There is a story that charms me from the annals of Zionist history at the turn of the 20th century. Arthur Balfour, a Member of the House of Lords asked Chaim Weizmann, who later would become President of Israel, “Why do you Jews insist on Palestine when there are so many undeveloped countries you could settle in more conveniently?” According to the story, Weizmann answered, “That’s like my asking you why you drove twenty miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street. Mr. Balfour, if you were offered Paris instead of London, would you take it?” Lord Balfour was shocked and surprised by the question, “But London is our own!” Weizmann answered, “Jerusalem was our own when London was a marsh.” This same Member of the House of Lords famously crafted the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that made public British support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
At the Orangetown Jewish Center, we talk about Israel, our Jewish homeland, proudly, passionately and with the assurance of safety. There is room for debate and discussion, but we all agree that our home had to be established in 1948 on that tiny strip of desert and marsh. Then Palestine, today Israel, is “our own.”
We also agree that while we advocate and educate about the need for secure borders and freedom from terrorism in Israel, we must also pay close attention to Israel’s soul. As Conservative Jews, we have a specific vision of Israel that is anchored in religious freedom. We yearn to be a part of an Israel that is a pluralistic Jewish and democratic state with which every Jew can proudly identify.
Rabbi Scheff and I often suggest ways to lift our voices in support of the official recognition in Israel of all the major streams of Judaism. We believe that the authority of rabbis from non-Orthodox movements should be respected regarding all issues of personal status and ritual. Rabbis of the Conservative and Reform movements should be able to officiate at weddings, conversions, divorces and funerals in Israel as they do here in America.
Today, there is one specific action you can take to be a part of the potential Israel you envision. It is time now to vote in the World Zionist Congress that will meet this year in Jerusalem. The World Zionist Congress has met since 1897 when it first laid out the principles of Zionism, the belief that the Jewish people of the world must have a homeland of their own, the land of Israel. Today the WZC elects the officers and decides on the policies of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency.
It is time now to vote. It is time to vote for Mercaz, the political arm of the Conservative–Masorti Movement of Judaism. According to the Mercaz mission statement, a vote for Mercaz is a vote for an Israel that is pluralistic and inclusive, egalitarian and unified, sustainable and diverse.
Go to http://votemercaz.org/ to get started, to get educated, and to cast your ballot. It costs just $10 for your opportunity to change the future of Israel. And while you are at the website, you can see a great photograph and statement by our own Josh Drill. He writes about what Mercaz means to him as a young man making aliya this August.
Mercaz has also made a series of short, informative videos that you can share to educate friends and family about the important vision we share about the soul of Israel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnfPe8s6VCU
With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher murderous terrorist attacks just a week ago, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu seized the opportunity during the massive unity rally that followed to invite (actually, to call upon) the Jews of France, 500,000 strong, to return home to Israel. With the fresh images of four Jewish bodies returning to Israel to be buried and armed guards filling the entryways to their children’s schools, along with the collective memory they carry of the events that took place 75 years ago, the Jews of France have good reason to consider flight as their best option. I have heard many say that the handwriting is on the wall, that the times are looking like the 1930’s, that we made the mistake of staying once before and look what it cost us — and I can’t say that I completely disagree. Every individual and family must decide what is best for them.
But this is not 1938. And we are a more powerful international community of Jews than ever before. And we have Israel waiting with open arms. And we have allies, Christians and even Muslims among them. And French President Francois Hollande certainly understands the national and international implications of a mass Jewish exodus. Aside from the “brain drain” that would result, should France lose its Western soul in the battle between radical Islam and modernity, other countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden are likely to follow soon thereafter. And let’s not forget that France is a nuclear power and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. France is already experiencing the annual emigration of thousands of Jews to Israel in recent years. Should the largest European Jewish community be decimated of its own free will, there is little doubt that the other Jewish communities of Europe will suffer a similar fate.
Are we ready for a new demographic reality, where all Jews live in Israel, the United States and Canada? On the one hand, I say why not. On the other hand, the French Jews attending Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appearance at the Great Synagogue followed his oration with an emotional singing of Hatikvah, and concluded with an equally stirring and heartfelt rendition of La Marseillaise. We must also ask ourselves what we would sacrifice and how long we would fight were our American values and freedoms suddenly challenged. And we must also ask ourselves how our mission in the world is fulfilled as Jews if we are only a light unto those who share our values; if we become an insular and insulated community; if we are only for ourselves. That is not, in my opinion, how we were meant to be a blessing.
Israel is our home and, thank God, our haven. But the Jewish experiment was meant to be shared with the rest of the world. And that means fighting and sacrificing for a certain way of life for ourselves and for those who have elected to adopt our values. I fight back by supporting the education of our local community through Rockland’s Holocaust Museum and Study Center; I fight back by using social media to share balanced and accurate reporting; I fight back by participating in AIPAC’s policy conference and lobbying efforts (March 1-3) to make sure that the United States will stand as a partner with Israel in the international arena; I fight back by voting for MERCAZ USA in the World Zionist Congress elections (ongoing) to promote a more progressive social agenda and more pluralistic religious agenda in Israel; I fight back by supporting organizations like the American Jewish Committee to advocate globally for Israel and the world’s Jewish communities; I fight back by leading trips to Israel (informational meeting Wednesday night for our December 2015 trip) so others can feel empowered by the greatest feelings of belonging, strength and hope.
I pray that, should the time come (God forbid) when it is time to go home, I will know it. Until then, I will proudly defend my right to be a Jew right here.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
He always said, “Come visit me when my eyes are open, not after they are closed.” And I did. Over the years, Henry and I did a lot of visiting. I take comfort from the knowledge that he and I had quite a friendship, and that I followed his advice to visit him when I could. Still, despite his admonition, it was difficult to miss the funeral of one of the greats who helped to lay the foundation of today’s OJC.
Like so many of you, I have many memories of Henry. There were lunches at the diner, a shared mission to Israel, wisecracks on Shabbat, and heart-to-heart talks that went on much too long. Like so many of you, I thought that I was the one who was most special to him. Henry made us feel like that.
One snapshot out of time will stay with me as a cherished memory. Henry shared a chapter of his life story with me one afternoon after his Yiddish club met. He showed me photographs of himself and his brothers as young boys, arriving in the United States, to be reunited eventually with their father after being raised by their mother all alone.
As he told me his story, between the lines, I heard the midrash of a boy who had felt abandoned and lost in a new country. Because of his childhood experiences, in his unique way, Henry dedicated his life to make sure that everyone around him felt included.
Rabbi Scheff told me about the broad spectrum of OJC congregants who came to pay respects to Henry at his funeral. It is not surprising to know that cronies from the Wednesday night poker game and from the kiddush club were there. It is not surprising that presidents and board members of the synagogue were there to pay honor to the man who always had plentiful suggestions. It is not surprising that Rabbi Scheff acknowledged that he was officiating at a funeral of someone who felt to him like a grandfather. Rabbi Scheff credits Henry with bringing him to OJC in the first place, and for giving him a vision of what a synagogue community could be. What might be surprising to someone who did not know Henry well, is the large number of young people who came to say goodbye to the man who had acted as a surrogate grandfather. His granddaughter Mara shared with mixed emotions that she always knew she had to share her grandfather with all the kids at the OJC.
In our synagogue community, there was no one who made him prouder than Mara. When she read Torah, led Shabbat morning services, or sang in the high holiday choir, Henry would beam. (Often he’d find me to whisper conspiratorially, “Did you know that they let girls lead services here?!”)
Many of us cry every year on the first night of Rosh HaShana when Mara sings She-hechiyanu. Part of the reason is the simple beauty of her voice. Part of it is the profundity of the words. But I am sure that much of it has always been anticipatory grief. We have known all along that we would not have Henry forever to be listening to his granddaughter praising God’s kindness for allowing us to reach another season. When we reach the next season, we’ll remember Henry and who he was to each one of us. We will thank God for another season and we will honor Henry’s memory as we listen to Mara chant She-hechiyanu.
May his memory be for a blessing. Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Okay, I admit that I am not a big fan of the countdown to the new year. I find the experience fairly anti-climactic. Jewish tradition teaches me that time spent anticipating a time to come is wasted time. What matters most is what we do with the time we have.
Our Talmudic sages teach that the reason we ascend from one candle on Chanukah’s first night to eight on the last night, as opposed to counting down the days of the holiday, is that we are meant to ascend in holiness, not to descend. We therefore count up our days after Passover to the day we celebrate receiving the Torah.
The lesson speaks to me. I don’t enjoy counting down the days left in a vacation. I much prefer to look ahead to each day of celebration, adding to the joy, as opposed to counting down the days to its conclusion.
On the eighth night of Chanukah, I lit a chanukiah in my grandparents’ kitchen, reflecting on their 75 years of marriage and a celebration of time that would bring most of their children, grandschildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren together. Their lives have not been easy, though they have certainly had many causes for celebration. Surviviors of the Holocaust who have experienced their share of loss, their lives have been enriched by a generosity of spirit and a sincere appreciation for every relationship they share. A phone call today, a lunch date tomorrow, a card game the next day, a get-together with children on the weekend, a great grandson’s bar mitzvah in the summer — each day presents another opportunity to add a deposit to the time bank of our lives.
On this first day of 2015, we can start counting up to 2016. Each day can present an opportunity. Each experience can be a jewel added to a treasure chest of time and experience. May we never wish the time away, may we never miss today by wishing for tomorrow. May 2016 arrive after 365 days completed with a sense of accomplishment, appreciation and ascension.
Wishing you a happy and healthy 2015,
Rabbi Craig Scheff