Archive | April 2014

Open the Gates of Justice (in Albany)

At 6:00 am this morning, Ariella Rosen, our Rabbinic Intern, and I boarded a bus together with thirty interfaith clergy bound for Albany.  The Rockland Clergy for Social Justice fulfilled our pledge to call on Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders to initiate immediate fiscal and administrative oversight in the East Ramapo Central School District and to revise the structure, governance and financing of that school district.  On the two hour ride up the Thruway we were briefed about our mission and the many advocacy meetings that we would have.  Just after a stop for coffee, I davenned the prayers of Rosh Hodesh, the New Month.  When I reached Hallel, I sang softly to myself: Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek – Open for me the Gates of Justice.  “How perfect,” I thought to myself, “the Jewish calendar can be so in sync with the world.Image

The day was a big success. I will be sharing information with everyone about the ways in which each one of us can become involved in this issue that is of concern to so many of our congregants in the days ahead.  Today we met with Larry Schwartz, Secretary to Governor Cuomo, Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate leaders Dean Skelos, Jeffrey Klein and John Flanagan, and Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Throughout the day we were accompanied by Senator David Carlucci, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffe and Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski; all three are champions of our cause and deserve our thanks. 

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For tonight, I would like to share with you the words that I spoke at the Prayer Vigil/Press Conference, to give you a sense of the impact felt in Albany when a unified band of rabbis, ministers, pastors and imams raised our voices together for justice.

I am proud to stand before you this afternoon representing the Orangetown Jewish Center, a congregation of more than 500 families who are concerned about the issue of fair and meaningful access to education for all young people in our county.  

On the Jewish calendar, today is Rosh Hodesh, the first day of a new month. It is appropriate to be here today because Rosh Hodesh is a day of introspection and renewal. It is a day of optimism. Interestingly, it is also a day set apart for women and today as the sole woman clergy in attendance, I raise my voice for all of the mothers who send their children to school in the East Ramapo Central School District and for the teachers in that school district, the vast majority of whom are women.

Rosh Hodesh is a day of witnessing. In history, a new month was not declared until witnesses saw a new moon in the sky.  Now this witnessing was by necessity subtle because what was being seen in the sky was actually the absence of the moon. Today, we stand before you as witnesses to important things that are absent from the lives of the families in the East Ramapo Central School District.  Absent is protection for the children. Absent is fair governance of their schools. Absent is the education that is the Constitutional right of every child in the State of New York.

I stand today as a witness.

Consider the student in Spring Valley High School who has no Child Psychology and Day Care class to take because it was eliminated from the budget. Her dream to begin a career in Day Care will not be fulfilled. I am a witness to her dream.

Consider the student in Ramapo High School whose dream of a college scholarship in swimming or wrestling or tennis is crushed because those teams were eliminated from the budget. I am a witness to his dream.

Consider the mother sending her children to school each day who has sidelined her dreams of their succeeding in a competitive world thanks to education. Now she is more concerned that they return from school safely each day. Security guards were eliminated form the budget. I am a witness to her dreams for her children.

Consider the father who is a mathematician or a musician or … fill in the blank.  Like any father, he had dreams of his children’s following in his footsteps.  But there are no math electives, not even Advanced Algebra. There are no music programs at all in the Elementary Schools and the award winning marching band no longer exists.  All were cut from the budget. I am a witness to his dreams.

Consider the guidance counselor in the high school or the sports coaches in the middle schools or the kindergarten teaching assistant. They were committed to careers in education but their jobs were eliminated. I am a witness to their dreams.

All that I witness leads me to the only possible response: a cry for justice. Here in Albany, I pray that you hear the same call. We clergy of every faith have gathered together as witnesses. We represent our congregations who stand as witnesses. We cannot and will not look away.  You are our elected officials. We pray that you join us as witnesses so that we can take action together.

Ignorance is bliss, maybe – OJC’s March of the Living, Day 7

There is simply no denying Budapest’s beauty. Seeing her from the Danube at night, she glows majestically. Walking her streets under a sunny blue sky, I come across everything in a city I could want: gorgeous architecture, breathtaking vistas, a cosmopolitan feeling, art, music, sidewalk cafes, culture, history, and a rich Jewish presence. And a river that runs through it!

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The largest synagogue in Europe can be found here, the Dohany Synagogue, a symbol of 19th century Jewish assimilation and acceptance. Jewish museums and a rabbinical seminary are all part of a vibrant Jewish community that boasts of 80,000 members. Okay, so the synagogue only gets 50 people on average for Shabbat morning services, but 3,000 show up for the High Holy Days! We found a quiet corner away from the tour groups in the magnificent sanctuary, and sang psalms of Hallel in celebration of Rosh Chodesh.

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Oh, about that river. Well, that’s the piece of this place that gives me nightmares. It reminds me that, while I try to enjoy this magnificent city, there is a history here of its government and citizens choosing the wrong side of the battle between good and evil. Hungary enacted anti-Jewish legislation in 1920, well before Germany. The Hungarians chose the Nazis’ side in World War II. Subsequently they were occupied by Germany (which is why so many magnificent structures remained largely intact). And the Hungarian extreme nationalist party, known as the Arrow Cross, assisted in the decimation of Hungarian Jewry. Of an estimated 800,000 Jews alive at the beginning of 1944, fewer than 200,000 were alive after the war. 400,000 Hungarian Jews were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau over a 10 week period of time beginning in April 1944. The Arrow Cross killed thousands more in the weeks that followed, taking Budapest’s remaining Jews down to the river to kill them and to dispose of their bodies in the Danube waters that came to be known as the red river.

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Only those who care enough to walk along the river will notice the shoe memorial that recalls those horrible days. But I can’t get the image out of my head. Even the prominent tributes to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish banker and diplomat who is said to have saved 100,000 Jewish lives by issuing them diplomatic immunity papers and safe houses, cannot soften the brutal images of Hungarian complicity or the reality that the extreme right wing party constitutes twenty percent (and growing) of Hungary’s government today.

A docent at the Jewish Museum today commented that only a Jew can tell the story of the Jews’ suffering in Hungary with passion. And that’s what worries me. When will others own the story of the greatest sin against humanity with the same passion that we do? And what happens until that time?

All that said, this city certainly is beautiful. So long as you don’t think about what is beneath the surface.

Tomorrow morning Israel. Thank God.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

OJC’s March of the Living, Day 5, The March

I am not taking the easy way out. Today was a day far more about images than words. And so I have chosen to share images with you. Images of a wet and dreary day at Auschwitz that evolved into a bright afternoon upon our entrance into Birkenau, the death camp that we filled today with life. Friends and families were reunited today in spirit and in person. Tears were shed for the horrors, and laughter was shared to protect us and to reaffirm life. A Torah scroll was completed at the end of the march in front of 12,000 people, and we sang Hatikvah firmly committed to our hope and faith in the future.  Horrific reminders of death were balanced by personal encounters with resilience and courage. I hope the images below can provide a small measure of what we will carry in our minds and hearts forever.

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Mourners candle

Tomorrow morning we depart for Budapest. It will be a long bus ride through the hills of Slovakia. You will here from me again, God willing, on Wednesday. I leave you with a thought from Anne Frank that Rabbi Drill shared with me: A candle both defines and defies the darkness. If the soul is the lamp of God, then we too can both define and defy the darkness. And that is why we are here.

Am Yisrael Chai,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

The need to scream – OJC’s March of the Living, Day Four

In just a couple of hours, our friends back home at the Orangetown Jewish Center will light a candle. For the 25 hours that follow, that candle will be watched by shomrim, or guardians, our keepers of the flame. The sanctuary will be open as a quiet space for reflection and meditation. Some people will find peace sitting in the quiet with their thoughts and memories. Some people will learn as they read personal accounts of victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

Whether you choose to sit for an hour as a keeper or just drop in for a few moments of reflection as a participant in our commemoration, I pray that you will keep those of your community who are here in Kraków in your thoughts as well.

This has been a long and hard day. For some of us it has been a day of frustration and anxiety. Being in Kraków today is like being in Disney World. The Old Towne Center looks like Epcot. Kraków was spared by the Nazis from destruction because they intended to use it as their center of control for their Polish occupation. So many synagogues remain well-preserved. Some date back to the early 17th century, and the Ramu’s sanctuary dates back to the 14th century. The old Jewish cemetery is manicured and better kept than some of our Long Island cemeteries. In fact, it all looks too good.

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And that is the crux of our issue with this place. It is too neat, too clean. Many of us used the term “whitewashed” on several occasions today. Some of us began to challenge our guides, only to be met with resistance and defensiveness. We understand that this generation of Polish people struggles with accepting our sense of victimization when the Polish people suffered at the hands of the Nazis as well. But we can’t accept their reluctance to accept any responsibility for the deeds of the past as part of their history. The righteous among the Polish, those who aided Jews at the risk of their lives, are highlighted as they should be. But there is no mention, no acknowledgment, of the perpetrators among them.

So we are left wanting to scream to the world on this eve of Yom Hashoah. But what do we scream? For what purpose did we come out of this Mitzrayim, this Egyptian enslavement? Hopefully tomorrow, as we march through the divided sea with thousand all around us, we will have our answer.

Laila tov,
Rabbi Craig Scheff

Atypical Shabbat in Warsaw – Day Three

Cold. Wet. Gray. Like the grainy images we have all seen of past Jewish life in Poland. That is the way I imagine Warsaw, and every other city in which Jews were crowded into just 70 years ago on the eve of their destruction. And that is the city of Warsaw that we experienced today.

After a Shabbat morning service and Torah study, we headed to explore the new Museum of Jewish Life in Poland, slated to open in October. We were all deeply affected by our docent, Martha, who clearly had not anticipated our questions. Sure, she could describe the construction and architecture of the museum. She could address each period of Jewish life in Poland. But when asked about her own identity, she seemed taken aback. The daughter of a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, she was raised in a home where Communism was the official family religion. A class trip to Israel reintroduced her to her ancestry, and after five years in Israel and a brief stay in America, she returned to Poland to reclaim her past. Now, she sees it as her mission to restore the place of the Jews in Poland’s historical narrative. It was powerful to see a personal struggle to rediscover an identity; it was inspiring to learn this perspective on why we are here.

While the museum’s emphasis is the many contributions of Jewish life in Poland, our walking tour of the monuments to Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto certainly took us back to the suffering of the Jewish people in this place. We were cold and wet as we sloshed through the gray landscape. But we did not dare complain. We were all acutely aware that we had sturdy shoes, multiple layers of clothing, some of us had gloves, and all of us were fed and headed ultimately for shelter. Who were we to complain, especially standing in the footsteps of those whom we were here to remember.

The topic of our Torah study this morning, from today’s parasha Kedoshim, was the Torah’s commandments not to stand idly by the suffering of our brothers, not to hate others in our hearts, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Tonight, as we put our heads to our feathery soft pillows, we are confronted by challenges that make sleep elusive. How can we begin to empathize with the suffering of the Holocaust’s victims without feeding the flames of anger and hatred? How do we formulate an active and instructive response to these events such that we become more attuned to the suffering of others, be they Jewish or not? How do we own this victimization without victimizing others?

Tonight, international stage and synagogue star Dudu Fisher sang us songs of lament, prayer and hope. It was a poignant way to bring in the new week and the difficult commemoration ahead. I pray I can find the one melody that will bring me just a little sleep before the sun rises to the new day.

Laila tov,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

I am a Jew – Days 1 and 2 of OJC’s March of the Living

Traveling to Eastern Europe with a congregational tour is nothing like traveling to Israel. It is one thing to be greeted gruffly by an El Al security guard or bumped aside by a Jewish grandmother trying to be the first to the overhead bin; it is another thing altogether to be identified so easily as an outsider. Okay, maybe it is just in my head. But that’s the only place that really matters as I reflect on the meaning of this trip to Warsaw and this growing feeling of anticipation.

