls of our Zoom rooms.

In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to monitor the pulse of our community, weighing our desire to be together against the behavior we can model to move our community closer to full vaccination. In the absence of a compelling need to change course, we will continue to operate deliberately, striving to take advantage of every opportunity to safely and meaningfully bring people together.

As we turn to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) this week, we are reminded that God calls to us to “draw near” in sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrificial offering, korban, literally means “near” or “close” at its root. Some would say that this past year of the pandemic has brought our community closer together than ever before. Drawing closer in the year ahead, however, may require even greater sacrifice: greater patience; greater understanding; greater appreciation for the many ways we can serve God, community and humanity.

We have already dabbled in the world of “hybrid” programming, where the experience for some is in person and for others is virtual. There is no doubt that our next phase of programming will involve an increase in our hybrid offerings. So long as we can gather in person while there are some who cannot access vaccination or who remain at risk, we will in essence need to create two simultaneous experiences. This will demand even greater creativity and commitment, individually and communally, than we have ever shown before. And in light of all I have seen over these past months, I have no doubt that we are up to the task.

We have proven that our tabernacle transcends—and must continue to transcend— the fixed and the portable, the physical and the virtual, accessible to all who seek to draw near.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

2020 Hindsight

Dear OJC Family, 

One year ago this coming Shabbat, we closed the doors of our synagogue building due to what we thought was an extreme abundance of caution. We had the sense that we would be back together again in a few months. Some of you predicted this “long haul,” but your clergy did not. We were optimistic and naïve.

The doors of our beloved building are still mostly closed. Yet our community has never been more resilient, ambitious, and connected.  Dedication, congregational support, and deep resolve have brought us here. 

We invite you to mark this anniversary by coming to the OJC on Sunday, March 14, between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 to greet your rabbis and our president, Michael Pucci, outside, and to mark the passage of time through ritual. We invite you to enter the sanctuary if you so choose, one pod at a time, to spend a short time before the ark to reconnect to the space we have all missed.

Perhaps it feels strange to consider marking such a moment in time. Your rabbis do not want to let this anniversary slip away. This year has been marked by many losses and deep sorrow: illness, death, isolation, unemployment, children’s struggles, and fear. Yet this year has also been filled with loving kindness, optimism, connection, faith, learning, and activism.

At the OJC, we have learned that Jewish tradition and peoplehood can overcome any adversity we face. We took stock, reimagined, and provided the essentials: prayer experience, learning for adults and children, justice work, and social programming.  Your rabbis agree that we are a stronger community than we were a year ago.

We invite you to think about a moment of the past year with 2020 Hindsight, to remember and feel proud of an OJC moment. Please capture that moment in one or two sentences and send your memory to office@theojc.org with the Subject: 2020 Hindsight. We will gather all of our memories into an online Memory Book, an artifact of this challenging year.

With much gratitude to our Medical Task Force, we commit to continuing our Covid-19 safety protocols of distancing and mask-wearing, in an effort to care for the safety of all our community members.

We commit and call upon each other to reach out in support of those whose struggles are seen and unseen. We are not alone. As a wise congregant said to us: We have learned to live alone; now we must learn how to live together once again.

We are proof of the essential nature of community. May we continue our path forward as a sacred community anchored in Torah, Avodah (prayer) and Gemilut Hasadim (acts of loving kindness).

With gratitude, 

Rabbi Craig Scheff, Rabbi Ami Hersh, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

#JDAIM2021 A Year of Lessons in One Month

Carmel Louis flipped himself from his back to his stomach three times in a row one morning. We fawning adults applauded wildly, so proud of his new feat. What an accomplishment, what prowess, what a genius at 4 1/2 months! Yes, we celebrated his ability. Not one of us questioned why he was not getting up onto all fours to crawl once he was on his stomach. No, we were proud and content with what he accomplished.

