The Days After Emancipation

Over 3000 years ago, on the 15th of the Hebrew month Nisan, the Egyptian Pharaoh releases the Israelites from centuries of bondage as all of Egypt cries out in the wake of God’s deadly plague. They march out in song and jubilation before their masters. The brutalities and indignities of slave life finally come to an end. The Israelites are free to follow their God into the wilderness.

Over 150 years ago, on the 1st day of January, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared, after two centuries of African American enslavement, “that all persons held as slaves” within the states that had seceded from the United States “are, and henceforward shall be, free.” The brutalities and indignities of slave life, the whippings and sexual assaults, the selling and forcible relocation of family members, the denial of education, wages, legal marriage, homeownership, had finally come to an end. African Americans celebrated their newfound freedom both privately and in public jubilees.

When Pharaoh changes his mind and his armies give chase to the Israelites, God divides a sea for safe passage, and closes it to drown their pursuers. God provides water and bread from heaven along the way. Within a few months, they arrive at the mountain of God. 

Two and a half years later, on June 19th, 1865, the slaves of Galveston, Texas received their emancipation from their masters. Some emancipated slaves quickly fled from their owners, while others who couldn’t imagine any feasible alternative remained to become wage laborers for their former owners. As the Civil War came to a close, Southern states began to pass a series of discriminatory state laws collectively known as ”black codes.” Slavery had been a pillar of economic stability in the region before the war; now, black codes ensured the same stability by recreating the antebellum economic structure under the façade of a free-labor system. 

At Mount Sinai the Israelites receive their constitution from God, a roadmap for building community, for establishing law and order, for promoting equality, equity and justice, and for creating a physical, social and spiritual space worthy of God’s presence.

The newly freed slaves were treated by some of their former masters with fair wages. Many former slave owners treated the freedmen with contempt, disdain and fear. One freedman, Houston Hartsfield Holloway, wrote, “For we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.”

When the time comes to realize God’s promise, ten of the twelve scouts who had gone into the Promised Land report to their community that the plan is not feasible. The residents, from their perspective, are giants. “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” 

The Reconstruction implemented by Congress, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, was aimed at reorganizing the Southern states after the Civil War, providing the means for readmitting them into the Union, and defining the means by which whites and blacks could live together in a nonslave society. The South, however, saw Reconstruction as a humiliating, even vengeful imposition and did not welcome it.

God and Moses are deeply disappointed, to say the least, that the community chooses to heed the report of the ten, as opposed to the more optimistic report of Joshua and Caleb, who believe that it is within their power—with God’s help—to take what has been promised. God decides to punish the Israelites for their lack of faith to forty years of wandering in the wilderness, such that the generation of slaves will die before they enter the Promised Land.

In 1877, the “Exodusters,” blacks who fled the south, established the settlement of Nicodemus on the arid plains of northwestern Kansas. However, because of several crop failures and resentment from the county’s white settlers, all but a few homesteaders abandoned their claims. A rising population of 500 in 1880 had declined over the next 40 years to less than 200.

Forty years later it is the Israelites’ children, raised in the wilderness within the parameters of the new constitution and under the eyes of a protecting God, who enter Canaan to reclaim their ancestral homeland.

In the former Confederacy and neighboring states, local governments constructed a legal system aimed at re-establishing a society based on white supremacy. African American men were largely barred from voting. Legislation known as Jim Crow laws separated people of color from whites in schools, housing, jobs, and public gathering places. The laws proved very effective. In Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered after 1890. In Louisiana, where more than 130,000 black voters had been registered in 1896, the number had plummeted to 1,342 by 1904. The children born to former slaves may not have known the whip as their parents did, but they suffered continuing marginalization and dehumanization at the hands of those who did not consider the 14th amendment to the Constitution–that “all men are created equal”–to include black Americans.

We, in our mostly white and Ashkenazi-centric (“Ashkenormative”) Jewish communities love to assert how we have fought for the civil rights of Black Americans through the decades, and that we are uniquely equipped to understand the experiences of people of color.  There is no doubt that Jewish Americans have disproportionately supported progressive causes with their presence and their resources. But neither our historic experience of enslavement in Egypt nor our experience of anti-Semitism in all its forms through the centuries have given us unique insight into the suffering of Black Americans at the hands of a society that was created by whites for whites, and only begrudgingly made space to incorporate the “others” already in their midst. Moreover, even our immigrant experience as seekers of religious tolerance in a new world, as fraught as it may have been and continues to be, fails to educate us sufficiently to the historic and institutional inequities faced by people of color in this country.

Claims that we are not racist–that we can relate, that anti-Semitism is a problem too, that all lives matter–only serve as impediments to ridding ourselves of the systemic racial injustices and the privileges that benefit us. If we are to be ANTI-racist, allies to those who are disproportionately negatively impacted by too many systems in our country, we must listen to and we must believe the voices of those who say that they face a daily exhausting battle. We must turn within our own communities to hear the voices of Jews of color and how they have been marginalized. And we must face ourselves and our loved ones and friends honestly to confront uncomfortable truths, to engage in hard discussions, about our own attitudes and biases.

“It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards or dice, dominoes or checkers.”
—Birmingham, Alabama, 1930

Our most senior community members were born into a world where humans were marginalized for the color of their skin.  Many of our parents were raised in communities where such attitudes persisted. There are those of us who felt the sting of the word “shvartze” in our homes, even if we would never use it ourselves. Few of us knew that Jews of color existed. And if we did, we questioned the authenticity of their experience or chalked them up to being Sephardic, an “otherness” of a more acceptable yet still not-as-authentic Jewish ilk.

When a person of color walks into our synagogue, do we think “What’s their story? What are they doing here? Are they Jewish? Did they convert?” These questions reflect a racist bias, regardless of our intentions. Yet, as we remind those who equate Jewish with whiteness, we are a multiracial people and we are becoming more so. We must thus begin by asking ourselves the question: As a Jewish community that is almost exclusively white, where are we? Why are we? What must we do to enter the 21st century, to create an environment where Jews of color are comfortable and safe with us? Can we assert to Jews of color that, indeed, Black lives matter, so that they no longer need to feel marginalized or denigrated in their own spiritual homes?

Perhaps home is where we can and must begin to do the arduous work of becoming anti-racist allies. I welcome the difficult conversations that will hopefully follow.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

A Two-Sentence Legacy

Today, the sixteenth of Sivan, was my father’s yahrzeit. All day, I have been thinking about what he missed for these past 29 years.

He never witnessed so many changes in me, never saw who I have become. He never met two of his four grandchildren, and never experienced a milestone with them past Noah’s second birthday. His baby granddaughter is now expecting a baby of her own. I know that he would have relished it all.

Like many of us, on such an anniversary, I think about what my parents have missed, but this year, my father’s yahrzeit has been a particularly hard day.

When I examined my deep sadness, I recognized that thinking about what he has missed is just a shield against thinking about all that I have missed. And what I am missing today is the dad who listened patiently to my questions about injustice in the world. It’s the dad who could wisely help me trace historical factors that led to the situations that are plaguing society. It’s the dad who would let me cry and comfort me for the anguish of suffering people in the world. My father was a progressive liberal in all of his thinking, but he was never an activist. Family dinner table conversations were about family members, television shows and the Red Sox. We did not often talk about current events and never debated politics. There were no cries for taking action against injustice, no stamping of postcards, no traveling miles to rallies and protests. But in the quiet of our den, I would lean on my dad’s shoulder as he read the Portland Press Herald in the morning or the Evening Express at night, and he was my tutor. He guided me to formulating ideas about issues in the world and to recognizing my agency to effect change.

Today, in the midst of these days filled with anguish and protest, I missed that quiet den and those talks. But when I tried to retrace my father’s role in my activist soul, I could not do it. My memory for actual conversations is too undependable, even the tenor of his voice flees from my remembrance. There are too many questions I never asked, stories I do not know, descriptions of emotion I never heard. My father’s inner life, it seemed to me all day today, is an irreplaceable treasure.

And then suddenly, earlier this evening, a memory came to me, like the answer to an unasked prayer. From out of the blue, I remembered, in absolute detail, a conversation with my dad when I was disappointed about something (no doubt inconsequential) in high school. I have no memory of my own particulars, but I remember everything my dad told me about his senior prom. “I went to my senior prom with Charles Richardson. Charlie was the only black student at Portland High School in 1947. In fact, the Richardson family was the only black family in all of Portland.” On one level this information is certainly of interest, that my dad had no date and attended a dance with a fellow male student. At a deeper level, I feel like I recovered this memory as a salve for my hurting heart. My dad rarely spoke about his childhood. But of all the stories my father did not tell me, this is a story fragment that he did share.

And I accept it. I accept this story with its mysterious details and take it in as my legacy from my dad. He showed up at his prom with a young black man as his date. In Portland, Maine. In 1947. If the legacy was not overt, I can still find it there when I look closely. The only question now is what will I do with his legacy?

In this time of upheaval and protest, I dedicate myself to ongoing education, to learn more about historical, institutional racism, to move beyond understanding myself as a racist to becoming an anti-racist. I pledge to continue engaging in conversations with those from whom I can learn and with those I can teach.

In this month of June, Pride Month, I dedicate myself to ongoing education, to learn more about the lives of those who still fear sharing with the world who they are, to move beyond being an ally to becoming an activist.

It does not matter if I am making more of my father’s story than ever existed in context. I have decided to consider it the legacy left me by my father. A simple two-sentence story bearing two important facts. Dad went to the prom with another boy and that boy was black.

For some of us, the legacy for social justice is clear. Others of us, like me, must go searching and maybe even make it up a little. But I know that I had a dad who taught me to value the vulnerable because he himself was. He taught me to find strength in what appears to be weakness because that is what he did to survive. My father left me the key to a treasure trove of important values in a two-sentence fragment of a story. I’ll take it.

Are We There Yet?

I don’t recall much from my childhood, but I can clearly remember those moments when my sisters and I would climb into the back seats of the family car as we’d be setting out to visit relatives, and the cry would carry forward to my parents in the front, “Are we there yet?”

More accurately, I recall those occasions when I was old enough to appreciate the question as a recurring joke. After all, at that point of my life the signs along the way had become familiar: the Howard Johnson’s off the Merritt Parkway; the Charter Oak Bridge bypassing Hartford; the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike; the ramp onto Route 128. Even as a child, I knew how long was the trip, and what was the time of our estimated arrival. And I’d certainly recognize my grandparents’ driveway on West Roxbury Parkway to know we had arrived.

In the second month of the second year of the Israelites’ wandering, they do not yet know that they will be destined to wander forty years. I can imagine the children asking with each leg of the journey, “Are we there yet?” Even with the commandments as a guide, new rituals for drawing near to God, and the structure of a community that encamped as one, I imagine a lingering uncertainty that gnawed at even the most faithful. After all, so many of those commandments were given to be observed in the Promised Land; when would we get a chance to put them into practice?

