Archive | November 2014

The Chutzpah of Gratitude

Those pilgrims who established the first Thanksgiving back in1621 had some chutzpah celebrating gratitude. Fleeing religious persecution, they sailed through dangerous waters, accidentally ending up in Massachusetts instead of Virginia. Arriving in winter, they endured bitter cold, food shortages, bewildering farming practices, insufficient shelter, illness and despair. Within a short time, many had died. When we imagine being one of those pilgrims, it becomes clear that it was an act of faith and courage to sit down with new neighbors and give thanks.


For what did they feel grateful? Perhaps their thanksgiving was an acknowledgement that despite trials and sorrows, it was still necessary to experience gratitude. Perhaps… their gratitude was an antidote to the painful life that was their lot.

Today many of us also struggle. We experience personal challenges, illness, death, family conflict, unemployment. Gratitude is not an emotion that always comes naturally, but Judaism teaches that gratitude is not a choice. As Jews, the expression of thanksgiving is not conditional on whether we have all that we want.

The Talmud teaches that each time we benefit from something in this world, it should be preceded by the recitation of a blessing. Otherwise, we are labeled a thief, stealing from God or the community in which we live. Jews recite berakhot (blessings) to acknowledge the One who provides everything. Jews become blessings when we express our gratitude for the good that is ours by acts of loving kindness toward others. As God’s partners, such behavior is required.

This past weekend, the Orangetown Jewish Center once again remembered to show our gratitude for all the good that is ours by becoming blessings to each other and the general community. For the first time, Mitzvah Day became Mitzvah Weekend. Thanks to the passion and capable organization of Co-Chairs Lorraine Brown and Carolyn Wodar, hundreds of congregants of every age and stage participated in some part of the experience.

After welcoming the Orangeburg Library Interfaith Study Group to Friday evening services led by our youth, seventy congregants gathered for Dinner and Dialogue. We hosted Andrea Weinberger and Rob Grosser, co-presidents of Rockland County Jewish Federation ( and learned together about the organization that anchors all tzedaka in our community, Israel, and around the globe.

On Shabbat morning, just returned from the annual volunteer Mitzvah Mission to Israel with twenty OJCers, Rabbi Scheff reminded us that performing mitzvoth requires stepping out of our comfort zones. Guests from neighboring faith communities joined us at the end of Shabbat for Havdalah and guided conversation to learn about each others’ traditions and beliefs.

Baking for Breakfast Run

Sunday was the culmination of months of planning as congregants volunteered from early morning with Keep Rockland Beautiful and the annual Breakfast Run to deliver warm blankets and food. Throughout the day, congregants danced to Zumba for United Hospice of Rockland (, learned about TAPS ( (support for widows and orphans of American servicemen and women) from CFO (and congregant) Scott Rutter, created flannel blankets and other craft projects for area hospitals and nursing facilities, and went out to visit patients and residents in those places. The day concluded with congregants being invited to minyanim in their neighborhoods.

More placemats for Helen HayesLaurie's crew in the kitchen

As many of us enter into the joy and contentment of celebrating Thanksgiving, it is important to remember that for many this time offers neither joy nor contentment. What can we do? If we are surrounded by an abundance of blessings, we can give thanks and become blessings to others.   If this time of year emphasizes feelings of need and sadness, still we can find ways to give thanks. All of us can show gratitude to God by becoming blessings to each other. We can offer gratitude as a celebration of God’s gifts or as an antidote to despair.

May you be a blessing,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Mitzvah Mission 2014, Day 5 – Israel is real

Our last day in Israel began with a disturbing yet eye-opening incident. Our morning prayers were somewhat incomplete because we had to pray without a Torah. Why? Because the desk manager of our hotel, who made the call to request that the Torah be made available, was told that because we were not an Orthodox group, we could not have access to the Torah. Later in the day, apologies were aplenty, as the management of the hotel took responsibility for its error. They explained to us that they had more than one source for Torahs, and were happy to offer Torahs to non-orthodox groups. But for just a moment, we were reminded that Israel is still a deeply imperfect society. Unfortunately, our fight for religious pluralism and equal recognition as Jews must continue, and it is a battle in which we must be participants. Our prayer Friday morning in the courtyard of the hotel served as a statement of protest for all to see as much as it was a fulfillment of our desire to praise God in Jeruslaem.
Courtyard prayer
After breakfast, we headed to Yad Ezra, a local food bank, where we prepared dozens of care packages for the needy. Another eye-pening reality: one third of Israel’s children lives under the poverty line, one more fact reflecting that Israel has a long way to go before it can fully realize the Zionist dream. We worked with energy alongside some very kind-hearted and hard-working volunteers from the community. It was gratifying to see the truck load of packages that were going out to help families for the approaching Shabbat.
Yad Ezra 2
Yad Ezra 3Amid such a day of recognizing that Israel is indeed a real country with real problems, our final stop was among our most rewarding. We descended to the southern end of the Western Wall as an egalitarian community. We prayed the mincha (afternoon) service together, adding prayers for our congregation, the State of Israel, and those suffering illness. We sat together among the ancient stones and offered blessings of thanksgiving for the experience we had shared, we shed a few tears, and we offered each other warm embraces.
KotelBefore any of us had departed for the airport, we had already begun planning the mission for 2015. It will be celebrated as a special mission, in light of the fact that it will be our 10th consecutive annual trip. And just in case you wanted to know, the dates are November 15-20, 2015. Wanna come?
I look forward to sharing some reflections with you tomorrow morning. Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Craig Scheff


Mitzvah Mission 2014, Day 4 – Coming home

As we stood together under a warm morning sun, we contemplated spending the day on the beach; how easy and quiet and careless a day we could have. But when you are home, you don’t ever really escape the demands of the real world. And we are indeed home. There was work to be done.

Our JNF guide described our task of the day in these terms. When you are serving for Israel. you are doing something that extends far beyond your self. You are preserving the capital on an investment for a people, for a story, for a future. So we put on our gloves and got to work. Hard work. A few of us bled from the thorns that cut our skin, some of us perspired through our shirts, and all of us got soil in our shoes. In an area of the Carmel mountains where a fire in 2010 had taken 44 lives and devastated much of the vegetation, we cleared thick brush to create a fire break that would slow the progress of any future fire. (See the before and after!)


After lunch, we climbed to Jerusalem in song, and arrived at the overlook to the city just as the sun was shedding its last rays on the golden Dome of the Rock. From where we stood, one might have thought that peace in the Holy City had finally been realized. In the quiet moment, we sanctified the experience with a blessing, and recognized the shared commitment and reciprocal inspiration that brought us to this place and time.


We shared dinner in the new “train” station with some friends who joined us for dinner, including Ben Varon, who had just arrived to share the end of our mission with mom Linda, and Bradley Goldman, who is here studying for the year with the Nativ gap year program. One could sense a bit of nostalgia creeping in among the group as the evening came to an end.


It’s never easy leaving home.

Rabbi Craig Scheff


News from Far (Israel) and Near (East Ramapo)

Shalom Chaverim,

The news this morning from Jerusalem was shocking and tragic. As soon as I woke up, I checked the news from Israel as I always do. Reading about a brutal murder of four Jews davenning their morning prayers in their shul, I called my friend Rena in Jerusalem. “What a long, lonely day this has been,” she told me. “I have been alone here in Israel with this news since 7:00 this morning, while all of my loved ones in America were sleeping. Now that morning is arriving in America, I have to go through the story again and again, as you wake up on the East Coast, then my family in the Midwest, and then on to California.”

By now you have read Rabbi Scheff’s blog, so you know that our fellow OJCers on the Volunteer Work Mission are far from Jerusalem, up in the North. They are all safe, but like us, their hearts are broken. Truly, this is the meaning of Am Echad, One People: When one of us is hurt, we are all hurt.

Call your friends and family in Israel today. Tell them that we are thinking of them. We are well aware of the shocking terrorist attacks that have been happening in these last few weeks, and we care deeply about the people of Israel. As my friend Rena said, they are feeling lonely.

Closer to home, last evening the State Appointed Monitor, Hank Greenberg, gave his report to the Chancellery in Albany after months of research into the crisis in the East Ramapo Central School District. As I listened to the live broadcast, I felt both proud of the work that the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice has done and undaunted, knowing how much work lies ahead. You can view an archive of the broadcast for a limited period of time. Copy and paste this link into your browser:

Please consider the dozen volunteers who are spending time at the Early Childhood Center at the Kakiat School. When I go to help in Mrs. Greenwood’s classroom, I experience in my very being the urgency of the issue of the education of the children of our county. Contact Sally Kagan: or call 845-290-0085.

With prayers for peace and blessings, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Mitzvah Mission 2014 Day 3

There is a sense of safety that we feel being in the land of Israel. It is so hard to explain logically, especially given the terrible massacre at Har Nof this morning. With the ocean to our west, we faced Jerusalem to daven the morning service, wrapped by the swirling breeze off the Mediterranean.

imageThere are many troubling aspects about this morning’s terror attack, from the timing to the place, the setting, and the methods. Of particular concern to the Israelis we encountered throughout the day is the fact that this attack did not occur in some West Bank town. The quiet neighborhood in the far west of Jerusalem represents every person’s neighborhood. The synagogue at the time of prayer represents the most secure of hours. That sense of tranquility and security was shattered this morning, and the reverberations were felt throughout the day.

imageLike everyone else, we threw ourselves into our work. As we painted, we sang Al kol eileh (“For the bitter and the sweet”), so appropriate for the mixed emotions we were experiencing. Surrounded by children scarred by their abusive homes and a society scarred by the abuse of her neighbors, we recommitted ourselves to creating something remarkable through which our impact would be felt. (Okay, some of us worked, and others of us directed!)

We wrapped up our work and admired the gallery of work that will adorn the walls of the children we served.


After an emotional goodbye with Yoav, Ahava’s executive director, we visited the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology), Israel’s first institute of higher learning founded in 1912. Danny Shapiro, Director of Public Affairs and a longtime friend of our own Aram Schwartz, presented us with a history of the institute. The Technion, in its first century, has responded to each of Israel’s needs, ranging from the development of its infrastructure to the development of the Iron Dome. It represents the bright, optimistic, hopeful side of Israel as a producer and exporter of creativity, self-reliance, medical and technological advancement.

Tonight, as I write this blog, the sounds of a public singalong could be heard in the hotel lobby, reminding us all that this is Israel. We sing, we celebrate life, and we awaken to each day with a sense of purpose. Tonight, we all feel safe.

Laila tov,

Rabbi Craig Scheff


Pictures are worth…

We knew from the start that Day Two of the Orangetown Jewish Center’s 2014 Mitzvah Mission was going to be a day of powerful impressions. Linda Varon started the morning with reading Torah for us from the Sephardic Torah, always a special treat!

Blog 2

The sun came up over the bay of Akko, the rain fell for a while, and a rainbow shot across the sky as we were preparing to load the bus for Kfar Ahava.

Blog rainbow

If anyone told you that you would be spending the majority of your day painting pictures of Winnie the Pooh or Alladin, you might think, “This is what we travelled thousands of miles to do for Israel?”

Blog 1Blog painting

Understanding the plight of these young at-risk children and the unusual circumstances under which they are raised, however, quickly changes our understanding of what a picture can add to a child’s self-esteem. The murals we are creating will add color, smiles and love to the lives of the children who will open their eyes each morning to the vibrant characters.

We shared lunch with the kids and their foster families. I even had a surprise visit from my sister!

Blog sister

After a day of exercising our fine motor skills, we drove to Zichron Yaakov, where we were welcomed with generous hospitality by OJC’s Yoel Ledany and his new wife Batya in their beautiful home. Over dinner, Josh Drill, who is performing a preparatory year of leadership training before entering the army, shared with us his experiences and reflected on his new social and spiritual environment.

Blog 6

Blog Josh


After a full day, you’d think the gang was ready for some sleep before we tackle Day Three. But no one seems to have lost their bounce yet!

Blog tigger



Mitzvah Mission to Israel Day One

Sunday, November 16

Akko, Israel

Over the next few days, a group of congregants from the OJC, ranging in number from 18 to 21, will be kicking off Mitzvah Weekend with our ninth annual mitzvah mission in Israel. The work may be taxing, it may be easy; it may be with children, or with the land, or with cans of food and boxes of dry goods. Ultimately, the nature of our work doesn’t matter as much as the purpose. We are here on a mission to serve, to give back, to do our part in bringing support, comfort and love in the way we know best: through acts of self-sacrifice and loving kindness.

This experience is unlike any Israel tour one will ever take. Not much sight-seeing. Plenty of purpose.

I hope you will follow our activities and experiences. To do so, log on to at the end of each day. Or better yet, subscribe to our blog the first time you go there, and it will automatically be delivered to your inbox each day.

Plenty of rain here this evening. For Israel, it is a blessing. Rain or shine, we pray that the work of our hands will be a blessing to the State, the Land, and the People of Israel in the days ahead.

Laila tov,
Rabbi Craig Scheff


The 2013 Pew Research Center’s recent survey of the American Jewish community reported that, among those people who identify themselves as Jewish, a whopping 73 percent say that remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. That element of Jewish identity received the highest response rate, outpacing other suggested elements such as leading an ethical life (69 percent), caring about Israel (43 percent) and being part of a Jewish community (28 percent). Why does this element of Jewish identity receive such prominence? Is it the guilt that would accompany not remembering, the notion that we might afford Hitler (may his name be blotted out) a posthumous victory if we forget? Is it the particularistic notion that we must remain vigilant against our enemies who are constantly seeking to eliminate us? Is it the universal lesson that makes us better human beings because we will not idly stand by the persecution of any group?

This past Sunday night we commemorated Kristalnacht, the 76th anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass, the event that many say was the official starting point of the Holocaust. German Jewish shops were destroyed, men were beaten, detained and killed, synagogues burned. And rescue workers stood by to make sure that the fires didn’t spread to the neighboring non-Jewish homes and businesses.

The Rockland community observed the commemoration ceremony this year at the OJC. Over 200 people gathered to see the presentation of colors by the Jewish War Veterans, to hear the words of County Legislator Harriett Cornell and the personal testimony of survivor Paul Galan, and to stand in solemn solidarity with the 30 teens holding candles as the words of El Maleh Rachamim, the Jewish memorial prayer, filled the sanctuary.

Kristalnacht sanctuary

As I think about the surprising Pew survey statistics, I can understand the relatively high importance we place on remembering the Holocaust in light of what I witnessed Sunday night. I felt our children’s hearts swell with pride as they watched our Jewish veterans salute the American flag, pledge allegiance and sing Hatikvah.

Kristalnacht veterans

I felt our children’s souls ignited by the memorial candles they held. I felt our children’s minds understand at a level beyond words what it means to remember. Our children recognized that Jewish remembering is not passive. Our remembering is an obligation we fulfill that shapes our Judaism, our identity as Americans, and our humanity. For our children, the lessons of the Holocaust also inform their obligation to defend the values for which they stand, and shape their responses to social issues they confront on a regular basis, like bullying and intolerance. The Holocaust is six million individual Jewish stories of vulnerability, fear, insecurity, cruelty, powerlessness, hope, courage, faith, redemption and love. It is the story of our people as much as the exodus from Egypt, and it is a part of our narrative that must be told.

How will you remember? Participate in our Kaddish project. Match yourself with an individual who died in the Holocaust with no one left to observe their yahrzeit. Learn their story. Say Kaddish for them. Contact Larry Suchoff, our Holocaust Remembrance Committee chairperson, or just walk into the OJC office, to adopt a story. Perhaps remembering the Holocaust will become an essential part of what being Jewish means to you.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

An Exclamation Point and not a Question Mark

I had the privilege to attend the Annual Benefit for the Rockland County Holocaust Museum and Study Center on Sunday, November 2nd. The plan to construct a captivating, interactive center in space given to the Museum by Rockland Community College means that the mission of our Holocaust Museum and Study Center will continue and expand. The Museum is the place where the Jewish community fulfills our obligation to remember and where citizens of all cultures and faiths learn lessons of acceptance and tolerance.

Deborah Lipstadt

Sunday’s speaker, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, shared the frightening and depressing picture of anti-Semitism that we have been reading about for several years. Anti-Semitism is rampant in the world and cannot be dismissed as an aberration in time or as anchored only in one quadrant of the world. She cautioned us, however, not to equate the violence and hatred being experienced now with that of the beginnings of the Holocaust, violence which at that time was State sponsored.

Lipstadt emphasized that seventy years after the Holocaust, many Jews in Europe no longer feel safe. As she wrote in a New York Times article on August 20, 2014, “Hiring an armed guard to protect people coming for weekly prayer is not the action of a secure people. In too many cities worldwide, directions to the local synagogue conclude with, ‘You will recognize it by the police car in front of the building.’”

While she did not diminish the necessity of concern for all who value a free, democratic, open, multicultural and enlightened society, she did urge us to refuse the lachrymose theory of Jewish history. As historian Salo Baron said decades ago, we can choose to see the story of the Jewish people in chapters that jump from pogrom to pogrom or we can choose to look at the great triumphs in scholarship, culture and world impact in between those pogroms. When we say, “I am a Jew” we must say it with an exclamation point and not with a question mark.

How then do we teach a new generation that being a Jew is about more than a history of physical and emotional attacks? How do we teach the Holocaust in a way that instills Jewish pride? How do we raise children secure enough to wear a Jewish star or a kipa in public?  According to Lipstadt, the answer is that we identify as Jews not because of anti-Semitism, but af al pidespite anti-Semitism.

At the Orangetown Jewish Center, we can begin the process now. We are proud to be this year’s host for the Holocaust Museum and Study Center Annual Kristallnacht Commemoration on Sunday, November 9 at 5:00 pm.

Bring your middle school and older children to participate in a candle lighting ritual. Learn from Museum President Paul Galan. The time is now to say that we are proud Jews despite anti-Semitism. The time is now to say, “I am a Jew” and complete that statement with an exclamation point.

I am a Jew!   Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

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