Archive by Author | Rabbi Craig Scheff

AIPAC is opening the tent to you

The custom of kriah, or tearing or rending our garments, is a critical element of mourning in Judaism. Judaism mandates that we ritually tear our clothes, in a physical manifestation and expression of the complicated and painful feelings of frustration, sadness, and anger at the death of a close relative. Nowadays, many Jews opt to wear a black ribbon which is torn in place of clothing. Traditionally this tearing, or kriah, happens right before the start of the funeral, in a private room where the family acknowledges that God is the True Judge. And apparently, as I found out on my recent trip to Israel in December, in many communities it is also traditional to tear your clothes upon seeing the Kotel, the Western Wall.

I was in Israel on the AIPAC Leffell Fellows Seminar, a trip for rabbinical students from the major Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbinical schools. The trip, which featured incredible speakers like David Horowitz of the Times of Israel, Yossi Klein Halevi of “Like Dreamers,” Dr. Einat Wilf, and Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, was both about providing the fellows with access to a spectacular range of speakers and experiences, and the opportunity to experience Israel with and through rabbinical students of significantly different political views and religious lifestyles. Some of my peers on the trip shared my exact political and religious predilections, but more often than not, we differed significantly. Some speakers who blew me away with their perspectives and erudition bored my peers, while a few speakers who deeply frustrated me deeply inspired the rabbi-to-be sitting next to me at dinner. The experience of learning about Israel from and, more importantly, with those who do not see Israel the way I do made for a moving seminar.

One of the most powerful moments was when, in anticipation of our trip to the Kotel tunnels, a few of the Orthodox fellows asked if they could have a moment to tear kriah at the Kotel. I was dumbfounded. I understood the words, I could figure out what they meant, but I had never even heard of the custom. Though I am still just a rabbinical student, I was almost completely floored by the idea that there was a custom that I had never heard of, especially given that I’ve spent almost 3 full years of my adult life living in Israel. As we stood outside the main entrance to the Kotel, before entering either the men’s or women’s sections, so as to allow all who wanted to participate, regardless of gender, our Orthodox peers explained the custom, citing from a classical code of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah: “One who sees the Temple in its destruction recites the verse ‘Our holy Temple, our pride, where our fathers praised You, has been consumed by fire; And all that was dear to us is ruined’ (Isaiah 64:10)  and tears their garment.” (MT, Fasts, 5:16). As they recited the verse, they tore the left side of their white shirts just below the neck, as if mourning the loss of a beloved family member, and then we went on to the next stop on our whirlwind tour.

For those Orthodox fellows, this experience was nothing new; it was routine, mundane, mandated. They simply wanted to share their observance of this obligation with us. For me, however, this was an important moment to dwell upon. How had I spent so much time living so close to the Kotel and never heard of this practice? Had my education been lacking? Did my teachers fail me? Did I fail my students by not teaching them this practice? Moreover, especially given the difficulty many Conservative Jews have in regards to the Kotel, had no one considered that this custom might be relevant and necessary for contemporary Conservative Judaism? Our tradition teaches that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred; and for increasingly large numbers, the Kotel Foundation’s policies against pluralism represent a modern type of sinat chinam. But instead of avoiding the Kotel altogether, as some might choose to do, we must actually look at it, recognizing that the state it is in right now is imperfect and represents the ruination of that which we hold dear. This ritual is a beautiful if painful way of engaging with our traditional values and our modern sensibilities and hoping towards something better.

While I cannot say for certain whether or not this custom will become a part of my regular practice when I go to the Kotel in the future, I know for certain that the next time I lead a trip to Israel, I will bring this custom, and the perspectives of my peers who taught it to me, with me. Even more so, I know for certain that I never would have gained this insight had it not been for the experience of attending the Leffell Fellows Seminar through AIPAC. By gathering Jews of completely different religious and political outlooks, AIPAC allowed and encouraged all of us to broaden our religious horizons, and pushed us to see Israel through the eyes of our peers. By building a wide open tent and inviting each of us in, our AIPAC experience gave each of us permission to share our perspectives, forge new connections, and hold new hopes for Israel. And that is certainly worth tearing a shirt for.

Perhaps you’ll consider an AIPAC experience. Policy Conference is March 4 through 6 in Washington, D.C. It is not too late to register. Join Rabbi Scheff and me, and experience the many diverse ways in which AIPAC is strengthening the American Jewish connection to Israel.

Jeremy Fineberg, Rabbinic Intern

Answering the call

I so clearly remember the day I decided to pursue the rabbinate as a profession. It wasn’t a moment of revelation as much as it was an invitation to recognition. There was no event that suddenly awakened some personal transformation. Instead, there was a suggestion (from my big sister to be exact) that I had been denying my true nature, distracting myself with the pursuit of others’ dreams for me. In that moment, I had a choice: I could ignore the suggestion and continue on my path; or I could take a closer look, be present to the moment, diverge from my course long enough to envision an alternate direction.

You might think that the miracle of the burnish bush, as the event is described in this week’s Torah portion, is found in the fact that God spoke to Moses from the bush, or that the bush itself was not consumed. Experience has taught me, however, that a miracle can be found in Moses’ decision to divert from his path long enough to consider a change in course. “Let me divert from my course and examine this magnificent sight,” he says. Certainly, a revelation to Moses of God’s existence takes place; but even more impressive is Moses’ presence in the moment to recognize the invitation to consider his life’s course. The events of his life might have led Moses to a happy life as a shepherd in Midian; but his true calling was to a different path. His acceptance of the invitation to consider that path was not a given.

The burning bush has always been a symbol present in my life, though I was not always conscious to its relevance. It was the emblem of the summer camp I attended (thank you, Camp Ramah in New England); it was at the heart of a blessing I was given upon becoming a bar mitzvah; it lies at the center of the atarah (collar of my tallit) my mother made for me when I was in college; it is the logo of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Some might go so far as to say it was even a sign, pointing the way to my ultimate destination.

My decision to become a rabbi certainly did not come as a surprise to those who knew me well or who watched me grow up. The signposts were everywhere to be seen. But the combination of experiences that shaped my life did not necessitate one particular path. The invitation to recognize my life’s “true calling” would have passed had I not chosen to give it my attention.

I do not believe that we have only one calling in our lives. We may find contentment down multiple life paths. But each interaction in our lives offers us a choice of paths to travel. Our aversion to change and uncertainty may sometimes limit the options we perceive, getting in the way of our ability to entertain even a minor detour from our current path. But life presents us with multiple burning bushes just calling out to be examined. And we are invited to stop, look and consider the alternate directions our lives’ circumstances have presented us.

Dare we heed the call?

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Light one candle

Okay, I admit it. It is one of my least favorite songs, and by far my least favorite Hanukkah song in a world sorely lacking good Hanukkah songs. Please don’t take my dislike personally if Peter, Paul and Mary’s lyrics happen to be among your favorites. That being said, there is something to this idea of “lighting one candle,” especially considering the Talmudic debate surrounding the procedure for lighting the lights of the holiday. While we often quote the opinions of Beit Hillel (one candle on the first night, ascending to eight on the last) and Beit Shammai (eight candles on the first night descending to one on the last), we rarely reference the fact that the average person was expected to light only one light for the household each night (Shabbat 21b).

I actually love this idea of lighting one candle. After all, when the Maccabees lit the Temple’s menorah, they had no way of knowing how many days the oil would last, if it would even last a day. But they rekindled it anyway. It didn’t matter to them how many days the oil would last! Hanukkah could have been three, five or seven days and it wouldn’t have mattered. Their goal wasn’t eight. All that mattered was that they displayed the courage to kindle the lamp for one more day. That act of defiance, resilience and hope—to push back against the darkness one more day with no guarantee that the light would be burning on the day after—is the true miracle of the holiday for me, epitomizing the Jewish spirit throughout time.

Today, the day after the Hanukkah lights have gone out for this year, is the winter solstice. The Northern Hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun, resulting in the shortest “day”—and longest night—of the year. From where will the light come to push against the darkness? Hopefully, we’ve been storing up on the oil necessary to kindle a lamp, if only for a day. As a big Star Wars fan, I will share with you (spoiler alert?) that one of the things I love most about this movie is the message it sends about the responsibility that each of us bears to serve as a shamash for one day, for one other person.

While ruminating on my disdain (a little too harsh?) for Peter, Paul and Mary’s song, I came across another set of lyrics by Ronnie Spector (lead singer of the Ronettes) for another song with the same title:

Make the sun rise tomorrow with your faith in today
You can soften a sorrow if you just light the way
All it takes is a candle to turn darkness to light
Like the promise of the dawn
On a long winter’s night.

Figures, she wrote it as a Christmas song.

Happy solstice, and may all your winter days be bright,

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

%d bloggers like this: