Day Three of our 10th annual mitzvah mission proved to be an emotional roller coaster. We returned to Ahava, anxious to finish our projects, determined to dedicate a final product at the end of the day. We worked hard and fast, skipping lunch. As we waited for the cement stools to dry and the tile mosaics to set, a young girl by the name of Efrat entertained us with her exuberant dancing, magnetic personality and charming smile. We danced and laughed as the final touches were completed. Finally, the work of our hearts and our hands was permanently memorialized. Efrat and her friends quietly stood with us as David Klein spoke of his son and Rob, and of the significance of our community shoveling soil together once again, this time for the purpose of planting. Two ficus trees now stand side by side, one in memory of Rob Katz and one in memory of Danny Klein. They will grow together and ultimately become intertwined. They will spring large leaves that will offer shade to those who seek shelter sit in “Rob’s Corner.” We charged the children to care for this corner of their lives, always remembering how they witnessed a group of adults sharing raw emotion, love, respect, comfort and care. We had come to Ahava to offer comfort, but in the end, amidst our tears, these children comforted us.
Driving into Jerusalem, we stopped atop Mount Scopus to see the city from afar. We stood next to Christian pilgrims who sang songs of praise. The Muslim call to prayer rang out atop their song, and we stood quietly in a tight circle for a moment to take in the significance of these three faiths in momentary peaceful coexistence. We then offered our own pilgrim’s prayer, thanking God for the ability to give of ourselves and appreciating the opportunity share the moment together.
Day Four began with a morning service at the Masorti Kotel. We were completely alone in the archaeological park. We celebrated several “firsts” as Miriam led Shacharit, Linda and robin read Torah, and Lesley received her first aliyah. Once again, the ability to pray together and stand side by side at the wall was not lost on any of us. We drew together in a circle of prayers for peace, comfort, healing and gratitude. The sentiments pulled us closer to one another, and the prayer became one.
The final stop before our closing lunch was Hand in Hand, a school in Jerusalem where 600 Israeli Arab and Jewish children learn together. As the children grow through their high school years, they engage one another openly in confronting the difficult challenges that their conflicting national narratives present. They come to recognize that hearing each other’s personal family narratives, and appreciating each other’s suffering, is the most important lesson if they are to be able to move forward constructively. They recognize that there are many extremists (and not-so-extremists) from their respective communities who don’t support their decision to coexist in this fashion. A year ago, the students saw their school set afire by Jewish arsonists. Graffiti on the walls of their school is not uncommon. Their response: We may disagree about the past, but we have a shared future whether we like it or not. The teens with whom we met were not idealists; they recognize the many challenges they face. But they are determined–even in a time of fear and anxiety–to continue living their shared lives. We thanked them for their courage and determination, and we prayed that their glimmer of hopefulness would carry them bravely into the future. Perhaps their voices will one day proclaim peace in the land.
A final lunch gave each of us the ability to reflect on what we had accomplished and on the gifts we received from one another and from being the community that we are. Due to the intentions we bring to this experience, our circle is one that is able to expand easily, and to welcome those who are similarly committed. We invite you to join us, next year in Israel.
As I finish writing this entry, I am watching news about 2 more attacks today, one in Tel Aviv this morning and one in Gush Etzion this evening. The second hits closer to home than any of the attacks thus far. It is suddenly harder to leave than it was before. I want to remain in a place of hope, and I want to do my part to bring hope to others. And I don’t want to have to wait until next year to do it.
Perhaps Mitzvah Dy this Sunday back at the OJC will restore a measure of the hope we have felt all week long.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
We introduced nine newcomers to Ahava this morning, including 4 Israelis. Yoav, our good friend and executive director, proudly led the group around the grounds of this residence for at-risk children. The group met one of the foster families that cares for thirteen children between the ages of 6 and 17, and was warmly welcomed by a group of Israeli lone soldiers who have come to live at Ahava for life-skill counselling. They somberly walked through the rooms of the emergency shelter, where fifteen children are given intensive therapy to address their traumas. They met one girl who only weeks ago witnessed her mother’s murder at the hands of her father. These are the harsh realities, they learned, that serve as the motivation for the loving and supportive framework that Ahava attempts to provide. Finally, they saw the many projects of OJC’s past mission participants and financial supporters.
Meanwhile, the rest of our group was getting started on the projects that would occupy us today and tomorrow. In addition to painting the playroom and stairwells of the emergency shelter, we created “Rob’s Corner,” an outdoor meeting and relaxation area to be dedicated in memory of Rob Katz, z”l. Using large tires covered in a metal netting, we poured and plastered cement around the tires to create a seating area. We fashioned tile mosaics that will be set into the cement structures tomorrow.
In the evening, the children’s band and choir entertained us in song and dance, and board members and staff expressed their appreciation for our ten years of service. In truth, we owe them so much more for the opportunity to give a bit of ourselves to their herculean–make that Godly–effort. It is so humbling to be in the presence of these teachers, counselors and civil servants who are saving lives and repairing damaged psyches.
Tomorrow, we finish our tasks, and we are off to Jerusalem. May we leave a little more peace in our wake, and may we arrive in peace to our destination.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Day One of our 10th mitzvah mission to Israel began officially with a dinner. But this dinner was unlike any other I have shared on our mission before. We drank a toast and sang happy birthday to a man in Rob Katz who inspired us, modeled generosity, and dared each of us to move beyond our comfort zones. This would have been his 54th, and he would have loved to share it, as he did each year for the past eight, in Israel. We shared our favorite memories and we dedicated ourselves to continuing his legacy.
After far too late a night for some of us who caught the Giants-Patriots game at a local bar, we were up early to daven on the beach and head for South Tel Aviv. There we met Felicia, a woman who came to Israel from Ghana twenty years ago. Today, she and one other person were caring for 45 preschoolers and babies, children of Sudanese refugees. They greeted us with easily offered hugs and the excitement of anticipating a treat that comes along with visitors. We carried some,and led others by the hand (and even chased after a few!) as we accompanied them several blocks and down busy streets to small park under a porous tent. The children burned energy playing, and suddenly the heavens opened. First we were drenched in the rain, and then came the hail! Small marbles of ice bounced all around us. Some of the kids held us tightly to stay warm; others ran from under the leaky tent to dance in the icy shower. Our bus finally came to the rescue, and we loaded the children onto their coach to return them to their over crowded playroom. Leaving them was the low point of the day for many of us. Several of us committed ourselves to a return visit next year.
As we rode to our next stop, we wrestled with the conflicting realities Israel faces in remembering its roots as a safe haven for those escaping persecution and in wanting to preserve a healthy economy, a strong defense, and the Jewish character of the state.
This conflict was further complicated by our visit to the Rabin Center, an exhibit dedicated to the life and death of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Once again, we were bombarded by images of an Israeli society struggling to pursue peace while negotiating among its own citizens and with its neighbors for secure and defensible borders for all.
Dinner brought us to Zichron Yakov and the rabbi and leadership of Kehillat Ve’Ahavta, our new sister Masorti community. The warmth and comfort with one another followed quickly, and we began brainstorming ways by which our communities can build a lasting, supportive and mutually beneficial bond.
Until tomorrow, shalom to us all,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
“I know I’m not the best person socially. I know I’m not. Asperger’s has this tendency to make people who have it not the best people socially. I can only be one person – me.” Danny Klein wrote these words in one of the many journals he kept in high school and college. In April 2015, Danny committed suicide.
At our Na’aseh program last night, Danny’s courageous parents shared these and other words with fifty OJC teens. As part of a learning unit entitled “I am Enough,” we were learning about the inclusion of people with Asperger’s, what is today referred to as people on the spectrum.
Five years ago, Danny attended every Tuesday evening at Na’aseh. Often wearing a cool hat with earflaps that he himself had crocheted, Danny was an active participant. Kind, generous, and social, Danny wanted to be in the midst of whatever was happening. But unless his older brother Jared was at Na’aseh that night, Danny was never actually at the center of things. Danny was never excluded or teased or bullied. He was always tolerated. Last night, Rabbi Craig Scheff told the teens that tolerance is not good enough. We taught the teens of the OJC the value of inclusion.
Danny’s mom Judy explained all about Asperger’s, how it shaped Danny’s life and affected the entire family. Asperger’s is primarily a communication disorder that manifests as having difficulty with the back-and-forth flow of conversation, reading non-verbal cues, and understanding sarcasm. Judy told the teens, “What I saw was a kid who desperately wanted a circle of friends, who had so much love inside to give, who was prepared to be the best friend you would ever want… I saw a kid who held it together all day at school and then came home and asked me to help him figure out what was going on in social situations that he didn’t understand because people didn’t always say what they really meant.”
Judy concluded her remarks, “When I started typing this on my iPad and autocorrect didn’t recognize “Asperger’s” yet, it corrected to ‘as perfect’. Actually, my iPad was right. Danny was just as perfect and as imperfect as every one of us, just another good kid, and every good kid deserves friendship.”
How do caring adults teach teens the necessity of going beyond their safety zones to include others when every teen himself or herself is struggling with finding a place? We offered them the opportunity to listen, ask questions and participate in a variety of learning experiences. The Klein family’s participation was at the core of their ability to feel safe asking and processing the evening.
After Rabbi Scheff and I framed the evening and Judy introduced Danny’s story, I had the privilege of interviewing my friend Zahava Finkel in front of the group. Zahava is a 29-year old woman with Asperger’s who told her story with honesty and humor.
She and I facilitated an activity that she brought to our program. Everyone wrote their name on a piece of masking tape and put it on their shirts. Zahava then read statements that began with “I have been made fun of for…” and finished with “the way I look” or “my athletic ability” or “asking lots of questions when I don’t understand.” If a sentence rang true, a piece of tape was torn off. One teen said, “Every put-down diminishes our sense of who we are.”
In small groups, we considered Danny’s own words, allowing each teen to process the difficulties and triumphs that were Danny’s too short life.
When showed an interview of Danny with his psychologist, Youth Director Sharon Rappaport fielded questions from the teens that were answered by Danny’s parents and brothers. I was reminded of what the evening was really about when one teen asked, “What did you love about Danny?”
For me, the most important take away of the powerful evening is the generous spirits of the Klein family. They are experiencing an unimaginable loss and their grief is palpable. But all of us who love them watch in awe as they channel that sorrow into activism. In Danny’s name, they are determined to make a change in our world so that people who struggle as Danny did will have champions among their peers.
At the close of the night, Judy told our teens, “I know that you are learning about what it means to say ‘I am enough’ but I want you all to know that you aren’t just enough. You are all way more than just enough.”
May Danny’s name always be for a blessing.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill