Archive | July 2016

Elie Wiesel, True North

Like so many, I felt great sorrow upon hearing of the death of Elie Wiesel on July 2. I felt bereft at the loss of such an iconic man, one who served as a moral compass for the world almost against his own desire. In the two weeks that followed his death, I have read many meaningful eulogies and tributes and decided that I had no insights of my own to offer. I never met Mr. Wiesel. I did not study with him or serve on a board with him. I only heard him speak publicly once though I read every book Wiesel authored. His wisdom holds an indelible place in my Jewish identity. How many of us could claim the same? What did I have to add to the conversation?


In the two weeks since Wiesel’s death, the world has continued to implode in a myriad of frightening and devastating ways. It feels like we have entered a dangerous, stormy night in a rudderless ship. . . and we have lost our compass. For many of us, Elie Wiesel represented our True North. Bracing myself with each new piece of information about bombings, murders, demonstrations, ugly campaigning and economic threats to stability, I realized that I do have something to say.

I was only 12 years old when my older cousin Beth gave me Night to read on the flight from Florida back to Maine.


When I got off the plane, I collapsed into my parents’ arms sobbing. They thought that I had missed them during my week-long vacation, but I soon explained that the tears were a response to the book I had just completed. I had come to understand in my very soul the horrors of the Holocaust and its implications for me as a Jew. Reading Night was most definitely my awakening to the reality of a world with evil in it and to the precariousness of life as a Jew.

Twenty-four years later, as I sat in a hospital room witnessing my mother’s dying, it was Wiesel’s memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea that I read. That haunting book of hope and disaster is forever entwined in those lonely frightening days. Wiesel’s book and my mother’s death taught me that life followed by death is a reality we cannot deny.

Wiesel’s lessons thus form bookends for my first awareness of loss when I was a child and my acceptance of loss as an adult. Acceptance does not mean indifference. Acceptance dictates that life must be fully embraced in every moment. Wiesel said, “I had all the reason in the world to be angry at the world, at God and at the Other,” but he refused anger as his response to his life story. He chose education, advocacy and memory.

I am struck by the fact that Orangetown Jewish Center began a campaign to fund a memorial to the Shoah at the entrance of our building in the same week that we lost Wiesel. How beautiful that we are creating a place to congregate, contemplate and educate. Each of us will be able to embrace and draw strength from the fact that none of us stands alone. At the OJC, we are all part of a caring community committed to ending intolerance and injustice. We are committed to remembering for the sake of creating a safer, better world. I know that we will carry on the legacy of this great moral leader.

Shoah Memorial

As long as Elie Wiesel lived in this world, we could count on his opinions, his humble yet powerful statements, his decisive writing, his willingness to scold world leaders if necessary. The world feels like we have entered a dark and stormy night indeed without a True North. But together, we will find our way out of the darkness, out of the Night. By remembering and acting on memory, we will ensure a better world for our children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, for all the children of tomorrow.

Join me as I dedicate myself to acting in his memory. No one person can replace such a moral giant. But each one of us can do our best to stand up for the values that he held most dear. In this way, we will continue Wiesel’s legacy of repairing the world.

Never forget. Always remember.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Speaking as prophets

Today, Israel and those who love her mourn the brutal murder of 13 year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel. The leadership once again searches for balance as it reels from the blow, struggling to arrive at the “appropriate” response. I would not dare offer an opinion on the matter, even if I could formulate one. As I prepare to share this message, another terrorist attack is unfolding in Bangladesh, with several already dead, dozens held hostage and ISIS claiming responsibility. I pray that the perpetrators be brought to justice and that the hostages emerge unscathed. But even as we struggle with how to respond to our neighbors and to the world in light of these events, I am still compelled to speak within our family to an issue that must remain at the top of our agenda as Jews. t is an issue of self-care. And such is the nature of these times. If we cannot care for our own well-being, we won’t be any good to anybody else. To that end:

Some of my colleagues believe that in this day and age rabbis must function as prophets, taking public stands on political and social issues from gun control to refugees to presidential campaigns. Judaism, no doubt, has what to say about all these topics of the day and more. As a rabbi, however, I see it as my task to educate about what Judaism says to all sides of these issues. After all, we know that Judaism rarely offers a single answer to any question, sometimes only offering another question in response. Being a rabbi certainly doesn’t qualify me as the authority on all topics that affect our society; being a Jew certainly doesn’t qualify me as owner of the only truth.

Two thousand years ago, in the wake of the Temple’s destruction (largely due to the corrupted priesthood which had concentrated religious and political authority and access in the hands of the few), the rabbis transformed Judaism from a cultic sacrificial system into a tradition based upon individuals  expressing their relationship with God through the conduct of their daily lives. No longer would religious power and access to God be owned by the few and corruptible. The written word would give equal access to all. Throughout the centuries and the various shifting locales of Jewish life, our rich tradition has recognized a plurality of authorities and a wide range of customs and interpretations.
We find ourselves today at a moment in history similar to the one our rabbis faced 2000 years ago. A small group of politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel claim sole access to and interpretation of the word of God; only through them may others connect with the Divine. This past week our American Orthodox leaders were shaken to hear that a conversion performed by one of their leading figures of our generation was invalidated by an Israeli rabbi. The week before, a group of men marched into the egalitarian section of the Kotel–where we have prayed together as a community on so many occasions–and set up a mehitzah. The Israeli government is now backpedalling from implementing an agreement reached months ago, as religious groups retract their assent to a deal that had granted the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) and Reform movements a respectable, secure and accessible spot for mixed prayer at the Kotel.
Masorti kotel
This issue, in my opinion, is the most important issue confronting us as Jews today, even more pressing than the threats of antisemitism or the BDS movement. Why? Because “we” have nothing to say to the world as Jews in response to the social and political issues of our times until “we” are recognized as Jews who can speak for Torah, for Israel and for what Judaism offers the world. The Israeli rabbinate and the government enabling it have undermined the legitimacy of our voices as Jews in the world. Before we can speak Torah with authority to any of the issues of our day, we must reclaim our legitimacy. Just as we expect others to denounce extremism, our voices of moderation raised before our own extremists. We can, and indeed we must, communicate this message to every Jewish institutional circle in which we find ourselves. This can be as simple as sharing your support of this message with the lay leadership or professional staff of your local JCC, Jewish Federation, J-Street, AIPAC, or AJC chapter. Let them know you will not tolerate being marginalized as a Jew. Write to Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, or visit his Facebook page and post a message there. Go to to learn more about the advances that Masorti Judaism has made within Israeli society, and the challenges it faces. Let the Israeli government know that there are consequences to its continuing acquiescence to religious parties that deny all Jews the free expression of their Judaism. Our children are being disenfranchised and their connections to Israel are being attenuated–not because of Israel’s foreign policy, but first and foremost by a religious policy that denigrates and invalidates their very identities as Jews.
Kotel conflict

“You’re not Jews,” Haredi protesters shouted at the non-Orthodox worshipers

Jews of Israel and Jews of the Diaspora must take back from the hands of the self-proclaimed prophets ownership of God’s word. Each of us is a prophet, each of us hears God’s word. When we own this fact and tear down the false altars that have been erected by those who have hijacked our tradition, Torah will once again emanate from Zion, the word of God from Jerusalem. Her ways will be pleasant, and her pathways will be peace. Then we will certainly have what to tell the world.

May this Shabbat bring us, and through us the world, a greater measure of shalom,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
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