We can be proud of OJC.
I do not write that sentence lightly. It is something to be proud of our synagogue, and let me be clear: I am speaking about the people of the place, not the place itself.
This past Shabbat, #ojcsupportsU, under the creative leadership of Miriam Suchoff and Mark Brownstein, once again served our community with a sacred, meaningful consideration of mental illness and mental health. Together, we spent a Shabbat and Sunday putting a face to mental illness.
A Friday evening Neshama service lead by Music Director Amichai Margolis and a community dinner after established the tone of the Shabbaton: Olam hesed yibaneh. We will build a world with loving kindness.
Shabbat morning services were highlighted by a transformative sermon given by one of our own congregants, Sharona Levine: Sharona Levine’s sermon January 2020. In powerful and accessible words, Sharona shared her story. She explained why she decided to tell her community about her family’s struggles with mental illness: “What made me decide to speak up was the day I finally felt empowered. And I wanted to pass that feeling on to someone else. I went from feeling bereft in the beginning stages, to ashamed, from self-blame to angry – to educated – to empowered. Why am I standing here in front of you today? Because I want you to know: If you are the sufferer – you are not alone; if you are the caretaker – you are the key, and you are not alone; and if you are a community member or passerby in anyone’s life with mental illness— you can make all the difference by your language, your non-whispers, and your role modeling to others.”
Those of us who heard Sharona‘s words will be changed forever. So many people approached her after to share their own story. After all, when it comes to mental illness, everyone has a story.
Miriam Suchoff led a special program for the children of our community and their parents about recognizing emotional responses in others. At the end of kiddush lunch, congregants participated in interactive dramatics and discussion. We had a Rabbis’ Tisch for our teens where we discussed how and when to reach out to others. In the afternoon, we practiced a variety of ways to cultivate mental wellness: a walk, a talk, or yoga were the choices.
On Sunday morning, 25 people attended a breakfast roundtable presented by NAMI.
And the weekend was completed by a seasonal healing service led by Amichai Margolis and me.
So what was accomplished?
The people who participated in the Shabbaton experienced insights, gained information, and felt the support of our community.
The committee was invigorated and is busy planning next steps.
The clear message of OJC as an inclusive community was heard loud and clear.
And what of all the people who could have benefited from the Shabbat or the weekend but were not able to attend? The very people who need support so often are not able to come into community. We know this fact to be true.
We just keep trying. We just keep sharing the message that our intention is to stop the stigma. Want to join us? Contact Miriam and Mark: email@example.com.
When we put a face to mental illness, we look all around and we see that it affects all of us.
With friendship, hope and optimism, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
On the first night of Chanukah…. On the second night of Chanukah….
Like a bad horror movie, the reports of violent attacks on Jews reached us day by day. With each candle, our anxieties increased. The seventh attack struck our Rockland community in Monsey with 5 people stabbed as they celebrated the holiday together. Lighting candles on the eighth night, we were as aware as we have ever been of the meaning of this holiday, determined to fight back the darkness, dedicated to brazenly defying the temptation to retreat into hiding.
In the light of the eighth day, we are left trying to make sense of it all. Officials and lawmakers step forward to proclaim their indignation and resolve, a reassuring fact that distinguishes our home from 1939 Germany. Reporters ask us to assess the damage, to identify the causes, and to suggest countermeasures.
Jewish resilience — founded in our peoplehood, a sense of shared destiny, a belief in the power of goodness, and faith in God — will sustain us, just as it has through the centuries. Just as it did the Maccabees. But neither Jewish might, nor Jewish power, nor even Jewish spirit will cure the societal illness we call anti-Semitism.
Over the past twenty centuries and more, this illness has presented in different ways. Depending on whether the form taken was political, social or religious, the symptoms differed in the kinds of stereotypes the illness relied upon to spread. From the Greco-Roman empires to the Golden Age of Islam, from the Medieval Ages to the Enlightenment, from socialists to capitalists, from Ukrainian pogroms to Nazi death camps, “the Jew” has been an object of hatred and marginalization, characterized according to the needs of the hater, colored to be the cause of their ailments.
Today, however, the illness is different. The world is, as we know, a much smaller place. Social media has given hate an unparalleled platform. Anti-Semitism shape-shifts by the day. Its spread is not bound to any particular ideology or political party, and its expression has taken violent form in an age when speech is unbounded, inflammatory, and empowering.
But let’s not fool ourselves. Regulating speech, punishing terrorists and pushing hatred into hiding won’t defeat anti-Semitism. There may be places in the world where anti-Semitic incidents don’t occur, but that doesn’t mean that anti-Semitism doesn’t live in the hearts of inhabitants. In fact, sadly, it most likely means that Jews don’t live there.
Anti-Semitism lives in our neighbors’ hearts and homes, in the mouths of parents and the ears of their children. And the only way for “us” to defeat it is to confront it where it lives.
A solidarity rally may comfort us, provide a forum to air our sadness and fear, help us know we are not alone. But anti-Semitism will only be defeated when our non-Jewish neighbors want to fight it. When they are willing to examine and discuss their beliefs; when schools can require and facilitate meaningful conversations among students and parents; when churches, mosques, and synagogues come together in common cause—only then will we as a society have a fighting chance to win this battle.
On the eve of 2020, may we resolve to stand against hatred; to know our neighbors and to help them know us; to build alliances outside our Jewish community with those who will advocate for the conversations and education necessary to bring days of appreciation, understanding, and light.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Rabbi Scheff and I arrived in Boston on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2019 for the USCJ/RA (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Rabbinical Assembly) conference and planned to have our first dinner together with OJC leaders Sharon Aach, Michael Pucci and Hara Hartman. What an additional pleasure to be joined by Michael and Hara’s two daughters, Greta and Sophia, who are both students in Boston. Sophia is a freshman at Northeastern University, and Greta is studying optometry at New England College of Optometry. As Greta filled me in on what it is like to be studying optometry, I reflected on how perfectly apt was the name of this year‘s conference: 20/20 Judaism.
As we are on the cusp of entering a new decade, Conservative Judaism’s leaders, professionals, clergy, and educators need to see clearly. With our vision corrected for 20/20, we will be able to make sense of today’s great challenges.
At this tumultuous time of change, threat, and discord the conference provided an optimistic space for sacred dialogue, for harnessing our collective wisdom and strength.
While there are many who claim that the Conservative Movement is broken, I see us instead in a period of transition. We are the Ramah Camping Movement, United Synagogue Youth, Day Schools, Nativ Year Course, seminaries and graduate schools, synagogues and their supplemental schools. We are powerful communities, institutions, and places of higher education bound together by a collective belief in the covenant we hold with God. Within our movement, there are many ways to understand this covenant, but we are all bound by it.
It seems to me that the unique task of Conservative Judaism among the many rich streams of Judaism is to hold the center. Tradition and change, practicality and spirituality, prayer and action, halakha (law) and autonomy… in each pair of values held in tension, we strive to be balanced.
It is not easy to hold the center. It is not as seductive as claiming one side or the other. But after spending days praying, learning, debating, and singing with the people of my particular brand of Judaism, I believe that it is the essential way to live Judaism today.
If the meaning of community has changed, still the need for meaning is stronger than ever. We must go deep and we must be real.
If Judaism is the creative application of Torah across the generations, then Abraham Joshua Heschel was correct: It is not required of us to take a leap of faith but rather a leap of action.
B’yedidut, With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I care. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been in this line of work for the last 25 years. I care about teaching a Torah that is alive, relevant and instructive; about creating moments of meaningful connection for people with their Jewish identities; about our shared past and our shared future; about empowering people to use Judaism as a perspective by which they can view, understand and influence the world around them.
I care about raising people up in their moments of joy, and about being present to those who are brought low by life’s circumstances.
I care about challenging people’s assumptions and about shaking people from their complacency, and about exposing biases and calling out intellectual laziness. I care about their ability to communicate what they believe and why.
I care about an organization, its financial health, its administration and operations and about the people who staff and volunteer their time to make it successful. I care about its reputation, its ability to welcome and meet diverse personalities, needs and challenges. I care about its mission and goals, and about the processes and procedures it follows to achieve them. I care about policies and consistency, and about the flexibility to allow for exceptions and individual needs.
I care about a building, its sanctuary and its learning spaces, its social spaces, its sound systems, WiFi, heat and air conditioning. I care about its security.
Living on the synagogue grounds for the past 25 years, I’ve been able to look out my bedroom window every morning and every night to see the parking lot and who is in it, the synagogue front door, my office window. When someone has left a light on in the building, I know it.
And I can’t imagine living my rabbinate any other way.
Of course, I also care about my family. And I care about myself and my ability to keep doing what I love. And I am so grateful that my synagogue community cares about its clergy as well.
As an adjunct faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary teaching the senior class of the Rabbinical School for the past 15 years, I advise the future rabbis and cantors who want to work in pulpits that while a synagogue may commit itself initially to a clergy-person for a two- or three-year term, the clergy-person will be at their best if they approach their commitment to the community from the outset as a lifelong commitment. Once that commitment is recognized and appreciated, the congregation will want to honor, nurture and reward that commitment. I believe that if clergy care, congregations care.
In the world of academia, the sabbatical is a time for a scholar to pursue intellectual and personal growth. In the world of clergy, the sabbatical is an opportunity to regenerate. Just as God rested (or refrained) from the work of creating (shavat) and recharged (vayinafash), a clergy-person’s sabbatical is ideally spent re-energizing for the future. Just as the Shabbat allows us to cease from “doing” and provides the time just to “be” in order to renew our creative energy for the week ahead, the sabbatical offers clergy the opportunity to process what has been and reimagine what can be. If a community cares about its long term well-being, it will care for the long term well-being of its clergy as well.
I am grateful for the gift of a 3-month sabbatical every four years, and for the community’s care and commitment this opportunity reflects. My absence doesn’t reflect in any way a lack of care. If anything, it should tell you that I’m already preparing for the next chapter with you, excited to greet the next set of opportunities and challenges refreshed and renewed.
I already look forward to catching up with you again in March. And if you happen to see me around before then, please don’t be afraid to say hello!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
I made plans for dinner with a friend who returned from a year of rabbinical study in Israel. On impulse, I invited him to arrive early to the OJC for our appointment in order to see Kulanu (our children’s education program) in action. At 5:30 on Tuesday, I walked Andrew through the bright, light hallways of our new Kulanu wing, the Walerstein Family Center for Jewish Living and Learning. So much was going on!
Kindergarten,1st and 2nd graders sat on mats in the Daniel Beer Music and Tefillah Room with their teachers and Amichai Margolis, our Music Director. To the lively tunes Amichai played on guitar, they sang enthusiastically (and loudly!), preparing for Mitzvah Day when we’ll be singing for the elders of Esplanade on the Palisades.
In several different rooms, in small clusters, volunteer congregants mentored one or two learners in reading Hebrew. The Yachad program empowers children to conquer the decoding and practice required to read fluently. We saw heads bent toward each other, and heard a low rumble of reading that was punctuated by an occasional “Great!” and even some applause.
Teen madrichim (teacher assistants) were engaged in the Beit Midrash (Learning Center) with Youth Director Sharon Rappaport. Their monthly training in leadership and education skills fosters their sense of dedication and responsibility. I’m not exactly sure what they were doing but it definitely involved Jenga and Oreo cookies!
Rabbinical student Ben Varon teaches a parent education course during Kulanu hours every other week. Parents have the opportunity to model lifelong learning for their children.
At the close of two hours of hevruta (partnered) study, learning in the Jewish living room, and Yachad, all of the learners and several parents gathered in the Sanctuary to sing with Amichai. Rabbi Scheff and Rabbinical student Jesse Nagelberg danced in the aisle! We all stood together to sing HaTikvah, Israel’s national anthem. What an incredible learning experience! This is not your Zayde’s cheder… or my own Hebrew School experience…or even our successful Religious School as it was at OJC for decades. This is something brand new.
Kulanu means All of Us, and as Andrew and I walked amidst all that energy and joy, I felt how aptly the name fits our education program. All of us who identify with the sacred obligation of educating our children can participate in Kulanu. Seeing the program through the eyes of a guest was satisfying.
I felt proud of OJC after a year of dreaming, strategizing and working hard to bring this vision to fruition.
If you know a Jewish child who is not currently receiving education or if you are interested in getting involved, contact Rabbi Miriam, Kulanu Director, at Kulanu@theojc.org.
Who will build the Judaism of the next generation? Kulanu! All of us!
B’yedidut, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
This past week, 36 years ago, the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to admit women into its program. And after 36 years of a “battle being won,” there is still much work to be done in making Judaism truly egalitarian in our communities and institutions. Language, symbols, existing Torah education, and deeply rooted emotional attachments have made the process of change a slow one. Practically two generations later, our daughters (and sons) still lack role models, teachers, rituals and customs that support an equality of access to our tradition and, by extension, to God. Conservative Jews, by and large, still seem content with perpetuating a tradition shaped by men for men.
Six years ago I authored the following piece about our synagogue’s choice to continue advancing the cause of egalitarianism in our community by promoting the use of headcoverings for men and women. We have had limited success in this effort, and have learned that we can’t let six years go by again without reiterating this teaching. So here it is:
Here is how the conversation with my Kitah Vav (sixth grade) students went. I asked, “Why do we require boys to wear a kippah or some kind of head covering?” The bright youngsters answered: “It is a sign of respect for God.” “Great answer,” I responded. “It shows that we know God is with us,” another suggested. “Fantastic,” I replied. “So,” I continued, “why don’t girls cover their heads?” Silence. No good answer. Finally, one student offered, “There is no good reason. It doesn’t make sense. Girls should show respect the same way boys do!”
It seems like such a simple and logical conclusion, and yet it is so complicated to teach, especially when generations of communities have held onto customs based in outdated norms, reinforced by bad education and laziness. It is true that long-held customs over time gain the weight of law; but when those customs undercut the values of a community, they must be changed. Especially for an egalitarian Conservative community, it is important to understand what we do, why we do it, and how our customs advance or detract from our ideals. If you ask most women who cover their heads in our community why they do so, they will say it is out of an acknowledgment of, or respect for, God’s presence when we pray or study. The fact that most of these women are married, and didn’t start covering their heads until they were married, stems from an understanding of this custom in an entirely different light. In Orthodox circles, married women cover their heads out of modesty, not out of respect for God. Whether the custom was generated from the desire to make single women easily identifiable, or the notion that a married woman who exposed herself to others beside her husband brought shame to herself or her family is irrelevant for our purposes. Neither rationale holds true any longer in our egalitarian communities. To hold onto a distinction between married and unmarried women in our community is to perpetuate a belief system that is untrue to our values. How are we supposed to explain to our ten year old daughters why they are not required to cover their heads? In a similar vein, how do we explain to our sons why they must? The Conservative movement set out on a bold path decades ago to empower women in all areas of Jewish life, ritual and leadership. We are so much stronger in so many ways as a result; yet, we have been lazy and slow to teach a sense of equality of obligation. One of the most difficult aspects of this change has been the absence of role models for our daughters. When something new is presented as a choice, and there are few who exercise it, what adolescent wants to stand out from among her peers? Our daughters for too long have only seen married women and rabbis covering their heads, even though true egalitarianism lies in the equality of obligation for all.
As it is our goal to advance the egalitarian ideal, and to give every child and adult, male and female, the opportunity to experience a connection to God through all rituals available to us as Jews, our OJC Ritual Committee has adopted a new policy that will go into effect in January (2014). We will continue to require all males to cover their heads in the sanctuary and daily chapel at all times (though we would never demand that anyone leave for their refusal to do so). We will continue to request that all females cover their heads in the sanctuary and daily chapel; however, anyone who ascends the bimah or who functions in a role of ritual leadership (like davening, receiving an aliyah or reading Torah) will be expected to wear a headcovering. In this way, the people who choose to lead us or represent us in prayer will model our understanding of how we show respect to God.
We understand that any change involves an ongoing process of education. The Ritual Committee undertook a year of studying the topic of headcovering, taking time out of its monthly meetings to learn before reaching this policy decision. Rabbi Drill offered three teaching sessions following Shabbat services in the summer of 2012 that ignited the committee’s consideration. Last spring (2013) I lead a session of The Observant Life dedicated to the topic. Prior to the beginning of the academic year, the majority of our teaching staff studied the issue, and took on the obligation to model for our religious school children, all of whom are now covering their heads in class and prayer. Our teachers’ aides, the group for whom fulfilling this obligation as role models is least comfortable given social (and stylistic) considerations, engaged in a text study with me and has been encouraged to continue the conversation. Our religious school children are being engaged in hands-on activities to learn the significance of the ritual. For children who will grow up seeing role models and peers following one mode of ritual expression, the only question remaining will be whether their sanctuary will be consistent with their classroom.
I recognize that so many of our customs are emotionally rooted in “how we grew up.” Intellectual and spiritual honesty with ourselves and our children, however, sometimes requires that we revisit and revise what we do so that our norms don’t lose their meaning. Our policy does not result in the exclusion of anyone from being a participant in our community as they always have. It only asks that people who want to assume a place of ritual leadership be willing to model what we want the next generation to comfortably own.”
Since the original writing of this piece, I’ve adopted a fairly liberal interpretation of what qualifies as a headcovering. Anyone may choose to wear a kippah or a hat; just as anyone may choose to wear a lace “doily” or a wide headband. It is the intention that matters most: the headwear itself is symbolic, and one’s hairstyle need not be an obstacle to giving expression to the intention.
After six years, it is clear that without the support of women sharing this passion and owning this effort, an egalitarian understanding of how Torah applies in our lives will remain elusive. I still believe that the issue of headcovering is the lowest rung of the ladder to be climbed, and the one that makes the most intellectual and educational sense as a first step.
I hope we can dare to achieve a new height together.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
There are days that offer us lessons we never forget, as long as we are paying attention. One long, overfilled day several years ago was such a day. I paid a shiva call to a community member whose six-year old child had died. As I sat next to him in a rare moment of quiet during that excruciating week, he told me that a visitor earlier in the day had told him that she had also lost a child. She shared that life was never the same, but that he could look at her and know that life would go on. As he shared the story with me, I saw that he was incredibly angry and hurt. When I asked him to explain his response, he did not try to contain his outrage, “How dare she tell me that my life will not be the same? And how dare she tell me that life will go on? What does she know about me and my loss? She barely knows me.”
That same day, I called my cousin whose child had died earlier in the year after a long bout with cancer. When I asked my cousin how she was doing in this moment, she told me she was feeling quite good. She had gone to the grocery store, no small feat in those difficult days, and had bumped into another mother from her children’s school. This parent shared that she had also lost a child. According to my cousin, the mom told her that life was never the same but here she was, still living, taking care of her family, and even finding moments of joy. My cousin told me that this short conversation had opened her heart to a feeling of hope she had not experienced in all the months since Sami had died. “Can you imagine that?” she wondered aloud. “And this woman barely knows me.”
There are days that teach us necessary lessons if we are paying attention. It was a hard day, that confusing and painful day of reaching out to others with the worst kind of traumatic loss. But I was paying attention.
Here is what I know for sure.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how we bring comfort to people who are grieving.
I read well-intentioned advice about how to speak with people who have experienced traumatic loss, and I think back to that day. Two people in similar circumstances experienced similar condolences in completely opposite ways. Why? Because we are all different and so we experience loss differently.
People do not suddenly become the same because they have gone through similar losses – death of a child or divorce or chronic illness. To assume that we can offer support in the same way to all people leads to the kind of hurt I heard about from the man in whose shiva house I sat.
But it also just might lead to the kind of elevation and hope that I heard about from my cousin.
My advice regarding offering condolence or support is that there is no advice. What not to do is straightforward. Don’t preach; don’t share your own sorrows as if that is helpful; don’t tell people what they need to do. Don’t tell stories in a loud voice; don’t do business with other visitors. Don’t stay too long; don’t put yourself into the middle of conversations as an expert. Don’t come to a shiva house for lunch.
But what to do? This question is much more nuanced. We who seek to offer loving kindness must depend upon empathy, humility, and deep listening. Jewish tradition has it right when it teaches us to enter a shiva house and be quiet. We are meant to wait for the mourner to speak first and follow their lead. We must listen before we speak and never assume that what we offer is what the person before us needs.
And we must try. Just because it is hard, we must not give up. Long after shiva, after thirty days, after the unveiling, after years, grief continues. We must continue to be present to people in our lives. If we make a false start, we back up and try again. We say that we are sorry that what we tried seems to have been the wrong thing. As a rabbi, I speak with family members and friends who worry because nothing they offer seems to help. In fact, often what they offer seems to infuriate or hurt their loved one. My advice is consistent: This is not about you. The grieving person is the only one who matters in this configuration.
There is no deadline for grief to be complete. People trying to be supportive say, “But he is still so depressed.” or “She isn’t moving forward.” They may be correct; the person might be depressed or stuck. But it is not our job to “fix” something. There will be a moment when someone will offer with an open-handed wisdom that the mourner might find support in therapy or prayer or travel or exercise. But that wisdom will not be motivated by the supportive person’s own discomfort. This is not about us.
Now we are at the beginning of a brand new year. We love the promise of a fresh start. We want to kindle hope in others and believe that good things will happen because of our desire to help. This year, I have been excited about my own fresh start. I am grateful, prayerful and inspired to do good. But I am also thinking about all the people whose current circumstances cheat them out of the gift of beginning anew. I hope that you will join me in thinking about people in the throes of chronic situations that steal away any promise of a good night of sleep, people whose loss is still so raw that tomorrow will bring no relief, people who struggle with depression that scoffs in the face of hope. I hope that I will be able to sit with their pain, sustain their sorrow and be supportive in a way that may help.
This week, as I open my heart to a glorious new year, I pledge to offer support, condolence and hope in small, humble ways. I will not always get it right. There is no ready answer. There is simply listening well, deeply, as carefully as I can and offering in small gifts and gestures what each person needs.
It is hard work to stay steady, to open our hearts to grief.
When we ask, “How are you?” we hope desperately to hear, “Great” or “Much better” or “I’m getting there.” Two years later or ten years later, we don’t want to hear how deep the pain still goes. But that is what grief does. It does not let go.
The point is, those in pain do not have access to a fresh start. If we are the blessed ones who look forward to the new year with joy, then we must carry them too in our hearts. The new year is not about my teshuva alone. Jewish repentance is about the entire community; we all stand before God: the whole, the broken, the lost and the found. I pray you stand with us this year, bringing whatever is in your heart with you.
With prayers for a new year of peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill