The crux of the matter

As far as I am concerned, reading a sermon in print—especially a high holiday sermon—is nowhere near as effective as hearing a message in a room filled with community brothers and sisters. That being said, I am told that people often want to hear the crux of the messages if they could not be present for whatever reason. So hear is the crux, and just the crux (minus the lead in, the joke, and the sources in support thereof, available upon request)!

I’ll get right to it:


In May, the mayor of Rehovot cancels a bar mitzvah celebration for children with disabilities because it is scheduled to take place in a Masorti (Israeli Conservative) synagogue. After Israeli President Rivlin reschedules the service to take place in his own residence, he cancels the service.

On Shavuot, the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah, Tzohar (an Israeli organization of supposedly more open-minded Orthodox rabbis) cancels its invitation to Masorti and Reform rabbis to participate in the holiday’s all-night study session. The rabbis are subsequently re-invited, but are placed in a separate space from the rest of the program.

In June, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel tries to force the retirement of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat. The reason given is his age, but his willingness to train women to be Jewish legal experts and his willingness to engage in interfaith dialogue were the more plausible motivating factors.

In July, I am invited to participate in my cousin’s wedding ceremony (in my sister’s back yard), to be conducted by a Tzohar rabbi. Originally I was to be the officiant, but my cousin’s bride’s family pressured the couple to use an Orthodox rabbi whose wedding could be registered with the state as a religious wedding. The officiant calls me to the huppah as “Mister” Craig Scheff. I feel the sting on my cheek as if someone publicly slapped me. In that moment, I want to disappear. I am not a rabbi, and as far as I am concerned, in the eyes of the State of Israel, I am not a Jew.

Israel is my story. I was a slave. I came out of Egypt. I stood at Sinai. And so did you! We were all there! But someone, in the unlikeliest of places and with disproportionate power and influence, is attacking our identities, telling us were not there!


Ironically, the land of Israel was never guaranteed as a possession to our ancestors. It was part of a promise, conditioned upon our community’s behavior. We need to merit being in the land as a community of Jews. Somehow, the average Israeli has forgotten this message, and the ruling religious factions are happy to keep them in the dark. Israel’s survival depends upon more than secure borders and a strong defense. The larger community of Israel is being torn apart by a failure in shared ethics, by a disunity that is sweeping the Jewish community, and by a breach in our rich tradition of embracing diversity and pluralism of Jewish practice. The divide can be seen in our political arenas; it can be seen in the gaps between the generations and between the American and Israeli Jewish communities.

Israeli Jewish identity is shaped, by and large, by a sense of belonging to the land. There are no “religious” choices that need to be made. There is no soccer on Shabbat; school is closed for the holidays; and everywhere you go you are reminded of your rich, deep rootedness in the land as a Jew. American Jewish identity is shaped by religious values that have to be exercised and chosen from among a long list of competing social values, Israel being only one of them.

And there lies the disconnect. Jewish identity is controlled in Israel by those who deny us our Judaism, our very identity. We proudly send our children to serve in the IDF, only to discover that they have to fight a battle to preserve their Jewish identities, the ones we gave them. And we can’t afford the apathy, either here or in Israel, being created as a result of this disconnect.

 Israel, the seat of our ideals, has lost sight of and must reclaim its mission as the destination, the intention, the hope of all Jewish people. And we as American Jews must awaken to the issue, engage in the cause and assist in bolstering the “secular Israeli” Jewish community’s efforts to reclaim its historic Jewish identity. We can no longer tolerate a Jewish Agency–an Israeli establishment–that will send emissaries to teach us about Israel without knowing who we are as Jews, without learning from us and carrying our message back to Israel. For Israel to be the home of all Jewish people, all Jewish people need to feel at home in Israel.

For centuries, our disunity has consistently led to expulsion, exile, and persecution. These events have almost always followed on the heels of schisms in our community that were the direct results of intolerance, a lack of empathy, one side’s claim of authority. For centuries, our unity has been based upon a multiplicity of approaches to Torah and to learning from others. Our rich tradition of arguing for the sake of heaven has helped us remain dynamic, adaptable, modern—a true light unto the nations. Torah has remained relevant because it has 70 faces.

In the year ahead, we plan to deepen our connection to Israel: through our partnership with Masorti and with the Masorti community of Zichron Yakov; by participation in Rav Siach (“Multiple Conversations”), the first partnership between the Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and the Masorti Movement in Israel designed to enhance the exchange of ideas; by hosting guest speakers who will educate on the topic of religious pluralism; and by supporting the Masorti movement in our missions and family trips to Israel. In so doing, perhaps “Israel” will come to a broader acceptance and embrace of the Jewish identity, of the role we play in ensuring the continuation of our rich history, and of the great empathy we are meant to carry as Jews who came out of Egypt together.


Pass it on with love.

Gemar chatimah tovah,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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6 responses to “The crux of the matter”

  1. jewruscott18 says :

    How much longer can we tolerate this kind of behavior of Jewish groups against each other just because we think or observe differently? We are supposed to be one Jewish people as HaShem has asked of us. I have no problem of our brothers and sisters going the direction of their spiritual journey. I only ask that we remain strong as a people, no more and no less.

  2. Gary Schreibman says :

    Hello Rabbi,

    First if all we wish you a Happy 51st birthday! You should have only health and happiness. We understand the Israeli official discrimination of Masorti and non Orthodox brethren.

    Happy and Healthy 5776 to you and all your family.

    Judy and Gary Schreibman

  3. Lydia Katz says :

    If you heard the gasp from the congregation when you shared with us the experience of being called “Mr.” Craig Scheff you know how “your” people feel about this situation. I feel frustrated by the fact that there really seems little we can do. We are not citizens of Israel so we really do not have much influence on that kind of behavior. In reality, What can we do?

    • Rabbi Craig Scheff says :

      We can support those communities and individuals who are fighting for us in Israel, we can learn more about the situation, and we can pressure those institutions that reach out to us for support to carry the message back!

  4. Judy Pachter says :

    I have shared your comments with other Jews and non-Jews as well. The divisions in our communities shows in all kinds of ways including in our own East Ramapo schools.
    When I traveled to Israel several years ago, I was very unhappy with my religion- so I thought. What I was unhappy with was the Rabbi (the teacher) who not only ignored my wishes at the bedside of a dying man but did not take the opportunity to “teach” me why he chose to do that. So upon my arrival in Israel, I took the opportunity to listen and discuss my feelings about being Jewish and explore the question of “am I a good Jew”. What I came to understand was that being a Jewish person is all encompassing and that being Jewish comes from the heart and that you can be a good Jew if you believe in the “family” and customs and family values taught in the Torah; believe in Zionism-the land of Israel and what it stands for or; you are a religious person that strickly adheres to the rules of kosherit and shabbat. I learned that all 3 are not a requirement for being “a good Jew” but that any one of these standing alone would qualify. So, my point is that since I truly belive that I am a person of good moral character and believe in the values and customs taught to me and that I believe in the state of Israel and it’s significance so therefore, I stand as a Jew no matter who tells me I am not!
    Just my thoughts as I read and reread your comments.
    LaShanna Tovah Rabbi,
    Judy Pachter (Judi Librot’s friend and partner of her cousin, Jay Fleisher)

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  1. A Wake Up Call | Through Jewish Eyes - September 20, 2015

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