I am a Jew. I feel it most acutely when I am traveling abroad, especially headed for Poland. I am identified by my language, my idioms, my jeans and my kippah. My conversation with the person next to me invites curiosity, apologetics, perhaps a touch of pity (and a measure of resentment?). Must we live in the past? Must we dwell on the horrors? Must we constantly remind others of our suffering? Must we be so overtly distinctive? And yet, as I go through customs to board the plane from Frankfurt to Warsaw on this morning, I have never been more proud to be a Jew.

I am a Jew. And I am headed back to the place where it was made clear, on more than one occasion throughout the history of Europe, that the Jews were not wanted. I am soon to set foot in the land of my grandparents’ birth, the site of my namesake’s death. (My great uncle Shmiel was an officer in the Polish army. He died in World War II defending his home, even while his wife and children were buried alive there. The rest of my family escaped to much brighter futures, while he chose to stay behind.) Still, I ask myself as a Jew, what is my mission?

I am a Jew. So I will go to the ancient synagogue, and I will see the restored town center, and I will visit the Jewish cemetery and the site of the ghetto. I will struggle with the significance of an enlarged photo of long-gone Jewish life decorating a remaining ghetto facade in the middle of a bustling city.

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But I will also pray with the new Warsaw Jewish progressive community. And I will share Shabbat dinner with hundreds of others from around the world sharing my journey. And I will make Shabbat in a place that is not my own, but guard it dearly nonetheless.

I am a Jew, and I am here. In spite of history and to spite history. In the name of my family and in revenge for the atrocities. In solidarity with my community and in testimony to the world. In prayer for humanity. Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.

Shabbat shalom from Warsaw,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Bashana haba-ah B’Yerushalayim

ImageIf we say, “Next year in Jerusalem” at a seder in New York, what do we say when we make a seder in Jerusalem?  The answer is that we still say, “Next year in Jerusalem” because we pray to be in Yerusalayim L’Malah, Jerusalem on High, the future Utopian time when all will be peace. Singing about being in Jerusalem is a moment of hope and open-heartedness every year at the end of the seder, but this year, actually sitting at a seder in Jerusalem, I felt even more optimistic. 

We made our seder with my brother Eric and lots of my cousins at a hotel in Jerusalem.  As I looked around the large ballroom, I saw tables of thirty and tables of three.  There were Jews in white shirts and black pants, Jews dressed in high fashion, and Jews in jeans. As each table began to sing “Dayenu,” we heard more different tunes than I thought possible. There were tables that were being served dinner before our table asked even the second of the four questions.  While we sat at the table singing for a long time, we still were not the last table in the room. Every kind of Jew in Israel celebrates Pesach. Walking back through the streets of French Hill to our apartment at close to 1:00 a.m. I felt that anything is possible. Next year in Jerusalem.

We have been spending Chol HaMoed (the middle days of Passover) with Sarah’s boyfriend Sagi’s family on Kibbutz Mefalsim (next to Sederot, in the south), mountain biking and hiking.  Everywhere we go, we see Israeli families enjoying the Passover vacation.  It is the gift of Israel to be on the same calendar with everyone else!  If I am hoping for next year in Jerusalem, so are all the other Jews I see.Image

ImageOur youngest, Joshua, announced his intention to make aliya and follow his sister’s footsteps into the IDF.  We couldn’t be more proud.  With the great possibility of two out of four of the Drill children making lives in Israel, it will really be true for many years to come that we’ll be saying, in a real way, “Next year in Jerusalem.”  As a Jew with faith, optimism and a belief in Jewish destiny, I will always say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” I’ll say it when I am here for Pesach, here among people living according to the Jewish calendar, here as a mother of Israeli offspring.  I’ll say it when I am with all of you at the OJC for Pesach, among the people in the congregation that I love. My task never sways from working to bring about a better day for all humanity.  Bashana haba-ah B’Yerushalayim.  

L’hitraot, See you all soon!   B’yedidut, with friendship,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

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