I playfully named my three-month sabbatical “Root, Speak, Stretch” to define the way I had planned my time: visits back to my roots, speaking Hebrew in Israel, and stretching my comfort zone (and body) in yoga teacher training.
Now at the end of my first month, I have learned more about roots than I ever expected.
I begin by an admission that when I practice mindful awareness, coincidences start feeling like intentional signs. As soon as I embarked on a discovery of my roots, I took note of trees everywhere. Trees in Portland, Maine were dressed up for the holidays by artist Pandora LaCasse; trees throughout Massachusetts were dressed up after an ice storm by God .
Trees in botanic gardens in Huntsville, Alabama, West Palm Beach and Sarasota, Florida all seemed to lead me on my path. Banyan trees, the pride of Florida, signified the metaphor I had been seeking:
Roots typically remain unseen, growing solidly just under the surface. They provide nourishment, strength, and the source of everything that grows toward the light. New branches and shoots, fragile leaves, blossoms, and fruit demand attention: pruning, picking, trimming, tending. How easy it is to forget that roots also need tending.
And so I am grateful for this sabbatical pause in my full and busy life that has allowed me the calm space to learn something new. Places that represent my beginnings, people who “knew me when” – all deserve attention, all have deep truths to offer.
The idea of an obligation to nurture roots occurred to me first in the context of someone else’s place of beginnings. I spent an afternoon in Boynton Beach with Rabbi Scheff’s parents, Stan and Hannah. Almost a year ago, Hannah‘s parents, Israel and Sonia Neiman, best known as Zaidy Cha and Baba, moved into Stan and Hannah’s home. Tucked into a corner of the couch where I could hold Baba’s hand and listen to Zaidy Cha’s stories, I enjoyed a wonderful afternoon of Scheff hospitality.
What I found of significance about that afternoon is something that they all take for granted. The children of these precious elders come to spend the day, son, son-in-law, cousin and their partners, every single Sunday. I am certain that the shmoozing every Sunday includes weather updates, sports controversies and discussions of the waiting times for certain restaurants. The content of the conversations is not what matters. What matters is the very gathering itself. Zaidy and Baba are blessed by a family that acknowledges and nurtures its roots. This awareness of the value of roots came home to me in that moment and has shaped my understanding of the entire month.
I felt fully the power of my origins when I stood on the rocks of Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. I respected the strength of memory when Jon and I drove by my childhood home, junior high and high school, and when we drove into the silent, snow-covered Jewish cemetery. At the Maine Jewish Museum (yes, there is such a place and no, it is not as small as a closet!) I looked at pictures of the old Jewish Community Center, my childhood synagogue, and Old Orchard Beach. I had discovered the roots of my roots. These kinds of roots require tending.
Sharing time with Cathy, my best friend in Maine, who has known me longer than anyone else except for my brother and cousins, reminded me of who I was as an eighteen year old. Cathy called my parents Momma and Poppa Mack. She and I lived together after college, back when I had never before written a check to pay rent. Cathy has been there for me through every major transition in my life, applauding my decision to attend Rabbinical School even though it was not in the realm of anything either of us could have dreamed of back in the summer of 1978! These kinds of roots require tending.
I traveled to Alabama and Florida to spend time with my maternal cousins. Pam, Ilene, Beth, and Wendy are my closest family members, and we share what no one else does: stories about our parents and grandparents, all gone now.
We laughed about Grandma Blanche’s afternoon tea parties and Grandpa Lou’s adventures collecting shells on Siesta Key, my Uncle Mel’s terrible jokes and my mom’s rules for making grocery lists. My cousin Pam calls me Paula Ellen, the name my grandparents called me. She is the only person who calls me that today. These kinds of roots require tending.
In between my travels, I spent time with my in-laws, Jonathan’s siblings, and friends from my Caldwell synagogue. These people too represent roots. One Shabbat in Caldwell, at Congregation Agudath Israel, Cantor Joel Caplan asked me to lead musaph. I felt the power of leading prayer before the person who taught me to lead it, in the place where I grew as a Jewish adult. These kinds of roots require tending.
As I have been sharing these experiences by phone with my brother Eric, I know that he understands completely what I am experiencing. My insights are not surprising to him. After all, he has known me longer than anyone else alive today. He knows me from before I knew myself.
And these are the kinds of roots that truly require tending.
Who are you calling today? To whom are you sending a handwritten letter? Are you making a reservation for that flight today? We all have roots that require tending.
We are more than where we came from. But we are not all that we hope to be if we do not acknowledge, remember, and honor from where we came.
With love and friendship, and on to Month Two,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I so clearly remember the day I decided to pursue the rabbinate as a profession. It wasn’t a moment of revelation as much as it was an invitation to recognition. There was no event that suddenly awakened some personal transformation. Instead, there was a suggestion (from my big sister to be exact) that I had been denying my true nature, distracting myself with the pursuit of others’ dreams for me. In that moment, I had a choice: I could ignore the suggestion and continue on my path; or I could take a closer look, be present to the moment, diverge from my course long enough to envision an alternate direction.
You might think that the miracle of the burnish bush, as the event is described in this week’s Torah portion, is found in the fact that God spoke to Moses from the bush, or that the bush itself was not consumed. Experience has taught me, however, that a miracle can be found in Moses’ decision to divert from his path long enough to consider a change in course. “Let me divert from my course and examine this magnificent sight,” he says. Certainly, a revelation to Moses of God’s existence takes place; but even more impressive is Moses’ presence in the moment to recognize the invitation to consider his life’s course. The events of his life might have led Moses to a happy life as a shepherd in Midian; but his true calling was to a different path. His acceptance of the invitation to consider that path was not a given.
The burning bush has always been a symbol present in my life, though I was not always conscious to its relevance. It was the emblem of the summer camp I attended (thank you, Camp Ramah in New England); it was at the heart of a blessing I was given upon becoming a bar mitzvah; it lies at the center of the atarah (collar of my tallit) my mother made for me when I was in college; it is the logo of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Some might go so far as to say it was even a sign, pointing the way to my ultimate destination.
My decision to become a rabbi certainly did not come as a surprise to those who knew me well or who watched me grow up. The signposts were everywhere to be seen. But the combination of experiences that shaped my life did not necessitate one particular path. The invitation to recognize my life’s “true calling” would have passed had I not chosen to give it my attention.
I do not believe that we have only one calling in our lives. We may find contentment down multiple life paths. But each interaction in our lives offers us a choice of paths to travel. Our aversion to change and uncertainty may sometimes limit the options we perceive, getting in the way of our ability to entertain even a minor detour from our current path. But life presents us with multiple burning bushes just calling out to be examined. And we are invited to stop, look and consider the alternate directions our lives’ circumstances have presented us.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Okay, I admit it. It is one of my least favorite songs, and by far my least favorite Hanukkah song in a world sorely lacking good Hanukkah songs. Please don’t take my dislike personally if Peter, Paul and Mary’s lyrics happen to be among your favorites. That being said, there is something to this idea of “lighting one candle,” especially considering the Talmudic debate surrounding the procedure for lighting the lights of the holiday. While we often quote the opinions of Beit Hillel (one candle on the first night, ascending to eight on the last) and Beit Shammai (eight candles on the first night descending to one on the last), we rarely reference the fact that the average person was expected to light only one light for the household each night (Shabbat 21b).
I actually love this idea of lighting one candle. After all, when the Maccabees lit the Temple’s menorah, they had no way of knowing how many days the oil would last, if it would even last a day. But they rekindled it anyway. It didn’t matter to them how many days the oil would last! Hanukkah could have been three, five or seven days and it wouldn’t have mattered. Their goal wasn’t eight. All that mattered was that they displayed the courage to kindle the lamp for one more day. That act of defiance, resilience and hope—to push back against the darkness one more day with no guarantee that the light would be burning on the day after—is the true miracle of the holiday for me, epitomizing the Jewish spirit throughout time.
Today, the day after the Hanukkah lights have gone out for this year, is the winter solstice. The Northern Hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun, resulting in the shortest “day”—and longest night—of the year. From where will the light come to push against the darkness? Hopefully, we’ve been storing up on the oil necessary to kindle a lamp, if only for a day. As a big Star Wars fan, I will share with you (spoiler alert?) that one of the things I love most about this movie is the message it sends about the responsibility that each of us bears to serve as a shamash for one day, for one other person.
While ruminating on my disdain (a little too harsh?) for Peter, Paul and Mary’s song, I came across another set of lyrics by Ronnie Spector (lead singer of the Ronettes) for another song with the same title:
Make the sun rise tomorrow with your faith in today
You can soften a sorrow if you just light the way
All it takes is a candle to turn darkness to light
Like the promise of the dawn
On a long winter’s night.
Figures, she wrote it as a Christmas song.
Happy solstice, and may all your winter days be bright,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
As I fold the last laundry load of sheets and tablecloths, I stop for a moment of pure gratitude. The Sunday after Thanksgiving was filled with the obligatory breakfast at the Pancake House, a competitive game of Scrabble, and yoga with three of my kids. In my family, from Wednesday evening through today, we have enjoyed an abundance of family time, food, and joy.
According to Jewish law, if I do not give thanks to God for all of the gifts of the earth that I have enjoyed, then I am stealing. So thank you, God, for holiday tables and Shabbat meals shared with loved ones.
According to Jewish ethics, if I live in plenty without caring for those who live without, then I turn my blessings into curses. On this Sunday, I reflect back to last Sunday.
I was privileged to travel into New York City with an OJC crew of volunteers who have been serving breakfast and providing warm clothing to people who are homeless for at least fifteen years. Meals from the trays of egg and broccoli frittatas, boxes of coffee, bagels, and fresh fruit were accepted with dignity and thankfulness by the sixty people who lined up on the corner of 24th and Ninth Avenue last Sunday morning. Just as important as the nourishment we provided was the respectful friendship we offered in that hour.
The teens who traveled with me in my car reflected on the people they had met during our drive back to Rockland County. They met an opera singer, a Hasidic Jew, a comedian, a recovering addict, and a woman who had lost the ability to provide for her family. I wondered aloud with them about a society that lacks a safety net for so many thousands of people. How alone in the world must a person be to stand on a line in New York City waiting for a free breakfast?
Tonight I write a tale of two Sundays; a tale of two very different Thanksgivings.
Let me always be open to assisting those who have so little and remembering what it means to have so much.
Hallelujah, hodu l’Adonai!
Praise God and give thanks to God.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Friday morning in Jerusalem, our OJC track team greeted the day with a brisk 3-mile run (4 for Steve!) down and up a scenic trail through Jerusalem’s original train station and its surrounding neighborhoods. After morning tefillah and breakfast, we boarded the bus promptly (they are so good!) at 9am.
Pantry Packers, run by Colel Chabad, is a food distribution facility that packages and delivers food to the most needy citizens identified by their municipalities. Divided into 3 teams, we donned aprons and hairnets, and got to work. In an hour and a half we bagged, sealed, labeled, date-stamped and boxed 500 packages of grains for delivery to the needy. We had fun, even as we remained conscious of the sad reality that necessitates our efforts.
Our driver Nati delivered us next to the shuk in Machaneh Yehuda, where the bustling market place was teeming with shoppers prepping for Shabbat. We were individually assigned different categories of food to acquire and contribute to our Shabbat afternoon potluck lunch. Among the throngs of people, we still managed to bump into familiar faces!
After a brief afternoon breather back at the hotel, we rode to the Old City and arrived at Ezrat Yisrael, at the southern end of the Western Wall, to welcome Shabbat in song as a community. The sun dipped below the horizon behind us. While we appreciated the beauty and peace of the space we occupied, many of us felt the discomfort of being separated and hidden away from the thousands of Jews just north of us in the main plaza sharing the same words we sang. More about that on a different occasion.
The walk back to the hotel got us good and hungry! We made kiddush, attracting the warm and welcoming gestures of a group of Messianic Jews who wanted us to join them in Bim Bam and Am Yisrael Chai—interesting!!! We delighted in blessing the younger generation that had joined us for Shabbat. After dinner, our group sat in a private hall and shared highlights of the week.
Shabbat morning, we attended Moreshet Yisrael, the nearest Conservative Masorti congregation. Jeff Lance served as a greeter and gabbai, and we were warmly received with several honors to the Torah.
We sat on 7th floor terrace for hours, eating and laughing, enjoying the leisure of Shabbat, until darkness fell on Jerusalem and we recited Havdallah together. Warm goodbyes, expressions of appreciation and gratitude, and most of us were on the way to the airport.
As I descend into Newark, I already look forward to the next time in which we make the ascent together.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
This morning we departed Haifa just before 9:00am. (What an amazing group! I say 9:00am on the bus, and they were loaded up, in their seats and ready to go at 8:55! Maybe they were totally pumped by Linda’s Torah reading from the Sephardic scroll?)
In any event, by 10:00am we had arrived at Beit Lid junction just outside of Netanya, meeting up there with a group of young teens from Kfar Ahava who had been rewarded with this experience for their outstanding personal and academic performances. The junction was the site of a terrorist attack on January 22, 1995, when two suicide bombers targeted a bus stop crowded by young soldiers returning to their bases early on a Sunday morning. Twenty one soldiers and one civilian were murdered that morning, with more than sixty wounded. A crude but powerful memorial was erected within days, leaves that had fallen too early representing lives that had been cut far too short.
We learned about the long process that the community undertook to establish a permanent memorial. the site, just a few hundred feet away from the location of the bombing would become a memorial and a community center. The goals of the creators and the community were to remember the tragedy, empower the living, and bring to life the stories of the victims. The impressive sculpture ultimately created was inspired by the Biblical verse that describes Jacob’s ladder with “the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).
Twenty two figures ascend the ladder. Each victim is represented by one of the ascending figures; each family of the victims knows which figure represents its loved one. The ladder ascends to the heavens with no supports, representing the strength of the Jewish nation to support its fallen and its survivors. In completing a mosaic of a flower with the teens from Ahava, we felt empowered to create beauty, and we reaffirmed together our sense of responsibility to give life to the legacies of the fallen. One young man shared with me his feelings that, upon reaching young adulthood, he appreciated the newfound sense of responsibility to remember, to serve, and to make choices that will improve his world.
After an exciting off-road adventure that afforded us a quaint picnic lunch with the teens, it was on to Jerusalem. We arrived at Mount Scopus, Har Hatzofim, with the sunset. We cried a little (surprise!) for the sacrifices Israel demands of her children; we reflected on the hope and love that we share for a land that is far from perfect. Like our feelings for our children, though we may not always like everything she does, we still love her and believe that she represents the best possibility for getting it right. We bask in her glow even as we commit to rebuilding her atop her ruins.
An evening of shopping and enjoying the beginning of the weekend was topped off with a visit (one planned, one purely by chance!) with two of our synagogue teens spending their year in Israel. Jessica’s and Sarah’s smiles said it all. Content, happy, innocent, care-free and learning about themselves and their Jewish identities, they represent our hope so well.
This is what every child deserves. God, they are so precious. Please God, spread your shelter of peace over them. Protect them from any harm or pain. Let the Hope be realized soon, and may Your word go out from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, so that no more of our children need be depicted as angels ascending a ladder in return to You.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
How does one summon love for the stranger?
At a place called Love (Ahava), the stranger offers love, creating a safe space for the vulnerable; the stranger receives love, and the reassurance that they will not always be rejected; and we are inspired to give enough love to effect a slight change for the better in our world.
My first visit to Kfar Ahava was in 2007. And even in my eleventh year I am so deeply moved and inspired by the experience. Perhaps more so because once again I got to see this remarkable and unique place through the eyes of the newcomers.
After our annual reintroduction to Ahava by Executive Director Yoav Apelboim, the group gathered in the memorial corner we created in memory of, and dedicated to, Danny Klein and Rob Katz. We remembered, cried, and blessed together. Today was Rob’s birthday, so the moment was particularly poignant. We dedicated today’s acts of love to their legacies.
Next, I gave our newcomers—Ellen, Sharon and Andre—a tour of the residential facility, the school and the emergency shelter. The bright skies, cool breezes, colorful mosaics, peaceful gardens and quiet grounds belied all the brokenness and pain that lay behind so many of the closed doors around us.
But what could not be hidden away was the love. The newcomers saw it in the way the 17-year veteran social worker talked about the children she received in the emergency shelter. Every child brought in through her doors, she explained, deserved to be love, especially considering the conditions they had suffered at home, the one place that was supposed to guarantee love.
At lunch, Amy Nelson and I witnessed an eight year-old boy trying to bond with us by insisting that his father was a professional soccer player who played in New York. He just wanted to be loved. A twelve year-old oppositional girl challenged him to stop lying, so clearly lashing out in the pain of her own brokenness. An eighteen year-old doing his year of national service at Ahava subtly shook his head in disapproval of her insensitivity, and her anger was quieted. The foster mother overseeing their care, in her first year of service, turned to us to offer that she was here to change the world for the better in some small way.
Tonight, first-timer Sharon, a stranger to Ahava, reflected to the group that the experience of Ahava stripped away her armor. With the permission to be vulnerable, she felt more authentic. And the more authentic we are, the more capable we are of giving and receiving love.
Rabbi Craig Scheff