Archive | December 2014

Festival of the Daughters

What is a group of women doing in someone’s living room one night each month, introducing themselves with their matriarchal line and passing a candle from one to the next? We are celebrating Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish new month, a time designated by the rabbis as a festival for women. Rosh Chodesh Celebrations began this year to bring together women who are raising children at home for evenings of study, sharing and celebrating.
Each month our gatherings have been uplifting and meaningful. Through tears and laughter these women have found support and understanding in a close circle of OJC congregants, luxuriating in the gift of time dedicated to self and community.
Last night was a special Rosh Chodesh celebration as the group of younger moms met together with Sisters in Spirit, a group of OJC women whose nests are empty facilitated each month by Sally Kagan and Miriam Suchoff.
Rosh Chodesh Tevet is unique as it falls in the middle of a holiday, on the seventh night of Chanukah each year. Among the Jewish communities of North Africa, this auspicious night was designated as the Festival of the Daughters — a time for the generations to celebrate together. And so that is what the two Rosh Chodesh groups of the Orangetown Jewish Center did last night: we brought the generations together to celebrate.
One of the Rosh Chodesh Celebrations participants wrote about how much she enjoyed the special evening, “I always look to learn from the older, wiser and more experienced women (and men) in the world and often say that those sage people (like my dad) are hard to find these days. Their simple advice is so enlightening and comforting.”

Blessings 4

Together we lit the chanukiah and immediately felt the magic begin.

Second group with ChanukiahGroup with Chanukiah

After our opening ritual, Sally told the story of brave and wise Judith who saved the Jews who were under siege by the evil Holofernes. Sally’s storytelling technique was engaging and fun; you’ll have to ask her for a synopsis, but be sure to ask what she pulled out of her basket at the end of the story!
We used the lighting of seven candles to open us to seven questions about women we admire, blessings we would bestow on daughters, our own gifts to family, and more.

Hillary with candles

There were tears and words of support and much laughter. We concluded the evening with each woman offering a blessing to the woman to her right.

Blessings 3Blessings 1Blessings 2

Without a doubt, there is magic in a Rosh Chodesh group. A group of women empowers one another to reach inside and tap into a place we often ignore. The group energizes us so that people not only feel good about themselves, but about the women surrounding them! As Sally Kagan says, “This is the essence of women gathering for Rosh Chodesh: that we all have the ability within our souls to capture the roots of our faith, the belief that we can nurture and be nourished by one another, and to understand what those first women in the red tents knew: that through the camaraderie and learning we are stronger!”
If you are a woman of the Orangetown Jewish Center, we hope that you’ll join one of the Rosh Chodesh groups. Contact me at for more information. If you are a blog reader who is not connected to the OJC, be in contact for information on how to create a group of your own. And if you are a man, be happy for the women in your life that there is a safe and nurturing place for us to grow in a Jewish context.
Enjoy this eighth night of Chanukah. I pray that the lights in the darkness bring optimism to your hearts.
Chag Chanukah Sameach and Chodesh Tov, Happy Chanukah and Happy New Month,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

On the third night of Chanukah, my rabbi said to me…

A past-president of our synagogue, Nohra Leff, once said to me, “I don’t just believe in miracles, I EXPECT THEM!” What a great way to go through life. Expecting miracles means that we engage in behaviors that ultimately create an environment where what some perceive as the “miraculous” becomes that much more possible.

expect miracles

In the fall of 1995, I took a job as part-time cantor at the OJC. Still a full-time student and father of two young boys, I treated the job like it was the fulfillment of a dream. A year later, I was negotiating my first contract to be Student-Rabbi and to stay on as Rabbi after my ordination. I was advised by people “in the know” to avoid such a commitment. After all, the synagogue had gone through so many rabbis in its relatively short history, and I “could do better,” according to the more experienced. Three years later, another past-president, Michael Scolnick, would ask me how long I thought the honeymoon could last. I am glad to say that, even in my 20th year, I still feel like we met just yesterday. Okay, maybe just the day before yesterday.

When I speak to rabbinical students in their final years at JTS, I try to emphasize that every synagogue community has the potential to be a place that can be transformed and re-dedicated to Torah, service and deeds of loving kindness. That can only happen, however, if the rabbi is willing to see him or herself as spending the rest of their professional life serving that one community. If we invest ourselves in a plan believing that we have only two years to work toward achieving our goals, then we doom ourselves to failure; but if we invest ourselves planning for the long term, we can create an environment where the seemingly impossible is indeed achievable.

miracle ahead

In the midst of Chanukah, we consider the nature of miracles, and the role that “dedication” (the literal meaning of the word Chanukah) plays in making one day’s worth of oil last for eight, or in leading one small band of soldiers to victory against overwhelming odds. I am so proud of what we have achieved and how we have continued to grow as a Conservative egalitarian community. Beyond our impressive numbers, we have attained a level of learning, service to the broader community, participation and spirit of which we can all be proud. The dedication that has brought us to this place in our history, however, has also given us the wisdom to understand that we must continue striving to build and to deepen relationships; to reach in to our membership and to reach out to those still searching; to develop more pathways into our OJC community, into a life of purpose and meaning, and into relationship with God; and to lookto the future with faith, optimism and vision. Some people might call our success a miracle. Perhaps we have witnessed something miraculous as a community; if so, the miracle only happened because of the wise people–presidents, boards, volunteers, congregants, professionals and clergy–who were looking for one, who expected one, and who acted to create the environment where such a miracle could take root.

3rd night

Chag Urim Sameach,

Happy Festival of Lights,

Rabbi Craig Scheff


Mission Accomplished

At 6:00 this morning, I returned to the Orangetown Jewish Center after participating for five days on the Jewish Federation of Rockland County Lily Steuer ATID Leadership Mission. Atid means future and this mission fulfilled its call to set our sights on the future. As I write this, I am filled with tikvah (hope) that the future of Jewish Rockland and of Israel is bright.

Nan, Ellen, Diane
I felt tikvah when we visited Susan’s House, an on-the-job training workshop for youth at risk in Jerusalem. Teens learn to make jewelry, glass plates, wooden objects and macramé as they learn life skills and self esteem. There I met a young woman named Aliana who slouched in her chair as the other teens brightly showed off the art that they were creating. When we started shopping, many of us chose beautiful wire jewelry, the work of Aliana, who joined us in the shop and proudly took pictures with each of us who were purchasing her creations. Aliana was standing up straight. I felt tikvah because I know that thanks to our Jewish Federation dollars, the vulnerable in Israel won’t be left behind.

I felt tikvah when we visited Har Hertzl, the national military cemetery of Israel. We stood, weeping, before a line of new graves from this past summer’s Protective Edge Operation. We stood before the grave of American lone soldier Max Steinberg. I felt tikvah because I know that Israel will defend our right to a Jewish home. Thanks to the support of Jews world wide, Israel will never stand alone.
I felt tikvah when we danced at the Sol and Bea Kramer Senior Center in Kiryat Ata. Elders enjoy support, socialization, hot meals and warmth thanks to Elana, the dedicated and passionate director, and thanks to Rockland Federation support from the Kramer family and from the Lily Steuer Fund. Languages from all over the world – Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Hungarian, Spanish – could be heard as Day Center participants sang and danced with us. I felt tikvah because I know that thanks to our Jewish Federation dollars, the mitzvah of honoring our elders will be fulfilled in Israel just as it is here in Rockland County.

Elena at Sol and Bea Kramer Ctr
I felt tikvah when we visited the Mevaseret Tzion Absorption Center to meet with new olim (immigrants to Israel) from Ethiopia. We experienced awe as we watched Mission Mentor and Federation Campaign Chair Bob Silverman meet family members with whom he flew from Ethiopia to Israel one and a half years ago.     Bob with Liky and ManuI felt tikvah because I know that we in Rockland County help to ensure that all Jews are responsible one for the other.

Mevaseret Tzion Absorption
The experience of our trip was heightened for all of us (but for me most of all!) by the participation on the mission of my son Josh, a student in Mechinat Rabin (a preparation year for the Israel Defense Forces). Josh’s passion for Israel, his questions and many conversations with mission participants made me proud as a mom and made me feel tikvah for the future of the Jewish people.

Jay and Josh Schwarma
I thank Diane Sloyer and the staff of Jewish Federation of Rockland County for educating us, lifting us and giving us hope.
It is easy to be a cynic. Things go wrong and one can say, “See, I told you so.” But it takes courage to be an optimist. We continue, against all odds, to find hope and possibility in our world. Our plans and dreams might fail and we are often disappointed, but still we get up the next day and start again. It takes courage to be an optimist.
The 2014 ATID Mission gave us all many reasons to be optimists.
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

If only our issues were black and white

It would be so easy if our issues were black and white. Unfortunately, all too often we settle on addressing the issue as if it were black and white. We point fingers, we demonize, we stand up self-righteously, we spout rhetoric, we exhaust ourselves spinning narratives, and we pat ourselves on the back for having taken a stand. And in so doing, we fail to take on the real challenge, that of wresting with the grey.

In this week’s Torah portion, our imperfect work-in-progress-of-a-patriarch-Jacob chooses to confront his brother Esau, the man who vowed to kill him the last time they shared company. Jacob can avoid Esau, but at some level he knows that the courageous and potentially dangerous confrontation is the only way for him to grow and to find a greater sense of self and a better prospect for inner and outer peace.

I have wrestled all week with my response to what is taking place in the streets of America and in the Knesset of Israel. At this point, I have no original thoughts. But I have come across one teacher in Gil Troy who has given the best expression I have found to my feelings. Couched in the context of Israel’s nation-state discussion, his conclusions can be extended to the many events around us. Please click here for the link, or read on below.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visting Professor at the IDC in Herzliya. His latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, just won the 2014 J.I. Segal Non-fiction award for a Jewish Theme. Visit him at

On Jewish State: The Right is Wrong, The Left’s Not Right

The old joke has a rabbi telling one congregant “you’re right”; the congregant’s rival, “you’re right”; and his wife, who complains they both can’t be right, “you’re right, too.” With Right and Left squabbling about a Jewish Nation law, the Right is wrong; the Left isn’t right; and those who think they both can’t be wrong, are wrong, too.
The Right is wrong because the timing is bad, the optics are worse, and in some legislative drafts the balance is off. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is again playing partisan arsonist rather than statesmanlike firefighter. Politicians should follow the Hippocratic Oath – first do no harm. Israel operates in an hostile world environment, in a flammable region, during an incendiary time. When many Israelis are worrying about personal safety, seeking governmental leadership to calm tensions, unnecessary legislation stirring primal fears and triggering anti-Israel sentiment is reckless.

Israel’s leaders, including Likud backbenchers, have a responsibility to reassure more than two million non-Jewish Israelis during this sensitive time that they are cherished citizens, and will be protected by THIS government. They deserve reassurances that the “medina” the state, will remain democratic as well as Jewish, which is different than saying it is a Jewish state with a democratic mishtar – regime or government. (Unlike most, I read the versions in Hebrew and English before writing).

Israel’s Jewish character should not be a left-right issue. It’s a Zionist issue. Democratic nations have the right to express their majority culture in the public square. Israel’s Declaration of Independence already “declare[s] the establishment of a Jewish State,” mandating the State’s Jewish character, although certain specifics the proposed laws mention, such as Hatikvah as the national anthem, are not spelled out.

While some post-Zionist ideologues and the Supreme Court’s mushrooming power have triggered fears of eroding Israel’s Jewish character, no pressing danger exists. Netanyahu could have affirmed Israel’s Jewish character by quoting the Declaration of Independence, reinforced by a stack of bills and court cases protecting the precedent. Instead, advancing an extreme draft before his more balanced version, is like a husband blatantly housing a mistress in lesser quarters than the wife; while pretending to placate, it only enrages.  Approving a bill’s initial reading while vowing to replace it, evokes John Kerry’s infamous 2003 legislative flip-flop, regarding funding Americans troops, when he said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

Nevertheless, the Left is not right, emitting shrill arguments, straw men, and premature eulogies over Israeli democracy, while hysterically, irresponsibly fueling Israel’s delegitimization. Netanyahu has promised to guarantee “equal rights for all” Israel’s citizens. He has an established track record of protecting Israel’s liberal democratic character as envisioned by his Zionist mentors Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin.

The insane accusations, ranging from familiar libels about Israel becoming an “Apartheid state” to fear-mongering about Israeli Arabs being forced to wear Green crescents – thank you Ha’aretz — tell more about the perverse, paranoid accusers than the accused. Their outrage meter is broken. They rail against potential Israeli breaches while enabling actual Palestinian totalitarianism, terrorism, and Islamism. If a future Palestinian state – or any Arab state — followed the protocols of the most extreme Jewish state Knesset bill (adapted to their national-religious identity) – we would have the first functional Arab democracy.

Israel’s democratic character should not be a left-right issue. It’s a Zionist issue. Israel was founded as a democratic state that “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”  Ironically, liberals opened this legislative can of worms, hoping to enact a law guaranteeing “democracy,” a word missing from Israel’s Declaration of independence.

The need to caricature this government, and Israel, as repudiating democracy and demonizing Arabs proves what Matti Friedman writes in the Atlantic: “The uglier aspects of Palestinian society are untouchable [and I add, nuanced analyses of Israel as a Jewish-democratic state are unfashionable] because they would disrupt the ‘Israel story,’ which is a story of Jewish moral failure.” That popular, stereotypical, castigatory narrative, which many American Jewish elites are embracing, fails to understand that complex, pluralistic, free democracies balance competing ideals. Even America, which in these debates suddenly is held up as perfect, “hold[s] contradictory ideals in suspension,” the historian Michael Kammen wrote in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning People of Paradox.

Totalitarian regimes are simpler, often imposing one overriding idea. Israel, a Jewish democratic state with 25 percent non-Jewish citizens, will always juggle: struggling with maintaining its Jewish character while guaranteeing equal rights for all; wondering whether Arabs – and Haredim, for that matter – prefer individual rights or group rights; navigating between the religious components in Israel’s Jewish identity and its national dimensions.

These important dilemmas demand consideration. Yet the Left treats this democratic debate as threatening democracy, the Right treats this Jewish disputation as unJewish. Both sides should mature. The Right should avoid its “dog whistles” inciting hatred against Arabs; the Left should avoid its equally reprehensible dog whistles inciting hatred against Israel.

The philosopher John Dewey taught that “Democracy begins in conversation.” Let’s have the conversation, calmly, rationally, respectfully, with nuance and without demonization, sensitive to the many dimensions but understanding that to govern is to choose.

Just as Israel needs expansive centrists who can support the widows of Har Nof and the children of the burned classroom in the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School, we need voices saying “you’re right” to the pro-Jewish and pro-democratic sides. Democracy stems from Jewish ideas of equality. A Jewish-Democratic state is as possible as a state with majority rule and minority rights, committed to liberty and equality, fostering individualism amid nationalism.  Embracing such valid if occasionally contradictory Zionist and democratic ideals fosters the kind of “you’re right, too” constructive, creative tension that makes democracies great.

Thank you, Gil, and shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

%d bloggers like this: