Over the past week, I had an opportunity to share some vacation travel with my two older sons. Aside from being a time to rest, relax and rejuvenate, it was also an opportunity to experience a new city, reconnect with my adult children, and revisit relationships with extended family and friends.
Sharing space and time with others for an extended period, especially in close proximity, was an excellent exercise in self-awareness. The experience brought on a heightened consciousness of personal habits and a test of comfort with making conversation or with the lack thereof. Even our pace of movement as a group was something to be considered and negotiated.
Our destination was more familiar to some and brand new to others. This imbalance dictated that some would step up to lead while others would be relegated to follow. Some accepted their roles with complete comfort; others were forced to confront the insecurities that can accompany such powerlessness. While some of us sought to take in the experience from an intellectual perspective, diving deep into each historical site and building, others of us preferred the bird’s eye view, preferring the forest to the trees of the landscape.
Now, imagine that we were two million travelers instead of just three! These challenges (relatively insignificant, especially given that the context was a vacation!) must have been multiplied exponentially for the Israelite families journeying from Egypt to the Promised Land. The Torah, however, goes to great lengths to recount the places that served as mileposts of the trek and the people who led the migration. Let’s not lose sight of the many emotions and dynamics that had to be addressed by individuals, families and communities along the way.
And the next time we venture to a new place or choose to share an experience with others in a new configuration, perhaps we can examine our own responses more closely, especially relative to others. Perhaps we’ll come to appreciate the journey as much as, if not more than, the destination.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
On Israel’s Highway 40 South to Bahad Echad, the IDF Officers School, Jon and I stopped with my in-laws at Sde Boker, the burial site of David and Paula Ben Gurion.
As we looked out over the awe-inspiring desert view, I thought of David Ben Gurion’s words: In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.
His words seemed to apply to me directly in that moment. Of course, he was speaking of the entire endeavor of Zionism. And I was only thinking about my own unshakable plan to be at Josh’s graduation from Officers School on June 20. Is it true? Was I in Israel thanks to a miracle?
Josh had a large cheering section at the graduation: family, friends, his host parents from kibbutz, and my cousins.
When I expressed gratitude to my cousin Elchanan for traveling so far to be with us, he said, “Is it far or is it close from Hoshaya? It just depends on the story we tell ourselves.” He is correct, of course, about the three and a half hour drive from the north to south of Israel. And he is also correct about how we all choose to live our lives.
For me, I understand this period of dealing with cancer according to the story I tell myself. It might be a horrible, unfair trial or it might be a series of many small and large kindnesses. And yes, perhaps even miracles. It just depends on the story I choose to tell myself.
From the very moment of my diagnosis, I was clear to myself and to everyone with whom I spoke that I would be at Bahad Echad on June 20. I was not missing Josh’s Siyyum Kors Katzinim (Completion of the Officers Course).
I healed from surgery faster than my surgeon thought possible, and he gave me a clearance to go after just three weeks. My oncologist started my chemotherapy early, scheduling it so that I would be as strong as possible for the trip. My healing has been supported and speeded along by the prayers and energy of family and community. And I have worked hard too, keeping a positive outlook, walking every day and trying to eat even when I did not feel like it.
Perhaps my understanding of how one experiences a miracle is best expressed in a traditional Jewish proverb: “We hope for miracles but we don’t count on them.” My intention was clear and I did everything in my power to bring it to fruition. Next, the kindness and support of others is required. But I believe with all my heart that the final essential element of a miracle is God’s will. God makes miracles happen.
זה היום עשה ה’ נגילה ונשמחה בו
Zeh hayom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nism’cha bo!
This is the day that God has made. Let us rejoice in it and be glad.
Shabbat shalom and hope to see many of you at Orangetown Jewish Center this Shabbat as Josh and his grandparents continue touring in Israel.
Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism, has occupied the headlines of the Jewish press over the last week. At issue is Ramah’s educational approach regarding Israel and Zionism. In particular, IfNotNow (INN), an organization whose stated goal is to end American support for Israel’s current policies with respect to the Palestinians, has begun training Jewish camp counselors to effect change in the Israel education of Jewish summer camps.Three months ago, a group of Ramah alumni involved with INN approached the Ramah national leadership seeking a commitment from Ramah to change its Israel education to include the Palestinian narrative. As news of INN’s camp counselor training program became public, the Ramah leadership issued a statement distancing itself from any partnership with INN and affirming its commitment to teaching Ahavat Yisrael, a love of Israel. Backlash came from both the right and the left. From one extreme, Ramah was being ordered to conduct a purge of any counselors who might express any sympathies to the Palestinian cause; from the other side, Ramah was being accused of betraying alumni who felt they had been labeled as anti-Zionist at best and anti-Semitic at worst.
Change, no matter how warranted, typically takes time in established institutions. Change requires education, building consensus, and the development of stakeholders who can model the proposed change as a natural and mission-driven extension of the institution itself. Change imposed from outside the institutional framework will, more often than not, fail, especially if it is expected to take effect immediately.
The Ramah camping movement, one of the great and long-lasting successes of Conservative Judaism and a breeding ground for ideas, leadership and best practices, is well aware of the changing landscape of the Jewish world, and in particular as it relates to Israel. Hundreds of young Israeli emissaries (shlchim) staff the Ramah camps each summer, bringing with them their many perspectives on Jewish identity, Zionism and Israel. The shlichim are not screened for their political leanings in advance of their placement. Each Ramah camp has its own board, its own professional leadership, its own unique demographic of staff, campers and families. Each camp has met the challenges of change in its own way, always sensitive to the Ramah mission, the camp’s constituent communities, and the reality that staff and campers come from a diversity of religious and educational backgrounds. To this day, the camp cultures differ in their religious and educational philosophies, even as they pursue the same mission.
The Ramah camps also face the challenge of educating students—campers and staff—who range in age from 6 to 60, many of whom live together in community. Learning takes place in formal, informal and experiential settings. The unintended curriculum is often more important than the intended curriculum, as so much of the learning occurs in the context of late-night one on one conversations. It is in the context of personal relationships that nuanced opinions are best expressed and best able to be heard. That is the true magic of Ramah.
Ramah directors across the camps, I believe, sympathize with those Ramah alumni who want to see staff and older campers engage in Israel discussions that reflect the complexity and nuance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, in light of INN’s demands for immediate and sweeping change, it should come as no surprise that the Ramah leadership felt the need to make a strong statement in response, officially distancing Ramah camps from any organizational or philosophical partnership, especially considering that INN’s platform specifically states that it does not take a position regarding the support of Israeli statehood. Critics may have cause to say that Ramah leadership’s latest statement was an attempt to appease the majority of its base and its financial supporters. Even if this were to be true, it doesn’t mean that Ramah has abandoned its dedication to pluralism and to permitting a diversity of opinions.
The world of Jewish education is still learning how to address the moral challenges of Israeli statehood and Jewish power. The Shalom Hartman Institute, as far as I am concerned, has done an excellent job of creating informative, nuanced and challenging educational materials for adults. (Check out the iEngage Israel curricula; our synagogue community has already implemented three of its courses to a positive reception.) Adapting these conversations for middle schoolers or high school students is going to take time and expertise, especially given the widely diverse ages and backgrounds of the intended students.
I firmly believe that now is the time to wrestle with the question of how to teach about Israel’s conflicts. But the answer to that question, especially when it comes to good Israel education, is certainly not one to be arrived at in a matter of months. Ramah camps are as good a place as any to advance this discussion—but not necessarily this summer or even next. Not if it is going to be done well, with the result producing the best informed Israel lovers and advocates for our future.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your accounting will make fifty days. — Vayikra 23: 15 – 16
When it was time to count the first day of the Omer, I was not at a second night seder. I was not standing with family and friends, turning to the final pages of the Haggadah and reciting the blessing and counting for the first time this year. I did count the first day of the Omer, but I was prone on an emergency room bed, felled by an intense case of what turned out to be pancreatitis.
