This past week we observed Memorial Day. In synagogue we read the names of Jewish soldiers who have been killed defending America since 2001 and took a moment of silence to reflect on those sacrifices. On Tuesday night and Wednesday, we celebrated Yom Yerushalayim, a joyful day to remember the miracle of the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.
On Sunday, June 1st, Orangetown Jewish Center congregants and our Rockland County friends will join with thousands from the tri-state area to walk down Fifth Avenue in the Israel Day Parade. (For information about the parade, go to the Rockland Jewish Federation website: http://www.jewishrockland.org.) Rabbi Scheff and I hope that you’ll join us there. So often, our Jewish selves and our American selves weave together and separate and weave together again.
This past Shabbat, I asked our congregation to stand if Israel is their home. A vast majority of people in the sanctuary was standing. For some like our Israeli congregants whose families are all there, Israel is the place to which they return when they go home. For some like Rabbi Scheff’s sister and her husband and my daughter Sarah, Israel actually is their home. For others like my son Josh who recently announced his plans for aliya, Israel will be their home.
What about the rest of us? We identify Israel as home. We are Zionists who understand the need to support and advocate for a home for the Jewish people in the land of Israel. We travel there as often as we can. Shouldn’t we be living there? What are we doing here?
I suggested this past Shabbat that there are two important ways to be Zionists: to be there and to be here. In the first century of the common era, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that Judaism is a palace floating atop two ships at sea: one is Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) and the other is Galut (Jews outside of Israel). Without both ships staying afloat, said this rabbi of the Mishnah, Judaism would topple. This palace atop two ships imagery is important to this day.
Two of my children will live out their Zionism in Israel, protecting the state by serving in the IDF and then studying, working and establishing themselves as adults in Israel. Two of my children will live out their Zionism in America, protecting the state of Israel by their support and advocacy as they establish their lives here in the U.S. If the metaphor of the palace holds true, then Judaism will remain safe, with both ships staying afloat. As long as the palace of Judaism is carried by Israel and the Diaspora, it will remain Or L’Goyim, a light to the nations, spreading our understanding of living with a moral compass — to the entire world.
With dreams of peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. It does not, however, tell the whole story. In the last week I have heard fourteen different commencement addresses and thousands of words about endings, beginnings, and all the living that needs to be done in between. I have also taken hundreds of snapshots (with my phone) of smiling faces, family, friends, triumphant moments and loving embraces. The speeches were of various lengths and tones, each resonating and inspiring in its own way. The pictures, too, conveyed messages that said so much about the passing of time, the love shared between brothers and the joy of being together.
The pictures, however, are snapshots (often staged!) of moments of joy. We delete the ones where someone’s eyes are closed or smile is off. They don’t tell the story of the energy and time, the arguments and lectures, the tears and laughter, and the worries and disappointments that every family experiences before reaching such moments. As I sat listening to the many words of wisdom being spoken to my son and his friends, I thought to myself, what will these experiences impart to us beyond the electronic photo album?
As my head was spinning with thoughts of how I would handle Scott’s transition out of college and Matthew’s transition into married life, all in the span of a very wonderful week, I came to realize that their transitions are also my own. And as such, I can offer the following as the most important life lesson for them to carry.
We are graced in life with moments of joy and we are burdened with an equal number of sorrows. We are disappointed and deflated when the ecstasy of our celebratory moment fades, leaving us with only pictures to relive the experience, while we allow the pain of our sorrows to gnaw and eat at us. But any picture-perfect happiness–when examined more closely–is pocked with imperfections, even as the darkest moments are pierced by rays of light, hope and kindness. The best advice I can offer is to take in the holiness of every moment. Recognize that our greatest joys and our greatest sorrows are so because they come from the same place of love. Life’s transitional moments of birth, death and everything in between are most special because they reflect our humanity and our divinity, our mortality and our Godliness. And, miraculously, that well of love is never emptied as we draw from it; it only fills to an ever-expanding capacity.
Shehechiyanu ve-kiyemanu ve-higeeyanu lazman hazeh.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Shy, I’m not! On a stage in front of a room of people, on the bima before a congregation, or in front of a video camera — it’s all just fine with me! When Judith Umlas and I first spoke about the idea of an interview format for her Rockland Jewish Family Service Author Series presentation (in partnership with the OJC), I knew that it would be a lot of fun. What I didn’t realize was how profound an experience it would be for me.
On Tuesday evening, our own Judy Umlas, author of three books (The Power of Acknowledgment, You’re Totally Awesome: The Power of Acknowledgment for Kids and Grateful Leadership) spoke about her calling to teach the simple yet life changing lessons of acknowledgment. Judy considers her writing and speaking about acknowledgment to be a fulfillment of the Jewish call to Tikkun Olam, repair of the world.
One of Judy’s favorite sayings is: “Gratitude – it’s not just a platitude.” In her teaching, Judy is clear that acknowledgment must be authentic and heartfelt. Surface thank-yous and thoughtless praise are not what true acknowledgment is all about. In answer to my questions on Tuesday night at the Rockland Jewish Community Campus, Judy shared real stories about people who changed lives by generously telling others that their actions and words matter. Thanking a barista for always remembering her coffee order made that young worker feel noticed and appreciated. She burst into tears. Telling a phone operator that she appreciated his going the extra mile shocked him. “No one ever says thank you,” he explained. “I only hear complaints.”
We practice acknowledgment with people who are not in our intimate circles so that we become adept enough to share our thanks and appreciation with those closest to us: co-workers, friends, partners, spouses and our children. For so many of us, acknowledgment does not come easily. We take our spouses for granted; we feel competitive with co-workers; we feel awkward showing gratitude to our friends. Judy convinced us all that the results are well worth the effort. Judy posts testimonies from people who experience heart-opening joy through giving and receiving acknowledgment each week on her blog, http://www.thepowerofacknowledgment.com.
Judy challenged the audience to complete a writing assignment she calls “Knock Your Socks Off.” At the end of the presentation, we sat quietly and wrote to any person we wanted to acknowledge. One woman thanked her postman for his consistency, dedication, and willingness to ensure that her slightly broken mail box was always closed tight. Another woman thanked her teachers for creating safe space and for always acknowledging their students. The evening could not have ended in a more precious way than the final audience member who shared her letter of acknowledgment. Judy and Bob’s daughter Stefany acknowledged her brother with a wonderful list of things that she appreciates about him.
We should all practice acknowledgment! I’ll start right now by sharing that Judy Umlas is a treasured congregant and friend in the OJC community. She shares her wisdom with generosity and humility, and I do believe that her work can repair the world.
With acknowledgment to all of you for reading our blog each week,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
This day brought the OJC’s 2014 March of the Living to a close, and our experience came full circle. The Sefer Torah that was completed in Auschwitz-Birkenau was accompanied by loving arms and dancing feet into the Kotel plaza. All religious politics aside for a moment, it was symbolically important and powerful to be surrounded by thousands who had marched with us in Poland and who now sang Hatikvah at our side. The Torah had arrived home, until its next March of the Living, when it will travel back to Poland to accompany the next round of marchers.
We were all a bit depleted upon awakening this morning; the celebration last night took a bit out of us! Nevertheless, we pushed ahead and hiked up to Castel, the strategic vantage point that overlooks the main road to Jerusalem, and that was captured by Yitzhak Rabin and the Harel Brigade on the eve of the 1948 War of Independence.
Our bus carefully wound its way through the hills and valleys outside Jerusalem to the 9/11 memorial, the only memorial to this date that exists outside of the United States. We paid homage to the names of the victims, and sang “America the Beautiful” and “Hatikvah” as we reflected on the nature of Israel’s independence and her special relationship with America.
From the depths of the valley we ascended to Ammunition Hill, site of another famous battle of the 1967 Six Day War, the place many consider to be the turning point that led to Israel reclaiming the Old City. Today, the IDF was exhibiting its latest technology to the general public. Barbecues abounded, as is traditional on this day, as children played atop military vehicles. How ironic that just yesterday we mourned the price of war, and today we celebrated our ability to engage–and be victorious–in war. I can’t deny the pride I experienced and the security I felt surrounded by these young, smart and devoted guardians of Israel. I just wonder what is the toll on the psyche of the developing mind and personality in particular, and on the society in general.
All this before noon! Our next stop was the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and the Cardo for–you guessed it–food and shopping! We walked down to the Kotel plaza, where we joined our fellow marchers to bring this year’s March to a close. From there, we walked (Oy, enough with the walking already!) to Notre Dame, home of the Pontifical Institute and guesthouse. We met Father Eamon Kelly, Vice Charge of the center, who took us to the rooftop to give us a 3-minute overview of the Bible using the majestic views to tell the story. His teaching was a universal message of coexistence, tikkun olam, and a shared responsibility to build upon our shared mission.
A leisurely dinner provided the opportunity and the venue to share our reflections, highlights, and appreciation for having shared this experience. I hope we can bring it home to you in a way that inspires you to be among the next to carry our love to, and for, Israel.
With God’s help, we will see each other soon. May it be only for days of celebration such as this one.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Today we observed Israel’s memorial day. We began our day with a cross country drive that took all of 90 minutes. We arrived at Atlit, a detention camp administered by the British before the founding of the state of Israel. Atlit housed the Maapilim, Jews who escaped Europe for Palestine without official documentation and in violation of quotas the British imposed in 1939. If captured, the Maapilim were taken from their boats to Atlit, where they were disrobed and disinfected, men and women were separated from one another, and a sometimes long and often boring waiting period began. But the dream of stepping foot in the promised land was enough to carry them through the dangerous voyage, one that felt all too much for some like a return to the concentration camps they were escaping.
A short ride through Haifa and we were back at Kfar Ahava. Most of the children were on their way home for the holiday, but after a tour of the grounds, we experienced the memorial created for the children. It was a powerful exhibit that spoke to all ages about the value of every life and every story. A candle had been saved for us to light, and we once again felt the warm embrace of the place that has adopted us as its own as much as we have adopted the place.
We returned to the hotel for an emotional afternoon meeting with representatives of TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), and a group of women and children who lost loved ones in service of the United States military and who are beneficiaries of the program. They are here as part of a joint program with the IDF’s Widows and Orphans Fund, and were participating in the Yom Hazikaron commemoration. They inspired us and left us humbled with their stories of courage, resilience and pride.
This evening we watched the ceremony that transitions the nation into its Independence Day celebration. For individuals who suffered personal loss, there is no transition into joy. For the nation, however, there is a collective exhale, filled with genuine joy, sincere appreciation, and heartfelt song. We stood in Jerusalem’s Safra Square surrounded by thousands who took to the streets to sing and dance. We marveled at the multiple generations that danced together and knew all the lyrics to the songs that have told the story of the nation for decades.
The dream, we realized, is alive and well. We exhaled from a long and emotional 24 hours. And we danced.
Happy 66th birthday, Israel!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Day 11 of our journey began with a beautiful morning minyan on the hotel terrace looking towards the Old City. We made a minyan for an older gentleman from Connecticut saying Kaddish for his mother. We were proud to be a community for him on this morning.
Over breakfast, Joan Kedem, a long-time friend of OJC and advocate for Israel’s lone soldiers, shared with us her latest efforts on behalf of the soldiers who serve in Israel without the support and/or presence of families.
Our first stop of the day was the City Planners’ Office. We examined the miniature model of the city, with all its current and proposed building projects reflected on the map. The lifelike representation helped orient us to the topography, and to understand the historical development and expansion of the city. We ascended to the rooftop to gaze at the real-life, breathtaking version of the city.
11am? Must be time for a winery visit! At Tzuba, we were introduced to the art of growing grapes, and to the production of kosher wines. We got a lesson in tasting, then fulfilled the obligation of four cups (is it Passover again already?), plus two ports, red and white, for dessert. Neeedles to say, wee were all shtarting to feel pritty good ’bout th day ahed….
A good dose of fresh air, lunch on Ben Yehuda street (I had Kosher McDonald’s, surprised?) and a brief shopping spree got us refocused for our next visit. At Our Crowd, we met with venture capitalist Élan Zivitofsky, who gave us an overview of the factors that have led to Israel’s status as the start-up nation.
After a brief respite back at our hotel, we headed to Hatzor, an Air Force base near my younger sister Randi’s home, where we had the opportunity to experience an opening ceremony of Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron. Ariel Brickman, former commander of the base and now General Manager of the Ramon Foundation, greeted us and brought us to our seats. While most of us didn’t understand the speeches, songs and poems that were shared, we were deeply affected by the sound of the 8pm siren that was observed in silence, the voices that gave expression to the pain of the many losses recalled, and the swell of unity and pride that was shared when we stood for Hatikvah. Following the hour-long ceremony for the base soldiers, their families, and the families of fallen pilots, we met (by chance!) with several American soldiers from an airborne division who are training with the Israeli pilots. They talked about their positive experiences with the Israelis, how moved they were by the outpouring of honor and respect paid to Israel’s fallen soldiers, and by the way Jewish people recall their loved ones. In turn, we were so proud to be represented by this fine group of American soldiers.
No alcohol is served tonight. Restaurants are closed for the evening. TV and radio stations carry no light entertainment. Soldiers’ stories and songs of loss fill the airwaves. It is a communal and individual time to remember, to reflect and to find strength and comfort in a nation-wide embrace.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Let’s see, where were we? Oh yes, Friday! Our first full day in Israel. We prayed on the hotel terrace toward the Old City in the morning, to the sounds of traffic and jackhammers and the sight of the national bird, the crane, all across the horizon. And there was not a more perfect sanctuary in the world.
Our major stop on Friday was Har Herzl. We bridged our Holocaust experience with the State of Israel by learning stories of those soldiers who gave their lives for the sake of building a homeland. Some of them Holocaust survivors, each of them representing a precious story. Rank, office, and title mean nothing in this national cemetery. Every grave represents a story that is meant to be told, and we were moved by so many. This cemetery is a place of life, in stark contrast to the cemeteries of Eastern Europe. And we were asked to build upon these stories as we move forward in our lives in celebration of this land.
We affirmed this covenant by visiting the bustling market of Machaneh Yehudah, where thousands busily jostled for position among the vendors to make their final Shabbat preparations. We sampled the many ethnic foods of Israeli culture, bumped into friends and strangers, shared several laughs, and headed back to the hotel.
We welcomed Shabbat in Ezarat Yisrael, the newly designated area for men and women to pray together at the Kotel. We sang and prayed, other visitors joined our community. As we finished Kabbalat Shabbat, a group of children led by my colleague, student and friend, Rabbi Ari Lucas, descended to the platform, gathered beside us, and the rabbi and children started their prayers. Our songs occasionally clashed, and at times we joined each other’s melodies. And I felt something that I have never felt before at the Kotel. Total joy.
The OJC group closed down the dining room with a rousing rendition of Birkat Hamazon, and we were all primed to enjoy a well-deserved Shabbat rest.
Shabbat was a day of joyful rest, with some of us sampling services at different synagogues, some of us enjoying a walking tour, and some of us playing with family at the pool. We joined Rabbi Jim Rosen (Ariella’s father) and the Beth El community from West Hartford for a discussion, Maariv and Havdallah.
We ushered in the 18th day of the Omer with dining, shopping and witnessing the streets of Jerusalem crowded with people at play.
As we head toward Memorial Day on Sunday night, I pray: To those who gave so selflessly in order for us to have such joy, we thank you and hope to be worthy of your sacrifice.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
With what seemed to be a shared burst of adrenaline, we were up and out early this morning to catch our flight to Israel. Predictably, by the time we all boarded the flight, we were crashing, physically and emotionally. Our spirits, however, were sensing that the moment to soar was fast approaching. We landed a bit late in Ben Gurion, but breezed through baggage claim and customs, met our agent, tour guide, driver and my sister, Randi, who shleps to the airport for nearly every trip I have ever taken to Israel to greet me with a hug, several kisses, lots of tears and ten whole minutes of my time.
Our first obligation was to fulfill the mitzvah of giving back to the land upon our entrance. We drove to Neot Kedumim, a scenic biblical landscape, home to every type of tree mentioned in the Torah and reminiscent of the land of milk and honey that God promised to the children of Israel. Under the warm and bright afternoon sun, we spoke prayers of thanksgiving that we had been restored to the land, and got down on our knees to plant olive trees in the soil.
Back aboard the bus, we settled in for the climb to Jerusalem. Sweet renditions of “If I forget thee O Jerusalem” filled our ears, and the glow of the stones reflecting the golden rays of the setting sun dazzled our eyes. We got off the bus at Yemin Moshe to view the Old City, and to share a bottle of wine, a long braided loaf of sweet challah, a song of Jerusalem, and a blessing thanking God for bringing us to this day.
We earned this day. From slavery to freedom, from degradation to exaltation, we have spent the last week bearing witness to moments of our people’s greatest suffering. As our tradition teaches, those who mourn her will be privileged to know her greatest joy. Today our spirits fly.
With Shabbat coming in tomorrow afternoon, I will take this opportunity to wish you a Shabbat shalom. We’ll have to wait until Sunday to catch up!
Rabbi Craig Scheff