Strategic Thinking to Stay Ahead of the Curve

If you have been an OJCer for more than a few months, then you have probably heard our origin story. It is a heroic tale that begins with a struggling synagogue made up of arguing congregants, a stream of short-term rabbis, and money woes that all turned around (trumpets sound!) with the arrival of Rabbi Craig Scheff in the late nineties. Congregants started learning, celebrating, and anchoring the synagogue in Torah and relationship. Drawn to this positive energy, people flocked to the shul. OJC began a path toward stability and growth that was supported with my arrival as a rabbinic intern and then rabbi in 2002. Rabbi Hersh’s bringing his family to “the house in our parking lot” added a vital and younger complement when it was needed. Sharon Rappaport (20-year Youth Director), Amichai Margolis (Music Director), and Rabbi Joseph Robinson (Kulanu Director) together with our office and custodial staff complete the tale of the successful, joyful synagogue we know today.

You might think our narrative is a sweet and simple story of a community’s rise from a low point to high. Perhaps. I think there is more to the story than “rags to riches.”

Underpinning our story is the fact that since the beginning of our stability and growth, OJC has never rested in the comfort of our success. We have always worked to stay steps ahead of the curve. We did not depend on wishes and dreams. As a community, we thought strategically and critically about what was coming next.
This moment in time is no different. Despite the uncertainty and worry in our world today, we are embarking on a strategic plan once again.
Who could have predicted the turbulence of these past two years of the Covid pandemic? Who knew how difficult previously straightforward conversations about Israel, religion, and politics would become? Who could have envisioned a reality with security guards at our doors and in our parking lot at every gathering?
As a community, through these past two years, we never stopped providing our community with meaningful connection anchored in Torah, prayer, and loving kindness. How do we do it?
OJC leadership, volunteers, staff, and clergy are consistently poised to grow and change. Our ability to pivot is anchored in decades of staying ahead of the curve by thinking strategically.

We are envisioning a strategic plan for the next five and ten years. Our committee began work this past week under the able guidance and inspiration of our chairs, Steve Abrams and Benay Josselson.


OJC is consistently progressive and proactive. We are wondering about how to create a solid sense of belonging. We are thinking about new definitions of community beyond a physical presence in our building. We are taking lessons from the pandemic and looking ahead to the world that we are all moving toward. We are planning ahead for the needs of a younger generation. And most of all, we are here for what you are looking for. So please be in touch and tell us: what are you looking for?
Rabbi Paula Drill

A Ramah Shabbat-a-gram to my community

It started with a letter from my rabbi, Henry Sosland of blessed memory, to my parents. No emails or texts way back in 1976, just a typed letter. It was an invitation to send me to Camp Ramah in New England, accompanied by an offer of financial assistance from the rabbi to help make it happen.

My parents didn’t know much about Ramah. They knew it was a Jewish camp. I think (?) they knew that daily prayer, daily learning and Hebrew were part of the program. They knew the rabbi sent his own kids there. In fact, Rachel Sosland, who was one grade ahead of me, was the only person I knew who attended. I’m not really sure why I agreed at the age of 12, sight unseen, to be shipped off for the summer to a dust bowl in Palmer, Massachusetts. But it was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

This year, Ramah is celebrating 75 years of Jewish camping. Since the founding in 1947 of the first Camp Ramah in Wisconsin—intended in part as a training ground for future Jewish leadership and in part as an experiment in enhancing Jewish education for children—Ramah has grown into a network of five day camps, ten overnight camps, family camps, Israel programs, global partnerships and educational experiences that continues to shape the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, teens and young adults. Ramah has produced a foundation for Judaism’s Conservative movement and continues to be the jewel in its crown. Nearly one quarter of our own synagogue families share a connection to the Ramah vision through camping or staffing. Our proximity to Ramah Day Camp in Nyack in particular has led to a unique relationship that has been mutually beneficial to both communities. Over the past 26 years, our OJC professional staff has been fed by the Ramah pipeline of educators. Today, Rabbi Drill, Rabbi Hersh, our youth director Sharon Rappaport, our music director Amichai Margolis and I can all trace our earliest connections to each other through Ramah.

I learned about the creation of Jewish family and the Jewish home from my parents and grandparents; but I learned about the creation of Jewish community from my time at Camp Ramah. What stayed with me from my three summers as a camper was not the feeling of praying on a Friday night at the lake; it was not the thrill of intra- or inter-camp competition; it was not the excitement of camping out on a three-day canoe trip. What I took away from camp—and what has informed my life all these years later—was an appreciation of the power of Jewish community.

When I finally chose the rabbinate as my career, I knew that my goal in serving a synagogue community would be to help fashion a community in the image of camp, the kind of community that I experienced and loved as a child. I also knew that the way there was not to bring a lake or a sunset to the synagogue, as some suggest. The emotional attachment to a physical space is insufficient for the purposes of creating holy community, though our stained glass windows certainly provide a beautiful focal point for gathering. For me, camp was—and synagogue would need to be—about empowerment, acceptance, and inclusion; about passion, care and connection; about experiences, growth and aspiration. Ramah taught me that Judaism is not a spectator sport, that prayer is best practiced and best received as a communal endeavor, and that Torah is best understood in the context of our personal interactions and shared moments.

Nancy, our four sons and I have 125 combined years of Ramah experiences. This summer, as Jason and I head to Ramah Sports Academy (RSA) for the summer and Nancy continues in her post as Communications Director of National Ramah, that number will climb a little higher. The Hebrew word ramah literally means “level” or “height.” As we give of our passion and experience to raise Ramah, its staff and campers to new heights, I know that we will bring back to our communities a renewed appreciation for what it means to be in kehillah kedoshah, holy community. I know that we will continue to learn, grow and be inspired by what Camp Ramah is teaching us about Jewish living.

Join us this Shabbat as we host Ramah‘s National Director Amy Skopp Cooper and celebrate our community’s connection to Ramah. Hopefully, together, we will continue to reach for new heights in Jewish learning and living, bringing us closer to each other and to the realization of our Divinely imbued potential.

And if you happen to get a letter from one of your rabbis….

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

So how was your sabbatical?

I have been back at the OJC for two weeks and cannot count the number of times I have been lovingly asked, “So how was your sabbatical?!” I found myself answering the question with some version of: it was meaningful and valuable and I will tell you all about it soon.

Putting off the description for the future started feeling more and more troublesome until this past Friday. I experienced one of those sacred rabbinical days that make me feel grateful for my profession and also put into perspective the gift of the past three months.

I will start with a narrative of Friday and work backwards to the delayed description of my sabbatical. Early in the morning on Friday, Rabbi Scheff and I met our colleague Rabbi Mark Cooper and a wonderful young man with his family at the Temple Israel Center mikvah in White Plains. Jason* studied for two years in preparation for conversion and then found the conclusion of his journey delayed by Covid. He spoke with intelligence and thoughtfulness about becoming the Jew whom he has always felt himself to be. The privilege of sitting on his Beit Din (rabbinic tribunal) and granting a Hebrew name to a person of deep integrity lifted my soul.

Back in Rockland County, I visited the hospital room of Janice*, a congregant who had survived a life-threatening illness. When I walked into her hospital room, she wept tears that had been stored up for the past three weeks. She was surprised to find herself weeping, but I understood. I represented her community, her Jewish faith, and perhaps even God. We sat together, speaking quietly. Her heartfelt response to being granted a second chance opened my soul.

I drove to the home of Susan*, a congregant who has been isolated for the past two years due to Covid precautions. As we sat and talked about matters serious and not, I felt the importance of connection face-to-face. Her friendship and her optimism despite difficulty filled my soul.

Just before Shabbat, I welcomed into my office Harry*, a man who has been investigating Judaism. He described the study, prayer and experiences he has been seeking. Perhaps wanting to show how much he had learned so far, he offered to chant Shema for me. When I heard his beautiful voice, I closed my eyes and felt tears well. My soul was connected through his words of prayer to God.

As I led the Ma’ariv prayers for our in-person and virtual minyan, I reflected on the very full soul with which I was entering Shabbat. Throughout the day, my soul had been lifted, opened, filled and connected. Such intense interactions with people is a privilege and a gift. I am granted a window into their souls. Their thoughts, hopes and prayers pour in to me; and at the same time, my energy must pour out to them.

As I began to pray the Amida, I suddenly understood how to answer the question, “So how was your sabbatical?” My sabbatical lifted, opened, filled and connected my soul for three months without requiring me to give back anything. I was filled to the top so that I have plenty to give back now.

I studied virtually and privately. I traveled, hiked and practiced yoga. I did a great deal of writing, reading, and spending time with family, most preciously my grandboys. I was filled up.

Those of us who work have demanding jobs. Many of us who are retired have time-consuming volunteer positions and caregiving responsibilities to family members. Sabbatical is a great idea for all of us.

For clergy, three months without waiting for phone calls with someone else’s emergency is a respite that is more valuable than can be described. It is a complete rest of the soul.

I do not want the precious gift of sabbatical to be lost amidst the rush and intensity of work. I have dedicated myself to taking full advantage of the weekly opportunity for sabbatical that we Jewish people call Shabbat.

I encourage you to take the time to enter into Shabbat in the way that feels most reasonable for you. However you do it, practice self-compassion and care. Feel yourself lifted, opened, filled and connected. If you are not sure how to do this, ask Rabbi Scheff or me. We have lots of entry ways into Shabbat to suggest. I guarantee you will have more to give to others if you begin by taking care of your soul.

With a full soul, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

*All names and circumstances have been changed for this blog post.

A little more Purim fun before she’s back

The following is a reprise (slightly edited) of a blog I published seven years ago. I figured I’d share it again in the spirit of Purim before Rabbi Drill’s return from her sabbatical tomorrow. Enjoy!

Growing up on the mean streets of New City, New York, I learned the hard way what it meant to be Jewish, short, skinny and unable to jump higher than 8 inches off the ground. In other words … wait for it . . . “scrappy” was my game. The experience hardened me to the outside world’s cold reality. A jaded, chip-on-my-shoulder, eat-or-be-eaten attitude pervaded everything I set out to accomplish. I learned to control most of my impulses, assuming a mild-mannered, soft-spoken persona everywhere I went. Everywhere, that is, except on the basketball court. Between the lines, I could be myself, let go of my inhibitions, run wild, heatedly pursue, charge at the hoop, display my bumps and bruises as badges of honor. Ironically, all that pent up anger, frustration and aggression that found its expression in my game was lauded as something good, something to be admired and copied.

jekyllandhyde

Those of you who have seen me play over the years (with the 9- and 10-year-olds at recess, especially) have called me competitive, like a Mr. Hyde to Rabbi Jekyll. What you see is nothing, however, compared to the dark madness that once lurked in the soles of my high-top Converse sneakers (the white canvas ones). That’s just me having good, clean fun. Once I retired from competitive hoops at the age of 28 (the year I started rabbinical school), the cloud that once enveloped my heart lifted, and the beast was gone forever. Until . . . .

referees

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, who’s been with our OJC community for 20 years now, began her professional relationship with me at Camp Ramah in Nyack some 22 years ago. She was Program Director as I was Assistant Director, and Assistant Director (a position formerly also held by our own Rabbi Ami Hersh, the topic of another Purim spoof one day soon) as I was Camp Rabbi. We always had a great, easygoing, complementary style of working together. From Day One, people referred to us as the “Craig and Paula Show.” That relationship carried over into her internship here at the OJC, where I functioned formally as her mentor for the Seminary. The day she was ordained was a great day. I should have known something wasn’t quite right, however, when she informed me that her JTS GPA was .0185 higher than mine.

Crazy Paula

That single fact was the beginning of a disturbing pattern. Two-letter words like “XQ” were suddenly making their way into our Shabbat Scrabble games on triple word scores. She would casually mention to each congregant we met that she was older than me, taller than me (she took up heels), and could stand on her head longer than me. She would give her students colorful stickers and point out that I offered them nothing for their efforts. At the end of a day’s work she would ask me how many hours I had billed, as she filled my e-mail inbox with cc’s of every e-mail she sent out. I lashed back by working later, sleeping less, and leading more trips to Israel. I could feel the old Craig emerging, and it wasn’t pretty.

Crazy Craig

Rabbi Drill’s popularity has grown over the past 20 years. As has my therapy bill. But I have learned how to control the beast. Looking in the mirror each morning, I remind myself that I am good enough, that I am smart enough, and doggone it, people like me. Then I steel myself for the day ahead, trying to appreciate how good each day can be with Rabbi Drill at my side.

Purim 2

And then I pray . . . for the moment I will get her on the basketball court.

Converse

Happy Purim to all, and welcome back Rabbi Drill with us this Shabbat! Rabbi Drill, Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise–I’ve missed you and the many ways in which you enrich each of us and our community!

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Our Yiddish library

We welcome, once again, our rabbinic intern Lindsay Goldman as a guest contributor to our blog!

There is a Yiddish library inside the walls of the Tel Aviv bus station. It’s on the fifth floor among the artists’ collective that began when the artists were offered old storefronts as cheap studio spaces. When I was living in Jerusalem before the start of Covid in 2020, we went on a field trip to the library and it was exactly what I expected–a dimly lit room covered with old tchotchkes and floor-to-ceiling stacks of used books. It felt old and stale. While my friends oohed and aahed at the plethora of Yiddish books, I was pretty creeped out. I had never felt a connection to Yiddish or to my ancestors in the shtetls in Eastern Europe. They had all passed away before I was born and it felt like thousands of years existed between us, though it was probably closer to 80 or 90. 

More importantly, however, I believe the disconnect came from how I imagined they would feel about how I am living my life today. I am a single woman living in New York City becoming a rabbi. Would they be proud? Furious? Disgraced? In my head, they and their beliefs–about the way the world works and about what I can or cannot do–were old and stale. 

I am pursuing my master’s degree in Jewish Gender and Women’s Studies along with my ordination. This semester fewer classes were offered to fulfill my requirements, so I was compelled to sign up for a class entitled “Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Women’s Literature.” Each week we explore a different female author, mostly poets, who either wrote in Hebrew or in Yiddish. As we studied Celia Dropkin, our first Yiddish poet, I was quite moved. Her writing about her womanness and about her body felt incredibly modern, like something that could have been written today. She writes about love and sexuality in a way that felt radical for her time, and especially for Yiddish language literature. It felt fresh. And I learned she was not alone in this exploration of thought and language.

The dusty Yiddish library didn’t feel like my story, but Yiddish was the language my great-grandparents spoke so that my grandparents wouldn’t understand what their parents were talking about. Today my siblings and I speak in Hebrew so that our parents won’t know what we are talking about. Every Shabbat, I light my great-grandmother’s candlesticks and say the same Hebrew words she said week after week. But this week after reading Dropkin’s words, I began to wonder what my great-grandmother and my great-great-grandmothers thought about, what they prayed for, and what they talked with their female friends about. And I realized that perhaps we’re more similar than I had ever known.

Lindsay Goldman, OJC Resnick Intern

Ukraine is Personal

Twenty years ago, in April 2002, Sarah and I flew with twenty others on a MetroWest New Jersey Federation Mission to Cherkassy, Ukraine. Sarah had raised $20,000 through her bat mitzvah project to support the nursery school of the burgeoning Jewish community there that called itself Hesed. We traveled with duffel bags filled with medicine, sports equipment and school supplies. I remember that Sarah had a violin as carry-on and I carried an envelope filled with American dollars and a box of donated Women’s League benefactors pins to give away.

Thanks to Sarah Fainshtain Drill for the use of pages from her scrapbook.

We spent a transformative week in Ukraine, visiting small towns like Smela and Zvenigorodka and the larger cities of Cherkassy and Kyiv where we paid homage to the past by participating in a solemn service at the Babi Yar Memorial, cleaning a Jewish cemetery, and saying Kaddish in a forest where in 1941, three thousand Jews had been murdered and buried in a mass grave. We assisted the present-day communities with home visits to isolated indigent elders, meetings with community leaders, and participation in their Sunday School and Jewish culture club.

And we dreamed of the future of Cherkassy – young people learning Hebrew as they prepared for aliya and others dedicated to building Jewish community there in their homeland. For me, the highlight was officiating at a group b’nai mitzvah of nineteen teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17. Many of them had no Jewish names and I spent Friday afternoon helping them choose Hebrew names. I felt like Adam in the Garden.

When we were there twenty years ago, the community was only about eight years old. Prior to that, such a Jewish community organization would have been illegal. Many of the children we met on that trip have since made aliya. But many of the people did not leave. They have been building a solid Jewish community of loving care for all this time.
What I remember most about Ukraine is that it is not a beautiful place. My memories are painted in shades of gray. The streets looked frozen from the 1950s, Soviet bloc style buildings created a depressing view. But the people of the Jewish community we met were incredibly beautiful.
For more than a week, like all of you, I have been praying for the people of Ukraine. On Friday morning after the incursion began, I sat with four-month-old Teddy Louis in my arms. I wondered how many four-month-olds were in their grandmothers’ arms in Ukraine on that same day. My biggest concern that morning after his 7:00 feeding was whether he would take a nap in his bassinet or whether he would sleep in my arms. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian grandmothers’ lives had been turned inside out. Their concerns were matters of life and death.

And now we sit helplessly as spectators to the international stage, listening to the platitudes of governments around the world and finding it impossible to tear our eyes away from the pictures on the front page of the newspaper.
Yesterday in synagogue, Rabbi Scheff taught that we must remember our particular Jewish concerns as well as the universal concerns of this war. Because the Jewish people have been refugees since we left Egypt, we must act according to this legacy. We cannot forget what it means to be forced out of homes and endangered by violent actions beyond our control. And so I made one donation to assist the Hesed community in Cherkassy and another to HIAS to help an entire nation that is suffering. I cannot turn away from the suffering but neither can I let it bury me. I continue to use my most powerful tool, my belief in a God of Peace and Justice. I pray to God to bring our world into balance and alignment before more lives are destroyed:
God of our wandering ancestors, protect the innocent people of Ukraine who have left behind their homes, their desire to build democracy, and their hopes for the future in order to save their lives. Give solace and continued courage to their leader and his family. Find the people in bombed buildings, in subway stations and in synagogue basements and bring hope to their souls. Bring a halt to the horrifying plans of a power-driven autocrat. Awaken the leadership of the world to our common bond of humanity and empower them to take action to stop this unjust war. Act speedily, God, because time is fast when designs are evil.

Praying for peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Broken tablets, broken hearts

Perhaps Moses didn’t cast those tablets of stone to the ground in anger. Perhaps, as the Midrash Tanchuma (Ki Tissa 30) suggests, an eighty year old Moses could only manage to carry two slabs of rock down a mountain because they were made lighter by the presence of the Ten Commandments’ holy letters on them; but once Moses saw the people dancing around a calf of gold, the letters flew from the tablets, rendering the stones nothing but . . . stone. Not even a twenty year old Moses could have carried that burden. Perhaps he cast the tablets to the ground because they were simply dead weight.

This past week we shared news with our OJC community that left many shocked and saddened. We learned several months ago that a minor in our community had been victimized by the inappropriate advances of an adult OJC member, and after a process of pastoring to the needs of the victim and their family, consulting with outside experts and gathering information, we released our plan to field more information via a safety assessment conducted by an outside third party. While the reported inappropriate behavior had not occurred in our building, and while the investigated actions had been verified by the authorities but had not resulted in criminal charges being filed, this matter should not leave us with any illusions about the sanctity of our community. Our covenant has been broken; the holy letters have departed the tablets; the stone lies in shards.

According to a midrash found in the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b), the broken pieces of the first set of Ten Commandments were kept in the ark alongside the second set. Were they there to bear witness to the past? To be a constant reminder of how easily trust can be broken if we are not vigilant? To teach us that we forever carry the broken pieces of ourselves while still being able to achieve wholeness? Yes, yes and yes. We must bear the burden of what may have transpired on our watch. We must ask ourselves why we didn’t speak up when we saw something in the past that made us uncomfortable. And yet, we must overcome these heavy questions and still report what we have experienced and felt. We must enter a new covenant as a community in the hopes that we can be whole again–more vigilant, more mindful, more sacred.

The second set of tablets didn’t come to Moses as easily as the first. He had to hew the stone himself and carry it up the mountain to receive God’s letters a second time. The rabbinic imagination of Midrash Rabbah reassures us that this burden was not a punishment. In fact, the second set of tablets was better than the first because it contained Halacha, Midrash and Aggadah. In other words, the new covenant between God and the people was informed by the wisdom and imagination born out of the Israelites’ experience.

We are completely engaged in the process of renewing our community covenant. As we share a mechanism to gather more information about your observations and experiences, we are already fully invested in developing new policies and procedures to prevent future opportunities for abuse and to safeguard our sacred space. We will be offering 2 town hall-style meetings next week to answer questions and clarify our responses to the best of our ability: one virtually on Wednesday night, March 2 after minyan, and one in person on Thursday evening, March 3 at 6:30pm in the sanctuary. We are fortunate to have this second chance–the opportunity to restore trust and faith in each other and in our institution. We owe it to one another, to our tradition and to our children to be better this time around.

May the sacred space we establish be worthy of God’s presence.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Whatever the Weather

The rain falls in sheets in Tel Aviv in January. The skies can be blue for hours so that the suddenness of the rain is as surprising as its force. Other times, the entire atmosphere, from the sky above to the ground under my feet seems to be rain-filled so that I am walking inside of clouds.

The sunshine in January here is equally curious. I leave the apartment, expecting to feel the warmth of the sun, and all I feel is bone-deep cold. The temperatures are certainly not at the freezing level of back home in New Jersey, and yet I feel the wind as a raw, biting thing. I am walking inside of a melting iceberg.

As my grandmother, and probably your grandmother, used to say: “There is no bad weather, only the wrong clothing”. And so I pile on layers, put on a hat, and even wear gloves when it appears that no one in Tel Aviv even owns them. I wear wool socks and carry an umbrella everywhere.

For his part, Carmel seems oblivious to the weather that concerns his Bubbe. He kicks off the blanket I tuck in all around his legs, toddles around the playground in just his tread-bottomed socks, and sits behind the rain protector over his stroller like a king.

The weather, like life itself, is all about one’s perspective. When I called my cousin to see if she expected me at the Hertzliya Train Station at 12 or 12:30 to meet for our lunch, she told me she thought I was calling to cancel because it was raining. I laughed.

I am so deeply grateful to have been able to fly to Israel during my sabbatical, nothing will keep me inside. Except when I want to stay inside!

Both the pandemic and this sabbatical have taught me not to feel pressure to achieve some maximum amount in a given timeframe. I am relishing the freedom of focusing on one thing at a time. I pray quietly and with intense intentions. I practice yoga on my own, on a mat rolled out in Sarah and Sagi‘s living room, taking whatever shapes come into my mind. I take classes virtually, write in my journal, and take long walks through my beloved Tel Aviv. And I pick up Carmel from gan (childcare) every day at 4:00 and have wonderful adventures with him until we return home for dinner, bath, and bed.

I have always thought of time as a container to fill to the top with meaningful activity and accomplishment. Filling that container each day has kept me motivated, passionate, and fulfilled. It has also, however, kept me stressed, on edge, running from one thing to the next. My next appointment would begin before my last even finished. I never felt my To Do list was done.

I am finally learning that time is something that simply unfolds, much like the weather, and my task is to move along with it. I cannot control it. Why not just live inside of it?

So most days, I button up and go out into the world of Tel Aviv, to walk along Dizengoff Street or to stop at one of the outdoor cafés for a latte. Neither the weather nor the time of day matters. But on other days, like today, I just stay indoors, start the cooking for Shabbat, and write a blog post to let you all know that I am thinking of you.

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro watches his son-in-law Moshe exhaust himself by counseling and judging the Israelites from morning to night all alone. He offers Moshe a reframe: “What you are doing is not good. You need to delegate responsibilities. You need to take a break.”

Rabbi Scheff and I were blessed many years ago with a loving relationship with Bernie Schiffmiller z”l, a congregant and Yitro of our own, who used to say to us, “You’ll be no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourselves.”

And today, we have all of you, our OJC family, who grant your rabbis sabbaticals with the same loving generosity.

As for me, I am learning about the weather and about time. And this week, I am getting ready to receive Torah once again.

May your days all be sunny or rainy and may you relish whichever they are!

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Learning in Isolation – Part Two

Note: Both Rabbi Drill and Rabbi Scheff tested positive for Covid, one week apart, during this uptick due to the Omicron variant. Thankfully, both rabbis have had fairly mild symptoms. Last week in Part One of this blog, Rabbi Drill shared her thoughts on her experience in isolation. This week, in Part Two, Rabbi Scheff shares his perspective.

CAVEAT 1: I offer this perspective with complete awareness that there are those whose physical symptoms resulting from Covid-19 have been far more debilitating than my stuffiness or loss of my senses of taste and smell.

CAVEAT 2: I offer this perspective with total appreciation that I am neither alone in my home nor responsible for the care of children.

CAVEAT 3: I offer this perspective with the humble acknowledgement that my colleague, teacher and friend Rabbi Paula Drill is a very different person than I am, despite the fact there are those who say that we are one and the same person.

Day 9 of isolation. I’d love to say I have gained some new insight about myself, or experienced some spiritual renewal. But the truth is that it has been a challenge not to turn on HBO Max and spend every waking hour watching “Succession” (though I have nearly caught up). I have finished 3 books, which is an accomplishment for me, and managed to stay current on my emails.

What is it, I wonder, that makes me feel like I can’t just stay in bed? Who is relying on my productivity such that I can’t power down? Why should I feel guilty finishing the entire chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream container if it is the only thing I can actually taste?

While out on a walk listening to one of my favorite podcasts (“On Being,” with Krista Tippet), I learned about English author Katherine May’s concept of “wintering.” Despite Tippet’s attempts to push the author in the direction of discussing the reflective, spiritual aspect of going inside oneself, May stubbornly sticks to her counter-cultural notion of simply remaining safe and in place: Animals don’t fight the winter. They don’t pretend it is not happening. They prepare and adapt; they hibernate and migrate. “Wintering…,” according to May, “…is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight.” And “out of sight” is where transformation occurs as a product of recuperation and replenishment. 

Slowing down, expanding spare time, and getting sleep are, in May’s words, “deeply unfashionable” today. Resting is considered by too many in our society to be a radical act, but it is essential to our being. WInter’s place in the life cycle of nature teaches us this lesson, as does the Jewish concept of shmita (the year of release that occurs every seven years): Life demands that we make time to lie fallow, to be unproductive, and to sleep. Especially when we experience personal physical illness, we must be as generous to ourselves as we are to others; we must be prepared to give to ourselves the gift of rest.

We have learned so many valuable lessons from our experiences of the pandemic in the last two years. If I’ve learned anything new or different in these past days from my own isolation, it is that I must model and practice what I preach. Managing self-imposed expectations, exercising patience, practicing tzimtzum (withdrawal into oneself) and even forgiveness – these are also crucial elements of self-care as we experience our personal wintering.

On this Rosh Chodesh Shevat, the first day of the Hebrew month in which we celebrate the New Year of the Trees, perhaps it behooves us to remember Amanda McBroom’s lyrics sung by Bette Midler:

Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
In the spring becomes the rose.

Dormancy is merely an organism’s temporary cessation of growth and development in a time of environmental stress. It is nature’s coping mechanism, allowing the seed to conserve the energy that will assist it to burst forth when the time is right.

So go ahead and indulge yourself. Give yourself a break. Sleep late. Binge watch. Power down. Hang in there, spring is almost here.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Learning in Isolation – Part One

Note: Both Rabbi Drill and Rabbi Scheff tested positive for Covid, one week apart, during this uptick due to the Omicron variant. Thankfully, both rabbis had fairly mild symptoms. Rabbi Drill shares her thoughts on the experience of having the virus as she comes out of isolation at the end of today. Rabbi Scheff will share his thoughts in Part Two next week.

I could tell you my story like this: You all could not feel as bad for me as I feel for myself. I finally began my long awaited and much-needed three-month sabbatical and after only three days, I tested positive for Covid. After almost two years of precaution and careful rule following, I have the virus. Not only is my trip to Israel canceled due to the travel ban, but the trip to New England and the yoga retreat I had planned to replace my time in Israel are now canceled as well. Instead of new sights and experiences, I am sitting in my eldest son‘s old bedroom (surrounded by sports pennants and his high school fantasy literature collection) for the next ten days.

I would rather tell you my story like this: You do not need to feel so bad for me. It is true that the beginning of my sabbatical is not what I expected, but how blessed am I to have a sabbatical in the first place? It is true that I got Covid, but I got it at a time when I was boosted, the symptoms were mild, and I have a safe place to isolate. Three meals a day are delivered outside my door, my laptop provides daily virtual yoga and an online sacred chant course. I have my journals and books borrowed from the library. I could call it ten days of isolation, but I choose to call it a ten-day silent retreat.

Our reality is shaped by the narrative we tell ourselves about it. My experience is shaped by my story. I choose to feel blessed and grateful. And so I am. Blessed. And so grateful.

I catch up on magazines I have not had time for since the summer and found many articles to inspire me. I pull out my library of books about the craft of writing and feel more creative than I have in a long time. I keep a daily gratitude journal and take notes of all the learning I am doing in another journal. And of course, I have a journal to … journal! I have time for daily prayer at my own pace. I join OJC for Zoom webinar Shabbat services and feel connected to my unseen community and to God.

The truth is, my goals for the sabbatical can be met regardless of where I am. My goals are about my inner life: presence, curiosity, gratitude and grace. My sabbatical is about shaping myself from the inside out, not the other way around.

This past week, we entered into the book of Sh’mot. This book contains so many big Jewish ideas. It is a book about leaving slavery for freedom, exiting a narrow place for the broad expanses, learning in the wilderness, becoming a people, and receiving God’s Torah. During my isolation, I started considering that the biggest idea of all in the Book of Sh’mot might be something else all together. Perhaps the point of the book is the creation of the Mishkan (the portable, holy tabernacle).

I need to heal; our community must heal; the whole world needs healing of the body and the spirit. This difficult work of leaving behind fear, anxiety and vulnerability requires a sturdy container to hold it all. The Mishkan takes up about one third of the Book of Sh’mot. Minute details of the materials, design and preparation are repeated over and over. Rather than think about the building of the Mishkan as a part of the Torah to merely tolerate, Rabbi Shefa Gold suggests that it is the whole point of the Book. The Mishkan is that place where the finite (we humans) meets the Infinite. God says, “Build for Me a holy place and I will dwell within.”

Perhaps my ten days of isolation have been about building a Mikdash me’at (a small replica of the Holy of Holies) within myself. God dwells within me: in my heart, in my soul, and in my body. I thought that I needed to travel far from home in order to open myself to God. I thought I needed new vistas for my eyes and new experiences for my soul. The truth is, forced into isolation, all I had was myself. And I learned that by opening myself during these days of isolation, there is a place within for God to dwell.

Be safe and well, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

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