Archive by Author | Rabbi Craig Scheff

2017 Mitzvah Mission – Shabbat

Friday morning in Jerusalem, our OJC track team greeted the day with a brisk 3-mile run (4 for Steve!) down and up a scenic trail through Jerusalem’s original train station and its surrounding neighborhoods. After morning tefillah and breakfast, we boarded the bus promptly (they are so good!) at 9am.


Pantry Packers, run by Colel Chabad, is a food distribution facility that packages and delivers food to the most needy citizens identified by their municipalities. Divided into 3 teams, we donned aprons and hairnets, and got to work. In an hour and a half we bagged, sealed, labeled, date-stamped and boxed 500 packages of grains for delivery to the needy. We had fun, even as we remained conscious of the sad reality that necessitates our efforts.


Our driver Nati delivered us next to the shuk in Machaneh Yehuda, where the bustling market place was teeming with shoppers prepping for Shabbat. We were individually assigned different categories of food to acquire and contribute to our Shabbat afternoon potluck lunch. Among the throngs of people, we still managed to bump into familiar faces!


After a brief afternoon breather back at the hotel, we rode to the Old City and arrived at Ezrat Yisrael, at the southern end of the Western Wall, to welcome Shabbat in song as a community. The sun dipped below the horizon behind us. While we appreciated the beauty and peace of the space we occupied, many of us felt the discomfort of being separated and hidden away from the thousands of Jews just north of us in the main plaza sharing the same words we sang. More about that on a different occasion.

The walk back to the hotel got us good and hungry! We made kiddush, attracting the warm and welcoming gestures of a group of Messianic Jews who wanted us to join them in Bim Bam and Am Yisrael Chai—interesting!!! We delighted in blessing the younger generation that had joined us for Shabbat. After dinner, our group sat in a private hall and shared highlights of the week.

Shabbat morning, we attended Moreshet Yisrael, the nearest Conservative Masorti congregation. Jeff Lance served as a greeter and gabbai, and we were warmly received with several honors to the Torah.

We sat on 7th floor terrace for hours, eating and laughing, enjoying the leisure of Shabbat, until darkness fell on Jerusalem and we recited Havdallah together. Warm goodbyes, expressions of appreciation and gratitude, and most of us were on the way to the airport.

As I descend into Newark, I already look forward to the next time in which we make the ascent together.

Shavua tov,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

2017 Mitzvah Mission day 4 – For the precious children

This morning we departed Haifa just before 9:00am. (What an amazing group! I say 9:00am on the bus, and they were loaded up, in their seats and ready to go at 8:55! Maybe they were totally pumped by Linda’s Torah reading from the Sephardic scroll?)

In any event, by 10:00am we had arrived at Beit Lid junction just outside of Netanya, meeting up there with a group of young teens from Kfar Ahava who had been rewarded with this experience for their outstanding personal and academic performances. The junction was the site of a terrorist attack on January 22, 1995, when two suicide bombers targeted a bus stop crowded by young soldiers returning to their bases early on a Sunday morning. Twenty one soldiers and one civilian were murdered that morning, with more than sixty wounded. A crude but powerful memorial was erected within days, leaves that had fallen too early representing lives that had been cut far too short.

We learned about the long process that the community undertook to establish a permanent memorial. the site, just a few hundred feet away from the location of the bombing would become a memorial and a community center. The goals of the creators and the community were to remember the tragedy, empower the living, and bring to life the stories of the victims. The impressive sculpture ultimately created was inspired by the Biblical verse that describes Jacob’s ladder with “the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).

Twenty two figures ascend the ladder. Each victim is represented by one of the ascending figures; each family of the victims knows which figure represents its loved one. The ladder ascends to the heavens with no supports, representing the strength of the Jewish nation to support its fallen and its survivors. In completing a mosaic of a flower with the teens from Ahava, we felt empowered to create beauty, and we reaffirmed together our sense of responsibility to give life to the legacies of the fallen. One young man shared with me his feelings that, upon reaching young adulthood, he appreciated the newfound sense of responsibility to remember, to serve, and to make choices that will improve his world.

After an exciting off-road adventure that afforded us a quaint picnic lunch with the teens, it was on to Jerusalem. We arrived at Mount Scopus, Har Hatzofim, with the sunset. We cried a little (surprise!) for the sacrifices Israel demands of her children; we reflected on the hope and love that we share for a land that is far from perfect. Like our feelings for our children, though we may not always like everything she does, we still love her and believe that she represents the best possibility for getting it right. We bask in her glow even as we commit to rebuilding her atop her ruins.

An evening of shopping and enjoying the beginning of the weekend was topped off with a visit (one planned, one purely by chance!) with two of our synagogue teens spending their year in Israel. Jessica’s and Sarah’s smiles said it all. Content, happy, innocent, care-free and learning about themselves and their Jewish identities, they represent our hope so well.

This is what every child deserves. God, they are so precious. Please God, spread your shelter of peace over them. Protect them from any harm or pain. Let the Hope be realized soon, and may Your word go out from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, so that no more of our children need be depicted as angels ascending a ladder in return to You.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

 

2017 Mitzvah Mission, Day 3 – Love

How does one summon love for the stranger?

At a place called Love (Ahava), the stranger offers love, creating a safe space for the vulnerable; the stranger receives love, and the reassurance that they will not always be rejected; and we are inspired to give enough love to effect a slight change for the better in our world.

My first visit to Kfar Ahava was in 2007. And even in my eleventh year I am so deeply moved and inspired by the experience. Perhaps more so because once again I got to see this remarkable and unique place through the eyes of the newcomers.

After our annual reintroduction to Ahava by Executive Director Yoav Apelboim, the group gathered in the memorial corner we created in memory of, and dedicated to, Danny Klein and Rob Katz. We remembered, cried, and blessed together. Today was Rob’s birthday, so the moment was particularly poignant. We dedicated today’s acts of love to their legacies.


Next, I gave our newcomers—Ellen, Sharon and Andre—a tour of the residential facility, the school and the emergency shelter. The bright skies, cool breezes, colorful mosaics, peaceful gardens and quiet grounds belied all the brokenness and pain that lay behind so many of the closed doors around us.


But what could not be hidden away was the love. The newcomers saw it in the way the 17-year veteran social worker talked about the children she received in the emergency shelter. Every child brought in through her doors, she explained, deserved to be love, especially considering the conditions they had suffered at home, the one place that was supposed to guarantee love.

At lunch, Amy Nelson and I witnessed an eight year-old boy trying to bond with us by insisting that his father was a professional soccer player who played in New York. He just wanted to be loved. A twelve year-old oppositional girl challenged him to stop lying, so clearly lashing out in the pain of her own brokenness. An eighteen year-old doing his year of national service at Ahava subtly shook his head in disapproval of her insensitivity, and her anger was quieted. The foster mother overseeing their care, in her first year of service, turned to us to offer that she was here to change the world for the better in some small way.

Tonight, first-timer Sharon, a stranger to Ahava, reflected to the group that the experience of Ahava stripped away her armor. With the permission to be vulnerable, she felt more authentic. And the more authentic we are, the more capable we are of giving and receiving love.


Thank you, Ahava, for inspiring us all to love even the stranger.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

2017 Mitzvah Mission Day 2 – A Keeper

There are many meanings to the word “shomer,” depending on its context. Guard, observer, and watchman are just a few uses of the word.

Today we served as shomrim in almost every sense of the word. The word “keepers” probably best captures our role today. Most of us were on the beach by 7am, running or walking on the Tayelet, exercising the mitzvah of shmirat ha-guf, or keepers of our bodies. On the bus ride southward, we sang the morning service together, meditating on the mitzvah of shmirat ha-nefesh, keeping of the spirit. As we sang the words to “Shomer Yisrael,” Guardian of Israel, we didn’t appreciate in the moment what those words would come to mean by the end of the day.

On a farm called Amatziya in the Lachish region, across a valley from the city of Hebron, we met the young men of Hashomer Hachadash (“The New Guard”), who shared with us their experiences as watchmen for Israel’s farmers. Protecting farmlands from intruders who might burn their crops and kill their livestock, the Shomrim spend a year of national service learning leadership skills, volunteering on the farms, and serving as nighttime deterrents for those who might consider intruding. Hashomer Hachadash has also engaged thousands of volunteers with the Zionist dream and Israel’s rich historical connection to the land through educational programs and opportunities to work the land with their own hands.

Under Amir the farmer’s direction, we spent the day working in a vineyard, fulfilling the mitzvah of shmirat ha-adamah, keeping the land, clearing the overgrowth and making room for the grapes that will grow in the year ahead. Of course, we had plenty of opportunities to pluck the sweet grapes right from the vine to snack on through the day.

By the end of the day, we had become the keepers of the land and the keepers of the dream. Best of all, as we departed, we took with us the charge of being each other’s keepers.

This day was definitely a keeper! Tomorrow morning we are on to Ahava!

Laila tov,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

The lives of Sarah

“The lifetime of Sarah came to be one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah” (Genesis 23:1).

I offer what follows in tribute to the life of Sarah our matriarch, Sarah my grandmother on her 98th birthday, and the occasion of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.

They were nights of broken lives and broken dreams, days of broken hearts and broken families. Six years worth of brokenness. Sarah learned to cheat death and to gamble with life, to speak in half-truths to her loved ones and to lie to herself every morning just to get through the day.

The year 1941 was the worst of them all, as she now recalls. With her one-year-old daughter Hannah in her arms, she would leave Siberia and her husband behind with the intention of starting a new life back in Berdichev, where her mother and father (and his 12 siblings and their families) remained. Her husband Izzy would leave his work in Siberia once she was settled with the family. Sarah sensed, however, that Jewish life in Berdichev was coming to an end. She cried to her father endlessly, pleading with him to return to Siberia with her. She ultimately prevailed, but just in the nick of time. She can still recall looking back from afar at the city engulfed in Nazi flames, the agonizing screams of her dying aunts, uncles and cousins being drowned out by the exploding bombs.

The lives of Sarah are 20 years and 6 years and 72 years, 98 years in all.

For twenty years before those six terrible years (1939-1945) of trading tomorrow’s ration slips for today’s bread, Sarah was a mischievous, happy girl. A talented seamstress, she was the choice of the wealthy shop- and factory-owners to make lingerie for their wives (bras, to be exact!). It was a talent that would ultimately keep her growing family fed. She found love; she had dreams.


For the past 72 years, Sarah has known love, and she has known loss. She has derived pride from the four generations that she has birthed, but her arthritic fingers are evidence that she’s worked hard for every morsel of satisfaction she enjoys. Her compromised sight and hearing may frustrate communication, but her mind still knows humor, sarcasm and wit; her heart still knows love, joy, disappointment and worry. And she can still dish out the guilt with the best of them.


Today, she feels her way around her daughter’s kitchen, finding a yogurt and two pieces of bread just where she left them.  She carefully washes her plate and the serrated knife in the sink. I️ hold my breath, debating whether I️ should jump in or give her the control she desires.

Let her be, I️ decide. After 98 years, she’s earned the right to control her own destiny, if only until my mother emerges from the bedroom.


These are the lives of Sarah.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Ecclesiastes, a Sukkot love story

Hevel: vanity, futility, meaninglessness, pointless striving. We may acquire wisdom; we may amass physical comforts and playthings. We may seek pleasure in food and drink; we may build palaces and establish monuments to our accomplishments. It’s all hevel, however, because ultimately everything has its season, and every person has his or her own time. This is the message of the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), the megillah (scroll) that we read in conjunction with Sukkot, our festival of joy.


Huh? Why yuck my yum? How does this sobering message enhance the joy I am commanded to experience on this festival? Well, I guess it all depends on how one defines joy.

What if we read Kohelet as a treatise on love? After all, the megillot that we read on our other two major festivals are love stories! On Passover, the corresponding megillah we read is the Song of Songs, a story about unrequited love. On Shavuot, the corresponding megillah we read is the Book of Ruth, a story about consummated love. Moreover, Passover celebrates God’s courtship of the Jewish People; Shavuot celebrates the wedding of God and the Jewish People. I see this parallel progression from courtship to consummation as intentional. If so, what can we deduce about Sukkot and its relationship to Kohelet? How can we read hevel into the next stage of this relationship, into our attainment of joy?


Perhaps Kohelet’s conclusion–that life “under the sun” is meaningless–refers to the temporal, fleeting, finite pieces of ourselves and our relationships. The purest joy, however, is not connected to pleasures of food or wine, acquisitions or edifices. As exemplified by our experience of the sukkah, our greatest joy is found despite—if not in—our vulnerability, our authenticity, our simplicity. On Sukkot, we build a sukkah aware of its fragility, porousness, and temporary nature; we embrace it, love it and live in it anyway.

On Sukkot, the corresponding megillah we read is the Book of Ecclesiastes, a story about enduring love. Sukkot celebrates the journey the Jewish People took through a desert, with God as their ultimate shelter. We remember that the love at the heart of God’s relationship with the Jewish People is not sustained by the fireworks of courtship or by the pageantry of a wedding night. It is the love that emanates from a relationship that is resilient, that withstands the highs and the lows, that survives the wilderness wanderings, that thrives without necessarily reaching a promised land.


This season of our joy is rooted in a deep, enduring and timeless love that transcends what we build or acquire. It is the kind of joy that brings us peace and tranquility, and provides us the resilience and strength to go on dwelling in the midst of a tumultuous world.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Gratitude then, gratitude now

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God has given you, and have possessed and settled it….” These words serve as the Torah’s introduction–in this past week’s portion Ki Tavo— to the thanksgiving ritual of bikkurim, or first fruits. Upon arrival in the Promised Land, the Israelite is to appear in the presence of the kohen, bearing his basket of produce, and offer a scripted monologue detailing the history, context and expression of gratitude for the bounties bestowed.

The timing of this ceremony is a subject of debate among the rabbis. Specifically, does the language of the verse quoted above indicate that  the ceremony is performed upon entry into the land, or only after the land has been settled? How this question is answered informs our Jewish understanding of the concept of gratitude. If thanksgiving is to be offered immediately upon entry, the gratitude expressed is in appreciation of God’s goodness, a promise kept, a gift given, even though the gift received has not been opened yet! On the other hand, if thanksgiving is to be offered only after the land has been settled (and it would take years before the land would be entirely settled!), the gratitude expressed in the first fruits ceremony would be accompanied by a very different intention. The gift’s recipient would have had the chance to unwrap the gift, open the box, and make use of the gift. Gratitude would be accompanied by a rational appreciation for the thing itself.

I am certainly not suggesting that we write two thank-you cards for every gift we receive. The trait of gratitude we cultivate, however, should be informed by both perspectives. We should appreciate the generosity of others for the consideration they show us, regardless of the gift itself. And we should recognize and acknowledge the gift itself as we come to recognize its unfolding impact on us.

On this sixteenth anniversary of the life-shattering events of 9/11/01, I remain deeply saddened by the stories of suffering, especially those of individuals who have recently lost their lives as a result of 9/11-related illnesses.

But I also feel gratitude. In the initial aftermath of the tragedy, I was grateful to those who showed supreme heroism, selflessness and compassion in the darkest hours, many of whom gave the gift of life at the cost of their own.


With the passage of time, I have also come to appreciate how these self-sacrificing individuals and their communities of volunteer and professional servants have shaped our neighborhoods and communities. “We are one family” is a refrain I heard repeatedly this morning, and a theme I saw play out in our broader community. As our OJC community joined together in commemoration with our neighbors and volunteers in Tappan, and as we joined in learning with the faith community of the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, a true sense of brotherhood and sisterhood prevailed.

I am grateful for the care we show one another in the wake of tragic events, and for the human and institutional actions we have witnessed in response to natural disasters Harvey and Irma. Today, I express my gratitude–with a basketful of intentions–to those who serve us each day and to those who work toward creating the kind of community we aspire to be.

In peace,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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