Beyond the numbers

1919 was the year my grandmother, née Sonja Gelerman, was born. Lucky enough to be the daughter of a butcher, and blessed with strong and steady fingers that could thread the eye of a needle with the best of them, she’d never starve.

Well, there was that one stint in a Siberian labor camp in 1940 (when she needed to be eating for two) that tested her endurance. Otherwise, fighting a cold was about as sick as I can recall her ever being. Despite living during the darkest of decades and through the most uncertain of conditions, Sonia Neiman arose every day to make time matter.

Her age, the years of marriage, the number of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren … all make for a fascinating human interest story beyond the relatable experiences of most. As she approaches her 100th birthday, however, it is remarkable that she has never been one to count.

My Baba is a superstitious person. And while there is a bias in the Jewish tradition against counting people (it invites the evil eye?), I don’t believe that is what has motivated her to ignore her numerical accomplishments.

The true achievement of my grandmother’s life has been arising to every day with a sense of purpose—a friend to call, a husband to clothe, a child to nurse, a meal to prepare, a kitchen to clean, a holiday gathering to relish, a simcha to celebrate—and investing all her emotional energy—her laughter, her tears, her disappointments—in her waking hours.

When I consider the greatest lessons my grandmother has taught me, the most important one of all will be to live beyond the numbers. One love, one friend, one conversation, one laugh, one cry, one opportunity to matter—any one of these is enough of a reason to live one more day.

As we approach the Jewish new year of 5780, I am personally wrestling with the awareness that my grandmother is no longer finding meaning in her daily life. All of the roles from which she gained pleasure throughout her days are no longer possible for her to fulfill. I know, however, that the best way I can honor her in the year ahead is to live best (and not just exist) by taking note of the one thing I do each day that makes my life worth living.

L’shanah tovah umetukah,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Preparation in Elul: I lift my eyes to the mountains…

My horse, Naapi, stepped gently through the trees, stopping now and then to munch on the grasses and wildflowers along the trail. I was supposed to pull his head up and give him a heel to the ribs. Of course, I did not have much heart to do that! He knew in an instant that he had a softie in his saddle. Naapi was named for the Old Man in the Blackfeet Indian origin story; he is the one who designs and shapes the world into being. He is also a trickster. (Maybe it was not only my compassion that kept me from steering him away from his mid-ride snacks – I took his name seriously!)


I asked our guide, Shane, what he thought about a Creator who is also a trickster. Shane laughed, and then turned our light banter immediately to a theological discussion. It turns out that not only is Shane a prize winning rodeo competitor, a high school teacher, and an entrepreneur, but he is also pastor of his church.
He told me about his sense of wonder at the birth of his first child just three days earlier, a funeral at which he had officiated the day before, and community healing he hopes to effect in his church. I told him about my synagogue, the social action and prayer in which we engage, and the serious work of preparation for the High Holy Days that begins (tonight!) with Rosh Hodesh Elul.
Shane was especially moved to learn about the Jewish idea of repentance. I explained that the Hebrew word teshuva does not mean punishment or forgiveness; but rather, return. When I told him about returning to our best selves and to God as the true work of repentance, he thought this would be a good lesson for the people in his church.
I joked that I would be teaching about his church on Saturday and he would be preaching about our synagogue on Sunday!
As our scheduled one hour horseback ride lengthened into two hours, we spoke about obligations to family, privileges of community and our connection to God through nature. Shane told me that he believes that there are more atheists in urban areas than in back country. I understood exactly what he meant. In our normal suburban/urban lives, we are surrounded by the accomplishments of humans: bridges and buildings, roadways and highways. We spend our days connected to electronics and social media. It makes sense that there is not much room for God in our busy, human-centered lives. How different it is in the back country where I was privileged to spend ten days of vacation. I spent my days on a bicycle or in hiking shoes. I rarely used my phone. The tallest things in every direction were the glorious mountains of Glacier National Park. When I considered the Rocky Mountains decorated on top by ever-changing cloud formations, glacial lakes, fast-running rivers, endless plains and deep forests, I felt deeply God‘s presence. Who else could have “invented all of this stuff”?!

It is time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We will be hearing the blast of the shofar for the first time on Sunday morning. How will we wake up? OJC is offering several opportunities to do the work of Heshbon haNefesh, taking an accounting of our souls.
Women of OJC are invited to a Saturday evening program on September 7 to Envision a New Year . #OJCSupportsU is hosting a workshop, Hope into the new year, at two different times: Monday, September 16 at 4 o’clock in the afternoon or Wednesday, September 18 at 7:30 pm. Hope into the New Year.
After my amazing experience at Glacier National Park, I have one more suggestion for Elul preparation. Consider preparing your soul by connecting to God in nature. Rockland County, New York and Bergen County, New Jersey have some of the most beautiful outdoor areas in our country. Unplug, disconnect, and find the green spaces to quiet your mind and listen to your soul. Bring with you a prayer book, a poetry collection, a journal or a book of Psalms. Close your eyes and breathe in as the trees breathe out. Listen to the sounds of the woods or the ocean. Be present to yourself in the majesty of God’s creation.  On my vacation, every morning when I prayed, I could never figure out if I should read a Psalm about God’s creation or simply look up from the page at God’s creation. Ultimately, I chose to do both. I hope that you will do the same.
Whether on footpath or sandy beach, I wish you luck on your journey toward the High Holy Days. Perhaps you will be rewarded, as I was, with a rainbow. God keeps God’s promises. Do we keep ours?

Rainbow

Let my people go … to camp

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

Your grandmother passes down her recipe (in writing!) for her famous chicken soup. You follow it to a tee. But if you are a vegetarian and don’t actually taste it, can you ever create a soup that replicates hers?

You can describe what it feels like to be loved. You can use every modifier known to human language. But can your audience truly relate, unless they themselves have experienced such love?

You can teach about Shabbat. You can try to relate the benefits of a day of unplugging and of being present to the people and world around you. But to your average listener, the description simply sounds like a series of dos and don’ts. Unless you have fully lived Shabbat, will it ever find its fullest expression in your mind and heart?

Decades ago, Jewish life shifted from urban areas to the suburbs. As Jews settled in neighborhoods, tightly knit Jewish communities dissipated into spread out regions. Jewish identification, which had been facilitated by the smells, sights, sounds, rhythms and culture that permeated daily life, suddenly became something that needed to be sought out. Over a relatively short period of time, Jewish identity became an extracurricular pursuit, and the synagogue became the place to find it.

But as wonderful as the synagogue and its community might be, so long as Jewish identification was a choice as opposed to a fact of life, the Judaism of your average Jewish household would have to be scheduled — usually against athletics, the arts, school and leisure time. And the competition has only gotten stiffer over the last decades.

Enter Jewish camping.

This summer, I visited 6 different Jewish camps, 5 of them in the Ramah network, the camping arm of the Conservative Movement. Each camp had its own culture, its own particular appeal and camper demographic. What the camps shared, however, was a commitment to building Jewish identity and community rooted in Jewish values. These camps have moved far past Friday night prayer and kosher food as the defining features of their Jewishness. They have created models of education that infuse Jewish values and Jewish living into the daily activities of the campers. Values like community, pride, and joy are reinforced on the climbing wall, on the basketball court and in the art room. At these camps, Judaism is alive, relevant and informative. And Jewish community is the all-encompassing context of daily life.


From my somewhat limited perspective, the great magic of Ramah camps is the way in which the staff members live and grow. Especially given how concerned we are about life on college campuses, it is refreshing and heartening to see teens seriously engaged in Jewish living and learning, wrestling with one another and with Rabbis and teachers over issues of theology, observance and the centrality of Israel as parts of Jewish identity. Again, it is one thing to engage in these discussions in an intellectual fashion; it is quite another to do so from within the framework of Jewish community.


After a week of volunteering at Ramah Sports Academy and an afternoon of revisiting my childhood at Camp Ramah in New England, I am more convinced than ever that Benjamin Franklin had it right. Even the best teachers will not transform the lives of their students unless the teachers create the moments and contexts in which students can participate in and live out the lessons learned.

In the year ahead, we as a synagogue community are dedicating ourselves to creating Jewish living experiences for our children. We are excited about the “campy” program we have created. But it takes more for us to be successful; it takes commitment and resources to support experiences beyond the synagogue walls. It takes parents who encourage their children to attend a two-week experience like USY Encampment (coming soon, call me, Bruce Varon or Sharon Rappaport for more information). It takes donors to make Jewish camping more affordable to families who prioritize Jewish identity-building. And it takes parents who recognize that a summer job as a Jewish camp counselor is as—if not more—important to Jewish community and continuity than a career-boosting internship.

Like you, I want our children and grandchildren to have it all, including the richness of our Jewish tradition. This summer, I got a glimpse of how our dreams could be achieved.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Do Not Stand Idly By…

For me, this was most definitely a first: a protest chant anchored in daf gemara (a page of Talmud). Rabbi Marcus Rubenstein, of Temple Sinai, Middletown, New York had gathered two hundred Jews and allies from the Orange County Hispanic community to protest inhumane conditions for incarcerated undocumented immigrants throughout the United States.


The Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Sanhedrin 73a asks, “From where is it derived that one who sees another drowning in a river or being dragged away by a wild animal or being attacked by bandits is obligated to save him? We learn it from: ‘You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother.’ (Vayikra 19:16).” Now Rabbi Rubenstein led us in chanting, “Lo Ta’amod” – “Do not stand.” Do not stand idly by. Do not stand for it!
With police protection and a designated area in which to meet, we stood at the edge of a field, up the road from the Orange County Detention Center which glowed eerily in the evening sunset. A volunteer protest band held our attention and kept us motivated. Rabbi Rubenstein had reached out to the Rockland community to invite us to join the protest. Four carloads of my congregants answered the call.


Why were we there?
For me, the answer is best provided in a famous quotation from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who asked, “What is a sin?” Heschel’s answer was, “The abuse of freedom. A failure to respond to God‘s challenge.”
This time in which we are living presents just such a challenge from God. How are we responding?
If all of us indeed are created in God’s image, then how can we bear to see children separated from parents and suffering alone? How can we read about overcrowded, hopeless conditions for incarcerated individuals? How can we hear that people are detained without representation and languish, with no clear path forward? We can no longer read the news and just turn the page with a sip of our coffee.
The inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants in our country is not about political party. It is not about ideology. It is about basic decency.
Anonymous emails and several comments on our synagogue Facebook page focus only on the political quagmire that surrounds the questions of immigrants, asylum seekers and borders. It is easy to use immigration issues for political posturing. American leaders on both sides of the aisle have been doing that for years. Meanwhile, human beings are suffering, human beings created in the image of God. While they keep talking, people in custody are languishing in untenable conditions.
I did not go to Goshen, New York to speak against Republicans or Democrats because this is an American problem. I did not go to speak against ICE who are charged with a problem they have no power to fix because this is a mess created by our government. I did not go to speak about a brand new problem because this situation has been building for more than a decade.
Heschel said that few are guilty, but all are responsible. I feel responsible. And so I went to the protest and brought my congregation along.
I went to the protest because it is time to stop wringing our hands. It is time to stop copying and re-posting to the echo chambers of our Facebook pages, waiting to count the “likes.”
I went to the protest because we are American citizens who have rights that are also obligations. In order to change impossible situations, every individual must exercise his and her right to claim a voice in our government.
I went to the protest to tell everyone that it is time to write and call our representatives as our consciences dictate and to do so in a non-stop persevering manner. We must demand that Congress act quickly and responsibly to address the crisis in the conditions of incarcerated undocumented immigrants.
In the Torah we read, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him… You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And in case we have any doubt, this statement is punctuated with: “I am the Lord your God.” (Vayikra 19:33 – 34)


Our leaders can disagree and debate about immigrants, borders, the asylum process. While they are busy talking, however, human beings are languishing. We must write letters. We must make phone calls. We must do so without stopping. We must make a loud noise, loud enough for our elected officials to stop posturing and start acting. Our noise must be loud enough for God to know that we are responding to God’s challenge.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

The Power of Two

Eldad and Meidad are infused with the spirit of God, and they go about the camp in an ecstatic state (in last week’s parasha, Beha’alotecha). Joshua is concerned, but Moses doesn’t see the two as a threat to his leadership or to the community. In fact, he expresses the wish that everyone would be so graced.

Caleb and Joshua scout the Promised Land along with ten other spies. In contrast to the ten who see the challenges presented by their destination as insurmountable, the two urge the community to trust in God and to take what God promises to deliver (this week’s parasha, Shlach).

We often reflect on the difference that one person can make in the world. The influence of our actions ripple across distance and time. The work, however, is not easy. Though it might not be our individual obligation to finish the task in which we engage (“Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor…” Pirkei Avot 2:21), it is challenging to remain engaged when we feel alone, isolated, unsupported, suspect in others’ estimation, and perhaps even doubt in our capabilities.

Perhaps that is why the Torah presents so many examples of people working in tandem—for good or bad—to achieve a common goal. The solitary figures are often models of the exceptional. The duos, however, find strength and support, clarity and confidence, in each other. “Two are better off than one, in that they derive greater benefit from their efforts. For if they should fall, the one will raise up the other, as opposed to if one falls when there is no one to raise him” (Ecclesiastes 4:10-11).

 

Moses struggles with frustration and anger in his efforts because he is so alone. Time and time again we see that the weight of the burdens he bears is too much for him to carry alone. And delegating only goes so far in its effectiveness. God also experiences this frustration: “How long will they frustrate me? I’ll destroy them and start over with you,” says God. But Moses doesn’t want a new people to lead; Moses wants a partner. I imagine that when Moses calls upon God to show God’s strength through a display of compassion, he is actually saying to God: “We are both frustrated, we are in this together, we need to hear each other, learn from each other, and make this work.” God heeds Moses’ plea, anger is assuaged, and a partnership is born.

We can’t bear the burdens of our challenges alone. Creating partnerships and finding allies helps us become more self-aware, more reflective. Sharing our passion for a cause with another affords us the luxury of checking ourselves, of measuring our opinions and responses, of learning from another’s experience how to better achieve our goal.

As a faith community, we take our role of being a prophetic voice to the world seriously. While we are made up of many individual and diverse voices, we tackle issues and challenges as one. But working as a community alone can feel isolating and frustrating, often leading to feelings of anger, resentment and hopelessness. And that is why we have been so dedicated this year, and are so dedicated for the future, to building organizational partnerships. In the past week alone, we have partnered with the Rockland County Pride Center, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, and VCS (Volunteer counseling Services) to create opportunities for education, advocacy and empowerment and to serve those who find themselves on the margins of our society. We have stood for equality, learned how to better protect and advocate for the innocent, and feed the hungry. Thanks to these other organizations, our capacity to serve has increased.

 

As our tradition demands, we will love our neighbors, we will pursue justice, we will serve as a light to others in darkness. As these times demand, we will extend our hands in partnership to those who seek to do the same. And as we do so, our compassion, our power, our confidence and our love will only grow. And the Promised Land will not appear to us as an unattainable goal.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Learning for Today’s Reality

I find it useful to start at the end.
At the conclusion of the American Jewish Committee Global Forum, before we boarded buses for the Hill to complete our advocacy assignments, CEO David Harris told the gathering of 2500 people from 39 countries what the purpose of this forum had been. Rabbi Scheff, Leslie and Allen Levinson and I had travelled to Washington DC from June 2 – 4 for days packed with inspiring plenaries and thought-provoking learning sessions with AJC experts, foreign dignitaries and policy analysts. At the closing plenary, David Harris told us that the days in which we live have created an atmosphere of confusion and conflict for the Jewish community. His goal for this year’s Forum had been to get inside the zeitgeist of the American Jewish community today and offer meaningful education and answers.
He then challenged us: the real test begins now. What will you do with all the information you have gained? My first step is to share my learning with all of you.
With anti-Semitism on the rise, global democracy in disarray, and partisanship at an all-time high, I found AJC’s clarity to be effective and refreshing. I strode past the Capitol and into the Senate Office Buildings for my lobbying meetings feeling empowered and ready.
It is difficult to encapsulate two and a half days of learning, but I will highlight three experiences that will provide a sense of what it was like to learn with AJC.
Sunday evening was the first annual gathering of the Community of Conscience. AJC had envisioned an assembly of people from many faiths and ethnicities to speak to the key values of our day. The event was planned for the Lincoln Memorial, but a hail storm kept us instead inside the Hilton. There in front of a jumbo screen showing the Lincoln Memorial, we listened to invocations from two clergymen who know firsthand the trauma of hatred in our country. Reverend Eric Manning, Senior Pastor of the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, Rabbi of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh spoke eloquently about the need for diverse communities to stand together.
Dr. Bernice King punctuated their messages by telling all of us that hate is too great a burden to bear. She told us, “I have decided to love. He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.” As her powerful words rolled over us in a cadence reminiscent of her father, in front of an image of the very place where he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, I knew with certainty that she was right. It is a long arc toward justice indeed, but love and righteousness will ultimately win over hatred.
Early (very early!) the next morning, Rabbi Scheff and I attended a Rabbinic Round Table on the rise of global anti-Semitism. Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, Director of AJC Europe, and Daniel Elbaum, AJC Chief Advocacy Officer, presented a sobering view of the situation around the world. As Daniel Elbaum said, history does not repeat, but it certainly does rhyme. Our task, of course, is to stay alert, speak out, and parse between the various layers of messages being put out into the world.

One of the most inspiring sessions was called: Ghosts from our Past: The legacy of American Racism and a Call for Unity. We were privileged to learn from Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans from 2010 until 2018. Author of In the Shadow of the Statues, he provided an engaging and inspiring story of his personal journey growing up as a white child in the South in a neighborhood of African-Americans. He described how he came to understand entrenched racism and to use his position of power to fight back against it. Put his memoir on your reading list!
All of the conversations and lectures prepared us for lobbying on Capitol Hill. In our senators’ and congressmen’s offices, we asked for support of the Protecting Faith-based and Nonprofit Organizations from Terrorism Act and for the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, a bill that my own Senator Menendez co-sponsored. With the power of AJC behind us, we felt affirmed and acknowledged.

David Harris told us that our work comes down to following the Golden Rule. The problem, he said, is not in finding the right words, but in actualizing them. Because we are all created in the image of God, desecrating even one human being is equal to desecrating God. He charged us to delete and discard the word tolerance. No person or group of persons should merely be tolerated. Rather, we must seek and offer respect, understanding and love. That is the work that lies ahead of each one of us.
That is the work that we must do in every interaction every day.
With friendship,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

I pledge allegiance to three flags

I pledge allegiance to three flags:

Of the United States of America
And to the republic for which it stands
One nation 
Under God
Indivisible
With liberty and justice for all;

Of the State of Israel
And to the hope for which it stands
One People
Sharing a prophetic vision of God’s sovereignty 
United in diversity
With equal rights and religious freedom for all;

Of the Rainbow of Pride
And to the sexuality and gender identities for which it stands
One emanation of God refracted in a multitude of ways
Indistinguishable as humans in the Divine image
With love for and inclusion of all.

My allegiance to any one of these three flags does not preclude my allegiance to any other. I can raise them side by side and pledge myself to each, for they are in consonance with one another. In fact, each demands my allegiance to the others. To believe in that which the American flag symbolizes is to believe in that which the others symbolize.

And though we sometimes fall short—as communities and as individuals—of the ideals to which we profess to aspire when we wrap ourselves in those flags, in pledging our allegiance we nonetheless commit ourselves to working towards the realization of the aspirations each represents. We pledge to respect the rule of law; we pledge to exercise our right to advocate, educate and vote; we pledge to demand that every person be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender or romantic orientation.

In the short span of seven days, I will have paid honor in memorium to those who sacrificed their lives so that we could breathe freely as Americans, even as I lament the treatment of families at our borders; I will have marched up 5th Avenue to celebrate the State of Israel and its remarkable achievements, even as I let it be known that I am a concerned stakeholder in the ongoing Zionist project; and I will have celebrated “Pride Shabbat” at our synagogue as an introduction to a month of events in and around our community, even as I know we have so much education to do before “inclusion” no longer needs a committee of its own.

So the next time someone asks how it is that one can pledge allegiance to three different flags, tell them that it is your God-given right and responsibility to do so. And then ask them how it is that they don’t.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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