Archive by Author | Rabbi Craig Scheff

Learning in Isolation – Part Two

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

Bright Shabbos – An Ode to Irving Berlin

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.

Irving Berlin, born Israel Beilin

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!

First snow!

Rabbi Craig Scheff

A personal approach to Halakhah

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: 

  1. Halakhah is a direct expression of God’s will.
  2. Halakhah is a humanly-influenced approximation of God’s “will”.
  3. Halakhah is a human attempt to live in God’s presence.
  4. 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 lindsayjgoldman@gmail.com 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

Twenty years later, I remember

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

Unringing the bell

At the end of March 2020, in response to the spreading pandemic and the New York State prohibition against gathering in groups of ten or more, I issued an halachic (Jewish legal) ruling that permitted the OJC community to constitute a minyan (quorum of 10 for the purpose of prayer) via virtual participation, so long as ten people could see and hear each other. I was careful to add:

PLEASE NOTE: It is important to recognize that this ruling only applies under these extraordinary circumstances, and does not establish a precedent for minyan in times when we are free to congregate in groups of 10 once again.

We were not alone in following this legal leniency instituted for a sha’at d’chak, a time of extreme circumstances. And there was much discussion among Conservative rabbis at the time, as synagogues were transitioning to remote participation, about whether this bell could ever be unrung. 

We have now reached the stage, by virtue of climbing vaccination and dropping infection rates, where restrictions have been lifted and people are gathering publicly in large numbers, both indoors and outdoors.

It is important to recognize that we, individually and communally, have been traumatized at some level by our experience of the pandemic, which still rages on in parts of the world and continues to produce variants and unanticipated effects. Though current science may tell us that our risk of infection once vaccinated is very low and our risk of serious illness even lower, some of us are simply not prepared to place ourselves in a crowd, especially indoors.

For some of us, there is also a certain level of inertia that has set in. The convenience of life coming to us through a screen, the elimination of our commuting time, the comfort of our loungewear—these things have all contributed to a welcomed slower pace to our days. It is difficult to ramp back up to life in the fast lane when our lives have felt more like a Sunday drive for the last sixteen months.

As a Jewish community whose mission is to care for the vulnerable and preserve life, we have moved deliberately and cautiously towards the resumption of in-person programs and services. As a Jewish community whose mission is also to gather people for the full experience of connection through ritual, prayer, study and celebration, we are anxious to provide all the programs and services we can. Our challenge as a community is to balance these competing values.

We must continue to be there for those people who are not ready to join us inside the walls of the synagogue. We will continue to offer our programming through a hybrid of in-person services and live stream along with the occasional outdoor service. 

We must also strive to meet the needs of those who wish to gather in person, and continue to expand on our indoor programming so long as we can do so safely and comfortably.

This goal, however, requires a level of individual commitment that we have not yet expected or even requested as a community. If we are truly to be there for each other—and for those not ready to rejoin us—we must regard showing up as a commitment, an obligation to each other.

I recognize that we may not love the language of obligation, that perhaps in some way it undermines the purity of intention. But intention does not create community. A community for the purpose of prayer is only created when ten individuals commit to showing up. The call for our resumption of in-person services had been loud, but the response has been weak. 

The halachic process requires that a rabbi consider the practice of their community, or “where the people are at.” Perhaps we should conclude from the unenthusiastic response to indoor, in-person services that we as a community are not yet prepared to commit to creating physical community. Honestly, I can live with that. I am prepared to view the summer as a transitional time, and to continue to count the daily evening minyan virtually; however, barring a resurgence of the pandemic, in the new year of 5782 I am hoping that we can institute a system where we will gather ten people every night in our building so that a proper quorum can be offered to those who are at home and to those who are present.

In this past week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we read about the obligatory individual sacrifices the Israelites were told to offer at specific appointed times, in addition to their free-will (voluntary) and votive offerings. Are you among those comfortable gathering in person? If so, are you prepared to bring more than your “free-will offering” to your community, to make a commitment to the community that will enable us to serve others and to answer the demands of Jewish law?

Let me know who you are. Together, we will get there, eventually, with and for each other. Together, I believe we will unring that bell.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

A tale of two sirens

I welcome my younger sister, Randi Galron, as a contributor to this post. Her words will appear italicized in the text.

The first siren introduced herself into my life with no warning. On a quiet and sunny Tel Aviv afternoon in October 1973, as the nine year-old version of me was busy playing a board game with my older sisters, she came through our living room windows, bounced off the walls and took up residence in our floors. The siren grew stronger as she grabbed hold of my feet, causing me to lose my balance. The room had tilted, or so it seemed, as panicked neighbors stopped at our door just long enough to tell us to move down the apartment house stairs to the bomb shelter in the building’s bowels. We sat silently in the dark, dank space for hours until the siren returned to inform us we could emerge, but only to prepare ourselves more adequately for the many times she would return over the next few weeks to send us scurrying back underground.

Every April I steel myself for the visit of the second siren. She comes to visit me in a different way, never catching me off guard. I can anticipate her arrival down to the minute; nevertheless, I am left feeling shaken when she passes. Over the years of my rabbinate, I have busied myself in the month of April with programs, speakers, and songs of Israel. Once the Passover dishes are put back into storage, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and even Lag B’Omer powerfully reconnect me to Israel and to my Israeli family, friends and places that have become such a foundational piece of my Jewish and spiritual identity. Nothing, however, brings me back to Israel more powerfully than the siren sounded on the morning of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). A small piece of me wants to avoid the moment, but the larger piece of me that is insistent upon standing inside it wins out every time.

April 8, 9:09 am, Tel Aviv, Israel

It’s 9:09 am and Craig just texted me. What’s he doing awake at this hour? It’s only 2 am in the States. Riiiiight, he’s the “Keeper of the flame,” a 24 hour vigil that his synagogue observes every Yom Hashoah. I join his “watch” on Zoom and we continue to text. As he writes to me about his reflections, I share my own feelings about what it’s like to have my two sons in the Israeli army at the same time. That both my boys are fighting for and protecting our Jewish homeland is a tremendous legacy to all those who perished. I share with him a picture or two to capture the meaning of this powerful day for me.

April 8, 2:46 am EST, Orangeburg, New York

In a few minutes, the siren will sound in Israel. Most of the country will come to a standstill. Drivers on the highways will pull over to step out of their cars. Merchants will cease their business dealings. The elderly will stand by the young, quietly paying their respects to the fallen.

9:53 am, Tel Aviv

Only 7 minutes to go before the siren. Just a few minutes to quickly finish up what I’m doing to prepare for a moment of reflection and to pay respect to our families and all those who perished in the Holocaust.  The time is 9:59 am and from my office on the 48th floor of the midtown office building in Tel Aviv I can already see civilians and soldiers lining the bridge that leads from the Azrieli mall to the Kiryah.

10:00 am, Tel Aviv

The sharp shrill of the siren that pierces the air. The steady siren that symbolizes our mourning and calls us to remember. It’s different from the rise and fall of the air raid “red alert” sirens we hear and heard only a couple of days ago to alert us that our small country is under attack. This siren pierces your heart and stops your breath for an instant. This siren causes the tiny hairs on the back of your neck to stand. This siren calls our entire nation to a halt. An entire nation stopping in its tracks – people, cars, radios, phone calls, the construction site I see down below – all of it. I stand with my head lowered, hands at my sides. I close my eyes. In the background I can hear the faint beating of my heart and I remind myself to take a breath. I try to settle the thoughts and emotions swirling  through my mind. I picture the faces of my loved ones, the face of my grandfather who is no longer with us, faces of friends, faces of those whom I don’t even know. But, I remember them. From my office window, I look out at the Ayalon highway. Cars are pulled off to the side, their doors opened, their passengers standing at attention like monuments. I feel a tear on my cheek.

3:00 am, Orangeburg

I stand in our sanctuary before the candles, and I listen to the siren from my sister Randi’s phone. As the alarm pierces the still surroundings, her reverberation connects her listeners one to another, across space and time. Though I stand here seven hours behind, I am transported to that time outside of time, that place outside of space, where the souls of the living and the dead come face-to-face. And even as they are bound up with each other in that moment, the one gazes expectantly, while the other averts its eyes. “Have you learned?” asks the one. The other holds its breath, releases and answers, “I thought I had, but perhaps not.”


While Yom Hashoah and Yom Haatzmaut are inextricably linked on the Jewish calendar, separated only by a week, and while it is so often said that the State of Israel arose from the ashes of the Holocaust like a phoenix, I do not like to perpetuate the idea that Israel exists today due to the Holocaust. There can be no denying that the Holocaust accelerated the realization of a dream that was centuries old, but that dream had already gained major traction in the years leading up to World War II. Even so, the siren of the 1973 Yom Kippur War that lives in my memory and the siren of our annual Yom Hashoah commemoration remind me that Israel’s security and legitimacy–her rootedness in our Jewish past and her aspirations for a Jewish future–are what ultimately give me the luxury of feeling secure as a Jew in the world today.

Randi, kiss your boys for me, and thank them for standing guard on my behalf.

Shalom al Yisrael,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Drawing near in the second year

“On the first day of the first month in the second year….” (Exodus 40:17)

Millenia ago, we are told, Moses erected the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, on the first day of the month Nisan, one year out of Egypt. This portable sanctuary would replace Mount Sinai as the location at which which the Israelites would draw close to God.

On the same day on the Jewish calendar, earlier this week, we opened the doors to our sanctuary after having closed them one year ago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One by one, over a two-hour period of time in the afternoon, our inheritors of the Israelites’ legacy entered the synagogue to draw close in prayer before the open ark.

When Moses completed the Tabernacle’s construction, the cloud of God‘s presence filled the tent; so thick was it that no one could enter. True, our building has been closed to unfettered entrance for a year now, but our community has felt the presence of the Divine at its center. We have traveled this past year‘s journey with a shared sense of connection, care and trust.

As individuals emerged from the warm building into the chilly afternoon air on Sunday afternoon, several inquired from behind their masks when we would be resuming our in-person, indoor services. My initial response was to remind the inquirers that we are blessed to have a relatively full calendar of lifecycle events. Between now and the middle of May, we have families celebrating lifecycle events in the sanctuary almost every Shabbat, albeit with limited attendance, masking and physical distancing.

I followed this response, however, with a question. What does “returning” look like? We are accustomed to Shabbat mornings that are uplifting, inspiring and intimate. Hypothetically, if we were to resume services in May with 50 masked people dispersed in a space that holds 300, would we achieve any of the goals we aspire to in our congregational services? Moreover, are we prepared to have services that are accessible only to the vaccinated, thereby excluding a large segment of our community?

The varied responses of the people who attended our Sunday afternoon “open house” program were also telling. Some felt filled up simply by having a few quiet moments in the sanctuary. Others felt deeply saddened by the sense of lost time, friends and community that our largely empty sanctuary represents. Still others came simply to express gratitude for the ways in which the Divine presence has extended beyond the walls of the building and permeated the walls of our Zoom rooms.

In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to monitor the pulse of our community, weighing our desire to be together against the behavior we can model to move our community closer to full vaccination. In the absence of a compelling need to change course, we will continue to operate deliberately, striving to take advantage of every opportunity to safely and meaningfully bring people together.

As we turn to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) this week, we are reminded that God calls to us to “draw near” in sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrificial offering, korban, literally means “near” or “close” at its root. Some would say that this past year of the pandemic has brought our community closer together than ever before. Drawing closer in the year ahead, however, may require even greater sacrifice: greater patience; greater understanding; greater appreciation for the many ways we can serve God, community and humanity.

We have already dabbled in the world of “hybrid” programming, where the experience for some is in person and for others is virtual. There is no doubt that our next phase of programming will involve an increase in our hybrid offerings. So long as we can gather in person while there are some who cannot access vaccination or who remain at risk, we will in essence need to create two simultaneous experiences. This will demand even greater creativity and commitment, individually and communally, than we have ever shown before. And in light of all I have seen over these past months, I have no doubt that we are up to the task.

We have proven that our tabernacle transcends—and must continue to transcend— the fixed and the portable, the physical and the virtual, accessible to all who seek to draw near.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

A kingdom of priests

Do I turn to God more often from a place of distress, or from a place of contentment?

For three weeks in January, Lindsay Goldman, a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a long-time member of our synagogue community, challenged her students (that includes me!) to consider their relationships with God. In her third session, she posed the question above. Nearly all the participants, not so surprisingly, responded that they turn to God most often when they find themselves in need.

These past months have presented so many painful moments, and I can certainly understand why people would be moved to prayer for Divine intervention, healing and equanimity. Our traditional liturgy reassures us that “God is near to all who call, to all who call upon God in truth” (Psalm 145). In those moments of distress, we are given words to use when “Help me, God” doesn’t come so easily: “From the narrowest places I have called out to You; answer me in your Divine expansiveness” (Psalm 118). And the tradition reassures us of God’s presence: “God is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit” (Psalm 34).

As we call to God from our pain, we are told that God is near us, embracing us in our pain. Yet, while we may be assured that God hears our prayers, God’s reply is more difficult to discern. Does God intervene to relieve us of our suffering? Does God bind our wounds? Or is God’s answer to be found in our knowing that we are heard, that we are not alone, that our “healing” at some level will emerge from the relationship we share with God? 

I have revisited my response to Lindsay’s question numerous times in the last days. And on a snowy day in February, I return to my answer again. Safe and warm, with a stocked refrigerator and a phone that can connect me to the other side of the globe, with family and friends who offer voices of support and comfort, I turn to God in gratitude. 

Personally, I rarely call out to God from a place of distress. When I am in need of strength or comfort, I turn first to the other people in my life—my family, my friends, my community. They are my strength, my comfort, my healers. Their presence lifts me, and their love is the source of my resilience. I don’t call out to God in need, perhaps because I recognize that God has given me—in the form of the people in my life—everything I need to endure, find meaning, heal and persevere. 

Perhaps I choose to put my faith in others in my times of need because my personal experience has been one of others putting their faith in me. In my role of rabbi, I have been charged with the responsibility, and have been granted the privilege, to step into many of those moments when others find themselves in pain. Although even friends and family are left wondering what they can do, I am empowered by the ritual of our tradition, the wisdom of our sages and the trust of a community to be among the primary responders to people’s crises. My experience has reinforced my belief that, in the midst of hardship, people must step into the breach to bring relief. God’s listening ear brings one measure of comfort, but the work of our hands will deliver God’s love. Especially for those who feel alone in the world, it is incumbent upon each of us to offer those hands in care and kindness.

In this week’s parsha, Yitro, God expresses the hope that we will be to God “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The Hebrew word for “priest” is kohein, and is more accurately translated as “minister.” Like that English word, the Hebrew word carries the connotation of service (as in “to minister to the needs of others”). God, then, expects us to be a community of individuals who minister to each other’s needs. In doing so, we become holy. In my mind, being holy means that we carry with us God’s presence. It is this holiness I choose to make note of in my world, day in and day out, in the simplest of kindnesses and the most common of beauties.

It is this practice of gratitude—acknowledging God in moments of peace and thanking God when I recognize blessings—that has conditioned me to see the presence of God through the goodness of others.

In the Talmud, we are taught: “And I shall pray to you God at a time of favor. When is it a time of favor? When the community prays” (Berachot 7b).

I find my comfort, contentment and calm in community. I find my energy, uplift and inspiration in community. I thank God for you all every day, whether we connect personally, virtually or at the level of the soul. From a place of love, appreciation and joy.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Getting fully dressed

OJC’s Rabbis are happy to offer this space for the words of our JTS Resnick Intern, Jesse Nagelberg

I lay my clothes on my bed – jeans and shirt with a collar.

I put in my contact lenses, brush my teeth, shave, and shower.

I put on cologne – yes, every day – and then my rings, my watch, and my kippah.

I finish getting dressed, including matching socks and shoes.

I am ready to begin the day.

This is my early morning routine and it has not changed – not even during the ten months since COVID-19 upended our lives and most of my days have been spent in my apartment. My routine may seem excessive since, typically, no one is going to see the details of my outfit, let alone smell whether I used cologne! But I want to feel prepared to conquer whatever the day will bring, just like I did when I left the house every day. Whether my day has involved working at OJC or Camp Ramah, studying, teaching, or chatting with friends; whatever the day has had in store, for me, being fully dressed for these daily activities has helped me to feel wide-eyed and alert.

The concept of Hiddur Mitzvah is that we can amplify our mitzvot by beautifying them. Shabbat Kiddush can be more special when using a cup made of metal or carefully constructed out of glass. Lighting Chanukah candles takes on more meaning when using a family heirloom or a Chanukiah we have a personal connection to. We can turn the mundane into a mitzvah when we dress it up a bit – literally and figuratively. We can not only show up; we can show up dressed nicely, organized and attentive. In that vein, we can be ready to notice the smallest details that enhance and beautify our lives.

If the last months have taught me anything, it is that there are small gems of learning to be found everywhere. We just have to open our eyes, our ears and our hearts and embrace them. 

In his book The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.” 

Picking my head up out of my many rabbinical school books and papers has enabled me to notice many “textpeople” in recent weeks:

  • During a Prayer through Music and Movement elective with OJC’s 6th and 7th graders, we have swapped songs that feel prayerful to us. Watching the students discover and introduce each other to music from different genres and decades has infused my life with new music and new ways to connect to the words of the siddur.
  • After using an app on my phone for an extended period of time, I received a notification advising me, “It seems like you’ve been scrolling for a long time. Now is a good time to get away from the screen for a few minutes to breathe and relax.” It is amazing that the automatic intelligence function on this app actually prompted me to take a much-needed pause.
  • The 8 year old child of a classmate unmuted his mom’s computer during a class about Moses’ encounter at the Burning Bush and engaged the professor in a discussion about Moses’ anxieties and intentions. I marvelled at the wisdom of this precocious child and how seriously my professor took his question and made it a part of the day’s learning.
  • One of my family’s dogs, Callie, is on hyper-alert all day for stray geese, Amazon deliveries, and Zoom events to join. She is almost always “on”; but when she takes a break, she curls up on the couch and instinctively lays her head on the nearest pillow, literally sleeping like a person. Callie reminds me that at the end of the day, or at the end of a busy or stressful time, it is important to find a soft place to rest your head.

As we move ahead in 2021, children are back in school, either in person or virtually, after a well-deserved break from the screens and Zooms that have become the focal point of their day. Perhaps it is time for all of us to go back to “school” and be more alert to the teachings that surround us. We can show up, even from home, by getting dressed up. We can return to learning from all of the teachers in our lives — our friends and neighbors, our children and pets and even, occasionally, AI technology. 

So what did you put on this morning, and how is it helping you recognize the gems to learn from in your life?

Jesse Nagelberg, OJC-JTS Resnick Intern

Partnering into 2021 and beyond

Way back at the end of August, I wrote in this blog:

“The Jewish New Year’s arrival, this year in particular, may help us look back with 20/20 hindsight, and may help us envision the final third of 2020 with a greater sense of gratitude, purpose and optimism.”

Now, as we have endured the summer and fall, ridden out their lows and highs, and taken note of their dark clouds and silver linings, we stand ready to greet the secular new year of 2021. Winter has indeed arrived, yet we are bolstered by the new perspectives on life we have gained, the relationships we have fostered, and the hopes for an effective vaccine that will allow us to come together physically to a greater degree in the year ahead. But of all the lessons taught and learned during these ten unforgettable months of 2020, there is one that I was particularly glad to have internalized personally and professionally almost twenty years ago. Stated most simply by our tradition: Tovim hashnayim min ha-echad, “Two is better than one” (Ecclesiastes 4:9).

For the past two decades, I have advocated that a hierarchical model of religious leadership does not serve the best interests of religious communities or the clergy who serve them. Long before our communities were facing a pandemic, our synagogue community amended its constitution to delete the language of “senior” rabbi, “assistant” or “associate” rabbi, and “cantor.” Instead, the organization consciously chose the broader language of “clergy” with the understanding that the success of our community was dependent upon the ability of our religious leaders and professionals to establish and deepen personal relationships, regardless of their titles. 

Moreover, the ability of individual clergy to play to their strengths and to use their diverse talents and skills to cultivate connections would ultimately accrue, we believed, to the benefit of the organization and the entire professional staff. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the individual professionals and our organizations, we acknowledged that it is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, for leaders to be true partners when one is expected to answer to or be judged by the other. I am proud that our JTS Resnick Interns, through our Debbie Steiner Mentorship Program, have moved into the Jewish world building partnerships and leading vibrant and growing communities with this model in mind.

This pandemic has reinforced my belief that the partnership model provides professionals the opportunity to shoulder equally the burdens, to process the challenges and opportunities, and to share the personal and professional stresses. Partnership maximizes the potential of each professional to acquire and share skills, to broaden vision and reach, and to establish the relationships that will connect more people to each other, the institution and its mission. Finally, partnership models behavior for professional and lay people alike. The stronger the partnership, the more we generate in each other a sense of empowerment, ownership, and investment in a shared vision. The success of one is the success of all.

As we find ourselves in the midst of a time when communities cannot operate by bringing people into regular and consistent physical proximity, it is all the more important that our organizations have professionals who can connect people by facilitating intimate gatherings and cultivating meaningful connection. Some of us have acknowledged (and the forward thinking leaders knew this prior to the pandemic) that certain modes by which we have been operating must become a part of our business-as-usual way of doing things. For example, aging populations who can be served by virtual connection must be given the opportunity to connect from their homes to spiritual, educational and social opportunities as Jewish law permits. Our communities and leaders require partners to share the professional burden of the work and to share the personal burden of the stress that these new modes of operating generate.

In hindsight, we may look back on 2020 as the year that helped us envision the future of our community more clearly. Perhaps 2021 will be the year in which the steps we must take to realize our finest aspirations come into sharp focus!

Wishing us all a happy, healthy and safe 2021 in which we feel connected, cared for, and empowered to partner with those in need,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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