Archive by Author | Rabbi Craig Scheff

The Power of Two

Eldad and Meidad are infused with the spirit of God, and they go about the camp in an ecstatic state (in last week’s parasha, Beha’alotecha). Joshua is concerned, but Moses doesn’t see the two as a threat to his leadership or to the community. In fact, he expresses the wish that everyone would be so graced.

Caleb and Joshua scout the Promised Land along with ten other spies. In contrast to the ten who see the challenges presented by their destination as insurmountable, the two urge the community to trust in God and to take what God promises to deliver (this week’s parasha, Shlach).

We often reflect on the difference that one person can make in the world. The influence of our actions ripple across distance and time. The work, however, is not easy. Though it might not be our individual obligation to finish the task in which we engage (“Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor…” Pirkei Avot 2:21), it is challenging to remain engaged when we feel alone, isolated, unsupported, suspect in others’ estimation, and perhaps even doubt in our capabilities.

Perhaps that is why the Torah presents so many examples of people working in tandem—for good or bad—to achieve a common goal. The solitary figures are often models of the exceptional. The duos, however, find strength and support, clarity and confidence, in each other. “Two are better off than one, in that they derive greater benefit from their efforts. For if they should fall, the one will raise up the other, as opposed to if one falls when there is no one to raise him” (Ecclesiastes 4:10-11).

 

Moses struggles with frustration and anger in his efforts because he is so alone. Time and time again we see that the weight of the burdens he bears is too much for him to carry alone. And delegating only goes so far in its effectiveness. God also experiences this frustration: “How long will they frustrate me? I’ll destroy them and start over with you,” says God. But Moses doesn’t want a new people to lead; Moses wants a partner. I imagine that when Moses calls upon God to show God’s strength through a display of compassion, he is actually saying to God: “We are both frustrated, we are in this together, we need to hear each other, learn from each other, and make this work.” God heeds Moses’ plea, anger is assuaged, and a partnership is born.

We can’t bear the burdens of our challenges alone. Creating partnerships and finding allies helps us become more self-aware, more reflective. Sharing our passion for a cause with another affords us the luxury of checking ourselves, of measuring our opinions and responses, of learning from another’s experience how to better achieve our goal.

As a faith community, we take our role of being a prophetic voice to the world seriously. While we are made up of many individual and diverse voices, we tackle issues and challenges as one. But working as a community alone can feel isolating and frustrating, often leading to feelings of anger, resentment and hopelessness. And that is why we have been so dedicated this year, and are so dedicated for the future, to building organizational partnerships. In the past week alone, we have partnered with the Rockland County Pride Center, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, and VCS (Volunteer counseling Services) to create opportunities for education, advocacy and empowerment and to serve those who find themselves on the margins of our society. We have stood for equality, learned how to better protect and advocate for the innocent, and feed the hungry. Thanks to these other organizations, our capacity to serve has increased.

 

As our tradition demands, we will love our neighbors, we will pursue justice, we will serve as a light to others in darkness. As these times demand, we will extend our hands in partnership to those who seek to do the same. And as we do so, our compassion, our power, our confidence and our love will only grow. And the Promised Land will not appear to us as an unattainable goal.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

I pledge allegiance to three flags

I pledge allegiance to three flags:

Of the United States of America
And to the republic for which it stands
One nation 
Under God
Indivisible
With liberty and justice for all;

Of the State of Israel
And to the hope for which it stands
One People
Sharing a prophetic vision of God’s sovereignty 
United in diversity
With equal rights and religious freedom for all;

Of the Rainbow of Pride
And to the sexuality and gender identities for which it stands
One emanation of God refracted in a multitude of ways
Indistinguishable as humans in the Divine image
With love for and inclusion of all.

My allegiance to any one of these three flags does not preclude my allegiance to any other. I can raise them side by side and pledge myself to each, for they are in consonance with one another. In fact, each demands my allegiance to the others. To believe in that which the American flag symbolizes is to believe in that which the others symbolize.

And though we sometimes fall short—as communities and as individuals—of the ideals to which we profess to aspire when we wrap ourselves in those flags, in pledging our allegiance we nonetheless commit ourselves to working towards the realization of the aspirations each represents. We pledge to respect the rule of law; we pledge to exercise our right to advocate, educate and vote; we pledge to demand that every person be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender or romantic orientation.

In the short span of seven days, I will have paid honor in memorium to those who sacrificed their lives so that we could breathe freely as Americans, even as I lament the treatment of families at our borders; I will have marched up 5th Avenue to celebrate the State of Israel and its remarkable achievements, even as I let it be known that I am a concerned stakeholder in the ongoing Zionist project; and I will have celebrated “Pride Shabbat” at our synagogue as an introduction to a month of events in and around our community, even as I know we have so much education to do before “inclusion” no longer needs a committee of its own.

So the next time someone asks how it is that one can pledge allegiance to three different flags, tell them that it is your God-given right and responsibility to do so. And then ask them how it is that they don’t.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Finding solace after Passover

On a 30-mile sunrise trek out of and back into Mitzpe Ramon, my colleague and fellow rider Rabbi Ed Gelb introduced me to the idea of the “solace of silence.” Or was it the “solace of solitude?”

Reflecting on my recent participation in the Ramah Israel Bike and Hike in the Negev (which included 250 miles of biking over 5 days the week before Passover), I sat with my memories of the silence, the solitude and the solace I experienced in the open spaces of the desert. Given the timing of the trip, I was particularly excited to travel along the Jordanian-Israeli border and the Egyptian-Israeli border at the same time of year the Israelites of the Torah would have exited Egypt. Due to this year’s very wet winter in Israel, the Negev was green along the “river” beds that would carry the rains. I was reminded of the words of Psalm 104, which we read just this morning in celebration of the new month: “You make springs gush forth in torrents to flow between the hills.” I imagined the flock that accompanied the Israelites feeding on the greenery, the children picking the purple and yellow flowers. I wondered whether the winter that preceded the exodus was an unusually wet one in God’s anticipation of the challenging journey.

As I rode with my group (we “Bogrim” were the intermediate riders, encompassing a wide range of biking abilities), we’d often get spread out along our route. Sometimes we’d be divided into small packs, where we could push, encourage, joke with, and occasionally sing to one another. Sometimes we’d feel entirely alone on the road, though there was always someone just a minute ahead or a minute behind us.

The moments of community and the moments of solitude in the open and quiet space of the wilderness gave me a new perspective on the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom. I’d always understood the desert as a necessary transformational experience for our people, but never fully appreciated the effects of the surroundings on the fledgling community. Barren, silent and expansive, yet beautiful, peaceful and awe-inspiring, the Negev invited me to clear my head, to shed my burdens, to breathe deeply into my faith and to connect at a soul-level with the land, the journey and the people sharing both with me.

Wanting to pursue the topic further, I searched for the book that Rabbi Gelb had mentioned. As it turns out, I had the title entirely wrong. The book he referenced that morning was The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, a collection of essays about the author’s life and encounters in Wyoming! My mistake, however, led me to two wonderful blogs. One was about the benefits of practicing silence, entitled “Finding Solace in Silence” by Kerine W. on wittedroots.com. She writes: “There’s always been more to silence than we think. It hasn’t been obvious because we’ve villainized it. We’ve given it negative connotations of loneliness, isolation, and the illusion that we’ll be missing out on all the things around us. I think we too often associate silence with loneliness, but a void filled with noise is still empty. I believe silence is recuperation.”

In the second, entitled “Finding Solace in Solitude,” Zat Rana comments on upliftconnect.com: “When you surround yourself with moments of solitude and stillness, you become intimately familiar with your environment in a way that forced stimulation doesn’t allow.

My time in the desert brought me a solace born of solitude, silence, open spaces, unbounded time, new friends, shared goals and purposeful community. In a sense it renewed my faith and my hope, both in God and in humanity.

Sadly, the events transpiring in the world around us on this new moon challenge our faith and our hopes. We don’t have the luxury of such time in the wilderness when rockets give only seconds to find shelter. And ceasefires rarely yield the silences that bring about the reflection and reassessment required for true transformation.

Then again, maybe a few days off will give everyone a chance to take a long bike ride in the desert. It certainly worked for me.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Heart in hand

“Bilvavi mishkan evneh l’hadar k’vodo, Uv’mishkan mizbei’ach asim l’karnei hodo….”

In my heart I will build a sanctuary for the splendor of God’s honor, and in the sanctuary I shall place an altar to the rays of glory. And I will take for myself the fire of the Binding (of Isaac) as an Eternal Flame. And as a sacrifice I shall offer Him my soul, my one and only soul. (From “Sefer Chareidim” by R’ Elazar Az’kari)

Over the last several weeks, we have studied the laws of the sacrifices detailed in the Torah, culminating with the dedication of the altar and the installation of the High Priest. But this past week’s parasha (Shemini), using the narrative of the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu as a vehicle, reminds us that the sacrificial cult is accompanied by strict boundaries that are not to be transgressed. And just as the priests must abide by these rules, if we are to be the “Kingdom of Priests” that God desires us to be, we too must recognize the inherent risks inherent in being given access to the Divine, and respect the sanctity of the boundaries in our own lives.

The root of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, can be translated as near or close. Sacrifice, then, is better understood in the biblical context as the way in which we draw near to the Divine. It is an invitation to achieve a sense of intimacy and communion with God. In our modern context, sacrifice is what we offer of ourselves in our attempt to achieve a deeper connection with those people, causes and things about which we are passionate.

Not everyone, however, is so comfortable with intimacy. Drawing near means being seen, possibly exposing our vulnerabilities, revealing our flaws. Maintaining distance, on the other hand, keeps us safe, protects our anonymity, and avoids risk.

Moreover, the fiery passion that may accompany intimacy, if unchecked, can be all-consuming, excluding to others, and costly to the self. When we care passionately about a person or a cause, we may throw ourselves–our emotional energy, our time, our resources–into the relationship. Sometimes we may even go too far in our zeal, forgetting about self-care and about our other priorities, and excluding the voices of others who may share our passions or who may stand in opposition because of their own hierarchy of values.

Relationship requires sacrifice. If we are to achieve true intimacy, we must be ready to give with no expectation of reward, to assume the risk of being hurt or even of hurting another despite our best intentions. We must be prepared to get messy, because the intensity and zeal that can accompany intimacy is not always accompanied by rational behavior.

But sacrifice also requires regulation and control. The failure to curb one’s enthusiasm can lead to disastrous results, harming the parties to the intimacy and those tangentially related. While we may no longer approach God with sacrifices in hand, we must build sanctuaries in our hearts, with altars fed by our purest intentions, upon which we offer our deeds. And as we bring our souls to the altar of intimate connections, may we not lose sight of those around us ready to do the same.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Local Jews

It’s a cold Sunday morning in February, the time is 8:55am. Sitting by the window in our Daily Chapel, I have a good view of the synagogue driveway.

Unfortunately, there are no cars entering. From my spot, I can actually see two blocks down the main street that approaches the driveway. Not a car in sight.

And we have 8 people in the room.

And 2 of the 8 are saying Kaddish.

Just up from shiva for their loved ones, they have come to the synagogue on this morning to find solace in community, and I am afraid we are about to fail them.

I pick up my phone, open my texts, and call up my chat group “Local Jews.” These are the families with younger children who have moved into our synagogue neighborhood over the last few years. They walk to synagogue on Shabbat. They tailgate with Rabbi Hersh and his wife Loni in the parking lot after services when the weather is nice. Their children wait around for me to change my clothes and bring out the boxes of Good Humor eclairs. They share coupons to the food store in our text group, and debate whether hot dogs are sandwiches. They wish each other a Shabbat shalom.

I’ve never used this particular forum to seek support for the synagogue, so I hesitate. I don’t want my neighbors to feel that I don’t respect the boundaries between the social neighborly connection we share and the synagogue connection we have in common. I don’t want them to feel any sense of guilt if they must turn down a rabbi’s request.

But time is growing short. And the window of opportunity is closing. So I text:

“Good morning! Don’t usually (ever) do this, but there are a couple of people saying Kaddish this morning and we are 2 short of a minyan. Can anyone drop by for 15 minutes?”

I hold my breath.

Seconds later my phone buzzes: “Gives us a few minutes. Dragging kids from beds.”

Ten minutes later, mom and her two young teens walk into the room, smiles on their faces, siddurim in hand. Imagine that, I think to myself. Teenagers who have just rolled out of bed, leaning into and giggling at their mother’s side. On a Sunday morning at 9am.

The sight takes me back to my own youth, to the many Sunday mornings I spent sitting under my father‘s right arm, surrounded by people a generation (or two) ahead of me. I recall how they greeted me with warm smiles and expressions of appreciation for my presence. They made me feel seen. They made me feel important. They made me feel connected.

My guilt over crossing some imaginary boundary dissipates, as I remember why this family moved into the neighborhood in the first place, around the corner from the OJC. They chose to make the synagogue and its community a focal point of their lives. For their own benefit and for the benefit of others.

Do I wish that people would want to come to services on Sunday morning for a half hour without prompting? Of course I do. But I’ll take neighbors who eagerly answer the call when they are needed any day of the week. And I’ll always cherish that moment when a teen sees the look on the face of an adult, telling them they’ve made a difference in someone’s life.

Local Jews, I promise not to abuse the privilege of having you as neighbors. Unless you give me permission to do so!

Rayna and Zev, I see you. You are more important to us than you know. And while you may not be able to name the feeling now, I hope that someday you will look back and recognize the way connection to community was cultivated in your lives. Mom, great job.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

These are the Rules

Our grandfather, Israel Neiman, died the week the Ten Commandments were read in synagogue. Upon reflection and discussion as we find ourselves amidst the family’s observance of shiva, we realized that these mitzvot can offer important insights into the Jewish customs and traditions of mourning. As regular bloggers, and as brother and sister, we united our thoughts to co-author this week’s blog.

In the wake of loss, despite best intentions, many say and do the wrong things. This is true for those who want to comfort the mourners, as well as for mourners who receive the community that comes to pay its respects. Left to our own devices, we flounder in uncertainty and faux pas, the results of which cause anxiety and discomfort for all parties. During times of loss and grief, levels of anxiety and emotion are elevated; not a good time to “wing it” or propose constructive suggestions in the moment.

Time-tested traditions and mourning rituals are well-established to offer comfort and assurances to those who have suffered loss and are observing shiva. They also prescribe ways to receive expressions of sympathy and communal support without being overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful or burdened by the need to serve as host. These rules also benefit the community by enabling visitors to feel they truly bring comfort to the bereaved, even as they receive an opportunity for reflection and inspiration in turn.

In the spirit of the Ten Commandments, we offer these interpretations in the context of mourning:

1.     “I am the Lord your God.” There is a God that created us with a breath. The death of our Zaydie is the return of that breath to God. We stand in awe of the notion that our grandfather’s soul has been returned to its source.

2.     “You shall not create false images to bow down to them.” In the shiva home, mirrors are covered so we are not distracted from the deeper significance of the life that was lived. We are not meant to live in the physical world during the week of shiva. We tear our clothing to strip away the external; to live in limbo between the torn and the whole. Physical trappings—clothing, makeup and displays of materialism—are false images of existence that further separate us from the life of the soul we remember.

3.     “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” In remembering loved ones, the stories we share should not demean the memory of the person or disrespect the mourner. At times we feel the need to bring levity, but humorous stories at the expense of the deceased may be degrading and hurtful to a mourner.

4.     “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.” The public observance of shiva is suspended on Shabbat, though private mourning continues. Even mourners need to breathe in the sanctity of the day. Shiva is exhausting; physically and emotionally draining. Mourners need to “re-soul” themselves just like everyone else.

5.     “Honor your father and mother.” Parents anticipate the needs of their children. It is a rare opportunity to show honor by anticipating the physical and emotional needs of one’s parent during in mourning period.

6.     “Don’t murder.” Families have complex dynamics. The intensity of emotions at a time of loss can give way to conflict. The week of shiva is not the time to act on impulses or unpack baggage. 

7.     “Don’t commit adultery.” Mourn the relationship you had with the person you lost. Do not “reinvent” it. Treat the relationship with honesty and integrity, even if it was not ideal. If the relationship was lacking, honor that story too; recognize the pain that accompanies lost time and lost opportunity.

8.     “Don’t steal.” Grief in a shiva house belongs to the mourner. A visit is not the time to share your own stories or express your personal sense of loss; unless you are invited to do so.

9.     “Don’t bear false witness.” Offering that you feel very blessed to have known the deceased is very different than telling the mourners how blessed or lucky they were. Don’t offer that you know how a mourner feels because of your own experiences. This is plain false.

10.  “Don’t covet.” Saying Kaddish, as an example, belongs to the mourners. The loss is theirs, as is their obligation to mourn. While the community may stand with mourners as a sign of support, Kaddish is not to be recited with them. Only “Amen” is said to answer and affirm their prayers. Sadly and inevitably, we all will have our own times to mourn.

That being said, our modern sensibilities—often characterized by a sense of entitlement and a lack of empathy—require a redefined set of rules to correspond with a new reality. To this end, we offer ten helpful guidelines for the modern shiva house:

1.     You shall designate a non-mourner family member or friend as your Shiva Coordinator. You need someone to take charge of the details and schedule from meals to minyan.

2.     You shall set defined visitation hours. So that people won’t come too early or stay too late, consider two hours in the afternoon and two hours in the evening; leaving time for a nap.  Carve out personal mealtime – for you and your family – and stick to it. That’s it. (And don’t forget to put out the chicken that needs reheating, at least forty-five minutes before you want to eat.)

3.     You shall plan your own menus. Too much food causes too much stress. Notify friends of the schedule for meals. Specify that the food is for the number of mourners, plus four. If there are special food considerations (Kosher, gluten-free, nut-free, etc.), be specific and clear. 

4.     You shall affix a sign to the front door. It should read: “Please don’t knock or ring; come right in – but only between 2pm and 4pm or 6:30pm and 8:30pm. Otherwise, please wait outside or in your car. Or use your GPS to find the nearest coffee shop.”

5.     You shall place a guest book by the entryway for visitors to sign in. This will remind you after shiva who came. But also, by the book, leave a sign that says: “Please find a seat facing the mourner. Limit your time to 15 minutes maximum. However, if others are waiting without seats, please limit your visit to 10 minutes.”

6.     You shall sit on a chair and stay put. Sit in a spot that provides access to visitors and offers limited seating around you. Do not get up except to go to bathroom, bedroom or to stretch (all of which are important). Visitors will get the message and limit their time with you when others are standing by waiting for a seat. If you are hungry or thirsty, ask anyone to get you what you need.

7.     You shall wear an amulet around your neck. It should say: “Please don’t hug or kiss me. I am immunosuppressed. And no one wants to see your behind or your cleavage as you bend over to comfort me.”

8.     You shall shut off all ringers and ask others to do the same. People should not call a shiva house (except family). If you wish to reach a mourner and can’t make an in-person visit, send an email or a text to someone else in the household. The incessant noise is unnerving!

9.     You shall not network. As a visitor, do not cultivate business opportunities or play Jewish geography upon visiting a house of mourning. The mourners wear a torn ribbon or article of clothing and sit on low benches (hopefully), so they can be identified easily. When visiting, make a bee-line for them, pay your respects, avoid side conversations, and depart.

10.  You shall celebrate the life of your loved one as you choose…even if that means ignoring rules 1 through 9. But don’t forget, it is a long week and you can’t party like you used to. So pace yourself!

Mom, thanks for allowing us to take this opportunity to teach with a little humor. And we pray that you find comfort in celebrating Zaydie’s 100 years of life, 79 years of marriage, 9 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and 4 great-great-grandchildren.

We love you very much,

Craig and Cheri

Marching Together, Alone

I’ve seen a couple movies recently that have moved me profoundly, so much so that they were sitting on my heart and in my head yesterday afternoon as I sat in the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Nyack, celebrating the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both films address the history of race relations, questions of identity, challenges to morality, and the ways in which American politics and society reflect these ongoing struggles.

Green Book and BlacKkKlansman tell the stories of two African Americans who confront racism, and who wrestle with the degree to which they will draw their own lines in the sand in pursuit of attaining their own personal goals. But in each story there is a white protagonist (one Italian, the other Jewish) who serves as a complementary role, but who undergoes an identity crisis and transformation of his own.

Most importantly, the fight against hatred, ignorance, oppression and marginalization has the potential to bring out the best in good people who share certain values. It is those shared values that enable them to overcome their other natural and nurtured differences, to march side by side, to learn from one another, to sympathize and empathize, to conquer biases and assumptions, to pursue shared goals despite approaching from different angles.

In advance of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, organizer Vanessa Wruble, a Jewish journalist, invited Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez (two activist women of color, for gun control and criminal justice reform, respectively) to be part of the leadership team that would organize the march. That first march, which was fueled by the response to the Election Day results, was a symbol of unity among women of all colors, the LGBTQ community, advocates of other social justice causes, and voices of progressive values in general.


In the wake of that first event, however, a rift developed within the leadership team. Mallory and Perez, along with Linda Sarsour (former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York), felt that Wruble could not be an effective leader of the march going forward given her status of white privilege and power, and that women of color would create a stronger coalition of voices from marginalized communities. At the same time, Wruble felt that she was a victim of anti-Semitism, being pushed out of the leadership because she was Jewish, and that the ties that Mallory, Perez and Sarsour had with pro-Palestinian causes, along with their connections to Louis Farrakhan, were strongly influencing the character of the coalitions they were seeking to establish.

Martin Luther King, Jr. seized upon the story of the Israelite journey from slavery to the Promised Land, which we read this weekend in synagogue, as a shared narrative between the Jewish and African American communities. He was vociferous in his support and admiration for the State of Israel. He did not marginalize the Jewish experience as one of privilege or power. “When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism,” he said, recognizing the tendency to label Israel advocates as oppressors. He saw the struggle for social and racial justice as a goal he shared with the Jewish leaders who marched at his side.
The rift within the Women’s March movement is, unfortunately, emblematic of the deteriorating state of relations between the Jewish non-Orthodox community and the larger progressive community.


As a rabbi and community leader, I have advocated for certain causes side by side and shoulder to shoulder with communal leaders who have shared my passion for those particular causes, though we may have stood opposite one another over other issues. I could overlook our differences, sometimes as admittedly with great difficulty and discomfort, for the sake of our shared goals and alliance in faith. I felt that sense of common purpose yesterday, sitting in a Nyack church, listening as pastors recited words of Torah.


There comes a point, however, where I cannot ally with those who subscribe to the opinions of haters. Holocaust deniers, conspiracy theorists and other dehumanizing anti-Semites, and those who offer a platform for their views, are beyond partnership. Marching side by side with disseminators of hate would be a denial of my identity, and an insult to those I consider my constituents and to the legacy of Dr. King, no matter the cause.

I will continue to work for change from within, to influence opinions from a place of engagement. But when social justice leaders and organizers succumb to ignorance and hate, forgetting the human dignity inherent in each of us beyond the narrow labels that may be assigned to us, I will choose to march separate and apart. And, if necessary, alone.

Rabbi Craig Scheff
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