Archive | November 2013

It’s all about Chanukah!

Nes gadol haya sham – A great miracle happened there!” We say it every year as we sing our traditional Chanukah songs or play dreidel over chocolate coins with our kids (or for higher stakes with our friends). We remember the struggle for religious freedom and the wondrous divine interventions that have added color, imagination and a spiritual connection to our historical narrative. This year, with Thanksgiving coinciding as it does, we add a level of family togetherness and a greater sense of gratitude to our light-filled ritual. Through The blessings, the songs, the games, the candles and the food, we try to connect to a far-away place in a far-away time.

In recognition of the holiday, we deviate from our regular cycle of Haftarah reading, and we substitute a special reading for Shabbat Chanukah. Sixty years after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, the prophet Zechariah, having returned from the Babylonian exile, describes his vision of Joshua the High Priest being absolved of all sin and restored in robes and ornaments of the priesthood. His vision continues with a description of the seven-branched menorah of gold in a rebuilt and rededicated Temple. (Note: this is the 7-branched candelabra that stood outside the Jerusalem Temple’s Holy of Holies, not the chanukiah!) The Israelites had been slow to return to their homeland from Babylon, and slower to engage in the rebuilding effort. Perhaps this was Zechariah’s effort to inspire them to believe that the time was at hand. The prophet goes on to connect to the menorah the message that our faith in God will always lead us further than our individual or collective military or political accomplishments: “Not by might and not by power, but by God’s spirit.” Written long before the Maccabees fought their battles, Zechariah’s words bring comfort and hope to the disenfranchised.


I have had the privilege of spending the last week in Israel. To be here the week leading to the holiday is a gift. Sufganiyot (traditionally jelly-filled doughnuts, though increasingly more and more fancy-shmancy) can be found in every bakery. Families are preparing for school vacation. This holiday, more than any other, occupies a special place in the heart of the average secular Israeli. There is a greater sense of individual ownership of this holiday above the major festivals and even Purim. Its ritual is home-based, and there are few requirements that cause the Iess observant to feel that they can’t observe and appreciate the holiday to its fullest. The Maccabee spirit is one with which the many Israelis who have served in the IDF can identify. The victory of the few over the many characterizes a large part of Modern Israel’s narrative. As each person kindles his or her own menorah (now you can insert chanukiah!), the average Jew can fill the role of Joshua the High Priest, celebrating national sovereignty and exercising personal sovereignty, affirming a spiritual connection to God, a shared past and a common destiny. As Jews living outside of Israel, we carry this light beyond the physical boundaries of the holy land; we are charged with delivering it to the rest of the world.

In the moment that we light our chanukiyot, the words of the prophet Zechariah remind us that we are all builders of holy places in our lives. If we dedicate ourselves to the lighting of the lamps in the spirit of God, we can indeed achieve that which all the military might and political power cannot. Each of us is the high priest, each of us represents the menorah, and each of us can raise up lights of peace, of hope and of the divine in ourselves and in others.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Prayer for the People of the Philippines

This past Shabbat, we shared a kavannah (intention) for the people of the Philippines.

How often we read the words of liturgy or psalms and let them roll over us rather than move through us.  This week, when we read from psalms, we read the verses with a different consciousness and a more attentive heart.

We read in Psalm 107:  By his word God raised a storm wind that made the waves surge. Mounting up to the heaven, plunging down to the depths, disgorging in their misery, they reeled and staggered.

What did King David see or know to give rise to such words? From the anguish of his outpouring, we understand something about the tragic results of a terrifying and powerful storm in the Philippines this past week.  Let us not consider Typhoon Haiyan as one more news item that moves quickly from the front page and from our attention. Let us stay vigilant to the tragedy of the moment for the people of the Philippines, survivors there and worried family members here and around the world.

Let us turn our prayers to all those affected by the devestation. We pray for their courage, resilience and optimism.  We pray for those bringing aid: food and shelter and kind words. We pray for the wisdom of world wide leaders as funds raised for this island find their way to those in need.

We pray for our own broken hearts to remain open to the needs of those around us whether far or near. We remember that all people are created in God’s image. May the holy spark within each person give light to all those in need.
Together we say: Amen.

Mentoring as a Commitment to the Future

This past week, I traveled to Seattle, Washington for a site visit to Hertzl-Ner Tamid Congregation where Rabbi Jill Levy serves as Director of Congregational Learning. Rabbi Levy, ordained three years ago, and I have been having monthly mentoring sessions this
year by phone as part of a commitment by the Wexner Foundation to sustained and purposeful mentoring. As most of you know, Rabbi Scheff and I have consistently mentored JTS Rabbinical School students and Davidson School of Education students for the past six years. (I myself am a product of being mentored by Rabbi Scheff when I was a fourth-year student.) The art of mentoring demands time, thoughtful processing of experience and a willingness to look at our own practice on a daily basis. Why do we do it? Beyond the gifts of future rabbis and educators bringing their enthusiasm and energy to our community as they learn, there is also the gift of your two rabbis' putting a stamp on the future. We feel strongly that what we are doing in our Conservative synagogue here in Rockland County is inspiring and also portable. Something very right is happening at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, New York. In John Gardner's well-known book On Leadership, mentors are compared to farmers. "Mentors are growers... good farmers rather than
inventors or mechanics. Growers have to accept that the main ingredients and processes with which they work are not under their own control.
They are in a patient partnership with nature, with an eye to the weather and a feeling for cultivation."

As mentors, we hope to help identify upon what those successes are based and help our students figure outhow to re-create these successes in their own way. Serving as a mentor to one student at a time means that we are establishing positive energy for the future of Conservative Judaism. 

This mentoring business is truly holy work! Our many congregants who take the time to get to know our interns each year, to teach them, to learn from them and with them, are a part of this incredible process of committing to the future!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill


God is in this place?

This week we read one of my favorite Torah stories. Jacob leaves home, happens upon a place, lies down, places a stone beneath his head, upon a stone and has a dream. Angels ascend and descend on a ladder that stretches from the earth to the heavens. He awakens and exclaims, “God is in this place, and I did not know it.” From a theological perspective, I am troubled by the idea that Jacob sees God as limited to this particular place. I hold tight to the notion that God is in all places at all times. Even the darkest places.

This weekend we commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristalnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. November 9, 1938 ushered in one of the darkest periods in Jewish history in particular and in the history of humankind. If I am to be consistent, then I must also believe that God was in this place and in all the places where human beings suffered (and continue to suffer). I must then ask myself, “What is God doing while the innocent suffer?” I have come to the conclusion that God’s angels are constantly descending the ladder from heaven with messages for us, challenging us to ascend the ladder toward the Divine. God prays to us, “Hear My voice, as you did in the days of old, and raise your humanity to the level of Godliness with which I endowed you.”

We live in a world where bearing the brunt of the bully is accepted by too many as a rite of passage. God is in the locker room, the school hallway and the workplace. God has told us what is good and right. And God has given us the power to stand against those who would tear down a human being in order to elevate themselves. God is indeed in this place. Perhaps the question we should be asking is, “Where are we?”

Dedicated to my grandmother, Sonia Neiman, on her 94th birthday.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

OJC is a Pink Synagogue All Year Long

OJC is a Pink Synagogue All Year Long This past Shabbat morning at the Orangetown Jewish Center, our synagogue community honored Breast Cancer Awareness Month with a sermon on the prevalence of breast cancer in our congregation and the importance of support from the shul community. On Sunday, close to fifty women participated in the Gary Rosenthal Pink Glass Art Program brought to us by our Sisterhood. All proceeds are going to Sharsheret – check out this amazing organization at Now, it is time for the work to really begin. If you are a Breast Cancer Survivor, and would like to participate in a daytime support group, contact Lydia Katz at If you are willing to be a link in our synagogue support network, please send your name, best contact information, details about your diagnosis that you feel comfortable sharing and age to When congregants call for spiritual and emotional support, I will be able to link you and your experience and wisdom to someone just starting out. It is truly heartwarming to see that my list has already topped a minyan of women eager to help others. If you are a family member, a friend, a concerned synagogue member, or someone dealing with breast cancer, you can request a Resource Packet from with websites, books and other resources about breast cancer. Have a beautiful Shabbat of health, connection and peace, Rabbi Drill

Keep your socks on!

ImageAs big a sports fan as I am, I do not regularly incorporate sports into my sermons. It is the perception among some of my congregants that I do, but I rarely initiate a sports conversation in synagogue (unless I am talking about my kids!). If I am referring to the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics or Bruins, it is usually because someone has decided to give me a hard time about a tough loss, or to let me know they were thinking of me when my team went down. I truly appreciate all the good-natured jabs (most of the time!), and I realize that sports is just one more avenue that can serve to connect us to each other, and can offer an occasional lesson that can be applied more broadly to Judaism and life.

This past month, however, I decided to devote my ongoing learning classes to sports and the lessons we can learn from them. I was pleasantly surprised to have a class of more than two dozen students each of the three evenings I was teaching, with many participants who rarely attend ongoing learning sessions, and with a much higher ratio of male students (80 percent) than I had ever had for a class. Not bad for a Thursday night in an egalitarian, Conservative congregation in Rockland County, New York! Over the three sessions, we studied texts from our Jewish tradition offering insights that could be applied to the way we view team sports, individual competitive sports, and the sports that place us in nature (like fly fishing and hiking). We explored the dynamics of team-building (or community-building), responsibility to and for one another, the value of a shared vision and shared goal, the importance of seeing a potential coach and teammate (or teacher and friend) in every person, the drive to excel and succeed, the danger of succeeding at someone else’s expense, the need for physical health and exertion, the need for mindfulness, the urge to master our environment, and the power of awe and humility – all through a Jewish lens.

One topic I chose not to teach (which feels particularly relevant today), however, is the relationship of Judaism to the sports spectator. With the Red Sox appearing in the World Series tonight for the third time in ten years, I realize my children have been deprived of the many lessons I learned waiting forty years for their first championship of my lifetime (and my father’s!). As we follow our teams together and across the generations, I have discovered other connections to our rich Jewish tradition. I am not referring to the concept of “Midor l’dor” (from one generation to another), though that is certainly a worthwhile Jewish value. I am referring to the Jewish belief that the spectator has a role in the outcome of the game! You don’t believe me? Our family knows that when something good is happening in the game, one does not speak or text or go to the bathroom. One does not change one’s position for fear of changing the course of events. Every baseball fan knows you don’t speak to the pitcher when he is pitching a perfect game; every fan knows you don’t utter the phrase “no-hitter” as your pitcher takes the mound in the seventh inning. And every fan knows that announcers are constantly reversing fates and fortunes when they bring up a statistic about a player or team on a streak!

In Judaism, we say “mishaneh makom, mishaneh mazal” (you change your place, you change your luck). If it is true to our betterment, it is also true to our detriment. From spitting three times (“pooh, pooh, pooh”) to wearing a red string to ward off the evil eye (ayin ha-ra), Jews believe that what we do can cause a shift in the cosmos. Our deeds, our words, and even our thoughts can change the course of events, the alignment of our stars, the flow of God’s presence that runs through all things.

So if you are wearing socks and the Sox are on a roll . . .

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Is It Always Wrong to Tell a Lie?

If you ask a classroom of fourth graders if it is always wrong to tell a lie, they will tell you with absolute certainty that indeed it is.  Always? What if the truth causes another person harm? What if the truth needlessly hurts a person’s feelings? What if the lie protects a person’s life?

As we get older and learn the nuances of being human, we come to know that absolutes are never really absolutes.  Lying is never okay; that is, until another absolute requires us to lie.  Sometimes telling a lie can save a life.

There is a big lie in last week’s parasha, Lekh L’kha, that is repeated again this week in Va-yera. When I told the Orangetown Jewish Center community about this lie this past Shabbat in my sermon, almost everyone was surprised. The lie is a strange story they never told us in Religious School.  And it happens three times in the Torah. Last week, taking a detour from the Promised Land into Egypt because of a famine in the land, Abraham tells Sarah to lie.  We read in Bereshit 12: “If the Egyptians see you and think, ‘she is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” This week, Abraham tells the lie himself. “Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’” Later in the Bereshit narrative, Isaac repeats the wife-sister lie about his wife Rebecca.  It isn’t exactly the behavior we expect to see from our patriarchs.

Abraham excuses himself to the King of Gerar, saying, “When God made me wander from my father’s house, I said to Sarah, ‘Let this be the kindness that you shall do me: whatever place we come to, say there of me: He is my brother.”
Do we excuse him? Is it ever permissible to lie?  If we place the story in context, we see that God has commanded Abraham to cut off all ties to his history, from his land, birthplace and father’s house. He must go forth with faith in God Who promises the blessings of a nation, a land and a great name.  Here in these early chapters of Bereshit, however, there appears to be a great problem with the fulfillment of these blessings.  The nation is dependent on a wife who is barren, the land is suffering a famine and the man whose name will be great is a nomadic wanderer at age 75.  Can we forgive Abraham for lying on the grounds that he had a God-given mission to fulfill? Can we forgive on the grounds that we wouldn’t be here, a Jewish nation, if a jealous king had killed our patriarch?

Abraham needs to keep moving forward to follow God’s commands.  He took a detour into Egypt, but who among us hasn’t taken a detour along our journey?  We begin the story of our people with difficulty, seeming impossibility, and detours.  Yet Abraham remains filled with faith.

Aren’t our lives like that?  Can’t we be faith-filled and also doubtful?  Don’t we see promise and also famine?  It isn’t okay to lie until we have to lie.  Like Abraham, many of us know what it is to be in a narrow place and act as it seems we must. Do we do the right thing or the absolute wrong thing? Isn’t life that complicated?

Knowing that we will face absolutes and hard choices, that we will make mistakes and go to narrow places, don’t we still set out on the journey?  Don’t we fulfill the command of Lekh L’kha, go to who we are meant to be, every single day?  We need not condemn Abraham as a liar.  Instead, we can see him as a role model for living a life commanded by God in a complicated world.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Jewish, Conservative, Egalitarian in Rockland County, NY … and thriving?

Talk about intense! This, the first day of October, is my first day to sit and digest what took place in our community over the past 25 days. By my rough calculation, nearly 8000 individuals crossed our threshold over this three and a half week period. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were, by all accounts, filled with beauty and spiritually uplifting. The joy of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah was certainly enhanced by the weather; but the prayer, song, multi-generational fellowship and shared appreciation of our rituals raised the celebration through the roof and above the sparse clouds. Long-time members were enthralled to see new faces—and so many little ones!—while new attendees marveled at the warmth, enthusiasm and passion emanating from so many. Not bad for a Conservative, egalitarian synagogue in Rockland County, New York with just over 500 families calling it their spiritual home! So you can imagine my astonishment (and perhaps you share the sentiment), as I bask in this warm glow, when I open my mail to read of the latest Jewish population survey, the first in ten years. According to the survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, we are facing a major challenge to Jewish identification. Among non-Orthodox Jews, there is a growing segment of our community that identifies as Jewish, but without religion. Thirty-two percent of the Jews born after 1980 claim to be ethnically or culturally Jewish, but also claim to have no religion. Of particular concern is that of these self-identified Jews, two-thirds are raising children without any Jewish identity. If these results are to be trusted, then they predict that nearly a quarter of the children now being born to Jews will not be raised with any sense of Jewish identity.

I have taken you from the highs of Tishrei (the month with the most holidays) to the lows of Mar-Cheshvan (“bitter” Cheshvan, the month with no holidays), and the news of the day can certainly be deflating. In our little corner of the Jewish world, however, we know the answer to the challenge. We see it happening before us week in and week out. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it over 50 years ago, becoming a Jew is “a personal problem,” meaning that we must speak to every individual, to their joys, anxieties, fears, insecurities and searches for meaning. “Community” is merely a buzz word if it isn’t accompanied by true concern for the individual. Our communal celebration of Jewish life models one type of identification; more important, however, is the empowerment of individuals to transform their own homes into places of meaningful connection to each other, to Judaism and to God.How blessed we are to celebrate the first day of Chanukah on Thanksgiving this year. I predict that more Jews will celebrate the holiday of Chanukah this year—in its intended spirit and with greater meaning—than ever before. The secular values of our American Thanksgiving celebration prime us for a day of gratitude (and full bellies) and appreciation. Originally a day celebrating the harvest, Thanksgiving parallels our holiday of Sukkot. The first Chanukah celebration was, in fact, a delayed celebration of the Sukkot harvest festival. And just as the Raiders and Cowboys kick off the second game of the day, Jews will add to the warmth of this day by kindling our lights of dedication, freedom, gratitude and appreciation. Perhaps gifts will be exchanged; more importantly, however, a Jewish spark will be ignited in the midst of a secular experience. A flash of meaning will be reflected in every participant’s eyes. A connection will be established. A seed of Jewish identity and identification will be planted.

So don’t believe everything you read. The seeds are there. Water them with me, and we will witness another Chanukah miracle in our time.

Be’emunah, with faith,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Half a Minyan on Hoshana Rabbah

ImageSukkot is the time on the Jewish calendar that is called z’man Simchateinu – the time of our joy. As we head into the final two holy days of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, I look back and see that it has been an incredibly joyous week here at the Orangetown Jewish Center. I could say that the joy has been thanks to the perfect weather for sukkah sitting or due to our beautiful new sukkah filled with the decorations of our children. But most of all, the joy is thanks to the amazing people of our community. The festival days were uplifting as congregants paraded for the Hoshanot with our lulavim and etrogim. The Shabbat during Sukkot was filled with happiness as we kicked off Shabbaba Shabbat [for ages 0 to kindergarten every Shabbat at 11:00] and Family Congregation [for grades 1 through 6 every Shabbat at 10:30]. When all those little ones joined the rabbis on the bima for Ein Keloheinu, it was a snapshot of the OJC community at its best.  Young families had a sleepover at the synagogue on Saturday night, and on Sunday we had a full day of Sukkot activities, culminating in our annual sukkah dinner with almost 200 people celebrating together with Amichai Margolis and the Orangetones!

During the intermediate days of Sukkoth, we say Moadim l’simcha (may your intermediate Sukkot days be joyous)and we really mean it! As I told the children of our religious school yesterday as we hopped from sukkah to sukkah in our neighborhood, these days are intended to lift us up out of our everyday lives into something more.

And then came this morning which began at 6:45 with the service for Hoshana Rabbah. Traditionally, we chant hallel, read from the Torah, and march for our final time of this Sukkot with our lulav and etrog around the sanctuary, this time seven times.

This morning, however, we had just five people; that is, half a minyan. I considered feeling disappointed, but I thought back over the many congregants who had enjoyed part or all of the Sukkot celebrations all week. I decided instead to energized and dedicated to continue spreading the word of Jewish observance and celebration. Prayer minyans and holy day experiences in a Conservative synagogue are indeed a challenge, but I know that we can continue growing as a community.

Even if I wanted to feel disappointed that we were not able to have the Torah reading or open the ark, the five of us who were together in the sanctuary felt united in the holiness of the moment. There was not room for disappointment in the midst of the joy.

One of the most curious rituals in Jewish life takes place at services for Hoshana Rabbah as we beat willow branches, shaking free the leaves. As the leaves fall, we pray that our mistakes of the past year will be completely forgiven. In our synagogue, the willow branches are collected and wrapped artfully every year by a congregant who learned to do this when he was a young boy in Lowell, Massachusetts. He wraps small bunches of willow branches binding them together with a beautiful braid of palm. He creates these ritual objects with generosity and delight. How could I think about being disappointed if he wasn’t? When we finished the Hoshanot prayers, an older member of the minyan led us in a small circle dance. Certainly, our small group of five this morning was just as pleasing to God as the 200 people gathered in our sukkah this past Sunday night.

There is something grand to be said about a vibrant community that celebrates together across the generations as we did during the first days of Sukkot. But there is also something to be said for a community that accepts its responsibility to support our minyanim day in and out. May we all continue to enjoy the privilege of rejoicing in our Judaism and accept the responsibility of fulfilling our obligations.

I hope to see everyone tonight through Shabbat evening for a celebration at the end of Sukkot, finishing the Torah and beginning again. May this holiday season bring us great joy.

Chag sameach!

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

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