I had the good fortune this summer to travel to Venice and Greece with Nancy and four longtime friends ahead of our “Double Chai” (36th) wedding anniversary next month.
The 10-day respite offered me the opportunity to witness the kind of natural beauty I had only seen in movies or on postcards. We stood atop soaring mountains that drop precipitously into white beaches, then descended to wade in azure seas that caress the shore. The experience brought to mind a story told of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the nineteenth century founder of Neo-Orthodoxy. Reflecting on the end of life, he is said to have taught: “When I stand shortly before the Almighty, I will be held answerable to many questions. But what will I say when God asks – and he is certain to ask – ‘Shimshon, did you see my Alps?’”
Unlike the monastic traditions elevating a religious life that rejects the earthly pleasures of our physical world, Judaism embraces and celebrates creation as a reflection of the divine. We recite particular blessings upon seeing natural wonders and upon witnessing human achievement. We honor those who give honor to God’s creations.
Of all that I enjoyed taking in on this journey, there were two experiences that left a deeper impression on me than any of the ancient ruins or medieval artistry we saw. The first occurred in a glass shop on the island of Murano off the coast of Venice, where I met a glass blower named Luciano Orovetro. He shared his handiwork with us, telling us—with a child’s wide-eyed exuberance—about this profession that had run in his family for generations. The joy and pride he exuded in describing his creative process made it clear to me that his physical work was a spiritual endeavor. The beauty of his creations reflected that divine light.
The second experience occurred in a place of natural beauty on the Greek island of Kefalonia. Melisani Cave, known in Greek mythology as the Cave of the Nymphs, opens from above to an underground lake fed by subterranean waters. Seeing the marvel of clear sun-lit spring waters that filled the cave from a boat that seemed to be floating on air would have been enough. But what transformed the time on the water was the “captain” of our boat, a master oarsman with 35 years of sharing his sense of awe and appreciation for the passage of time, and its effects on the walls, the water and the world within the natural wonder. His fifteen minutes of guiding a group of tourists—something he probably repeats thirty times a day—lifted our spirits, transporting us in wonder and joy to a realm that we rarely visit.
I can’t tell you that Rabbi Sampson Rafael Hirsch actually believed that God expected us to travel to Switzerland in our lifetimes. But I can appreciate the sentiment that we need to visit that which is beyond our familiar surroundings, to meet and experience those whose interests and passions are different than our own, and to search for and recognize the wonders that are all around us.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
“Moses spoke to the children of Israel, ‘Thus said the Lord: I love you. And all I ask is that you love me in return, and show the world how to do the same.’”
Millenia later, Jews around the world celebrate the occasion of this momentous revelation with … cheesecake?
It’s all about the branding. As Jews, symbols and rituals shape the experience of our festivals and holidays. The recognizable and often tangible and experiential aspects of these special days on our calendar add to the meaning and importance we assign them. The piercing blast of the shofar leaves an imprint on our hearts; the rustling of the lulav branches or the breeze that cuts through the sukkah remind us of our vulnerability and trust in a power greater than us; the tastes and sounds of the annual Passover seder create memories that define our identities. We play with dreidels and wear costumes. But … cheesecake?
The holiday that celebrates the love between God and the Jewish people goes largely unnoticed. Passover is celebrated as the birth of a nation; Shavuot, however, following seven weeks after Passover, is the birth of the Jewish nation. It is the time we remember that moment at Mount Sinai when God revealed God’s self to the assembled people through the utterance of the Ten Commandments; God and the Jewish people enter into a covenanted relationship. God shows God’s love for us by giving the Torah, God’s most precious gift; in return, we vow to love God and to follow God’s ways. How do we celebrate? With cheesecake.
Maybe it’s the time of year as we wish away the end of spring and speed towards summer, as we head into graduation season and finals, as we just had the Passover seders and a Yizkor service less than 2 months earlier.
Maybe it’s that we don’t really know how to celebrate love.
When Rabbi Drill and I counsel couples in advance of a wedding, we have them prepare what I call a “relationship inventory.” Each of the partners reflects on the nature of the relationship, what brought them together, how their relationship has evolved, where they envision it going. The exercise is not easy. It requires honesty and reflection. It evokes memories and emotion. I recommend to the couple that they engage in this practice every year on their anniversary as a way of celebrating and renewing their covenant of love.
Shavuot asks of us the same. Can we stand in the sanctuary hearing the words of the Ten Commandments being read from the Torah and NOT be moved? Can we remember the Israelites falling back at the sound of God’s voice —amidst the thunder and lighting, and the mountain seemingly ablaze—without a sense of awe? Can we read the ancient words that have served as the basis for civilized societies for centuries and not feel pride that we were the ones to share it with the world?
The synagogue calendar for the year ahead is being assembled now. The calendar of our Festivals is waiting for us to incorporate into our Google calendar: Rosh Hashanah 9/25-27; Yom Kippur 10/4-5; Sukkot 10/9-18; Passover 4/5-13.
Our holiday celebrating the gift of divine love, Shavuot, falls on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend of 2023, 5/25-27. There will be cheesecake. There will be Yizkor. Far above and beyond all that, there will be Torah … and love.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
It started with a letter from my rabbi, Henry Sosland of blessed memory, to my parents. No emails or texts way back in 1976, just a typed letter. It was an invitation to send me to Camp Ramah in New England, accompanied by an offer of financial assistance from the rabbi to help make it happen.
My parents didn’t know much about Ramah. They knew it was a Jewish camp. I think (?) they knew that daily prayer, daily learning and Hebrew were part of the program. They knew the rabbi sent his own kids there. In fact, Rachel Sosland, who was one grade ahead of me, was the only person I knew who attended. I’m not really sure why I agreed at the age of 12, sight unseen, to be shipped off for the summer to a dust bowl in Palmer, Massachusetts. But it was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
This year, Ramah is celebrating 75 years of Jewish camping. Since the founding in 1947 of the first Camp Ramah in Wisconsin—intended in part as a training ground for future Jewish leadership and in part as an experiment in enhancing Jewish education for children—Ramah has grown into a network of five day camps, ten overnight camps, family camps, Israel programs, global partnerships and educational experiences that continues to shape the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, teens and young adults. Ramah has produced a foundation for Judaism’s Conservative movement and continues to be the jewel in its crown. Nearly one quarter of our own synagogue families share a connection to the Ramah vision through camping or staffing. Our proximity to Ramah Day Camp in Nyack in particular has led to a unique relationship that has been mutually beneficial to both communities. Over the past 26 years, our OJC professional staff has been fed by the Ramah pipeline of educators. Today, Rabbi Drill, Rabbi Hersh, our youth director Sharon Rappaport, our music director Amichai Margolis and I can all trace our earliest connections to each other through Ramah.
I learned about the creation of Jewish family and the Jewish home from my parents and grandparents; but I learned about the creation of Jewish community from my time at Camp Ramah. What stayed with me from my three summers as a camper was not the feeling of praying on a Friday night at the lake; it was not the thrill of intra- or inter-camp competition; it was not the excitement of camping out on a three-day canoe trip. What I took away from camp—and what has informed my life all these years later—was an appreciation of the power of Jewish community.
When I finally chose the rabbinate as my career, I knew that my goal in serving a synagogue community would be to help fashion a community in the image of camp, the kind of community that I experienced and loved as a child. I also knew that the way there was not to bring a lake or a sunset to the synagogue, as some suggest. The emotional attachment to a physical space is insufficient for the purposes of creating holy community, though our stained glass windows certainly provide a beautiful focal point for gathering. For me, camp was—and synagogue would need to be—about empowerment, acceptance, and inclusion; about passion, care and connection; about experiences, growth and aspiration. Ramah taught me that Judaism is not a spectator sport, that prayer is best practiced and best received as a communal endeavor, and that Torah is best understood in the context of our personal interactions and shared moments.
Nancy, our four sons and I have 125 combined years of Ramah experiences. This summer, as Jason and I head to Ramah Sports Academy (RSA) for the summer and Nancy continues in her post as Communications Director of National Ramah, that number will climb a little higher. The Hebrew word ramah literally means “level” or “height.” As we give of our passion and experience to raise Ramah, its staff and campers to new heights, I know that we will bring back to our communities a renewed appreciation for what it means to be in kehillah kedoshah, holy community. I know that we will continue to learn, grow and be inspired by what Camp Ramah is teaching us about Jewish living.
Join us this Shabbat as we host Ramah‘s National Director Amy Skopp Cooper and celebrate our community’s connection to Ramah. Hopefully, together, we will continue to reach for new heights in Jewish learning and living, bringing us closer to each other and to the realization of our Divinely imbued potential.
And if you happen to get a letter from one of your rabbis….
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The following is a reprise (slightly edited) of a blog I published seven years ago. I figured I’d share it again in the spirit of Purim before Rabbi Drill’s return from her sabbatical tomorrow. Enjoy!
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, who’s been with our OJC community for 20 years now, began her professional relationship with me at Camp Ramah in Nyack some 22 years ago. She was Program Director as I was Assistant Director, and Assistant Director (a position formerly also 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.
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.
Rabbi Drill’s popularity has grown over the past 20 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.
And then I pray . . . for the moment I will get her on the basketball court.
Happy Purim to all, and welcome back Rabbi Drill with us this Shabbat! Rabbi Drill, Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise–I’ve missed you and the many ways in which you enrich each of us and our community!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
We welcome, once again, our rabbinic intern Lindsay Goldman as a guest contributor to our blog!
There is a Yiddish library inside the walls of the Tel Aviv bus station. It’s on the fifth floor among the artists’ collective that began when the artists were offered old storefronts as cheap studio spaces. When I was living in Jerusalem before the start of Covid in 2020, we went on a field trip to the library and it was exactly what I expected–a dimly lit room covered with old tchotchkes and floor-to-ceiling stacks of used books. It felt old and stale. While my friends oohed and aahed at the plethora of Yiddish books, I was pretty creeped out. I had never felt a connection to Yiddish or to my ancestors in the shtetls in Eastern Europe. They had all passed away before I was born and it felt like thousands of years existed between us, though it was probably closer to 80 or 90.
More importantly, however, I believe the disconnect came from how I imagined they would feel about how I am living my life today. I am a single woman living in New York City becoming a rabbi. Would they be proud? Furious? Disgraced? In my head, they and their beliefs–about the way the world works and about what I can or cannot do–were old and stale.
I am pursuing my master’s degree in Jewish Gender and Women’s Studies along with my ordination. This semester fewer classes were offered to fulfill my requirements, so I was compelled to sign up for a class entitled “Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Women’s Literature.” Each week we explore a different female author, mostly poets, who either wrote in Hebrew or in Yiddish. As we studied Celia Dropkin, our first Yiddish poet, I was quite moved. Her writing about her womanness and about her body felt incredibly modern, like something that could have been written today. She writes about love and sexuality in a way that felt radical for her time, and especially for Yiddish language literature. It felt fresh. And I learned she was not alone in this exploration of thought and language.
The dusty Yiddish library didn’t feel like my story, but Yiddish was the language my great-grandparents spoke so that my grandparents wouldn’t understand what their parents were talking about. Today my siblings and I speak in Hebrew so that our parents won’t know what we are talking about. Every Shabbat, I light my great-grandmother’s candlesticks and say the same Hebrew words she said week after week. But this week after reading Dropkin’s words, I began to wonder what my great-grandmother and my great-great-grandmothers thought about, what they prayed for, and what they talked with their female friends about. And I realized that perhaps we’re more similar than I had ever known.
Lindsay Goldman, OJC Resnick Intern
Perhaps Moses didn’t cast those tablets of stone to the ground in anger. Perhaps, as the Midrash Tanchuma (Ki Tissa 30) suggests, an eighty year old Moses could only manage to carry two slabs of rock down a mountain because they were made lighter by the presence of the Ten Commandments’ holy letters on them; but once Moses saw the people dancing around a calf of gold, the letters flew from the tablets, rendering the stones nothing but . . . stone. Not even a twenty year old Moses could have carried that burden. Perhaps he cast the tablets to the ground because they were simply dead weight.
This past week we shared news with our OJC community that left many shocked and saddened. We learned several months ago that a minor in our community had been victimized by the inappropriate advances of an adult OJC member, and after a process of pastoring to the needs of the victim and their family, consulting with outside experts and gathering information, we released our plan to field more information via a safety assessment conducted by an outside third party. While the reported inappropriate behavior had not occurred in our building, and while the investigated actions had been verified by the authorities but had not resulted in criminal charges being filed, this matter should not leave us with any illusions about the sanctity of our community. Our covenant has been broken; the holy letters have departed the tablets; the stone lies in shards.
According to a midrash found in the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b), the broken pieces of the first set of Ten Commandments were kept in the ark alongside the second set. Were they there to bear witness to the past? To be a constant reminder of how easily trust can be broken if we are not vigilant? To teach us that we forever carry the broken pieces of ourselves while still being able to achieve wholeness? Yes, yes and yes. We must bear the burden of what may have transpired on our watch. We must ask ourselves why we didn’t speak up when we saw something in the past that made us uncomfortable. And yet, we must overcome these heavy questions and still report what we have experienced and felt. We must enter a new covenant as a community in the hopes that we can be whole again–more vigilant, more mindful, more sacred.
The second set of tablets didn’t come to Moses as easily as the first. He had to hew the stone himself and carry it up the mountain to receive God’s letters a second time. The rabbinic imagination of Midrash Rabbah reassures us that this burden was not a punishment. In fact, the second set of tablets was better than the first because it contained Halacha, Midrash and Aggadah. In other words, the new covenant between God and the people was informed by the wisdom and imagination born out of the Israelites’ experience.
We are completely engaged in the process of renewing our community covenant. As we share a mechanism to gather more information about your observations and experiences, we are already fully invested in developing new policies and procedures to prevent future opportunities for abuse and to safeguard our sacred space. We will be offering 2 town hall-style meetings next week to answer questions and clarify our responses to the best of our ability: one virtually on Wednesday night, March 2 after minyan, and one in person on Thursday evening, March 3 at 6:30pm in the sanctuary. We are fortunate to have this second chance–the opportunity to restore trust and faith in each other and in our institution. We owe it to one another, to our tradition and to our children to be better this time around.
May the sacred space we establish be worthy of God’s presence.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Note: Both Rabbi Drill and Rabbi Scheff tested positive for Covid, one week apart, during this uptick due to the Omicron variant. Thankfully, both rabbis have had fairly mild symptoms. Last week in Part One of this blog, Rabbi Drill shared her thoughts on her experience in isolation. This week, in Part Two, Rabbi Scheff shares his perspective.
CAVEAT 1: I offer this perspective with complete awareness that there are those whose physical symptoms resulting from Covid-19 have been far more debilitating than my stuffiness or loss of my senses of taste and smell.
CAVEAT 2: I offer this perspective with total appreciation that I am neither alone in my home nor responsible for the care of children.
CAVEAT 3: I offer this perspective with the humble acknowledgement that my colleague, teacher and friend Rabbi Paula Drill is a very different person than I am, despite the fact there are those who say that we are one and the same person.
Day 9 of isolation. I’d love to say I have gained some new insight about myself, or experienced some spiritual renewal. But the truth is that it has been a challenge not to turn on HBO Max and spend every waking hour watching “Succession” (though I have nearly caught up). I have finished 3 books, which is an accomplishment for me, and managed to stay current on my emails.
What is it, I wonder, that makes me feel like I can’t just stay in bed? Who is relying on my productivity such that I can’t power down? Why should I feel guilty finishing the entire chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream container if it is the only thing I can actually taste?
While out on a walk listening to one of my favorite podcasts (“On Being,” with Krista Tippet), I learned about English author Katherine May’s concept of “wintering.” Despite Tippet’s attempts to push the author in the direction of discussing the reflective, spiritual aspect of going inside oneself, May stubbornly sticks to her counter-cultural notion of simply remaining safe and in place: Animals don’t fight the winter. They don’t pretend it is not happening. They prepare and adapt; they hibernate and migrate. “Wintering…,” according to May, “…is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight.” And “out of sight” is where transformation occurs as a product of recuperation and replenishment.
Slowing down, expanding spare time, and getting sleep are, in May’s words, “deeply unfashionable” today. Resting is considered by too many in our society to be a radical act, but it is essential to our being. WInter’s place in the life cycle of nature teaches us this lesson, as does the Jewish concept of shmita (the year of release that occurs every seven years): Life demands that we make time to lie fallow, to be unproductive, and to sleep. Especially when we experience personal physical illness, we must be as generous to ourselves as we are to others; we must be prepared to give to ourselves the gift of rest.
We have learned so many valuable lessons from our experiences of the pandemic in the last two years. If I’ve learned anything new or different in these past days from my own isolation, it is that I must model and practice what I preach. Managing self-imposed expectations, exercising patience, practicing tzimtzum (withdrawal into oneself) and even forgiveness – these are also crucial elements of self-care as we experience our personal wintering.
On this Rosh Chodesh Shevat, the first day of the Hebrew month in which we celebrate the New Year of the Trees, perhaps it behooves us to remember Amanda McBroom’s lyrics sung by Bette Midler:
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
In the spring becomes the rose.
Dormancy is merely an organism’s temporary cessation of growth and development in a time of environmental stress. It is nature’s coping mechanism, allowing the seed to conserve the energy that will assist it to burst forth when the time is right.
So go ahead and indulge yourself. Give yourself a break. Sleep late. Binge watch. Power down. Hang in there, spring is almost here.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin) was an American Jewish composer and songwriter who, like many other Jewish artists of his era, found an open door to the expression of his gifts in the music industry. He is considered among the greatest of American songwriters, and “White Christmas” was among his most famous contributions to American culture. The song may have been born out of his own personal experience of loss, it may have been intended as a tribute to what he loved about life in America. Though not religious, Berlin identified ethnically and culturally Jewish until his death in 1989 at the age of 101.
In the spirit of living Jewishly in America at this time of year, I offer the following rendition of Berlin’s timeless contributions. Note: Most people are unaware that the song’s original version has an introductory paragraph about living in Beverly Hills and yearning to be celebrating the holiday up north!
(Sung to the tune of “White Christmas”)
The sun is hiding, the sky is grey
The naked branches sway
It feels like every other day
In Rockland County, you say?
But it’s the 24th of December
And I am longing to be with our members….
I’m dreaming of a bright Shabbos
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the challahs glisten
And children listen
To hear Kiddush chanted slow
(But please, not too slow….)
I’m dreaming of a bright Shabbos
With every guest that I’d invite
May your soup be salted just right,
And may all your Shabboses be bright!
I’m dreaming of a bright Shabbos
But COVID’s got some other plans,
Will you all get tested?
Will germs be bested?
Of masks the guests are just not fans.
I’m dreaming of a bright Shabbos
Though all’s shut down and dark tonight.
May your hearts be open and light,
And may all your Shabboses be bright.
Shabbat shalom, and enjoy the spirit of others’ holidays as we wish others to enjoy ours! And to my friends celebrating Christmas in the northeast, so glad it snowed for you last night!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
We are pleased to feature this contribution to our OJC Rabbis’ blog by Lindsay Goldman, this year’s rabbinic intern:
In my first year of rabbinical school my classmates and I all tried to prove to one another how frum (Yiddish: פֿרום, lit. ‘religious’, ‘pious’) we were. Someone told us they waited six hours between meat and milk, another classmate shared that they put on two different kinds of tefillin every day, and someone else said that they would not say amen to the blessing in the amidah if it included the matriarchs. We were trying to prove how much we belonged here at the Jewish Theological Seminary. However by second year, third year, and now in fourth year, we know that what it means to belong in this community looks different. We show that we belong by talking about our journey to and with our practice and our struggle along the way.
Every Wednesday at JTS is “Rabbinical School community time,” where we gather to discuss pressing issues in our future rabbinates over lunch. Last Wednesday we were each given a few minutes to fill out a survey about our ideas of halakhah. The survey was guided by the question: “Which of the following most closely aligns with what you think halakhah is?” This is not a question we are asked before being admitted to the institution, nor is this a question the answer to which we know about our rabbis or classmates, but it is a question that is essential to the way we live our lives. Does it matter what the halacha says if we don’t know how it impacts our lives?
The four multiple choice options that followed were:
- Halakhah is a direct expression of God’s will.
- Halakhah is a humanly-influenced approximation of God’s “will”.
- Halakhah is a human attempt to live in God’s presence.
- Halakhah is a collection of humanly created consensual norms.
Someone who believes that halakhah is God’s will approaches Jewish law drastically differently than one who assumes it is a compiled set of human norms. Students shared what it felt like when their idea of God’s will was conflicting with humanly created norms. And I added what it felt like when God’s divine will conflicts with the self compassion with which I want to treat myself.
I believe this conversation to figure out how we believe halakhah has a claim on us matters significantly more than the actual practice of Jewish law itself, or at the very least needs to be considered primarily. I am proud of how the dialogue has changed both within the institution and within myself over the last couple of years. I recall the flexibility of my Shabbat practice during the peak of Covid when I was keeping Shabbat without a community, differently than it was intended to be kept. I chose to consider my needs first and the needs of my relationship with God second because of what I believe about halakhah. I don’t know what God’s will is but I believe that being in relationship with human beings is God’s mission in the world. My life is built around trying to be in relationship with God, what I choose to put in my body, when I work and when I rest, as well as learning and teaching Torah. But if I do not have a relationship with myself, I do not feel I can connect as deeply to God.
I won’t spoil which answer students chose overwhelmingly because I want you to consider for yourself which of these options is true for you without any undue influences (but email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk more about the results!). I encourage you to explore your practice and why you do what you do; I personally and strongly believe that the first step is to articulate what halakhah means to you.
Lindsay Goldman, OJC Rabbinic Intern
The weather was eerily similar to the same date on the calendar twenty years before: A bright and sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, a soft breeze, and if you heard no news from the outside world, you might think you were experiencing a slice of heaven, a taste of the world to come. As the sun was setting on the day of September 11, Rabbi Drill and I stood at the podium, surrounded by public servants in uniform, and offered the 23rd Psalm to the hundreds gathered on the lawn of Orangetown’s Town Hall. The psalm, we explained, is offered for those mourning the loss and seeking the presence of their loved ones; for those who wish to feel God’s presence in dark times; and for those who turn to friends and community as a source of strength and comfort.
Looking out at the crowd before us, I was struck by the realization—especially as the names of the fallen from our community were read—that I was not certain whether any family members of the 9/11 victims were actually with us to commemorate the day. This feeling only served to reinforce my belief that, at some level, the magnitude of the 9/11 tragedy robbed individuals who suffered loss the opportunity to grieve and have their personal losses acknowledged by the community. The tragedy became one that belonged to our country, and in the processing of our collective trauma we lost sight, to some degree, of the individual stories of loss, grief and mourning. Stories of heroic first responders, of courageous acts of selfless sacrifice, and of how united our country stood in the days that followed continue to shape the way we remember. We focus far less on the stories of the families that were broken by the sudden loss of a spouse, child, parent and sibling.
The circle of subsumed individual stories expands further. Two weeks before 9/11, a dear personal friend to me and many others, a beloved husband, father of two young children, son and brother, died very suddenly while on vacation with his family. Bruce Cowen was an integral community builder in our congregation. His death left his family traumatized and reeling. The shock left many members of our community devastated. But two weeks later, when the World Trade Center fell, everyone was stricken. The loss belonged to us all. And the processing of individual grief, and the communal support that was supposed to accompany that process, was somehow cut short. Some of us never fully processed Bruce’s death as a result, and some of us could never fully process the full scope of 9/11 because of our personal sense of loss.
In the Jewish tradition, comforting the mourner is a communal obligation. There are times, however, when (to paraphrase two of my favorite fictional characters) the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. When a death occurs during the intermediate days of the festival of Sukkot, for example, formal mourning for the deceased is postponed until after Simchat Torah. If the death occurrs before the festival and shiva begins, it is truncated with the onset of the holiday. Obviously, the bereaved is in an emotional state of mourning; the communal obligation to comfort the mourner, however, is outweighed by the communal obligation to celebrate the holiday to its fullest.
I understand the tension inherent in this rule, especially as a rabbi who is charged with leading the communal celebration of the holiday. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. Sometimes the needs of the one do indeed outweigh the needs of the many. Tragic loss, in my opinion, is one of those times.
That’s why, when remembering six million, it is so important to remember one story. That’s why, on every 9/11, I call a congregant who stood at Ground Zero and witnessed horror all around him. That’s why, on Bruce’s yahrzeit every year, I reach out to the ones most immediately and profoundly affected by his absence.
May we never forget, even as we are called upon to celebrate life. May we never forget the opportunity we are given, individually, to bring comfort, solace, and the blessing of memory to those who may only remember their pain.
Rabbi Craig Scheff