Archive | September 2014

Make today remarkable

Over the past few days, I have been approached by several individuals who have expressed appreciation for my Rosh Hashanah message, sharing with me how the words I shared have taken hold in the rhythm of their daily lives. While I don’t have a full written text of my sermon, I do have some quotes that I can share. Leaving out the jokes and the stories, I offer you the essence of the message. I hope you will pass it along, and perhaps we can truly shape the world for the better in the year ahead.

From the movie 500 Days of Summer: “Most days of the year are unremarkable. They begin and they end with no lasting memory made in between. Most days have no impact on the course of a life.” What a sad and cynical way to approach a new day. What if we could make every day remarkable? What if each day had one lasting memory, one moment in which we affected someone else for the better? How would the course of our lives be changed?

Our patriarch Abraham committed a single act of kindness, welcoming three strangers into his tent, and in so doing he set a series of events into motion, changing the course of history. His ideology, built upon the performance of deeds that move the world deeper into relationship with the Creator of us all, is still the best ideology to bring about a victory of good over evil. The good deed changes the world; it latches onto our soul. Our acts of goodness reverberate through our souls for eternity.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action, rather than a leap of thought.” Indeed, our prayers are empty if they are not accompanied by action. And those actions need not be super-human, heroic or even self-sacrificing. They just need to be offered with the proper intention, and with the courage and pride to be performed as a Jew performing a mitzvah in the world. We wear the garb of our favorite sports heroes and teams (and I tip my hat to Derek Jeter), associating ourselves with others and with a cause. How much more so must we be prepared to identify ourselves and our mitzvahs as Jewish? Not that we must wear kippot in public as I do, but we must find the hat, the jewelry or the bumper magnet that will let people know whom we are and for what we stand.

Seventy-five years ago, our enemies labeled us with stars and the word “Jew” on our sleeves; the symbols identified us as vermin, disease, and the source of all of society’s ills. There are those who still attempt to cast the Jew in the same light, out of ignorance, fear and hatred. The battles against terror and evil around the world today will be fought with bombs and bullets, but the war is ultimately one of competing ideologies. And if we are to win this war, we must carry our Jewish identity with pride. We must let our deeds define us, as Jews and as human beings who seek the triumph of good.

Two weeks ago, we invited our synagogue’s neighborhood to join us in the building for some long-overdue introductions, refreshments and a tour. Our neighbors finally got to meet the people and see the space on the other side of the stained-glass wall that faces the street. It was an evening of breaking the ice, of tearing down barriers, of creating new relationships, of fighting back against the darkness. And it was a night that changed our small corner of the world. Call me an idealist, call me naïve; but I saw the world change before my eyes, and I felt it as I walked the streets of my neighborhood the next day. My world has been changed forever.

Especially in light of–and in spite of–the spread of anti-Semitism around the world and the ignorance that persists in our own back yards, we must wear our Jewish stars on our sleeves more visibly than ever. We must allow our deeds to define us as Jews more visibly than ever. We must, in this new year of 5775, fight back against the darkness with the light of our shining individual deeds that can transform our days, our lives and the world around us.

Shanah tovah and g’mar chatimah tovah,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Casting Away

Will you be among the two hundred congregants of the OJC who walk to the stream behind the Tappan Library on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashana to cast away our sins? With bread in our pockets and good intentions in our hearts, we perform the ritual of Tashlich. We recite the words of the prophet Micah: “You will return to us compassionately, overcoming the consequences of our sin, hurling our sins into the depths of the sea.” We throw crumbs into the flowing river, hoping to cast away our sins, and Rabbi Scheff blows the shofar to remind us to “wake up.”

Tashlich river

(Every year a family of ducks joins us to eat up all those crumbs. I am convinced that youngsters in our community believe that on the first day of Rosh Hashana we fulfill some commandment to feed the ducks, but that is another story for another blog entry!)

Ducks at tashlich

This past week, adult students considered the deeply personal and often difficult work of Heshbon haNefesh, an Accounting of the Soul, in preparation for Rosh haShana which arrives in just one week. Studying a poem about Tashlich, we wondered if it is truly possible to cast off sin, or if that is even a useful metaphor for the change we hope to effect in ourselves.

Casting Away

We cast into the depths of the sea
our sins, and failures, and regrets.
Reflections of our imperfect selves
flow away.
What can we bear
with what can we bear to part?
We upturn the darkness,
bring what is buried to light.
What hurts still lodge,
what wounds have yet to heal?
We empty our hands,
release the remnants of shame,
let go of fear and despair
that have dug their home in us.
Open hands,
opening heart —
The year flows out,
the year flows in.

Marcia Falk

The verses of Micah we recite at Tashlich are full of power and terror as we ask God to “hurl our sins into the depths of the sea.” Falk envisions a different path for us into the new year. A wave approaches and then pulls back, there is ebb and flow. Once we do the difficult work of bringing to light all that we have buried, we just release it by opening our hands. In so doing, we open our hearts. In this way, we start anew.

Perhaps the work of Rosh Hashana does not need to be so frightening after all. There is urgency and seriousness, yes. But maybe change is truly a process. We remember to engage with our souls, with community and with God at the new year, but if we don’t get it just right by the end of Yom Kippur, maybe it is okay. We have the next day and the next. If each day is filled with moments for change, any one of those moments is perfectly suited for us to become our best selves. Rosh Hashana is a great reminder of the way we are supposed to live our lives every day of the entire year.

Join us for Tashlich this year, leaving from the OJC on September 25 at 5:30 pm.


Praying for a new year of peace, positive change and good health,
L’shana tova, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

First responders

This morning I participated in a memorial service at the fire house in Tappan. Police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians from around our community came to give honor to the fallen. Equally as important to the remembrance of the deceased, however, was the honor given to those who were present in the tragedy’s aftermath: Construction workers who came into the city to dig through the rubble for survivors; civil servants who took extra shifts just to serve water to the weary; clergy who trekked across the country to stand beside others who so clearly needed help finding the words to a prayer.


This week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, details the blessings we realize as a consequence of living according to God’s commandments, and the curses we experience in disregarding the same. Torah teaches us that to live in a constant state of dread is a curse. We should not be constantly looking over our shoulder, worrying about what tragedy will befall us next. That is the life of the cursed. We can, however, choose to live life as first responders. We can choose a life of action, a life of courage, a life of readiness to step into the breach. We can choose to know our neighbors and to express our love for them through our deeds. We can confront hatred with kindness, fanaticism with moderation, fear with hope. In so doing, we will go to sleep at night with clear consciences and awaken to mornings of possibility, productivity and hope. We can revisit those early post-9/11 days, recommit ourselves with determination and vigilance in the battle against all forms of extremism, and give gratitude for the freedoms we have as Americans.

May God bless America, may God bless the souls of those we remember this day, and may God bless us with the wisdom to recognize the blessings that accompany us daily.

Rabbi Craig Scheff


Filling My Mind and Soul with Israel

On Wednesday, I boarded a 5:45 am train for Washington, D.C. filled with excitement and anticipation of a day filled with learning at the National Rabbinic Symposium of AIPAC. When I arrived home late that night, I felt satisfied that I had been correct. One may wonder how a day spent discussing the difficult, intractable current affairs of Israel could possibly be uplifting, but it was just that. Surrounded by 250 rabbinic colleagues hearing from great thinkers and actors on the stage of Israel affairs, I felt supported and optimistic. Why? As always at AIPAC events, I was reminded of the incredible difference one person can make by exercising her American right to be an advocate for a cause. The cause of AIPAC is protecting and enhancing the American-Israel relationship. Throughout the day, one of my friends kept chanting, “Thank God, Thank God, Thank God for America’s friendship” every time the Iron Dome Defense System was mentioned. I was reminded all day that America is Israel’s staunch ally.
How much more talking and listening can we do about Israel, you may ask. All summer we wrote and read and talked about Israel. Rabbi Scheff and I will both be speaking about Israel on Yom Kippur — me at Kol Nidre and Rabbi Scheff on Yom Kippur morning. The answer is that we will not stop talking about Israel and that was the point of yesterday’s symposium.
I share with you now just one moment of learning in the midst of seven hours of speakers, discussion groups and presentations. At the lunchtime plenary, we were honored to meet and listen to Mosab Hassan Yousef, author of Son of Hamas, his autobiography about his childhood in Ramallah, his work as a spy for the Shin Bet (Mossad) for ten years and his eventual asylum here in America. Mosab’s father is Seikh Hassan Yousef, is a founding leader of Hamas, yet this son came to understand that murder and violence are not answers to the issues of Israel and her Arab neighbors. It felt like all of us in the room were holding our breath as Mosab shared his story with calm humility and courage. He does not believe that he is a hero; rather, he feels that he is a person who came to understand that saving even one life is worth the world. He was asked how he would bring peace to the Middle East given all that he knows about Hamas, Gaza and the West Bank, Israel and America. I cannot stop thinking about his answer. He looked out at all of us and said, “The only thing I can say is Israel must protect herself.” When all is said and done, he is right. Israel must protect herself, but she cannot do it without us. And so we must continue to protect Israel. That is why we’ll continue to read, write, talk and discuss Israel. Am Yisrael Chai!
Kol tuv, All the best, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

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