In these days of confusion and uncertainty, I am reminded of that child in the backseat, before the question was posed for a laugh. Impatient, cooped up, unable to measure the passage of time, his anxiety is compounded by the fact that there seem to be no lanes on the road; that every driver is traveling at a speed of their own choosing, changing lanes at will; and that we are all supposedly heading towards the same destination with no one actually knowing its address.

As we approach the holiday of Shavuot and the celebration of receiving Torah, I appreciate more than ever the teaching of the Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague, 1550-1619), who offered that the Torah avoids explicitly naming Shavuot as the occasion of the Torah’s giving so that we may view every day as the day of revelation. Reflecting from the backseat of this journeying vessel, I question whether the destination does in fact lie somewhere ahead of us. What if this pandemic signifies a moment in time when we are asked to redefine the priorities of our lives, to reexamine the use of our resources, and to reconsider the distribution of our wealth? What if this is the moment of revelation to prepare us for future pandemics and crises that will confront humanity more than once each century? What if this is the time to which Torah speaks with more meaning and relevance than ever before?

Perhaps this is not a grim view of the future. Perhaps it is the opportunity to see Torah operate more fully in our lives. Perhaps it is our chance to shape a world of compassion and caution, of empathy and equality; a world that necessitates the constant navigation of risks and benefits, of conscious living; a world of respect for personal boundaries and concern for the boundaries set by others.

Perhaps we are already there.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Sheltering at Home: A Skiff Docked at the Pier

A skiff docked at the pier,
I am
tied up, hawser with a splice anchoring bit to bollard,
battened down, unable to set sail,
rocking gently on the swells,
bow pointed into the sea.

Just there, in the bay,
in the turbulent winds of a hurricane,
tugboat, ferry, trawler and tall ship.
They are
pitching, rolling, breaking apart,                                                                                                                         tossed and turned, capsizing.

I observe it all
I do not look away.
Under the same azure sky,
lit by the same sun,
in the same bay,
I am leeward and
they are in the storm.    Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, May 12, 2020

My son Ben helped me write this poem, providing seaworthy language to complete the harbor metaphor. I have tried to describe the helpless feeling of being mandated to stay at home while right in our view, COVID-19 upturns and overturns and sinks lives.

I was content with my poem until I began to wonder about those who are not anchored, bit to bollard, at the dock. I thought about those who go out every day to essential jobs: grocery store cashiers, pizza makers, delivery women, postal workers, pharmacists, garbage collectors, construction supervisors. And I thought about the teachers working triple time from home to educate, support and soothe.

And then I thought about those who are going directly into the hurricane: certified nurse practitioners, home health aides, dietitians in residential facilities, orderlies, doctors, and nurses. My poem, it seems to me now, is only one piece of this connected and disconnected puzzle of humans during the pandemic.

Finally, I applied my harbor metaphor to our OJC community, thinking about those who go daily into the storm. We can be proud that among our OJC congregants are emergency room nurses, EMTs, pulmonary doctors, ICU physicians, pediatricians – front line heroes. They are facing down their fears, protecting themselves as best as they can, and some are getting sick as well.

And there are those who are working on the front lines in professions not mentioned so often in the news. In this post I will be describing four OJC heroes: a physical therapist, a funeral director, a family nurse practitioner, and a community care director. I do not use the word “hero” lightly. They are getting in their rescue crafts, leaving us at the pier and rushing out into the hurricane day after day.

For Loni Hersh, the best part of her career as a physical therapist has always been connecting with people, working with medically and emotionally challenged patients to overcome physical barriers and reach their highest potential. In the physical therapy department of a major New York hospital, her only frustration was wishing she had more time with every patient.

In the days since the pandemic began, however, everything Loni knows about her work has turned upside down. She now faces the most difficult medical situations of her career, working in the isolation and privacy of hospital rooms with very ill and lonely patients. Success on a Covid-19 unit is not measured by steps accomplished in hallways or climbing stairs but rather simply by moving from the bed to a chair. Loni flexes new skills when she works on a team of eight medical professionals who work to prone or supine patients, turning them from front to back or back to front every sixteen hours to receive optimal oxygen when they are intubated and sedated.

As loving and empathic as Loni is with patients, she knows she cannot substitute for family. She feels privileged to leave her home every day to do something productive and meaningful in this critical time. She knows that she is making a difference.

Gregg Brunwasser is a funeral director who is Manager of Hellman Memorial Chapels. All of Gregg‘s life, he has been drawn to helping people, from his days as an EMT and paramedic to becoming a funeral director. As he describes his calling, he works to make the worst day imaginable bearable.

Gregg uses all of his energy to ensure that Hellman is a dependable and compassionate chapel upon which families and clergy can depend. Many of us at OJC know Gregg as a caring presence whose priority is to help in any way possible. Gregg has traveled to elder congregants homes to help make arrangements, listens to every mourner with patience and care, and finds solutions to every kind of issue that arises. At the graveside, Gregg offers water in the summer and umbrellas in the rain.

Gregg’s focus on taking as much time as necessary for the care of individual families was turned on its head since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. The chapel, which typically facilitates thirty-five funerals in a month had to cope with 108 funerals in the month of April.

Gregg explained that Hellman has been able to maintain Jewish ritual from shmira to tahara. But every cemetery has different rules and sometimes the rules change by the day. The families Hellman has served through this time have not been able to receive the comfort of a completely traditional burial with family and friends surrounding them.

For Gregg, the level of sorrow felt by those who have lost loved ones has made this time particularly challenging and painful. His strength comes from working side-by-side with his wife Eva and the rest of his team at Hellman. Despite all of the limitations due to the pandemic, Gregg is certain that both the deceased and the mourners receive as much care and dignity as possible. This surety helps him get through these difficult weeks.

Leslie Cooper is a family nurse practitioner at the Cornerstone Primary Care Family Health Center at Jawonio. While the majority of Leslie’s patients are Jawonio and other group home consumers who have special or complex needs; because Cornerstone accepts all insurance or no insurance at all, Leslie takes care of the most vulnerable people in our community. What she values most about her work is the loving interactions she shares with her patients. This was true before the pandemic and it continues to be true despite the innumerable ways in which Covid-19 has overturned Leslie’s work and the lives of the people to whom she is dedicated.

Before COVID-19, the lack of equality in healthcare would keep her up at night, but she always managed to figure out a way around or through to get her clients the tests and appointments they needed. These days, it is the vulnerability of the community she cares for that is her main concern. Federally qualified health centers are reducing hours or closing because they do not bring in revenue.

The hardest days have been those when she was managing consulting phone calls from the group homes. Without much time to ponder possibilities, Leslie would give out an answer and receive the next question. With most of her work done via telehealth, Leslie has depended on her intuition and trust in the nurses and direct service providers who care for the group home residents. She finds herself juggling, prioritizing and getting enough data to decide if her clients are safe at home. Knowing Leslie, it is easy to imagine her giving calm advice to non-medical staff members and reassurances to families whose loved ones have chronic medical needs complicated by Covid-19.

While these tasks are all within her skill set, the number of people sick with the virus has been overwhelming. Leslie has seen group home employees and consumers get sick during the month of April, and many have died. She and her colleagues at the office have little time to grieve one loss before hearing about another. Throughout these painfully difficult weeks, Leslie feels pride in being a nurse. She gets up every day and goes to take care of “her people”. She says that she is privileged to do so.

Marcy Pressman is the Deputy Executive Director, Community Care, of NYC Health and Hospitals. That is a great big title for a great big job, which of course, Marcy would never mention unless I specifically asked. Managing the repercussions of a pandemic on hospitals is exactly what Marcy is trained to do. I think of her as standing at the center of the epicenter. While we are sheltering at home, Marcy is working seven days a week, up to thirteen hours a day.

Marcy is caring for the most vulnerable people – members of the immigrant community, elderly poor, and economically disadvantaged families. In the throes of disorganization and lack of preparedness at all levels, Marcy has found herself begging, borrowing, bargaining, doing anything necessary to acquire space, equipment and PPE required by professionals in the hospitals. She is managing hotels in Queens that she converted to isolation and quarantine spaces for Covid-19 patients who no longer require ICU or acute care, but can still infect others while they recover. The hotels are also used for monitoring newly diagnosed Covid-19 patients who are at risk of infecting others due to their inability to self-quarantine.

Marcy has a big picture view of the crisis and deep knowledge about what we must do to provide care and safety for all citizens. But the stories she most wanted to share were not about frustrations and policies, rather Marcy spoke about the individuals impacted by this virus: a recovered mom and her newborn baby with no home to return to, a new widower, very ill people without health care, homeless patients, and people without jobs. Marcy has lost colleagues to this virus. Every day she is on the floors, taking precautions, trying to fix and patch wherever she can. To Marcy, Covid-19 is not about numbers and statistics, it is about individual lives.

These OJC congregants are among the true heroes. I asked all four of them the same question: How do you feel about those of us sheltering at home while you go to work every day? I thought that they might find our complaints about the rain or lack of kosher chicken in the grocery annoying or even selfish. I was wrong. Each one of them said some version of the same answer: “Everyone must do what they must do.” “Sheltering at home is an act that saves lives.” “I am proud to do my work.” “It is a privilege to feel effective in this crisis.” It must be noted that all of them spoke about frustration with those who refuse to abide by the stay at home mandate or even protest against it. As Marcy Pressman said, “I am privileged to bear witness to heroes.” Like most of us, I am committed to staying at home for as long as it takes to protect the health care community and the life-saving work that they are doing.

And so, the vast majority of our OJC community are skiffs tied up at the pier, rocking gently in the waves as we shelter at home, feeling lonely, isolated, frustrated and worried. As we look out into the bay, watching helplessly as the storm rages, wishing we could help those who are struggling with illness and grief, let us be grateful for these rescue boats. They are rushing everyday into the storm with the strength and skill to keep afloat those with the deepest needs.

With prayers for all of our health and safety, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Can this be God’s will?

The video message arrived as an attachment from a trusted source. I opened it and began watching. The scenes of smogless skies, clear waters, and lush fauna served as a reminder that a world was being reborn around us, and that our stay-at-home quarantine was having the side benefit of giving Mother Earth a sabbatical, the chance to catch her breath. The beauty of the world around us could serve as a silver lining of this challenging time.

The second video message arrived within a couple of hours. It came from a name I knew, though someone I hadn’t connected with in quite some time. I opened it and began watching. It depicted similar scenes of smogless skies, clear waters and lush fauna, with facts about how much cleaner our world is today than at any other time in recent history. The video, however, was not a PSA for climate change. Its final scene was a man with the title of “Rabbi” trying to reassure me that the current pandemic was God’s will, part of the divine plan to renew the earth.

I was surprised, to say the least. Did the sender of the second video actually think that I would find comfort in its message? Have I ever given off the sense that I embrace and am comforted by a God who would will the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people to advance a plan? What then could I say about God’s role in the Holocaust? About an innocent pedestrian hit by a drunk driver? About a cancer victim? About a parent losing a child? About a natural disaster that claims dozens or hundreds?

I don’t need to rely on theologians for my answer about the nature of God, instructive though their perspectives may be. Buber, Heschel, Wiesel and Kushner (with all due respect) don’t know anything more than you or I do when it comes to God. The rabbis across the centuries have offered many paths to faith, some that even stand in conflict with one another. God is, after all, infinitely unknowable. What theologians have going for them is that they think about the question of God long enough to develop consistency. Want to be a theologian? Work at it, test your opinion against theological questions, and be consistent!

Somewhere along the line of time, well before The Wizard of Oz, we started referring to God as perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful. While God does credit God’s self in the Torah as the Creator, God never uses these other descriptors for God’s self. God changes God’s mind, God admits to making mistakes, God learns and grows. At best, God says God is compassionate and loving, truthful and holy, and more powerful than other gods; at worst, jealous and judgmental, begrudging and impatient. The notion that God is all-powerful and all-good can’t withstand the test of consistency by my standards of goodness and justice. The notion that God is all-powerful but not all-good is untenable personally.

These weeks on the Jewish calendar would be a challenge to Jewish theology without a pandemic raging around us. From the death of Aaron’s sons for their “foreign” sacrifice to the command to be “holy” because “I the Lord your God am holy”, from Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) to Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), it can be so tempting to conclude that all is connected in some divine plan that necessitates God‘s intervention at certain times but doesn’t warrant God‘s intervention at others. I cannot and will not place my hope in an omnipotent god who requires the sacrifice of innocents or matyrs for the sake of learning lessons, realizing dreams, or cleaning the air. God promised us: No more floods at God’s direction to destroy the earth.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be floods.

Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that God is perfectly imperfect, as are we. God purposefully gave us free will and God intentionally introduced an element of chance into our existence. Without this measure of unpredictability, we’d be as naive as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, without the ability to make choices that reflect God’s glory (and goodness) in the world. As our sages taught, “Everything is in God’s hands except for the fear of God.” God controls everything except the choices we make. Those choices have long-ranging consequences that God will not control, and those same choices can reflect well or poorly on God. But in God’s love and goodness, God has given us the infinite potential to learn, grow and change course. It’s God’s hope that we see the God-given strength within to persevere, to live, to celebrate and to spread our hope.

We have been divinely inspired to create a way of living that reveals God’s goodness in an imperfect world. It’s that very imperfection that presents us with the opportunity to rise to the level of the divine. I will appreciate that which I perceive as miraculous without understanding what merits such grace. I will bemoan that which I perceive as tragic without attempting to explain, justify or defend. I will hold onto my faith that the goodness of God, as reflected in the actions of others and in my own choices, will raise us all towards a higher plane of meaning and love.

God is hope, faith, and goodness, along with the strength to live our lives accordingly in a perfectly imperfect world.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

 

Counting the Days of Omer and Covid-19

More than a month ago, a friend asked if I am journaling every day. She thought it would “really be something” to capture this unprecedented time and then look back at my words a year from now. She is certainly right. But it seems I cannot write; after five and a half weeks of stay-at-home, I have two entries, each no more than a paragraph, sentences drifting off in the middle.

I have planned to write this post for weeks now. Every day I write little pieces of it in my mind, but then, before I even begin, I decide that it has all been said already: The times are hard; look for the silver lining. We have great sorrow; still we try to be grateful. What else is there to say?
I realized today that what has actually kept me from writing is that I cannot comprehend the texture of this time. I simply cannot wrap my head around this time of languishment. (I remember feeling this way in college, reading Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. If you also read it, you understand.)
We Jews are so good at understanding time as a container, a useful vessel for emotion, striving, and cataloguing: Shabbat, 10 Days of Awe, Three Weeks, 49 days of Omer.
Yet it is hard to understand what is happening in this particular time. If there is indeed a time for everything under heaven, I do not think it includes this pandemic. Do we think there is nothing new under the sun? We must think again. We have never before known COVID-19.
The days slip by. I think Sunday is Monday. I go to bed early or very late. I wake in the middle of the night worrying about small details, my sleepy brain unable to go to my real concerns. I breathe deeply and smile and model optimism. Just under the surface of each day, however, is an existentialist anxiety. Beyond questions of when will it end and how will we cope lies the theological impossibility: What does it mean? Here we are, full stride in the midst of it, and we have absolutely no idea what it all means. Hence, anxiety.
We are taught to face anxiety with a good dose of gratitude. Gratitude, I can do. I am grateful for many gifts: walking in my neighborhood in the spring time,

IMG_5648

practicing yoga virtually (I have finally been able to follow my own mantra: ‘Stay on my own mat’ – no one else to look at!), rediscovering the pleasures of my kitchen – inventing new recipes like carmelized pearl onions and cauliflower soup with red peppers. I made Sharon Rappaport‘s mother’s Passover popovers for the first time in years. (Thank you, Estelle, they are delicious!)
But I know that these months are not just an extended retreat from the world. No matter how content I might be during hours at home, no matter how I seek out reasons to be thankful, the entire world around me fills my heart and mind with sadness and concern.
I have completely good health. My kids are all safely at their homes, jobs intact, healthy and in good spirits. My in-laws are in their own homes, tucked away and safe.
But across my driveway, our beloved Millie is recovering from a fierce bout with the virus. She is a certified nurse aide at a geriatric center and had no choice but to go to work even when she didn’t feel completely well. No fever? Come to work. The Center is – like so many caregiving facilities – desperately short-staffed. Millie is an hourly worker who needs each paycheck. And she is a dedicated compassionate worker who now worries about the residents who are missing her special care and attention.

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Across the airwaves, I speak with our congregants who are ill, worried about their family members, or grieving losses. I receive notices from the three synagogues to which I belong as well as from the Rabbinical Assembly. I wring my hands thinking about Rabbi Scheff officiating at four funerals within a 24 hour span of time (and today in this monsoon). I speak to our congregants who describe literally and metaphorically standing on the other side of a pane of glass, trying to connect to their loved ones… trying to connect to their own grief. In the mourners, we sense a shock that goes well beyond the usual experience of bereavement. This precious OJC community will have work to do when this is over. The work of healing and rebuilding will require as much courage as this work of sustaining community in the crisis.
Covid-19 has stolen so much from us. Children have lost the ability to play with friends, teens have lost their clubs and sports, young adults have lost graduations, wedding dates, promises of summer jobs. Adults have lost health, jobs, the ability to care for our vulnerable family members, holiday gatherings, structure, and a sense of security. We simply do not know how to understand this passage of time.
And so we will count the Omer and remember the lessons of counting up: That every day is a gift. That we count up to appreciate and remember. That Judaism and community offer us structure when the world is chaotic.
This year, it looks like we’ll be counting toward Shavuot and just keep on counting. When will it end and how will we cope? I do not know, but I know that it will end and we will cope.
What does it mean? We will not ever know. But we can learn something about what it means each day as we count the Omer. We can say thank you to God for the goodness in our life. We can reach out each day to someone who is suffering emotionally, spiritually or physically from this plague. When there is no meaning, Judaism teaches us to make meaning.

Stay safe and healthy in mind, body and soul, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Social Bridging

For the past 3 months, with several notable exceptions, I have been in a self-imposed social isolation of sorts. Not due to any physical condition, I have spent the last 13 weeks exercising spiritual self-care as part of a sabbatical the synagogue I serve grants me every four years. This time around, I set out to explore my “identity.” After serving a community for 25 years, I wanted to reflect on who I am, independent of my rabbinic persona — as a husband, father, son, and brother. As a human being. For three months I avoided contact with the people whose stories I carry, whose worries I assuage, whose needs I accommodate, and whom I embrace on a weekly basis.


The distance from my daily routine afforded me the opportunity to reconnect with people who don’t usually get my primary attention. The clarity of mind granted me by this break allowed me to grieve recent losses, to read for growth and pleasure, to write creatively and give birth to ideas, to exercise body and spirit, and to breathe deeply. I was not immune to life going on around me. I was present to loss and to celebration, current on events affecting us all, and informed of developments in our community. I was also insulated from responsibility and excused from control.

The distance also, however, came at a cost. There were hours, even days, where my “aloneness” moved into loneliness. There were times I craved social interaction, just wanting someone–anyone–to see me. I began going out of my way as I was running an errand or taking a walk to be noticed, if only by asking a stranger how their day was going. I was grateful for the occasions when I had a book with a noticeable cover, a hat with an emblem, a t-shirt with a logo that invited a passerby into conversation.


As my date of return to synagogue life drew closer, I actually had the pleasure of being in community several times. Aside from the occasions when I would sneak into our sanctuary late at night to sit in the presence of our glowing windows, I attended minyan with my father for my grandfather’s yahrzeit; I celebrated my son’s aufruf; and I made a masked appearance to read Megillah on Purim eve. Each time I came into the building, I felt the joy and satisfaction of my chosen life path. And my sabbatical “exploration” brought me to the conclusion that who I am as a human being is inextricably bound up with what I do. Living Jewishly, for me, means utilizing learning, ritual and daily choices as a way of bringing people closer together.


I return to the synagogue energized, excited and anxious to resume the duties that afford me the privilege of connecting with others in a meaningful way. I WANT TO SEE YOU!!! Yet here I am, required out of caution to keep my physical distance a bit longer.

So here is what I suggest. As I go about getting caught up on the status of individuals in need of more immediate attention and the community as a whole, I invite you to reach out to me in the days ahead. Come Tuesday, please call me and leave a message (so much nicer than an email!), and I’ll call back within 24 hours. Even better? If you are sufficiently tech-savvy, pick up your phone, go to your camera, slide the setting to video mode, and record your message to me. Upload it to your email, and send it to me. And I promise that I will do the same in response!

The “social distance” we’ve been asked to maintain to “flatten the curve” of the Coronavirus spread is certainly a challenge to the way community was meant to be experienced, but it also challenges us to be our best at building social caring bridges to those who need us most. This moment also presents the opportunities for individuals to experience personal exploration and creative rejuvenation, and for communities to explore how they can maximize the use of “virtual community” to their benefit.

It is a moment like no other. I’m glad I’m back to experience it with you. And I pray that the time comes soon when we will be free to congregate as we choose once again.

With love,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Yet More Thoughts on Covid-19: It’s Difficult to Think of Much Else These Days

My youngest son Josh flew back to Israel this afternoon after three months in the United States following completion of his army service.

As soon as he lands, he will go straight to his apartment where he will begin 14 days of quarantine. His roommates will leave food for him outside his bedroom door and whenever he emerges, he will need to wipe down every surface he touches. Josh has a great attitude about the quarantine, explaining that he has a lot to read and will have plenty of time to prepare for his entrance exams for Tel Aviv University. The quarantine is inconvenient and worrisome, but it is required by Israeli law and certainly not devastating for Josh.

My in-laws are 87 and 92 years old. Earlier tonight, I brought dinner over as is our Wednesday night custom. We sheepishly bumped elbows and it felt very strange not to embrace them. They told me that they had sold their tickets to see the Philadelphia Philharmonic this Sunday, and my mother-in-law regrets missing her favorite conductor. It is isolating and worrisome to be an elder through this time of Covid-19 precautions, but the precautions are necessary and not devastating for them.

My niece and her roommate moved into my guestroom tonight since their college announced its closure just three days after they had returned from spring break. They brought most of their stuff here with them, not sure if their college will reopen this year. Online courses are beginning for them next week, but they wonder how much learning they’ll accomplish. College and university closures are extraordinary and difficult for everyone involved, but they are prudent and not devastating for my niece or her roommate.

Throughout this roller coaster of a growing national medical emergency, I have tried to maintain balance and perspective for myself and on behalf of the OJC community. I am proud of our president, Michael Pucci, and our professional staff, who have made very difficult decisions in a reasonable, calm, and careful manner. If we err, we err on the side of safety. The decisions that we make impact every age and stage of our congregation.

WNBC Coverage of OJC Livestreaming Purim

It was disappointing to cancel festivities for Purim – a carnival for children, a dance party for which our in-house band rehearsed for months, an adult night club, and a grand seudah on Purim day. Volunteer committees had worked for months to plan all of these joyful programs, and everything except for the Megillah readings was canceled. Disappointing, yes. Devastating? No.

But let’s consider together what truly is devastating about the Coronavirus pandemic.

People are becoming very ill with this terrible flu, especially elderly people and those with compromised immune systems. We pray for speedy recoveries.

People who live on the edge financially will be pushed over that edge by weeks of quarantine or illness. Those who are paid daily wages, who punch a clock, who do not have adequate sick leave, will struggle mightily to recover long after the flu is gone.

People with inadequate medical insurance will struggle to pay for prescriptions and doctors’ bills. People who are undocumented will hesitate to go to hospitals or doctors.

Many of the children whose schools are closing will miss their free breakfasts and lunches, dependable nutrition for 2/3 of their daily meals. Many parents will have a difficult time replacing those meals for their children. Many parents will be left figuring out how to go to work without childcare now that schools are closed.

Elderly people, adults with developmental disabilities or mental health issues, the youth who attend the twice weekly drop-in program at the Rockland Pride Center, family members who attend support groups, all will be impacted by the closure of community centers and other gathering places.

It is always true in our society that those who are most vulnerable suffer first and suffer the greatest amount when difficult times hit. I pray that we keep all of these people in mind and take action if we are able to help.

Reach out with phone calls to the elders of our community who are experiencing social distancing now. Many are staying at home as advised. Others live in nursing homes and assisted care residences where visiting is currently discouraged. Be sure they know that you are thinking of them.

Write an extra check to Meals on Wheels. Drop off more food than usual for People to People or Rhoda Bloom Kosher Food Pantry, great Rockland organizations that help those in need make ends meet.

Write a supportive note to friends who are at high risk from Covid-19 because of their professional work – hospital emergency room workers, EMTs, nurse aides in facilities for the elderly, doctors and nurses.

At the very time when we need to be close to one another, we are counseled toward a necessary “social distancing.” When the world feels unpredictable, we yearn to be in community, yet we are canceling gathering after gathering. We are used to planning ahead, but we cannot prepare because we do not know what will happen next.

But for the most part, most of us are among the privileged few. If we are quarantined, our community and friends will ensure that we have food to eat. If we need to miss work, we will not risk losing our jobs. If our children’s schools close, they will have plenty to eat for breakfast and lunch. If we grumble about doctors’ bills, we can eventually pay them without going under. And if these things are not all true for you and your family, but you are a part of the OJC, you belong to a supportive, sacred community that will help. You are not alone.

Maintaining an attitude of gratitude will help us get through these confusing and difficult times.

Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – All of Israel is responsible one for the other. When we say bazeh (in each other) instead of lazeh (to each other), we add a deeper truth to this foundational rabbinic teaching. Not only are we responsible, we are intertwined.

With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

 

Would you just skip it?

What if you knew for sure that you would see or hear something unusual? What if you knew for certain that you would experience something extraordinary? Would you miss it?

Oh, I know that Saturday mornings are just right for getting errands done, picking up the dry cleaning or purchasing a new shower curtain. Saturdays are perfect for boot camp workouts, kids’ soccer tournaments, or – on crisp sunny days – hiking in Harriman State Park. On Saturday mornings, you can meet your cousin for coffee or visit your niece after surgery. I know… on Saturdays you can even just sleep in after an over-scheduled week.

But what if being in Shabbat on a Saturday morning promised something that transcends all of that? Would you just skip it?

If you come to synagogue on Saturday morning instead of everything else you do…

Perhaps the davenner* will chant El Adon in a different tune, not the expected tune, but in the one that was sung in your childhood when you sat next to your grandfather in shul.*

Perhaps you’ll watch as five-year-old twins run purposefully down the aisle and onto the bima* at the start of the Torah service to be handed silver Torah crowns which they hold up proudly as if they are the whole point of the service. You definitely find yourself grinning as you watch them walk solemnly behind the adult holding the Torah.

Perhaps you’ll see a proud nonagenarian ascend the bima, slow but sure-footed, to accept an aliyah* and receive a blessing for the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah.

Perhaps you’ll see a seven-month-old baby girl receive her Hebrew name on the bima and lean forward to send a big, sloppy toothless grin in the direction of her great- grandmother for whose husband she has just been named.

Baby girl

Perhaps you will rise when the Prayer for Healing is chanted and you will have a clear picture in your mind of your friend who is recuperating from surgery. You will sense that your prayer can reach him in his Boston hospital.

Perhaps you’ll be invited to open the ark when the Torah is placed back there after the recessional and when you look at the colorfully decorated Torahs, the congregation sings Hashivenu,  “Return us to the days of old.” And you aren’t sure why, but you feel something in your heart unlock.

Torah coverTorah

Perhaps you’ll see a man chant the haftara* to honor his brother’s yahrzeit* and as you follow in the English, you realize that this story of Jonathan and David from the Book of Samuel was your haftara when you became bat mitzvah. As you pay closer attention, you remember all the words.

Perhaps you’ll sit down next to a woman you don’t know well, but has always reminded you from a distance of your mother. And as you silently tear up, missing your mother so much even after 24 years, this fellow congregant hands you a tissue. And you feel your mother’s soul closer than you have in years.

Tears

Perhaps the words of the Dvar Torah* will strike a chord deep within you, answering a question that has been lurking in your mind, an important question not yet articulated.

If any one of these transcendent moments were likely to happen on a Saturday morning, would you just miss it?

Holiness does not arrive with trumpets and drums but with quietly perceived moments.

All of these moments do happen. Will you be there with me to experience them? Life holds the promise of being so much more than our own routine.

A community of holiness awaits you every Saturday at nine. I’ll see you there.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

*Translations so we’re all on the same page:

Davenner – one who is praying, in this case, the one who is leading the prayers.

Shul – a cozy Yiddish word meaning synagogue.

Bima – platform at the front of a synagogue where the Torah service takes place.

Aliyah – the honor of reciting blessings before and after a portion of the Torah (also called an aliyah) is chanted.

Haftara – a section from the Book of Prophets chanted on Shabbat and holiday mornings.

Yahrzeit – the anniversary of the death of a person according to the Jewish calendar.

Dvar Torah – literally, words of Torah, designates a sermon or a teaching given by a rabbi or a knowledgeable person at Shabbat services.

Bringing rituals to life and lives to ritual

From experience, she anticipated the tears. She knew that the moment the cloth was torn, the crying would commence. So she looked at Nancy, and before taking the scissors to the material she paused and asked, “Are you ready?”

Nancy took a deep breath and nodded in assent. Only then did Amy begin cutting the lace away from the satin. What was once Nancy’s bridal gown more than three decades earlier now looked like a tablecloth. And Nancy cried.

Amy the counselor comforted her. She assured Nancy that her reaction was normal, and that only a happy marriage could yield these tears. As she spoke her words of consolation, Amy the designer seamlessly moved the lace to a long narrow table and held it in place with a six-foot ruler. She noted how remarkably pristine and strong the lace was, and how much of it was salvageable. Just a few seconds and several snips later, what lay before us had been transformed from a mere remnant to a magnificent wrap.


Amy the teacher’s questions now came fast, teasing out Nancy’s reactions, drawing out her emotional connections to the significance of tallit, to the ritual of prayer, to family, to life cycle and to legacy.Amy the artist held Nancy’s responses and guided her through the creative process. After considering several connections to the number four, Nancy decided that the four corners of the garment would bear the names of our four sons. When Nancy shared that she had designed graphics for each of our son’s bnei mitzvah depicting the season of their celebrations, Amy suggested that we incorporate the graphic into each satin corner along with their names. The occasion on which they each first wore tallitot as adults would thus become a part of Nancy’s ritual every Shabbat and holiday.

Amy then set about the process of designing the atarah, or collar, of the tallit. After focusing on the aesthetics of the design, Amy guided us towards choosing words of personal meaning that Nancy would see each time she donned the ritual object. Nancy decided that if the tallit was to represent her journey towards a role she had never envisioned for herself (a tallit-wearing rabbi’s wife), these words would need to express her particular spiritual legacy. Nancy shared that she hopes that one day a granddaughter might wear this keepsake. And since it has become her practice to bless her sons’ fiancées as daughters each Friday night before Shabbat—a blessing she hopes they will transmit to the next generation—Nancy chose to place on the atarah the words Yesimech Elohim k’Sarah, Rivka, Rachel v’Leah, “May God bless you as God blessed Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” A ritual that started with her might now become part of a legacy that she will leave to future generations.



The garment is not actually a tallit until its fringes are affixed. Within a matter of a couple of days of our meeting with Amy in Needham, Massachusetts, we received word that the project was on its way to our home, with two fringes yet to be tied. Perhaps the two sons “tying the knot” in the months ahead, along with their fiancées, will each have a hand in tying the remaining knots of the tzitzit to render the tallit “kosher.”

Some people grab a prayer shawl off a rack and toss it around their neck as a matter of custom. Some people choose a tallit for the way it hangs on their shoulders. Amy Lassman is a guide, teacher and artist who connects a potentially perfunctory ritual with time, emotion, memory and dreams. Amy, you are Bezalel, a visionary who thinks deep thoughts, who gives birth to holy moments and holy creations, who constructs sacred spaces under the wings of the Divine Presence. You have given my family a new pathway into our tradition. You have reshaped my family’s story, possibly for generations to come. And though you may not have earned a formal degree towards that end, you are my rabbi.

Thank you. I hope you don’t mind if I share your Torah with the world.

Check out Amy Rosenstein Lassman’s work at adardesigns.com.

Rabbi Craig Scheff 
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