Archive | February 2015

Purim fun, or not?

Growing up on the mean streets of New City, New York, I learned the hard way what it meant to be Jewish, short, skinny and unable to jump higher than 8 inches off the ground. In other words … wait for it . . . “scrappy” was my game. The experience hardened me to the outside world’s cold reality. A jaded, chip-on-my-shoulder, eat-or-be-eaten attitude pervaded everything I set out to accomplish. I learned to control most of my impulses, assuming a mild-mannered, soft-spoken persona everywhere I went. Everywhere, that is, except on the basketball court. Between the lines, I could be myself, let go of my inhibitions, run wild, heatedly pursue, charge at the hoop, display my bumps and bruises as badges of honor. Ironically, all that pent up anger, frustration and aggression that found its expression in my game was lauded as something good, something to be admired and copied.


Those of you who have seen me play over the years (with the 9- and 10-year-olds at recess, especially) have called me competitive, like a Mr. Hyde to Rabbi Jekyll. What you see is nothing, however, compared to the dark madness that once lurked in the soles of my high-top Converse sneakers (the white canvas ones). That’s just me having good, clean fun. Once I retired from competitive hoops at the age of 28 (the year I started rabbinical school), the cloud that once enveloped my heart lifted, and the beast was gone forever. Until . . . .


Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, whose thirteen years with the OJC we are celebrating this Purim, began her professional relationship with me at Camp Ramah in Nyack some 15 years ago. She was Program Director as I was Assistant Director, and Assistant Director (a position now full-time held by our own Rabbi Ami Hersh, the topic of another Purim spoof one day soon) as I was Camp Rabbi. We always had a great, easygoing, complementary style of working together. From Day One, people referred to us as the “Craig and Paula Show.” That relationship carried over into her internship here at the OJC, where I functioned formally as her mentor for the Seminary. The day she was ordained was a great day. I should have known something wasn’t quite right, however, when she informed me that her JTS GPA was .0185 higher than mine.

Crazy Paula

That single fact was the beginning of a disturbing pattern. Two-letter words like “XQ” were suddenly making their way into our Shabbat Scrabble games on triple word scores. She would casually mention to each congregant we met that she was older than me, taller than me (she took up heels), and could stand on her head longer than me. She would give her students colorful stickers and point out that I offered them nothing for their efforts. At the end of a day’s work she would ask me how many hours I had billed, as she filled my e-mail inbox with cc’s of every e-mail she sent out. I lashed back by working later, sleeping less, and leading more trips to Israel. I could feel the old Craig emerging, and it wasn’t pretty.

Crazy Craig

Rabbi Drill’s popularity has grown over the past 13 years. As has my therapy bill. But I have learned how to control the beast. Looking in the mirror each morning, I remind myself that I am good enough, that I am smart enough, and doggone it, people like me. Then I steel myself for the day ahead, trying to appreciate how good each day can be with Rabbi Drill at my side.

Purim 2

And then I pray . . . for the moment I will get her on the basketball court.


Happy Purim to all, and I hope you will join our community in celebrating Rabbi Drill’s 13 years with the OJC and the many ways in which she has enriched each of us and our community!

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook said, “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.” From the beginning of my work with Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, I have felt the powerful call to speak out against the injustice being done to the children, their families, and the educators of the East Ramapo Central School District. In speaking out about the constitutionally given right to an education for all children in Rockland County, I have joined my voice to an interfaith coalition of Rockland clergy, to the congregants of the Orangetown Jewish Center, to all Jews who pursue tzedek (righteousness), and to all people of conscience.

Rockland Clergy for Social Justice (RC4SJ) is an interfaith coalition of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders who began working together over a year ago with a single unifying focus: the 9000 public school children of East Ramapo who are not receiving an adequate education that will prepare them to be successful citizens of our country.

Pastor Joel Michel

Today RC4SJ held a press conference at the First Baptist Church of Spring Valley to support the courageous work of State Legislators Ellen Jaffee, David Carlucci, and Ken Zebrowski. Since November, when special monitor Hank Greenberg presented his findings on the dysfunctional school district, they have been working to write legislation to ensure compliance with state and federal law, financial integrity and transparency and functional school governance. Our press conference, planned weeks ago to announce RC4SJ’s upcoming lobbying trip to Albany on March 3, coincidentally happened at the exact time that our county legislators introduced their bill.

The bill shows the commitment of Jaffee, Carlucci and Zebrowski to implementing both the spirit and letter of Hank Greenberg’s recommendations. To read the bill as it has been introduced, click here:

PMD Speaking

When I spoke at the press conference today, I began by recalling my feeling of dedication to 9000 children when I stood on the very same dais last year. 9000 seemed like a very large number, a compelling reason to stand up and speak up. Today, however, those 9000 children have become personal. Through my volunteer experiences together with fellow OJCers at the Kakiat School Early Childhood Center, I have come to know the children we are fighting for. Kindergarten children who need a full day of education receive instead two hours a day, one half hour of which is taken up with breakfast or lunch. The valiant, dedicated administrators and teachers at the ECC work to provide learning to children, who number thirty in a class without an aide.   9000 is not just a number. 9000 is Kiran, a bright, precocious five year old who would be reading chapter books already if he had more education hours. 9000 is Tyron, a child who has fine motor difficulties. I help him at the learning centers to hold scissors straight and cut paper. I wonder who helps him on the vast majority of days when I am not there. 9000 is Rosie, an imaginative little artist. My heart sinks when I think about Rosie entering grade school without art or music to continue fueling her curiosity. 9000 is not a number. It’s personal.

RC4SJ will be traveling once again to Albany on March 3, hoping to build on today’s momentum and seeking support from other legislative leaders and the Executive Chamber in Albany for the bill introduced today by Jaffee, Carlucci.and Zebrowski.

Last Friday, Governor Cuomo came to East Ramapo and bravely announced that he expected to sign legislation before June of this year. He said that he is grateful to special monitor Hank Greenberg for providing us with facts. I agree that having facts gives us with the leverage to create change. But facts are only the beginning. To see this through to a happy ending for the public school students of ERCSD, we will need passion, dedication to justice and clear vision of a moral high ground.

Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. Justice, justice, you will pursue.”

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Between the lines

Listening to a sports radio talk show this week, I heard Charles Barkley, one of the all-time great basketball players (known for his quote, among many notable quotes, “I am not a role model”), offer an important piece of wisdom. To paraphrase, he said that if we put a bunch of kids on a court together, no matter their color or nationality, they’d do just fine. “It’s the adults who screw everything up.”

Sadly, a group of kids suffered embarrassment this week because of the deeds of their adults. Little League Baseball stripped the U.S. championship from Chicago-based Jackie Robinson West and suspended its coach for violating a rule prohibiting the use of players who live outside the geographic area that the team represents. The kids played their game, had an experience of a lifetime, grew in so many ways, only to be told that their experience was not legitimate. What a crushing disillusionment for such young minds.

Little league 2
I learned so much participating in sports as a teen. I learned that there would always be someone bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled than me. I learned that success requires a lot of hard work and commitment. I learned that heart can take you far, but only so far. I learned that success takes sacrifice. I learned all these things without ever being the hero, leading the team, hitting a buzzer-beater or winning a championship. I even learned these lessons sitting on the bench and not being chosen for the team.

Years later, I would take all these lessons and channel them into a very different competitive endeavor, one that relied upon a very different skill set that didn’t involve my hands or my feet. Those years of competition–and yes, even of losing–taught me how to define success. I learned teamwork; I learned resilience. And the thing I remember most clearly is that my father let me figure it out all by myself.

Thanks Dad, and thanks to all the wonderful coaches out there teaching life lessons between the lines.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Great Stories in the Great Book

I love a good story, don’t you? Author Stephen King says that there are books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories.

I hope it is not blasphemy to say that the Torah is just the opposite: not always such great writing but the best of all stories.

torah (1)

Let me suggest that the writing style of the Torah would not necessarily have passed muster with my seventh grade English teacher. The Torah is filled with poor editing, run on sentences, lack of transitions and confusing noun-verb match-ups. Throughout the ages, rabbis have gleaned meaning from repetitions, gaps, misplaced narrative and stylistic flaws and shared it all the commentaries and midrashim (stories from between the lines) that Jews cherish.

But good stories?   The Torah is filled with good stories. Good stories are the ones that we remember. We remember them all our lives. We know the ending, but we still want to hear the story again and again. The Jewish people know that Adam and Eve are going to eat that fruit. Isaac is almost going to be sacrificed, but God stops his father at the last moment. Joseph is going to reveal himself to his brothers in Egypt after he toys with them a bit. We love to hear these stories again and again; we’ve been reading and reading and then re-rolling our Torah for centuries. The Torah is the word of God, but it would not endure without good stories.

This week we are poised between two of the greatest stories of our Torah. Last week, God split the sea for the Israelites to pass through and this week we receive Torah at Sinai. I thrilled last Shabbat when we stood together in synagogue to chant the Song of the Sea, and I am excited to stand again this week to hear the Ten Commandments. My love for Torah is something that I don’t often question. It’s kind of like breathing.

Moshe and ten commandmentsReed Sea parts

Last week, however, at Conversations with Clergy in the Community at Adele Garber’s home in Nyack, one of our congregants challenged my easy acceptance of the ultimate worth of Torah.  He asked what Rabbi Scheff and I “get out of” studying Torah. Truthfully, we had to stop and think about it. Both of us answered in terms of the stories of the Torah, and our answers were like two sides of the same coin. Rabbi Scheff said that in the Torah we find the stories of our lives. The heroes of our narratives are not saints, not perfect gods. They are real people dealing with real challenges. The lessons of their stories teach us about coming closer to our best selves, to each other and to God. I said that in addition to learning from the real lives of realistic people, the stories of Torah connect us to eternal truths, to an understanding of what God expects of us.

In the Great Stories we know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. . . and yet we want to know again. In the Great Stories of our Torah, we have the opportunity to hear not only what we want to know, but what God wants us to know!

Join us at the Orangetown Jewish Center to learn from the greatest stories of the Greatest Book ever written. Come on Shabbat morning to learn from a sermon. Study every Thursday in Text and Context or on the second Monday of the month in Women of the Torah. This month, Rabbi Hersh is teaching creation narratives in Thursday evening Conversations with Clergy. Contact Rabbi Scheff or me if you would like a suggestion about which class might be best for you!

Meanwhile, I’ll meet you at Sinai!

Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

On being a patriot

I am a patriot.

Call me sentimental, but I see the colors of the flag and my chest swells. I stand a bit taller and feel a bit stronger when I see someone in uniform pass by. Seeing that banner wave against the sky, I think of the dedication that so many show to the cause. I take pride in the victories and mourn the losses, even if I have not set foot on the field of battle myself.

As a patriot, I can be critical of my own cause. I can disagree with the strategies utilized, question the personnel employed, and even dislike the individual personalities of those entrusted with the helm. As one on the sidelines, entrusting others to carry the ball for me, I am relied upon to vote with my voice and with my checkbook. Amongst those who share my passion, I can express my frustrations and feelings of persecution. I can find solace in a community of people who believe that the cause is just, and that ultimately we will be vindicated as champions of all that can be good and right in the world.

As a patriot on foreign soil, however, I am far more guarded. I am not so quick to show my true colors. I take personally the barbs and accusations of excessive pride, privilege, self-absorption and insularity. Fending off the parries with rationalizations or excuses only comes across as empty defensiveness. Relativizing any potential wrongdoing by comparing the accusations with the injustices committed under other regimes is dismissed as inconsequential. My standard-bearers are held to a higher standard than most, and any wrongdoing—or potential thereof—is headline news.

Such is the price of those who dare to lead, who shed the label of underdog and take ownership of their place in history.

Wherever I stand, I stand with America; I stand with Israel; I stand with the Jewish people.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

(Go Pats!)

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