Exactly here lies the key takeaway lesson of this year’s Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. #JDAIM2021 Each Wednesday night through the month of February, our guest teachers shared the same message: Celebrate the abilities of people instead of judging, pitying or harming them for their differences.
Robert Anthony’s right leg was amputated below the knee when he was 10 months old, but this fact is not what any of us privileged to hear him speak will remember about him. When we think about Robert, we will remember that he is a world ranked athlete, a motivational speaker, and the founder of Limb Possible, a nonprofit organization that supports people who have lost one or more limbs. I will remember the way he lit up with pride when he talked about his two children. Robert Anthony told his story through the prism of learning from every experience. Robert is living proof that with a positive mental attitude, anything is possible.

Pamela Rae Schuller lives with Tourette’s Syndrome, but that is not what we will remember about her. We’ll continue to marvel at the way Pamela uses comedy and storytelling to change people’s minds about what inclusion really means. Pamela taught us that inclusion leads to creativity, that understanding disabilities is not about what people cannot do because someone with special needs is present, but rather what people can do because of the presence of someone with different abilities.

Staff of The Arc Rockland, including our own Esther Schulman, spoke about the challenges and rewards of inclusion in the community. Karen and Alan, two residents of Arc homes, reminded us all that every community is made up of lots of different kinds of people. Their presence as our teachers speaks volumes to us as we dedicate ourselves to fight stigma and advance opportunities for and with people with disabilities.

This coming week, #JDAIM2021 will conclude with a Zoom visit from Steve Possell, a DJ on the radio station WRCR, who is blind. On Wednesday night, February 24 at 7:30, Steve will share his stories and the challenges he has overcome. I am confident that what we will remember about Steve is not that he is blind, but that he is a capable and interesting man who lives his passion.

One month out of every year spent raising awareness, inclusion, and advocacy about people who have special needs is meaningful only when it spurs us to continue the learning and action all year long.
Robert Anthony told us, “I want people to see me as someone who inspires them to do better and be better despite their circumstances.” Robert, Pamela, Karen and Alan, and Steve are teachers for all of us, carrying their message by focusing on what they can do rather than on what they cannot do.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

A kingdom of priests

Do I turn to God more often from a place of distress, or from a place of contentment?

For three weeks in January, Lindsay Goldman, a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a long-time member of our synagogue community, challenged her students (that includes me!) to consider their relationships with God. In her third session, she posed the question above. Nearly all the participants, not so surprisingly, responded that they turn to God most often when they find themselves in need.

These past months have presented so many painful moments, and I can certainly understand why people would be moved to prayer for Divine intervention, healing and equanimity. Our traditional liturgy reassures us that “God is near to all who call, to all who call upon God in truth” (Psalm 145). In those moments of distress, we are given words to use when “Help me, God” doesn’t come so easily: “From the narrowest places I have called out to You; answer me in your Divine expansiveness” (Psalm 118). And the tradition reassures us of God’s presence: “God is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit” (Psalm 34).

As we call to God from our pain, we are told that God is near us, embracing us in our pain. Yet, while we may be assured that God hears our prayers, God’s reply is more difficult to discern. Does God intervene to relieve us of our suffering? Does God bind our wounds? Or is God’s answer to be found in our knowing that we are heard, that we are not alone, that our “healing” at some level will emerge from the relationship we share with God? 

I have revisited my response to Lindsay’s question numerous times in the last days. And on a snowy day in February, I return to my answer again. Safe and warm, with a stocked refrigerator and a phone that can connect me to the other side of the globe, with family and friends who offer voices of support and comfort, I turn to God in gratitude. 

Personally, I rarely call out to God from a place of distress. When I am in need of strength or comfort, I turn first to the other people in my life—my family, my friends, my community. They are my strength, my comfort, my healers. Their presence lifts me, and their love is the source of my resilience. I don’t call out to God in need, perhaps because I recognize that God has given me—in the form of the people in my life—everything I need to endure, find meaning, heal and persevere. 

Perhaps I choose to put my faith in others in my times of need because my personal experience has been one of others putting their faith in me. In my role of rabbi, I have been charged with the responsibility, and have been granted the privilege, to step into many of those moments when others find themselves in pain. Although even friends and family are left wondering what they can do, I am empowered by the ritual of our tradition, the wisdom of our sages and the trust of a community to be among the primary responders to people’s crises. My experience has reinforced my belief that, in the midst of hardship, people must step into the breach to bring relief. God’s listening ear brings one measure of comfort, but the work of our hands will deliver God’s love. Especially for those who feel alone in the world, it is incumbent upon each of us to offer those hands in care and kindness.

In this week’s parsha, Yitro, God expresses the hope that we will be to God “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The Hebrew word for “priest” is kohein, and is more accurately translated as “minister.” Like that English word, the Hebrew word carries the connotation of service (as in “to minister to the needs of others”). God, then, expects us to be a community of individuals who minister to each other’s needs. In doing so, we become holy. In my mind, being holy means that we carry with us God’s presence. It is this holiness I choose to make note of in my world, day in and day out, in the simplest of kindnesses and the most common of beauties.

It is this practice of gratitude—acknowledging God in moments of peace and thanking God when I recognize blessings—that has conditioned me to see the presence of God through the goodness of others.

In the Talmud, we are taught: “And I shall pray to you God at a time of favor. When is it a time of favor? When the community prays” (Berachot 7b).

I find my comfort, contentment and calm in community. I find my energy, uplift and inspiration in community. I thank God for you all every day, whether we connect personally, virtually or at the level of the soul. From a place of love, appreciation and joy.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Getting fully dressed

OJC’s Rabbis are happy to offer this space for the words of our JTS Resnick Intern, Jesse Nagelberg

I lay my clothes on my bed – jeans and shirt with a collar.

I put in my contact lenses, brush my teeth, shave, and shower.

I put on cologne – yes, every day – and then my rings, my watch, and my kippah.

I finish getting dressed, including matching socks and shoes.

I am ready to begin the day.

This is my early morning routine and it has not changed – not even during the ten months since COVID-19 upended our lives and most of my days have been spent in my apartment. My routine may seem excessive since, typically, no one is going to see the details of my outfit, let alone smell whether I used cologne! But I want to feel prepared to conquer whatever the day will bring, just like I did when I left the house every day. Whether my day has involved working at OJC or Camp Ramah, studying, teaching, or chatting with friends; whatever the day has had in store, for me, being fully dressed for these daily activities has helped me to feel wide-eyed and alert.

The concept of Hiddur Mitzvah is that we can amplify our mitzvot by beautifying them. Shabbat Kiddush can be more special when using a cup made of metal or carefully constructed out of glass. Lighting Chanukah candles takes on more meaning when using a family heirloom or a Chanukiah we have a personal connection to. We can turn the mundane into a mitzvah when we dress it up a bit – literally and figuratively. We can not only show up; we can show up dressed nicely, organized and attentive. In that vein, we can be ready to notice the smallest details that enhance and beautify our lives.

If the last months have taught me anything, it is that there are small gems of learning to be found everywhere. We just have to open our eyes, our ears and our hearts and embrace them. 

In his book The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.” 

Picking my head up out of my many rabbinical school books and papers has enabled me to notice many “textpeople” in recent weeks:

  • During a Prayer through Music and Movement elective with OJC’s 6th and 7th graders, we have swapped songs that feel prayerful to us. Watching the students discover and introduce each other to music from different genres and decades has infused my life with new music and new ways to connect to the words of the siddur.
  • After using an app on my phone for an extended period of time, I received a notification advising me, “It seems like you’ve been scrolling for a long time. Now is a good time to get away from the screen for a few minutes to breathe and relax.” It is amazing that the automatic intelligence function on this app actually prompted me to take a much-needed pause.
  • The 8 year old child of a classmate unmuted his mom’s computer during a class about Moses’ encounter at the Burning Bush and engaged the professor in a discussion about Moses’ anxieties and intentions. I marvelled at the wisdom of this precocious child and how seriously my professor took his question and made it a part of the day’s learning.
  • One of my family’s dogs, Callie, is on hyper-alert all day for stray geese, Amazon deliveries, and Zoom events to join. She is almost always “on”; but when she takes a break, she curls up on the couch and instinctively lays her head on the nearest pillow, literally sleeping like a person. Callie reminds me that at the end of the day, or at the end of a busy or stressful time, it is important to find a soft place to rest your head.

As we move ahead in 2021, children are back in school, either in person or virtually, after a well-deserved break from the screens and Zooms that have become the focal point of their day. Perhaps it is time for all of us to go back to “school” and be more alert to the teachings that surround us. We can show up, even from home, by getting dressed up. We can return to learning from all of the teachers in our lives — our friends and neighbors, our children and pets and even, occasionally, AI technology. 

So what did you put on this morning, and how is it helping you recognize the gems to learn from in your life?

Jesse Nagelberg, OJC-JTS Resnick Intern

Before We Bury 2020…

I know that you are seeing them too: pictures on your Instagram feed, texts sent by friends, photographs attached to emails. Healthcare workers we know are receiving their first vaccination dose against COVID-19.  I celebrate each picture, text and phone call because the rolling out of the vaccines offers concrete proof that 2021 will be different.

No picture gave me as much optimism as this one of Dr. Debbie Goodman Scheff. Matthew and Debbie‘s wedding was the last time that I was in a large gathering, in a space of celebration, feeling complete joy. I think back to the hora of that Sunday at the beginning of March, and I cannot believe how 2020 unrolled
And now we are just beginning a brand-new year. We have all been more than ready to say goodbye to a year that was filled with illness, tragedy, violence, and isolation.

But before I leave 2020 in the trash heap of nightmares and unwanted daymares, I would like to offer some perspective on this year.
If we think back and sort through the long, difficult months, we can pull out from those days moments that in retrospect might have been a blessing, experiences that were our teacher, and joys that we should not forget despite the sorrow.
Our sacred community gathered every evening and Shabbat for prayer, learning and comfort. Supportive conversations helped isolated friends through difficult days. Walks in nature alerted us to God’s grandeur all around us. All of these were blessings and I know that you can think of many more.
People lost their beloved family members and friends during this pandemic and lost so much of our tradition, of the very ritual that helps us grieve. Yet we figured out how to receive some semblance of comfort in backyards, via Facetime and on zoom. Families felt the ambivalent loss of missed graduations, holiday celebrations, and gatherings for milestones. Our community could not gather in full force for the pinnacle of our year, to hear the shofar blown in our beautiful sanctuary on Rosh Hashana, and instead listened to the T’kiah in our parking lot. As difficult as these moments were, they taught us about what is truly essential. Being there does not actually require being there. We can virtually be there too.
Babies were born, couples were married, and 13 year-olds became Jewish adults in 2020. Nothing happened as expected, but real joy was experienced. Perhaps even a sweeter joy was felt because we were in the midst of a dangerous moment.

Weddings had fewer participating but no diminishment in the joy.
Zoom bat mitzvah had all the joy that we could muster!

Judaism has always taught that life goes on even in the midst of pain. This pandemic helped me incorporate that teaching into my very soul.
So yes, bring on those vaccinations! Let’s move beyond the stay-at-home mandates of 2020, finally take our masks off and greet each other once again face-to-face. When we move into this new year, however, let us not leave behind all of the important lessons of this difficult year… dare I say it? Let’s remember to have 2020 hindsight. The lessons are there for us if we keep our minds and hearts open.
This past zooming Shabbat, Rabbi Scheff happened to mention that there were 55 families gathered together in our webinar service. We could not see or hear each other, but he encouraged us to feel the power of knowing that we had gathered for Shabbat worship and learning. After Shabbat, one congregant reflected on that idea and wrote to us: “I have been remembering back to my first trip to Israel when Rabbi Scheff explained how the years of wandering in the desert strengthened the Israelites’ feeling as a community. I was thinking that this pandemic has been our desert: an experience that has strengthened our feelings of community and the realization that it is not the building that builds us, but we as a community are the builders.

Let us enter 2021 together as builders. Wishing everyone a happy and safe new year, and may a vaccination be in your future very soon!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Partnering into 2021 and beyond

Way back at the end of August, I wrote in this blog:

“The Jewish New Year’s arrival, this year in particular, may help us look back with 20/20 hindsight, and may help us envision the final third of 2020 with a greater sense of gratitude, purpose and optimism.”

Now, as we have endured the summer and fall, ridden out their lows and highs, and taken note of their dark clouds and silver linings, we stand ready to greet the secular new year of 2021. Winter has indeed arrived, yet we are bolstered by the new perspectives on life we have gained, the relationships we have fostered, and the hopes for an effective vaccine that will allow us to come together physically to a greater degree in the year ahead. But of all the lessons taught and learned during these ten unforgettable months of 2020, there is one that I was particularly glad to have internalized personally and professionally almost twenty years ago. Stated most simply by our tradition: Tovim hashnayim min ha-echad, “Two is better than one” (Ecclesiastes 4:9).

For the past two decades, I have advocated that a hierarchical model of religious leadership does not serve the best interests of religious communities or the clergy who serve them. Long before our communities were facing a pandemic, our synagogue community amended its constitution to delete the language of “senior” rabbi, “assistant” or “associate” rabbi, and “cantor.” Instead, the organization consciously chose the broader language of “clergy” with the understanding that the success of our community was dependent upon the ability of our religious leaders and professionals to establish and deepen personal relationships, regardless of their titles. 

Moreover, the ability of individual clergy to play to their strengths and to use their diverse talents and skills to cultivate connections would ultimately accrue, we believed, to the benefit of the organization and the entire professional staff. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the individual professionals and our organizations, we acknowledged that it is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, for leaders to be true partners when one is expected to answer to or be judged by the other. I am proud that our JTS Resnick Interns, through our Debbie Steiner Mentorship Program, have moved into the Jewish world building partnerships and leading vibrant and growing communities with this model in mind.

This pandemic has reinforced my belief that the partnership model provides professionals the opportunity to shoulder equally the burdens, to process the challenges and opportunities, and to share the personal and professional stresses. Partnership maximizes the potential of each professional to acquire and share skills, to broaden vision and reach, and to establish the relationships that will connect more people to each other, the institution and its mission. Finally, partnership models behavior for professional and lay people alike. The stronger the partnership, the more we generate in each other a sense of empowerment, ownership, and investment in a shared vision. The success of one is the success of all.

As we find ourselves in the midst of a time when communities cannot operate by bringing people into regular and consistent physical proximity, it is all the more important that our organizations have professionals who can connect people by facilitating intimate gatherings and cultivating meaningful connection. Some of us have acknowledged (and the forward thinking leaders knew this prior to the pandemic) that certain modes by which we have been operating must become a part of our business-as-usual way of doing things. For example, aging populations who can be served by virtual connection must be given the opportunity to connect from their homes to spiritual, educational and social opportunities as Jewish law permits. Our communities and leaders require partners to share the professional burden of the work and to share the personal burden of the stress that these new modes of operating generate.

In hindsight, we may look back on 2020 as the year that helped us envision the future of our community more clearly. Perhaps 2021 will be the year in which the steps we must take to realize our finest aspirations come into sharp focus!

Wishing us all a happy, healthy and safe 2021 in which we feel connected, cared for, and empowered to partner with those in need,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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