Ever the optimist, I expected the nurse to tell me I was being discharged. Instead, she told me that something had been detected on my pancreas and I was being admitted into the hospital. Day One of the Omer. A new reality began.
I have not missed counting each day of the Omer since. No carelessness, no jumping up out of bed half asleep because I had forgotten, no catching up the morning after to save the pattern in the nick of time. Blessing and counting became serious business for me this year because the days of the Omer have entirely encompassed this strange odyssey in my life. From Day One through Day Forty-Nine (which will be counted tonight) I have experienced unexpected illness, a shocking diagnosis, major surgery, the unexpected death of my brother, a limited ability to fulfill the mitzvah of shiva, learning protocols for chemotherapy, and rising up from shiva and shloshim with the onset of Shavuot.
Certainly, the coincidence of time cannot be ignored. Certainly, there was much for me to learn along the way as I counted diligently each night and wondered what the new day would bring.
The Omer beat out a consistent rhythm for me. Do not despair. Count each day. There are blessings present in every single moment.
I know that life is not easy. Faith is a challenging, ephemeral thing to hold. But despite my training in the world of yogic philosophy, I have never accepted that life is about suffering. Despite the many sorrowful experiences I have shared with cherished congregants, I believe that life is in the joy despite the sadness. And though we struggle with faith, God is always right there for us, just one request for help away.
To me, life is not a battle. Life is a precious gift and sometimes we are challenged by illness and loss to hold on to that primary Jewish belief. The Omer helped me remember each day that life is a gift.
Throughout this Omer period, God has felt entirely present to me. My son-in-law, Sagi, asked me a profound question. He wanted to know if I was acting strong and whole or if I was feeling strong and whole. I explained that the way I am behaving is because of how I feel – held by family, friends and community, and most of all, held by God. I am strong and whole.
I have found that God is present at all times. I broke down completely one of the first nights in the hospital. Rather than receive any positive results at all, I was instead receiving worse and worse news. I gave in to my fears and grief, lay in my bed weeping for all that I was going to miss. I railed against God, asking why I had to have cancer when I have so much to do, so many ways to serve God, and so many family obligations to fulfill. I asked God, “How can I do this without You?”
Just as I was drying my tears and collecting myself, my kind nurse Nadine came in to check on me. “Oh, my dear,” she comforted. “What is the matter and why are you so sad?” I told her about the diagnosis I had received that afternoon. She huffed a bit at my news, looked me straight in the eye and began to preach. “You are one of the Children of Abraham, you are God’s chosen child and God will not let you falter. Remember that God loves you and is with you. I know you have great faith. God has great faith in you.” I wish that I could remember all that Nadine told me that evening. She was speaking to me from another faith tradition but it was clear to me as I looked into her compassionate, beautiful face that she was my angel, delivering to me the answer from God for which I had just been praying.
As it turned out, the pancreatitis that was so painful (and inconvenient, happening on the first day of Pesach) was also my personal miracle. If I had not had such an acute case of the inflammation that sent “stubborn me” to the Emergency Room after a day of “waiting for it to pass,” the small, encapsulated tumor at the head of my pancreas would not have been found.
I will stand by my certainty that I was blessed by God with a miracle. I will not try to defend this belief theologically because it is indefensible. Why should I receive a miracle and not the patient in the next hospital bed? Why would a murderer potentially receive the same miracle as me if this were all part of God’s special gift to me? God is neither cancer nor oncology. I know. It is indefensible. Yet it is true for me. God granted me a miracle for which I am grateful.
I have learned also that the power of prayer and positive energy is a curative. I have read research, studied Jewish texts and taught about the power of prayer. Now, I have experienced it for myself. My healing has not been easy, but it has progressed faster than one might expect. The Circle of Psalms of congregants and friends has had a profound impact on me, reminding me that I am surrounded by love. Each evening at 7:30 when I read Psalm 121, I wonder who else is reciting a psalm. I am always buoyed by the thought of just how many have joined with me in that moment. When I told my surgeon, Dr. Langan that many people were praying for his wisdom and steady hands, he responded, “That means so much to me. I have been praying for you too.”
And then, in a startling confluence of time, on my first day home after surgery, we received the shocking news that my brother Dr. Eric Mack z”l had died in his home in California. I was unable to fully ingest the reality, manage any of the decisions that needed to be made, travel to Maine for the funeral or sit in a complete shiva. In case I had any final reservations about the need to protect myself and care for myself first through this period of time, losing Eric was a complete and final lesson in this regard. I had no choice. I had to choose life – my own life.
Eric’s greatest joy in his later years was sharing insights into the weekly Torah portion with his fellow congregants at his shul, Etz Hadar in Redlands, something that he and I would discuss almost every week. How appropriate that the shiva for my brother and my days of mourning as his sister come to a completion just as we rise up tomorrow evening, for the holiday of Shavuot, to receive the Torah at Sinai. This year, Revelation will feel especially sweet with one more student of Torah studying at God’s Table for the holiday.
I will never again take for granted the mitzvah of counting the days of the Omer. We count up to remind us to cherish every day. Despite the great trials of these seven weeks, I have indeed felt every day heightened by gratitude and blessing. The world has felt more beautiful, people have seemed kinder, and love has seemed to be present in every moment. I have felt truly held by God.
As we all step forward toward Revelation at Sinai, may we be ready to enter into relationship with God. May we be willing to serve God with our gifts and blessings. May our hearts be open to miracles and prayer and Torah. May we always be kind.
Chag sameach, Happy holiday,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Cain kills Abel; God asks Cain where is his brother; Cain claims not to know, and challenges God by proclaiming he is not Abel’s keeper. God replies that the blood of Abel is calling out. The Midrash boldly suggests an alternative reading: the blood of Abel is yelling at (or against) God, accusing God of standing by and permitting the injustice. (Genesis Rabbah 22:9)
As has been pointed out with respect to the Shoah, we are quick to ask where God was; less frequently do we ask where was Humanity.
As Holocaust survivors, my grandparents have never held God responsible for the deaths of family members or for their earlier years of torment. They do, however, consider their lives and their descendants miracles of God. They’ve never claimed to be more righteous or deserving of God’s attention or intervention; but they accept their gifts of life as miraculous nonetheless. For them, every day — despite the aches and pains, the losses of loved ones and the toll of the mundane — is a miracle.
Just off of Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut, I wrestle with my seemingly conflicting understanding of God. In reflecting on the Shoah, I say God was not accountable, except to the extent that God made room in the world for our free will. That conscious act created the possibility for the distinctiveness of good versus bad, of right versus wrong, of exultation versus disappointment. Put another way, in making room for evil, God created the possibility for us to live lives of meaning, as opposed to merely existing.
And yet, when it comes to the birth of the State of Israel — as is the case of the birth of my children — I proclaim that God was “in the room.” Despite the many sleepless nights that follow those births, I abide in the amazement of the miracle, as my grandparents do and as we as a people do, every single day.
I personally cannot believe in a God that would desire the suffering of the innocent or the young, of family or friends. I choose to believe in the God that invites me to choose life over death, blessings above curses. My God is the God that abides in the blessings I bring when I offer comfort, strength and healing energy. My God is the God that is revealed when I come together in community to offer prayer and to mobilize in action. My God is the God that is felt in the hearts of the suffering when they feel me acting as their keeper.
Do you wish to help a friend, but don’t know how? Do you wonder where God is in the suffering? Choose life. Recite Psalm 121 daily at 7:30pm with and for Rabbi Drill as she, with God’s and our help, experiences a refuah shleimah (complete healing), and add a psalm of healing for those in your life who are in need. Give someone else the gift of life, and donate blood. Perform an act of kindness in the name of a loved one. Remember someone you love. Abide in the amazement of something you once called a miracle.
Shabbat shalom, and a speedy recovery, my friend,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Why did we choose to spend our first Shabbat after the Passover festival joining with a nationwide commitment to Rohingya Justice Shabbat? The primary answer is: How could we not?
The lessons of Pesach are at the forefront of our minds. We were strangers in Egypt and we suffered there for four hundred years before God took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Our history of slavery comes to shake us out of complacency. We must protect those who are vulnerable because we know what suffering is.
The lessons of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) are implanted in our souls. Here at the OJC we spent the 24 hours of this Memorial Day guarding six candles in our sanctuary as we have done for the past fifteen years. Our people is forever changed by the Nazis’ attempt to destroy us. The Jewish people is commanded “Zachor!” Remember! We remember to mourn, to honor and to hold on to the stories, but we also remember in order to take action.
Such is the responsibility and privilege of being Jewish. We cannot stand idly by. In our community, holiness does not mean only to attach to God. Holiness requires us to attach to humanity, to all people, created in the image of God.
On August 25, 2017, the Burmese army embarked on a massive and deadly ethnic cleansing campaign targeting the Rohingya people, setting entire villages aflame, committing sexual violence against women, and murdering civilians. Since August, more than 671,000 Rohingya people have fled their homes in the western Rakhine state of Burma and made the perilous journey to crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, joining more than 300,000 other Rohingya people who had fled previous violence. In the camps, lack of food, water, medical care, security and mental health aid for those suffering trauma make the fate of the Rohingya the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world. The Rohingya refugees are now facing yet another perilous obstacle: the upcoming monsoon season, which will bring mudslides, flooding and outbreaks of waterborne diseases.
While many Rohingya refugees would like to return to their homeland, the Burmese government is preventing repatriation from occurring. For those Rohingya people still remaining in Rakhine state, violence has continued. United Nations investigators, international NGOs and press are not allowed access to those left behind in Burma. On March 6, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum announced its decision to rescind its prestigious Elie Wiesel Award from Burmese leader (and Nobel Peace Prize recipient) Aung San Suu Kyi. In an open letter, the Museum explained that its decision to revoke her award was based on her failing to halt, or even acknowledge, the ethnic cleansing happening in her country. The Holocaust Museum’s rebuke is an important reminder that the Jewish community has a moral responsibility and a strong moral standing in the international community with which to speak out on the injustices against the Rohingya people.
Life hangs in the balance. How can we take action? First, we must overcome the impulse to be overwhelmed and stymied by the enormity of the crisis. As Ruth Messinger, founder of American Jewish World Service, has taught: “We cannot afford the luxury of being overwhelmed.”
As I urged our congregation today during Shabbat services, we can educate, advocate and assist.
First, we must become educated ourselves and then we can talk with others about this humanitarian crisis. Learn more about the Rohingya people and their plight at:
Second, we can become advocates for aid to these far away people, so different from us, but created in God’s image. Go to AJWS Get Involved Activism to sign a petition to urge Congress t oppose the President’s proposed cuts to Foreign Aid and to write to your Senators thanking them or urging them to sign on to the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2017. This is an important opportunity for our nation and our elected officials to demonstrate real moral leadership on the international stage, and work toward a lasting, peaceful solution for the Rohingya people.
Finally, we can donate to the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network’s disaster relief fund. AJWS Rohingya Donation Page. This fund will provide immediate and longer-term humanitarian aid—including food and water— to refugees who have fled across the Burmese border into Bangladesh. The Network is also supporting Rohingya human rights activists in Burma in their efforts to stop military violence against the Rohingya community. 100% of this fund goes directly to American Jewish World Service aid and grantmaking in response to the Rohingya crisis.
It is difficult to face the trauma and crisis in the world around us. It is impossible for us to turn away. Every one of us can take one step today. I pray that we all do our part to create the kind of world in which we want to dwell.
Shavua tov and Hodesh tov, A good week and a good new month,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Toward the end of an afternoon spent learning about anatomy and physiology for yoga movement, our teacher, Kari, was explaining how the shoulder girdle is a complex joint with 16,000 possible movements motored by muscles directed by Central Headquarters (the brain). The systems of the human body, which I have not really considered since ninth grade biology class, are intricate, interconnected and miraculous.
I thought that the question was only articulated in my mind, but “Who invented this stuff?” suddenly burst out of my mouth.
Kari paused for a single, comedic beat, looked right at me and answered, “God did!”
So many moments along my month-long learning journey to become a 200 hour Kripalu Yoga Teacher were just like that.
This kipa-wearing yoga student was overjoyed to find parallels and intersections between Jewish texts, ethics and ritual and the yogic way of life. I cannot wait to bring back to the Orangetown Jewish Center (tomorrow!! when I return after my three-month sabbatical) all that I have learned. I learned yoga postures, sequencing, and alignment, of course. But I also learned about a sattvic (mindful, peaceful, balanced) way of life. I studied self-care, philosophy, and experienced various schools of yoga. With my fellow students, I also experienced 36 hours of silence. No texting, no emails, no phone calls, no conversation. We Jews are a noisy, talkative people. And I am certainly emblematic of those traits! Holding silence in the safety of our yoga training had a profound impact on me.
The learning was first and foremost through my heart and into my body although there was plenty of enchantment for my mind as well.
In classical yoga philosophy, we studied the yamas and niyamas – self restraints and personal observances to guide behavior and support character development. These beautiful ideas about how to live in balance so that we do not harm ourselves or others are very similar to the Jewish system of Covenant and Commandment that has always guided my life. Studying these values, practicing them and adhering to them reminded me of the Jewish path of Mussar that I have studied with the OJC Journey Group for fifteen years now.
At Kripalu, mindful eating is an essential element of partaking in the beautiful, organic, vegetarian food in the dining hall. I have been coming to Kripalu for 30 years now and have always enjoyed pausing before my meal to say thank you. But for this past month, I experienced profound holiness in closing my eyes before eating to recite the appropriate berakha (blessing) and reciting the words of Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) after each breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some days, those moments brought tears to my eyes. I wonder how I have gone so long in my life without completely embracing this simple Jewish habit, to always be grateful for the food that nourishes us.
Down the hallway from my fourth-floor room, there is a small meditation room. It happens to face east and also south with glorious views of the woods and mountains in the distance. It was here that I lit my electric candles each Friday night and prayed. Saturdays were serendipitously our day off from training, and I began each Shabbat morning wrapped in my tallit, enwrapped in my prayers. I tried to start at exactly 9 o’clock, to connect with my home community. Entering into Shabbat while already on sabbatical felt real and true to me. During the week, my schedule was not my own. I had to be at yoga classes and in learning sessions exactly on time, complete homework assignments, and be prepared for practice teaches. But every Shabbat, the hours returned to me, truly a free person, resting and being refreshed.
At our final session before graduation, each of us spoke about the gifts of our month long training. I shared that I will always hear in my ear the voice of Cristie, our teacher, saying, “Be bold and confident. Take the seat of the teacher.”
For me, however, the transformation took place in taking the seat of the student. I learned from every single one of my co-students, from our compassionate and gentle teaching assistants, and from our yoga master teachers, Cristie and Kari. Like the great rabbis of Jewish tradition, I learned much from what they taught, but much more from how they live.
I look forward to seeing all of my congregants back at Orangetown Jewish Center in the coming weeks. I have missed you all, and a tiny glimpse of you on live-stream Purim evening was simply not enough!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill