Archive | March 2014

Us and Us — A Community Conversation

Growing up in Rockland County, I remember my religious school’s class trip to New Square back in 1976. It was like a trip to Museum Village, a journey back in time, a glimpse into the world of Fiddler on the Roof. We walked through the dusty village square, gawking at the black-clad men and the long-skirted girls, shopping in the grocery store for kosher snacks. It was a museum trip–souvenirs and all–to witness a Jewish community frozen in time. Thirty-eight years later, the community is far from little frozen Anatevka. It has grown exponentially in population and geography, and it has developed into a powerful and well-organized entity. Sadly, religious and political leaders of this insular Jewish community have earned a reputation of hiding social ills, coercing those who dare dissent, engaging in questionable politics, and dismantling a public school system for its own benefit.

When it comes to Jewish law, truly pious Jews have always believed in living beyond the letter of the law. “Fences” are erected around the law to make sure that core principles are not violated. While the Sabbath technically begins at sundown on Friday, we bring in the Sabbath with candle lighting 18 minutes before sundown so as not to encroach on the boundary and possibly err. Religiously observant Jews have similarly tried to abide by the spirit of the law. While I would be within the law to leave a television on in order to watch a Friday night playoff game, I would certainly be violating the spirit of Sabbath rest. Another fact to consider is that, wherever Jews have lived in the world, we have always lived by the principle that the law of the land is the law, so long as it doesn’t demand that we violate our religious law.

It is so disappointing, therefore, whenever we see religiously observant Jews engaged in questionable ethical and legal behavior. To hide behind the legality of one’s actions, knowing that one is in violation of the spirit of the law, is unethical conduct whether the law is of a religious or secular nature. And to ignore that reality is to ignore the Divine calls to the Jewish people: “Be holy because I am holy” and “I shall be sanctified by those who draw near to me.” Finally, such bad behavior falls far short of the prophet Isaiah’s expectation that we would be a “light unto the nations.”

As Jews we are obligated to recognize that we are all responsible for one another; therefore the unethical and possibly illegal actions of our brothers in the East Ramapo School District-whether they involve the use of school funds, the hiding of domestic or sexual abuses, or the corruption of public officials-must be exposed and investigated. If there are ways to bring state and federal powers to bear and to trump local interests, we must advocate to that end. We are further obligated as Jews to value every person as having been created in the image of God and to strive for good relationships with our neighbors. By Jewish law, if we stand idly by the wrongdoing of another, we inherit that sin as our own.

As Jews-and as Americans-we are obligated to wear our Jewishness with pride. We must continue to advocate for the rich diversity of a society that has been such a haven for the Jewish people, and for others who have come here with a dream to live free and succeed by individual aspirations and efforts. We should tout our historic and ongoing charitable support for the public, cultural and social institutions that define this great country.

Join Rabbi Drill, our Rabbinic intern Ariella Rosen, Rabbi Adam Baldachin of the Montebello Jewish Center, and me in a “Community Conversation with Clergy” on Thursday night at 7:30pm at the OJC. Together we will explore the difficult issues confronting the East Ramapo school district and its predominantly Orthodox school board. We will discuss the ethical obligations that shape our private and public response to these events, and learn about an interfaith clergy effort that is currently taking shape.
Rabbi Craig Scheff

A Circle of Chesed

ImageAt a recent meeting with the volunteers of our Chesed Committee, I suggested that one goal of the committee was to need such a committee no longer. Won’t it be great when we are a Chesed Community, and everyone’s needs are taken care of by each one of us doing our part. Until that day arrives, however, we still have a lot of work to do.  

One fact that makes me proud and yet also stymies me is why we have fifty volunteers on the Chesed Committee.  Fifty is a great number of committed people who make meals anonymously, drive people to appointments, call on the phone and visit shut-ins. Those fifty, however, are not available for every need that arises.  In a community of more than 500 families, how do we ensure that the number grows?  

Another fact that has surprised me over time is how many people hesitate to ask for help.  Many congregants have a broad and steady support network of family and friends and so do not need the support offered by the OJC Chesed Committee.  But I have found that many people simply do not want to ask for help. A willingness to ask for help completes the circle of Chesed (loving kindness): today I need your help but tomorrow I’ll be able to offer mine.  The work of loving kindness completed by the Chesed Committee is done so discreetly and compassionately.  Performing a mitzvah quietly gives a unique feeling of pride. This kindness that I do — I do simply to bring an uplift to someone else.

Perhaps you say that you’d love to help but cannot because you have a full time job and a long commute.  Perhaps you say that in a few years you’ll help when the kids are older.  Maybe you think that you have too many hard issues of your own. To each of you, I say: your life will be enriched by the good that you will do.  There are volunteer positions that range from ten minute phone calls once a week to preparing a meal for one or two – once every six weeks or so.  Some families complete their friendly visiting with kids in tow; the children learning from their parents’ modeling how to be a true mentsch.  And if you yourself are struggling, helping another is a Imagepowerful prescription for healing. 

Please consider finding out how you could become a part of the dream of the OJC as a Community of Chesed … by becoming a part of the Chesed Committee.  Get in touch with our Chesed chairs, Adele Garber ( or Maddy Roimisher (845-359-4846), before you close this blog! You’ll be part of a circle of loving kindness, and who couldn’t use that in our lives?

Kol tuv, All the best, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill


Celebrating Ramah

This past weekend, OJC’s rabbis, cantor, and youth director attended a celebration for Ramah Day Camp in Nyack (the place that introduced us to each other!) and its director, Amy Skopp Cooper, who is entering her 18th year in the role. The hall was filled with some of the Conservative movement’s finest young rabbis, innovative educators, and budding leaders, all of whom have received a piece of their training at camp. While Ramah as the camping arm of Conservative Judaism is certainly one of the brightest spots among our achievements, and a major factor in shaping and ensuring our children’s future Jewish identities, it has also been crucial in shaping the leadership of our movement. Most synagogue success stories will include in their narratives the profound effect that Ramah’s model of experiential education has had on clergy, educators and youth leaders. The experience of a camp Shabbat is something we all try to replicate for our synagogue communities, and those synagogues with engaging and participatory services usually point to the Ramah model as a major part of that success.

Past OJC rabbinic interns, present rabbis

Past OJC rabbinic interns, present rabbis
(L-R) Rabbis Jesse Olitzky, Paula Mack Drill,
Craig Scheff, Dahlia Bernstein, and Ami Hersh

For our own synagogue, Ramah has deeply influenced our professional leadership and the way we try to educate. We have been blessed with some marvelous rabbinic interns over the past 12 years; most of them have come to us with Ramah experience that has enabled them to offer creative programming and to transition with ease into the role of educators in our synagogue, and later in synagogues of their own. Our award-winning youth program is directed by a long-time Ramah division head. We take great pride in our religious school and our youth programs, and it is no coincidence that the leaders among our youth in both of those settings usually have had some Ramah experience as part of their resumes. We are blessed to be able to boast of dozens of campers and staff members in our synagogue community who have attended and worked at Ramah camps, and our services and programs have benefited immensely from their experiences, their comfort level in leading prayer, and their love for Jewish community.

I believe that the future success of the Conservative movement will largely depend upon the extent to which the the Ramah educational model will be utilized in our synagogue communities for our children, our families, and our adult educational experiences. Camp Ramah has the advantage of a unique eight-week laboratory every summer in which Jewish educational experiences can be offered to learners of every age. If given the opportunity and support to work in partnership with our other institutions (including our synagogues, Schechter day schools, USY, and Hillel), Ramah could serve as the primary educational resource for our schools, our youth groups, our family education, and our ongoing learning.

At the end of each of my summers at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, I would tell the college-age staff members that they had been trained to be our future builders, but that it would take work and determination on their part. Perhaps that was not fair of me; perhaps I have expected too much and offered too little. Instead of losing our most promising young leaders to communities with stronger senses of belonging and Jewish connection, it is time that we reclaim and promote our own, empower and support them, help them recreate their best Jewish moments and reshape our synagogues in their image. Ramah has already begun doing so through a variety of projects being heavily funded by major foundations. While there are few experiences as intense as a summer at camp, our congregational communities can become places of growth, of empowerment, of participation, of communal caring, and of holiness if we allow Ramah to serve as the model. Funders are apparently seeing the possibilities of what Ramah can do for the Jewish future. It is time for our synagogues communities to recognize the same potential, and to bring Ramah–and our Ramahniks–home at summer’s end.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Beyond the Walls of the OJC to the DC Convention Center

Truth is, on a daily basis, there is no where I would rather be than at the Orangetown Jewish Center.  My creative energy runs high at the shul, interactions feel profound, learning feels new, and God feels close. My rabbinate makes sense when I am with you in the classroom, my office or the sanctuary.

It is necessary, however, to throw open the windows of our synagogue and look around at the world we inhabit. And it is important to go out into that world to learn about what is going on. If you are with us on Shabbat or in a class, you know that one of the values of the OJC is that our Torah moves from the text to the lives we lead. The lives we lead are fulfilling when we are having an impact on the world: improving families, communities, Jewish organizations and secular institutions.  You hear it in our teaching and in our sermons. Find a passion and pursue it!  We begin in Torah, but we use Torah to move to issues about Israel, the Jewish world, Conservative Judaism, and social justice.

This past week, I spent time in the wide world beyond Independence Avenue in Orangeburg, New York.  I returned today renewed, re-energized and ready to bring all that I learned back to the synagogue.  I spent three days with twenty four OJC congregants and 14,000 of our pro-Israel allies at the AIPAC Policy Conference. Image

At AIPAC, many of the messages resonated with all that I have experienced and learned over eight years of participation in Israel advocacy through AIPAC. Our elected officials on both sides of the aisle unambiguously support Israel as a valued friend. Israeli leadership is grateful to feel the power of our support.  People of color and leaders of many faith movements join with us every year to add their voices with ours as important allies in support of Israel. 2300 college leaders, Jewish and not Jewish, join us to state clearly that young people are learning how to advocate for Israel. 

The rabbinic leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox streams stood together on the dais and proclaimed, “Jewish life is not about singing in unison but rather in harmony.”  Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism stated, “We are not asserting the perfect nature of Israel. There is no perfect country. But we are here to protect the precious relationship between Israel and America.”  The ideal of shared values and creating relationships rings true to all of us who have heard Israel sermons in our sanctuary or traveled to Israel on an OJC trip.

Something new was ringing loud and clear throughout the Policy Conference.  We have heard the message before at AIPAC, but now it feels like a central theme ino all that we are doing: Despite being in the middle of seemingly intractable conflicts, Israel is a dynamic country filled with innovators who are improving life around the world. We heard from Israeli scientists, technology gurus, and medical researchers breaking through to new frontiers in medicine, security, communication and economic cooperation.  There is another story of Israel being played out and we had an opportunity to feel its power.  The Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. had a clear answer to the magnificent success of Israeli progress. Ron Prosor said that the secret is The Jewish Mother who believes that her child is a genius and the world just does not yet know it. So if that child takes a risk and fails, the Mother says, “Just go and try again.” And thus we have the Start-Up Nation!  It’s a brilliant theory, no?

There was optimism in the air despite the heaviness of world realities right now.  John Kerry said, “When Bibi looks me in the eyes and says, ‘We cannot accept a treaty that does not make Israel safer than she is right now,’ he and I agree 100%.”  On Monday morning, Netanyahu was downright buoyant (honestly!).  He claimed that Israel must be strong to make peace, but peace will make us stronger. Image           Image

World events change on the hour and I am no prophet. Three days of learning and advocacy, however, allows me to believe that our Torah will lead us eventually to a stable Israel.  As Rev. Dr. DeeDee Coleman shouted to an AIPAC crowd that loves her dearly, “Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!”

I am grateful to have gone out to learn. I am grateful to return home and share it with all of you.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

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