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 (http://www.jewishrockland.org) 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.
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 (http://hospiceofrockland.org), learned about TAPS (http://www.taps.org) (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.
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 845-290-0085.
With prayers for peace and blessings, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
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.
There 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.
Like 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!)
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.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
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!
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.
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?”
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!
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.
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!
Sunday, November 16
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 blog.theojc.org 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.
Rabbi Craig Scheff