We are pleased to feature this contribution to our OJC Rabbis’ blog by Lindsay Goldman, this year’s rabbinic intern:
In my first year of rabbinical school my classmates and I all tried to prove to one another how frum (Yiddish: פֿרום, lit. ‘religious’, ‘pious’) we were. Someone told us they waited six hours between meat and milk, another classmate shared that they put on two different kinds of tefillin every day, and someone else said that they would not say amen to the blessing in the amidah if it included the matriarchs. We were trying to prove how much we belonged here at the Jewish Theological Seminary. However by second year, third year, and now in fourth year, we know that what it means to belong in this community looks different. We show that we belong by talking about our journey to and with our practice and our struggle along the way.
Every Wednesday at JTS is “Rabbinical School community time,” where we gather to discuss pressing issues in our future rabbinates over lunch. Last Wednesday we were each given a few minutes to fill out a survey about our ideas of halakhah. The survey was guided by the question: “Which of the following most closely aligns with what you think halakhah is?” This is not a question we are asked before being admitted to the institution, nor is this a question the answer to which we know about our rabbis or classmates, but it is a question that is essential to the way we live our lives. Does it matter what the halacha says if we don’t know how it impacts our lives?
The four multiple choice options that followed were:
- Halakhah is a direct expression of God’s will.
- Halakhah is a humanly-influenced approximation of God’s “will”.
- Halakhah is a human attempt to live in God’s presence.
- Halakhah is a collection of humanly created consensual norms.
Someone who believes that halakhah is God’s will approaches Jewish law drastically differently than one who assumes it is a compiled set of human norms. Students shared what it felt like when their idea of God’s will was conflicting with humanly created norms. And I added what it felt like when God’s divine will conflicts with the self compassion with which I want to treat myself.
I believe this conversation to figure out how we believe halakhah has a claim on us matters significantly more than the actual practice of Jewish law itself, or at the very least needs to be considered primarily. I am proud of how the dialogue has changed both within the institution and within myself over the last couple of years. I recall the flexibility of my Shabbat practice during the peak of Covid when I was keeping Shabbat without a community, differently than it was intended to be kept. I chose to consider my needs first and the needs of my relationship with God second because of what I believe about halakhah. I don’t know what God’s will is but I believe that being in relationship with human beings is God’s mission in the world. My life is built around trying to be in relationship with God, what I choose to put in my body, when I work and when I rest, as well as learning and teaching Torah. But if I do not have a relationship with myself, I do not feel I can connect as deeply to God.
I won’t spoil which answer students chose overwhelmingly because I want you to consider for yourself which of these options is true for you without any undue influences (but email me at email@example.com if you want to talk more about the results!). I encourage you to explore your practice and why you do what you do; I personally and strongly believe that the first step is to articulate what halakhah means to you.
Lindsay Goldman, OJC Rabbinic Intern
I look forward to every Shabbat, but I was particularly excited for this past Shabbat. My daughter Sarah was flying in with baby Carmel and they were planning to come to synagogue with us. During services we were celebrating the auf ruf of Marisa Kelly and Josh Rappaport whom I have known since they were young. And I had prepared a sermon about Lekh L’kha that I was excited to give.
Humans plan and God laughs, they say. Sarah arrived with Carmel at Newark Airport at 3:45 am. We were so happy to greet them, but as the day continued, it became clear that Sarah‘s congestion was not a simple cold. As she felt worse and worse with what turned out to be a serious nasal infection,* it became clear that we were not going to Orangeburg and would be staying home in West Caldwell for Shabbat. “Don’t worry,” I told my friend Sharon, the groom’s mom. “I’ll be logged in to the webinar so you’ll know I’m with you.”
On Shabbat morning, as I approached my computer screen for morning services, however, I realized something was the matter. Once again, humans plan and God laughs. The screen from the synagogue was on mute and the service was completely silenced. I realized that there must have been a disruption to the zoom webinar overnight and proceeded to pray by myself. Of course, I was disappointed not to hear the blessings recited by Marisa and Josh, and sad to miss Rabbi Scheff’s words of Torah. But I quickly came to terms with four interwoven truths. 1. It was Shabbat. 2. There are limits to technology. 3. We are still living through a pandemic. 4. We are a community committed to halakha.
These four points describe the creative tension, the push-me-pull-you nature of OJC and these strange times in which we are living. Throughout the pandemic, we have pushed the halakha to its outer boundaries to enable our congregants and guests to gather and still maintain the integrity of our sacred community.
I understand the disappointment of all those who want to gather for Shabbat. This past Shabbat is not the first time that service has been interrupted for virtual worshippers. Why couldn’t a mistakenly muted microphone be fixed with one tap of a finger? So many of us know intellectually that the answer is clear: in our synagogue, we don’t use electricity, a modern adaptation of the original command to light no fires on Shabbat or holidays. We understand that every opportunity has been protected for those of us who want to gather virtually and maintain this basic Shabbat law.
It’s in our hearts and souls that we don’t want to accept the “imposition” of halakha. Emotionally, it certainly feels that the gathering itself is the ultimate value.
To those of us who respond in this way, I ask the following questions: What is it about OJC that calls you to gather with us and what does gathering really mean?
Think about it… we choose to participate, support and identify with OJC for some reason. What is it?
For me, OJC’s call is anchored in the eternal values that constitute our mission: Torah, prayer and loving kindness. We hold up those values in service to God and community. But the magic of OJC is that we live the mission and the values with integrity. I believe that our synagogue is a beloved community because we stand for something bigger than ourselves and our own individual desires.
And whether it’s in person or virtually, why do we gather at all? Why is it so important to us that we are very disappointed when we are not able to gather? Author Priya Parker (priyaparker.com) defines gatherings in her acclaimed book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. Her words describe the OJC. She writes: “Why do we gather? We gather to solve problems we can’t solve on our own. We gather to celebrate, to mourn, and to mark transitions. We gather to make decisions. We gather because we need one another. We gather to show strength. We gather to honor and acknowledge. We gather to welcome, and we gather to say goodbye.”
Our gatherings are essential. Zoom minyanim, Kabbalat Shabbat in the Lot, Sisterhood programs, Men’s Club tailgates and Na’aseh events, Kulanu classes and Shabbat morning in synagogue – all allow us to connect to God and to each other face to face or through our virtual grid.
There are limits to our virtual community, as our failed technology last Shabbat proved to be true. There are also limits to our community in person, as we await the time when all congregants are safe to gather once again.
As we continue to figure it all out and to negotiate the push-me-pull-you of health and halakhic requirements to preserve our sacred community, two things remain true: First, it is worth the struggle because we at OJC love to gather. And second, I imagine that God takes pleasure in watching us struggle to find our balance as we try to get it all right. I can imagine God saying, “Now there’s a community involved in debate L’shem Shamayim, in the name of heaven.”
(*A special note of gratitude to Dr. Jonathan Lesserson whose professional skill and healing, gentle kindness put Sarah on the road to a refuah shlayma, a complete healing.)
Shabbat shalom, and may it truly be a Shabbat of peace,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
The weather was eerily similar to the same date on the calendar twenty years before: A bright and sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, a soft breeze, and if you heard no news from the outside world, you might think you were experiencing a slice of heaven, a taste of the world to come. As the sun was setting on the day of September 11, Rabbi Drill and I stood at the podium, surrounded by public servants in uniform, and offered the 23rd Psalm to the hundreds gathered on the lawn of Orangetown’s Town Hall. The psalm, we explained, is offered for those mourning the loss and seeking the presence of their loved ones; for those who wish to feel God’s presence in dark times; and for those who turn to friends and community as a source of strength and comfort.
Looking out at the crowd before us, I was struck by the realization—especially as the names of the fallen from our community were read—that I was not certain whether any family members of the 9/11 victims were actually with us to commemorate the day. This feeling only served to reinforce my belief that, at some level, the magnitude of the 9/11 tragedy robbed individuals who suffered loss the opportunity to grieve and have their personal losses acknowledged by the community. The tragedy became one that belonged to our country, and in the processing of our collective trauma we lost sight, to some degree, of the individual stories of loss, grief and mourning. Stories of heroic first responders, of courageous acts of selfless sacrifice, and of how united our country stood in the days that followed continue to shape the way we remember. We focus far less on the stories of the families that were broken by the sudden loss of a spouse, child, parent and sibling.
The circle of subsumed individual stories expands further. Two weeks before 9/11, a dear personal friend to me and many others, a beloved husband, father of two young children, son and brother, died very suddenly while on vacation with his family. Bruce Cowen was an integral community builder in our congregation. His death left his family traumatized and reeling. The shock left many members of our community devastated. But two weeks later, when the World Trade Center fell, everyone was stricken. The loss belonged to us all. And the processing of individual grief, and the communal support that was supposed to accompany that process, was somehow cut short. Some of us never fully processed Bruce’s death as a result, and some of us could never fully process the full scope of 9/11 because of our personal sense of loss.
In the Jewish tradition, comforting the mourner is a communal obligation. There are times, however, when (to paraphrase two of my favorite fictional characters) the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. When a death occurs during the intermediate days of the festival of Sukkot, for example, formal mourning for the deceased is postponed until after Simchat Torah. If the death occurrs before the festival and shiva begins, it is truncated with the onset of the holiday. Obviously, the bereaved is in an emotional state of mourning; the communal obligation to comfort the mourner, however, is outweighed by the communal obligation to celebrate the holiday to its fullest.
I understand the tension inherent in this rule, especially as a rabbi who is charged with leading the communal celebration of the holiday. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. Sometimes the needs of the one do indeed outweigh the needs of the many. Tragic loss, in my opinion, is one of those times.
That’s why, when remembering six million, it is so important to remember one story. That’s why, on every 9/11, I call a congregant who stood at Ground Zero and witnessed horror all around him. That’s why, on Bruce’s yahrzeit every year, I reach out to the ones most immediately and profoundly affected by his absence.
May we never forget, even as we are called upon to celebrate life. May we never forget the opportunity we are given, individually, to bring comfort, solace, and the blessing of memory to those who may only remember their pain.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Here in the valley where the tree roots form a rugged map
of chaos and danger, we step carefully to avoid falling.
Shadows of low branches on old trees play tricks on our resolve.
We walk with fear and worry, bereft of enjoyment
Getting through to get past to be out of this place
Feeling helpless and low in the dusk
Questioning the wisdom of the journey even here at the start.
Ascent is required, of course, and we know its challenges:
The breathless trudging onward, the desire to stop, the seduction
of the backward glance toward the downhill.
But we turn our face toward the summit and climb and we climb.
May we reach the summit together and there find
a well-worn trail along the ridge from which we see the
wide vast world, a perspective that brings sense and understanding.
From here we see that the journey will never be easy and we will
need to hike it again and again. But there will always be
at the close of each day, a belief in the summit and
the joy of that hike along the ridge.
I wrote this poem for Yom Kippur services this year. The metaphor of a chaotic valley, a painful and challenging ascent, and a respite at the summit felt like a much-needed affirmation after the past difficult year. The perspective and ease available from a high point on our journey are gifts of the Jewish New Year.
I share this poem now, even though Yom Kippur is already a memory as we rush forward to Sukkot, because I want to share a very important idea: Many of us never reach the summit on Yom Kippur. Despite our best intentions and honest soul-searching work, many of us do not feel cleansed, affirmed and brand new on the Day of Atonement. For us, Yom Kippur does not feel like a well-worn trail along a ridge. We say we are sorry to those we have hurt. We recite the words of the prayers. We beat our chest as we recite the confessional prayers. With all of our hearts, we believe the metaphor that we must complete the work of teshuvah before the gates slam shut at Neilah (the concluding service of Yom Kippur). We try. But we don’t accomplish what we set out to do. We hear the blasts of the shofar and head out to break our fast feeling uneasy about our lack of connection with God. We still have relationships to repair, promises to fulfill, mistakes we want to correct.
Here is the good news: we have an extension for this work of teshuvah until Hoshannah Rabbah at the end of Sukkot. We beat the willows from our lulav and etrog ritual and shake off the remainder of our sins.
And here is even better news: Judaism understands that living a good life, striving to be a contributor to a holy community, and fulfilling the desire to be our best selves are lofty goals that do not come easily to all of us. Yom Kippur is a red-letter date on the calendar each year because we humans tend to require deadlines to get serious about things. Judaism teaches, however, that every day is another opportunity to turn our lives around, to get back on the trail heading upward, and to see the world from a perspective of a well-worn path along a ridge. Teshuvah is available in our daily prayers, in the study of Torah, and in small meaningful acts of kindness. May this year offer you abundant opportunities to become your best self.
G’mar chatimah tovah, May you be sealed for a good new year,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I held a Torah in my arms last Shabbat morning for the first time in more than sixteen months. We have, of course, prayed together in person and also via zoom during these pandemic days, but that morning was my first time leading Shacharit with an in-person minyan so that we could take the Torah from the ark.
As I turned to face our congregation and chant Shema, I realized with a sudden clarity that the weight of the Torah was exactly the weight of my almost 10-month-old grandson Carmel.
I have been carrying him every day for one month from mid-June through mid-July as I cared for him in Tel Aviv while his Momma and Abba worked. For thirty days, I lived every day from 7:30 a.m. until Carmel’s bedtime as Bubbe.
I arrived home to just one week ago in time for Shabbat, Tisha B’Av, plans for High Holidays in full swing, committee meetings scheduled and classes ready to begin. I have certainly returned to my life as Rabbi.
Am I living a double life? Is it possible to live as Bubbe and Rabbi simultaneously? I am determined to do so and have decided to purposefully weave the two lives together, carrying lessons from both identities across boundaries.
When I am Bubbe, I am mindful, patient, and joyful. I live to serve, to make my tiny charge as comfortable and content as possible. With Carmel, I could spend an hour making a tower of blocks that he would immediately knock down. Over and over and over. And I was delighted.
Breakfast was an hour-long affair that consisted of his aiming his spoon toward his mouth and connecting instead with an eyebrow, his neck, and his knee. Throwing the spoon to the floor, he would reach in with his whole fist to put oatmeal in his mouth, and also all over his chest. Every oatmeal party ended with him sitting in the kitchen sink so I could wash him down. And I was delighted.
Walking Carmel in his stroller in the sticky heat of Tel Aviv often required my capacity to distract and entertain. I refused to be embarrassed as I walked down Ben Gurion Boulevard singing Baby Shark, pushing the stroller with my right hand and making tiny sharks with my left.
What can this possibly have in common with my rabbinate? It seems clear to me that mindfulness, patience and joy as well as a refusal to be embarrassed are all excellent qualities for a rabbi to cultivate.
But what aspects of my rabbinate find their way into being Bubbe? I often davened parts of Shacharit as we played together in the morning. Carmel seems to enjoy Baruch She-amar and Ashrei as much as Itsy Bitsy Spider. Although he is not yet 10 months old, I like to think that he associates me with an appreciation for the wonders of God’s world, whether the orange blossom tree on Mapu Street in front of his apartment or the sun reflecting over the Kinneret when we went away for Shabbat. Every grandparent can bless their children and grandchildren on Friday nights, but I like to think that the gentle force of Bubbe who is also Rabbi brings Shabbat to the table each week. It is important for me to think of these things as I’ll become Bubbe to a second grandchild (expected by my son and daughter-in-law in Maryland) before the end of the year.
Can my two identities be woven together? Between Shabbat afternoon and Sunday afternoon, I participated in naming three baby girls, the newest members of our congregation. I was definitely in my role as Rabbi and yet also feeling 100% Bubbe.
I believe that I am not required to live a double life. I can take the best of each role and apply it to the other. I am passionate about both of my roles – Bubbe and Rabbi, and I can be both at once. A good thing since I plan on being both for a nice long time to come!
Wishing all of us many roles, many lives, all rolled into one great adventure, Rabbi Bubbe Paula Mack Drill
At the end of March 2020, in response to the spreading pandemic and the New York State prohibition against gathering in groups of ten or more, I issued an halachic (Jewish legal) ruling that permitted the OJC community to constitute a minyan (quorum of 10 for the purpose of prayer) via virtual participation, so long as ten people could see and hear each other. I was careful to add:
PLEASE NOTE: It is important to recognize that this ruling only applies under these extraordinary circumstances, and does not establish a precedent for minyan in times when we are free to congregate in groups of 10 once again.
We were not alone in following this legal leniency instituted for a sha’at d’chak, a time of extreme circumstances. And there was much discussion among Conservative rabbis at the time, as synagogues were transitioning to remote participation, about whether this bell could ever be unrung.
We have now reached the stage, by virtue of climbing vaccination and dropping infection rates, where restrictions have been lifted and people are gathering publicly in large numbers, both indoors and outdoors.
It is important to recognize that we, individually and communally, have been traumatized at some level by our experience of the pandemic, which still rages on in parts of the world and continues to produce variants and unanticipated effects. Though current science may tell us that our risk of infection once vaccinated is very low and our risk of serious illness even lower, some of us are simply not prepared to place ourselves in a crowd, especially indoors.
For some of us, there is also a certain level of inertia that has set in. The convenience of life coming to us through a screen, the elimination of our commuting time, the comfort of our loungewear—these things have all contributed to a welcomed slower pace to our days. It is difficult to ramp back up to life in the fast lane when our lives have felt more like a Sunday drive for the last sixteen months.
As a Jewish community whose mission is to care for the vulnerable and preserve life, we have moved deliberately and cautiously towards the resumption of in-person programs and services. As a Jewish community whose mission is also to gather people for the full experience of connection through ritual, prayer, study and celebration, we are anxious to provide all the programs and services we can. Our challenge as a community is to balance these competing values.
We must continue to be there for those people who are not ready to join us inside the walls of the synagogue. We will continue to offer our programming through a hybrid of in-person services and live stream along with the occasional outdoor service.
We must also strive to meet the needs of those who wish to gather in person, and continue to expand on our indoor programming so long as we can do so safely and comfortably.
This goal, however, requires a level of individual commitment that we have not yet expected or even requested as a community. If we are truly to be there for each other—and for those not ready to rejoin us—we must regard showing up as a commitment, an obligation to each other.
I recognize that we may not love the language of obligation, that perhaps in some way it undermines the purity of intention. But intention does not create community. A community for the purpose of prayer is only created when ten individuals commit to showing up. The call for our resumption of in-person services had been loud, but the response has been weak.
The halachic process requires that a rabbi consider the practice of their community, or “where the people are at.” Perhaps we should conclude from the unenthusiastic response to indoor, in-person services that we as a community are not yet prepared to commit to creating physical community. Honestly, I can live with that. I am prepared to view the summer as a transitional time, and to continue to count the daily evening minyan virtually; however, barring a resurgence of the pandemic, in the new year of 5782 I am hoping that we can institute a system where we will gather ten people every night in our building so that a proper quorum can be offered to those who are at home and to those who are present.
In this past week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we read about the obligatory individual sacrifices the Israelites were told to offer at specific appointed times, in addition to their free-will (voluntary) and votive offerings. Are you among those comfortable gathering in person? If so, are you prepared to bring more than your “free-will offering” to your community, to make a commitment to the community that will enable us to serve others and to answer the demands of Jewish law?
Let me know who you are. Together, we will get there, eventually, with and for each other. Together, I believe we will unring that bell.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Both of my parents died in their early 60s. My father died at 61, just the age that I am now.
His yahrzeit, the 16th of Sivan, is this coming evening through tomorrow. It is his 30th yahrzeit, a fact that I can only describe as surprising. How is it possible that my dad has been dead for so long?
Today, my dad would have been a nonagenarian.
If that word does not sound familiar to you, it is because we did not used to have so many of them in our lives, even just a decade ago. According to the Census Bureau, people 90 and older now comprise 4.7 percent of the older population (age 65 and older), as compared with only 2.8 percent in 1980. Driven by improvements in health care and medical breakthroughs, by 2050, this share is likely to reach 10 percent. Today, people in their 90s, if blessed with health and intellectual faculties, are among the most wise, vibrant, and inspiring people I know. By the time I get there in 2050, I’m going to be surrounded by my peers!
I love to spend time with nonagenarians. I seem to seek them out. Until I received the reminder for my father’s thirtieth yahrzeit, it did not occur to me that he would have been one of them.
I wonder quite often about who my father would have become through these many years of change. Who would he have been for his grandchildren? I know that he would have continued to be my sounding board, confidant and cheerleader.
In all of these 30 years, I have consistently sought out people who were the age he would have been. In my monthly call list, so many of my treasured congregants are well into their 90s, filled with wisdom, humor, and plans. This year of the pandemic has taken a toll on many of them, yet there is always an ability to have perspective and to adjust expectations. These calls often feel that they are much more about my needs than theirs.
Four particular nonagenarians are my teachers and parent-replacements. (The surprising realization that we never outgrow the need for parents is an idea for another blog post altogether.) Phil, Arthur, Reggie and Joseph give me optimism about my next 30 years, and teach me a lot about who I am today.
My father-in-law, Phil, is a whirlwind of energy who still works full-time in his third-generation commercial construction company, takes Pilate classes twice a week, walks his dog and rides his bike. Yes, when he turned ninety three years ago, his kids asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He told us he’d like a new bike! When Phil stops by for lunch with Jonathan, he always leaves with words that go something like, “I have to get going; I have too much to do.”
My mother-in-law’s partner, Arthur, not only survived her death in November, but also survived Covid-19 that sent him to the hospital the day after her funeral. I worried that, having lost his best friend, he would not find the will to go on. But here he is, gathering his vast library of artistic photographs into self-published books, learning new skills in watercolor and moving last week into an independent living apartment… a decision he made and carried out independently! When I visited him to see the new place, he was busy watching a YouTube about different types of clay that are useful for sculpture.
My daughter-in law’s grandmother, Reggie, is that person who gets adopted by every person who meets her. I could not love my daughter-in-law more than I do, but it sure does add something fantastic that her grandmother came along with the package. I look forward to my long phone conversations with Reggie, whom we all call Grandmommy. She is always interested and interesting. When I speak with her, it is as if I am speaking with a sister, not a woman who is the age my mother would have been.
My dear friend Susan’s father, Joseph (who for reasons that I can no longer remember we often call George) has been a friend of mine since Susan and I became friends 30 years ago. Joseph attends minyan daily here in Caldwell and for years, has taught the nursery school children how to keep a garden. And he shares with me his memories and stories of survival through the years of the Holocaust. When we used to attend services regularly here in Caldwell, Joseph always saved the seat next to him for me. Susan was on one side and I was on the other. He was the dad I had lost. He even has a little white goatee just like my dad.
These nonagenarians offer wisdom, experience, and perspective. When they reminisce with me about their lives, I feel immense gratitude, as if I am recovering something I lost 30 years ago. When they share with me their solid perspective on today, I am able to breathe easier and gain perspective. When I think of my own life, I see that I still have so much time to grow and learn just as they have. Thanks to inspiring nonagenarians, I look forward to 2051!
I welcome my younger sister, Randi Galron, as a contributor to this post. Her words will appear italicized in the text.
The first siren introduced herself into my life with no warning. On a quiet and sunny Tel Aviv afternoon in October 1973, as the nine year-old version of me was busy playing a board game with my older sisters, she came through our living room windows, bounced off the walls and took up residence in our floors. The siren grew stronger as she grabbed hold of my feet, causing me to lose my balance. The room had tilted, or so it seemed, as panicked neighbors stopped at our door just long enough to tell us to move down the apartment house stairs to the bomb shelter in the building’s bowels. We sat silently in the dark, dank space for hours until the siren returned to inform us we could emerge, but only to prepare ourselves more adequately for the many times she would return over the next few weeks to send us scurrying back underground.
Every April I steel myself for the visit of the second siren. She comes to visit me in a different way, never catching me off guard. I can anticipate her arrival down to the minute; nevertheless, I am left feeling shaken when she passes. Over the years of my rabbinate, I have busied myself in the month of April with programs, speakers, and songs of Israel. Once the Passover dishes are put back into storage, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and even Lag B’Omer powerfully reconnect me to Israel and to my Israeli family, friends and places that have become such a foundational piece of my Jewish and spiritual identity. Nothing, however, brings me back to Israel more powerfully than the siren sounded on the morning of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). A small piece of me wants to avoid the moment, but the larger piece of me that is insistent upon standing inside it wins out every time.
April 8, 9:09 am, Tel Aviv, Israel
It’s 9:09 am and Craig just texted me. What’s he doing awake at this hour? It’s only 2 am in the States. Riiiiight, he’s the “Keeper of the flame,” a 24 hour vigil that his synagogue observes every Yom Hashoah. I join his “watch” on Zoom and we continue to text. As he writes to me about his reflections, I share my own feelings about what it’s like to have my two sons in the Israeli army at the same time. That both my boys are fighting for and protecting our Jewish homeland is a tremendous legacy to all those who perished. I share with him a picture or two to capture the meaning of this powerful day for me.
April 8, 2:46 am EST, Orangeburg, New York
In a few minutes, the siren will sound in Israel. Most of the country will come to a standstill. Drivers on the highways will pull over to step out of their cars. Merchants will cease their business dealings. The elderly will stand by the young, quietly paying their respects to the fallen.
9:53 am, Tel Aviv
Only 7 minutes to go before the siren. Just a few minutes to quickly finish up what I’m doing to prepare for a moment of reflection and to pay respect to our families and all those who perished in the Holocaust. The time is 9:59 am and from my office on the 48th floor of the midtown office building in Tel Aviv I can already see civilians and soldiers lining the bridge that leads from the Azrieli mall to the Kiryah.
10:00 am, Tel Aviv
The sharp shrill of the siren that pierces the air. The steady siren that symbolizes our mourning and calls us to remember. It’s different from the rise and fall of the air raid “red alert” sirens we hear and heard only a couple of days ago to alert us that our small country is under attack. This siren pierces your heart and stops your breath for an instant. This siren causes the tiny hairs on the back of your neck to stand. This siren calls our entire nation to a halt. An entire nation stopping in its tracks – people, cars, radios, phone calls, the construction site I see down below – all of it. I stand with my head lowered, hands at my sides. I close my eyes. In the background I can hear the faint beating of my heart and I remind myself to take a breath. I try to settle the thoughts and emotions swirling through my mind. I picture the faces of my loved ones, the face of my grandfather who is no longer with us, faces of friends, faces of those whom I don’t even know. But, I remember them. From my office window, I look out at the Ayalon highway. Cars are pulled off to the side, their doors opened, their passengers standing at attention like monuments. I feel a tear on my cheek.
3:00 am, Orangeburg
I stand in our sanctuary before the candles, and I listen to the siren from my sister Randi’s phone. As the alarm pierces the still surroundings, her reverberation connects her listeners one to another, across space and time. Though I stand here seven hours behind, I am transported to that time outside of time, that place outside of space, where the souls of the living and the dead come face-to-face. And even as they are bound up with each other in that moment, the one gazes expectantly, while the other averts its eyes. “Have you learned?” asks the one. The other holds its breath, releases and answers, “I thought I had, but perhaps not.”
While Yom Hashoah and Yom Haatzmaut are inextricably linked on the Jewish calendar, separated only by a week, and while it is so often said that the State of Israel arose from the ashes of the Holocaust like a phoenix, I do not like to perpetuate the idea that Israel exists today due to the Holocaust. There can be no denying that the Holocaust accelerated the realization of a dream that was centuries old, but that dream had already gained major traction in the years leading up to World War II. Even so, the siren of the 1973 Yom Kippur War that lives in my memory and the siren of our annual Yom Hashoah commemoration remind me that Israel’s security and legitimacy–her rootedness in our Jewish past and her aspirations for a Jewish future–are what ultimately give me the luxury of feeling secure as a Jew in the world today.
Randi, kiss your boys for me, and thank them for standing guard on my behalf.
Shalom al Yisrael,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The Kulanu 4th graders were competing in a Zoom scavenger hunt, and I had asked them to find something in their house that symbolizes what it means to be Jewish. One of the learners was empty handed. “I can’t bring it to the screen,” he said. When I asked him to explain, he said that it was attached to the kitchen door.
A mezuzah! I was enthusiastic about his choice. In Deuteronomy 6:9, we read that we must write the remembrance of God’s law on the doorpost of our house and on our gates.
During this Passover, our second pandemic year of celebration in strangely isolated ways, Zoom seders and brisket for one, I have been thinking a great deal about doorways.
When we enter or exit a Jewish space with a mezuzah on the door, we are meant to touch or kiss or look at it, pausing to reflect on God’s covenant with us.
The mezuzah is also a continuous reminder of Passover and the experience of enslavement. How so?
On the night before our exodus, we were told to paint our doorposts with the blood of a lamb to save us from the Angel of Death who would mysteriously kill all the first born of Egypt but pass over the Israelite homes. Moses and Aaron had been told by God an important piece of the puzzle, but the people did not yet know. Within hours, we’d be girding our loins, wearing our sandals and eating that lamb hurriedly as we got out of Egypt, leaving slavery behind that very night. The sign on our doorposts would save us from death, and we thought that was enough. We could not even dream of freedom until we were told to run out the door toward it.
It was a liminal moment: we were no longer slaves as we were taking matters into our own hands, but we were not yet free.
One year later in the Torah, (in the maftir aliya) we were told to honor that liminal moment by sacrificing a paschal lamb and celebrating a festival every year on the anniversary.
Of course, today we no longer make animal sacrifices but we still celebrate that very festival called Passover. At this time of year, each time I pass through a doorway with a mezuzah, I think about the moment when my ancestors walked out of their homes in Egypt and out into the frightening unknown of something called freedom. We know from reading about their grumbling, ungrateful, contentious behavior in the desert that it was a very difficult transition. Many of them wanted to turn around and go back to Egypt. As terrible as Egyptian enslavement was, it was known.
And here we are, at the end of March 2021, more than one year after the pandemic began, once again at a transition point. Many of us have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Unlike so many of our family, friends, and neighbors, we have been saved from the Angel of Death. With care, we are told that we can begin the process of leaving our quarantine and isolation.
We know very well what has been experienced in the past year, but we have no idea about what lies ahead. Like our enslaved ancestors in Egypt, we know what we are leaving behind but have no idea what lies ahead. Many of us are having trouble passing through the threshold toward freedom. Like those unknowing, hurried slave ancestors of ours, we might have moments when we want to return to the safe haven of living separate and alone.
Judaism, however, is meant to be lived in community: in minyans of ten and many more than ten, at shared meals in our synagogue simcha room and around crowded dining room tables, in classrooms for children and for adults, in horas danced with joy, in Jewish camps and on trips to Israel. It is toward the sacred goal of kehillah, community, that we will keep intending. As much as we don’t know about the world beyond sheltering at home, we will cross this threshold. And as we are passing through our doorways, let us meditate on our mezuzot. Let’s talk about our relationship with God, our gratitude for our lives, and our dedication to participate in an all-inclusive kind of freedom as we sit in our houses and walk on the way, as we lie down and rise up… and we shall write our post Covid stories on the doorposts of our house and on our gates.
“On the first day of the first month in the second year….” (Exodus 40:17)
Millenia ago, we are told, Moses erected the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, on the first day of the month Nisan, one year out of Egypt. This portable sanctuary would replace Mount Sinai as the location at which which the Israelites would draw close to God.
On the same day on the Jewish calendar, earlier this week, we opened the doors to our sanctuary after having closed them one year ago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One by one, over a two-hour period of time in the afternoon, our inheritors of the Israelites’ legacy entered the synagogue to draw close in prayer before the open ark.
When Moses completed the Tabernacle’s construction, the cloud of God‘s presence filled the tent; so thick was it that no one could enter. True, our building has been closed to unfettered entrance for a year now, but our community has felt the presence of the Divine at its center. We have traveled this past year‘s journey with a shared sense of connection, care and trust.
As individuals emerged from the warm building into the chilly afternoon air on Sunday afternoon, several inquired from behind their masks when we would be resuming our in-person, indoor services. My initial response was to remind the inquirers that we are blessed to have a relatively full calendar of lifecycle events. Between now and the middle of May, we have families celebrating lifecycle events in the sanctuary almost every Shabbat, albeit with limited attendance, masking and physical distancing.
I followed this response, however, with a question. What does “returning” look like? We are accustomed to Shabbat mornings that are uplifting, inspiring and intimate. Hypothetically, if we were to resume services in May with 50 masked people dispersed in a space that holds 300, would we achieve any of the goals we aspire to in our congregational services? Moreover, are we prepared to have services that are accessible only to the vaccinated, thereby excluding a large segment of our community?
The varied responses of the people who attended our Sunday afternoon “open house” program were also telling. Some felt filled up simply by having a few quiet moments in the sanctuary. Others felt deeply saddened by the sense of lost time, friends and community that our largely empty sanctuary represents. Still others came simply to express gratitude for the ways in which the Divine presence has extended beyond the walls of the building and permeated the walls of our Zoom rooms.
In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to monitor the pulse of our community, weighing our desire to be together against the behavior we can model to move our community closer to full vaccination. In the absence of a compelling need to change course, we will continue to operate deliberately, striving to take advantage of every opportunity to safely and meaningfully bring people together.
As we turn to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) this week, we are reminded that God calls to us to “draw near” in sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrificial offering, korban, literally means “near” or “close” at its root. Some would say that this past year of the pandemic has brought our community closer together than ever before. Drawing closer in the year ahead, however, may require even greater sacrifice: greater patience; greater understanding; greater appreciation for the many ways we can serve God, community and humanity.
We have already dabbled in the world of “hybrid” programming, where the experience for some is in person and for others is virtual. There is no doubt that our next phase of programming will involve an increase in our hybrid offerings. So long as we can gather in person while there are some who cannot access vaccination or who remain at risk, we will in essence need to create two simultaneous experiences. This will demand even greater creativity and commitment, individually and communally, than we have ever shown before. And in light of all I have seen over these past months, I have no doubt that we are up to the task.
We have proven that our tabernacle transcends—and must continue to transcend— the fixed and the portable, the physical and the virtual, accessible to all who seek to draw near.
Rabbi Craig Scheff