Archive by Author | Rabbi Craig Scheff

The Days After Emancipation

Over 3000 years ago, on the 15th of the Hebrew month Nisan, the Egyptian Pharaoh releases the Israelites from centuries of bondage as all of Egypt cries out in the wake of God’s deadly plague. They march out in song and jubilation before their masters. The brutalities and indignities of slave life finally come to an end. The Israelites are free to follow their God into the wilderness.

Over 150 years ago, on the 1st day of January, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared, after two centuries of African American enslavement, “that all persons held as slaves” within the states that had seceded from the United States “are, and henceforward shall be, free.” The brutalities and indignities of slave life, the whippings and sexual assaults, the selling and forcible relocation of family members, the denial of education, wages, legal marriage, homeownership, had finally come to an end. African Americans celebrated their newfound freedom both privately and in public jubilees.

When Pharaoh changes his mind and his armies give chase to the Israelites, God divides a sea for safe passage, and closes it to drown their pursuers. God provides water and bread from heaven along the way. Within a few months, they arrive at the mountain of God. 

Two and a half years later, on June 19th, 1865, the slaves of Galveston, Texas received their emancipation from their masters. Some emancipated slaves quickly fled from their owners, while others who couldn’t imagine any feasible alternative remained to become wage laborers for their former owners. As the Civil War came to a close, Southern states began to pass a series of discriminatory state laws collectively known as ”black codes.” Slavery had been a pillar of economic stability in the region before the war; now, black codes ensured the same stability by recreating the antebellum economic structure under the façade of a free-labor system. 

At Mount Sinai the Israelites receive their constitution from God, a roadmap for building community, for establishing law and order, for promoting equality, equity and justice, and for creating a physical, social and spiritual space worthy of God’s presence.

The newly freed slaves were treated by some of their former masters with fair wages. Many former slave owners treated the freedmen with contempt, disdain and fear. One freedman, Houston Hartsfield Holloway, wrote, “For we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.”

When the time comes to realize God’s promise, ten of the twelve scouts who had gone into the Promised Land report to their community that the plan is not feasible. The residents, from their perspective, are giants. “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” 

The Reconstruction implemented by Congress, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, was aimed at reorganizing the Southern states after the Civil War, providing the means for readmitting them into the Union, and defining the means by which whites and blacks could live together in a nonslave society. The South, however, saw Reconstruction as a humiliating, even vengeful imposition and did not welcome it.

God and Moses are deeply disappointed, to say the least, that the community chooses to heed the report of the ten, as opposed to the more optimistic report of Joshua and Caleb, who believe that it is within their power—with God’s help—to take what has been promised. God decides to punish the Israelites for their lack of faith to forty years of wandering in the wilderness, such that the generation of slaves will die before they enter the Promised Land.

In 1877, the “Exodusters,” blacks who fled the south, established the settlement of Nicodemus on the arid plains of northwestern Kansas. However, because of several crop failures and resentment from the county’s white settlers, all but a few homesteaders abandoned their claims. A rising population of 500 in 1880 had declined over the next 40 years to less than 200.

Forty years later it is the Israelites’ children, raised in the wilderness within the parameters of the new constitution and under the eyes of a protecting God, who enter Canaan to reclaim their ancestral homeland.

In the former Confederacy and neighboring states, local governments constructed a legal system aimed at re-establishing a society based on white supremacy. African American men were largely barred from voting. Legislation known as Jim Crow laws separated people of color from whites in schools, housing, jobs, and public gathering places. The laws proved very effective. In Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered after 1890. In Louisiana, where more than 130,000 black voters had been registered in 1896, the number had plummeted to 1,342 by 1904. The children born to former slaves may not have known the whip as their parents did, but they suffered continuing marginalization and dehumanization at the hands of those who did not consider the 14th amendment to the Constitution–that “all men are created equal”–to include black Americans.

We, in our mostly white and Ashkenazi-centric (“Ashkenormative”) Jewish communities love to assert how we have fought for the civil rights of Black Americans through the decades, and that we are uniquely equipped to understand the experiences of people of color.  There is no doubt that Jewish Americans have disproportionately supported progressive causes with their presence and their resources. But neither our historic experience of enslavement in Egypt nor our experience of anti-Semitism in all its forms through the centuries have given us unique insight into the suffering of Black Americans at the hands of a society that was created by whites for whites, and only begrudgingly made space to incorporate the “others” already in their midst. Moreover, even our immigrant experience as seekers of religious tolerance in a new world, as fraught as it may have been and continues to be, fails to educate us sufficiently to the historic and institutional inequities faced by people of color in this country.

Claims that we are not racist–that we can relate, that anti-Semitism is a problem too, that all lives matter–only serve as impediments to ridding ourselves of the systemic racial injustices and the privileges that benefit us. If we are to be ANTI-racist, allies to those who are disproportionately negatively impacted by too many systems in our country, we must listen to and we must believe the voices of those who say that they face a daily exhausting battle. We must turn within our own communities to hear the voices of Jews of color and how they have been marginalized. And we must face ourselves and our loved ones and friends honestly to confront uncomfortable truths, to engage in hard discussions, about our own attitudes and biases.

“It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards or dice, dominoes or checkers.”
—Birmingham, Alabama, 1930

Our most senior community members were born into a world where humans were marginalized for the color of their skin.  Many of our parents were raised in communities where such attitudes persisted. There are those of us who felt the sting of the word “shvartze” in our homes, even if we would never use it ourselves. Few of us knew that Jews of color existed. And if we did, we questioned the authenticity of their experience or chalked them up to being Sephardic, an “otherness” of a more acceptable yet still not-as-authentic Jewish ilk.

When a person of color walks into our synagogue, do we think “What’s their story? What are they doing here? Are they Jewish? Did they convert?” These questions reflect a racist bias, regardless of our intentions. Yet, as we remind those who equate Jewish with whiteness, we are a multiracial people and we are becoming more so. We must thus begin by asking ourselves the question: As a Jewish community that is almost exclusively white, where are we? Why are we? What must we do to enter the 21st century, to create an environment where Jews of color are comfortable and safe with us? Can we assert to Jews of color that, indeed, Black lives matter, so that they no longer need to feel marginalized or denigrated in their own spiritual homes?

Perhaps home is where we can and must begin to do the arduous work of becoming anti-racist allies. I welcome the difficult conversations that will hopefully follow.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Are We There Yet?

I don’t recall much from my childhood, but I can clearly remember those moments when my sisters and I would climb into the back seats of the family car as we’d be setting out to visit relatives, and the cry would carry forward to my parents in the front, “Are we there yet?”

More accurately, I recall those occasions when I was old enough to appreciate the question as a recurring joke. After all, at that point of my life the signs along the way had become familiar: the Howard Johnson’s off the Merritt Parkway; the Charter Oak Bridge bypassing Hartford; the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike; the ramp onto Route 128. Even as a child, I knew how long was the trip, and what was the time of our estimated arrival. And I’d certainly recognize my grandparents’ driveway on West Roxbury Parkway to know we had arrived.

In the second month of the second year of the Israelites’ wandering, they do not yet know that they will be destined to wander forty years. I can imagine the children asking with each leg of the journey, “Are we there yet?” Even with the commandments as a guide, new rituals for drawing near to God, and the structure of a community that encamped as one, I imagine a lingering uncertainty that gnawed at even the most faithful. After all, so many of those commandments were given to be observed in the Promised Land; when would we get a chance to put them into practice?

In these days of confusion and uncertainty, I am reminded of that child in the backseat, before the question was posed for a laugh. Impatient, cooped up, unable to measure the passage of time, his anxiety is compounded by the fact that there seem to be no lanes on the road; that every driver is traveling at a speed of their own choosing, changing lanes at will; and that we are all supposedly heading towards the same destination with no one actually knowing its address.

As we approach the holiday of Shavuot and the celebration of receiving Torah, I appreciate more than ever the teaching of the Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague, 1550-1619), who offered that the Torah avoids explicitly naming Shavuot as the occasion of the Torah’s giving so that we may view every day as the day of revelation. Reflecting from the backseat of this journeying vessel, I question whether the destination does in fact lie somewhere ahead of us. What if this pandemic signifies a moment in time when we are asked to redefine the priorities of our lives, to reexamine the use of our resources, and to reconsider the distribution of our wealth? What if this is the moment of revelation to prepare us for future pandemics and crises that will confront humanity more than once each century? What if this is the time to which Torah speaks with more meaning and relevance than ever before?

Perhaps this is not a grim view of the future. Perhaps it is the opportunity to see Torah operate more fully in our lives. Perhaps it is our chance to shape a world of compassion and caution, of empathy and equality; a world that necessitates the constant navigation of risks and benefits, of conscious living; a world of respect for personal boundaries and concern for the boundaries set by others.

Perhaps we are already there.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Can this be God’s will?

The video message arrived as an attachment from a trusted source. I opened it and began watching. The scenes of smogless skies, clear waters, and lush fauna served as a reminder that a world was being reborn around us, and that our stay-at-home quarantine was having the side benefit of giving Mother Earth a sabbatical, the chance to catch her breath. The beauty of the world around us could serve as a silver lining of this challenging time.

The second video message arrived within a couple of hours. It came from a name I knew, though someone I hadn’t connected with in quite some time. I opened it and began watching. It depicted similar scenes of smogless skies, clear waters and lush fauna, with facts about how much cleaner our world is today than at any other time in recent history. The video, however, was not a PSA for climate change. Its final scene was a man with the title of “Rabbi” trying to reassure me that the current pandemic was God’s will, part of the divine plan to renew the earth.

I was surprised, to say the least. Did the sender of the second video actually think that I would find comfort in its message? Have I ever given off the sense that I embrace and am comforted by a God who would will the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people to advance a plan? What then could I say about God’s role in the Holocaust? About an innocent pedestrian hit by a drunk driver? About a cancer victim? About a parent losing a child? About a natural disaster that claims dozens or hundreds?

I don’t need to rely on theologians for my answer about the nature of God, instructive though their perspectives may be. Buber, Heschel, Wiesel and Kushner (with all due respect) don’t know anything more than you or I do when it comes to God. The rabbis across the centuries have offered many paths to faith, some that even stand in conflict with one another. God is, after all, infinitely unknowable. What theologians have going for them is that they think about the question of God long enough to develop consistency. Want to be a theologian? Work at it, test your opinion against theological questions, and be consistent!

Somewhere along the line of time, well before The Wizard of Oz, we started referring to God as perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful. While God does credit God’s self in the Torah as the Creator, God never uses these other descriptors for God’s self. God changes God’s mind, God admits to making mistakes, God learns and grows. At best, God says God is compassionate and loving, truthful and holy, and more powerful than other gods; at worst, jealous and judgmental, begrudging and impatient. The notion that God is all-powerful and all-good can’t withstand the test of consistency by my standards of goodness and justice. The notion that God is all-powerful but not all-good is untenable personally.

These weeks on the Jewish calendar would be a challenge to Jewish theology without a pandemic raging around us. From the death of Aaron’s sons for their “foreign” sacrifice to the command to be “holy” because “I the Lord your God am holy”, from Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) to Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), it can be so tempting to conclude that all is connected in some divine plan that necessitates God‘s intervention at certain times but doesn’t warrant God‘s intervention at others. I cannot and will not place my hope in an omnipotent god who requires the sacrifice of innocents or matyrs for the sake of learning lessons, realizing dreams, or cleaning the air. God promised us: No more floods at God’s direction to destroy the earth.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be floods.

Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that God is perfectly imperfect, as are we. God purposefully gave us free will and God intentionally introduced an element of chance into our existence. Without this measure of unpredictability, we’d be as naive as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, without the ability to make choices that reflect God’s glory (and goodness) in the world. As our sages taught, “Everything is in God’s hands except for the fear of God.” God controls everything except the choices we make. Those choices have long-ranging consequences that God will not control, and those same choices can reflect well or poorly on God. But in God’s love and goodness, God has given us the infinite potential to learn, grow and change course. It’s God’s hope that we see the God-given strength within to persevere, to live, to celebrate and to spread our hope.

We have been divinely inspired to create a way of living that reveals God’s goodness in an imperfect world. It’s that very imperfection that presents us with the opportunity to rise to the level of the divine. I will appreciate that which I perceive as miraculous without understanding what merits such grace. I will bemoan that which I perceive as tragic without attempting to explain, justify or defend. I will hold onto my faith that the goodness of God, as reflected in the actions of others and in my own choices, will raise us all towards a higher plane of meaning and love.

God is hope, faith, and goodness, along with the strength to live our lives accordingly in a perfectly imperfect world.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

 

Social Bridging

For the past 3 months, with several notable exceptions, I have been in a self-imposed social isolation of sorts. Not due to any physical condition, I have spent the last 13 weeks exercising spiritual self-care as part of a sabbatical the synagogue I serve grants me every four years. This time around, I set out to explore my “identity.” After serving a community for 25 years, I wanted to reflect on who I am, independent of my rabbinic persona — as a husband, father, son, and brother. As a human being. For three months I avoided contact with the people whose stories I carry, whose worries I assuage, whose needs I accommodate, and whom I embrace on a weekly basis.


The distance from my daily routine afforded me the opportunity to reconnect with people who don’t usually get my primary attention. The clarity of mind granted me by this break allowed me to grieve recent losses, to read for growth and pleasure, to write creatively and give birth to ideas, to exercise body and spirit, and to breathe deeply. I was not immune to life going on around me. I was present to loss and to celebration, current on events affecting us all, and informed of developments in our community. I was also insulated from responsibility and excused from control.

The distance also, however, came at a cost. There were hours, even days, where my “aloneness” moved into loneliness. There were times I craved social interaction, just wanting someone–anyone–to see me. I began going out of my way as I was running an errand or taking a walk to be noticed, if only by asking a stranger how their day was going. I was grateful for the occasions when I had a book with a noticeable cover, a hat with an emblem, a t-shirt with a logo that invited a passerby into conversation.


As my date of return to synagogue life drew closer, I actually had the pleasure of being in community several times. Aside from the occasions when I would sneak into our sanctuary late at night to sit in the presence of our glowing windows, I attended minyan with my father for my grandfather’s yahrzeit; I celebrated my son’s aufruf; and I made a masked appearance to read Megillah on Purim eve. Each time I came into the building, I felt the joy and satisfaction of my chosen life path. And my sabbatical “exploration” brought me to the conclusion that who I am as a human being is inextricably bound up with what I do. Living Jewishly, for me, means utilizing learning, ritual and daily choices as a way of bringing people closer together.


I return to the synagogue energized, excited and anxious to resume the duties that afford me the privilege of connecting with others in a meaningful way. I WANT TO SEE YOU!!! Yet here I am, required out of caution to keep my physical distance a bit longer.

So here is what I suggest. As I go about getting caught up on the status of individuals in need of more immediate attention and the community as a whole, I invite you to reach out to me in the days ahead. Come Tuesday, please call me and leave a message (so much nicer than an email!), and I’ll call back within 24 hours. Even better? If you are sufficiently tech-savvy, pick up your phone, go to your camera, slide the setting to video mode, and record your message to me. Upload it to your email, and send it to me. And I promise that I will do the same in response!

The “social distance” we’ve been asked to maintain to “flatten the curve” of the Coronavirus spread is certainly a challenge to the way community was meant to be experienced, but it also challenges us to be our best at building social caring bridges to those who need us most. This moment also presents the opportunities for individuals to experience personal exploration and creative rejuvenation, and for communities to explore how they can maximize the use of “virtual community” to their benefit.

It is a moment like no other. I’m glad I’m back to experience it with you. And I pray that the time comes soon when we will be free to congregate as we choose once again.

With love,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Bringing rituals to life and lives to ritual

From experience, she anticipated the tears. She knew that the moment the cloth was torn, the crying would commence. So she looked at Nancy, and before taking the scissors to the material she paused and asked, “Are you ready?”

Nancy took a deep breath and nodded in assent. Only then did Amy begin cutting the lace away from the satin. What was once Nancy’s bridal gown more than three decades earlier now looked like a tablecloth. And Nancy cried.

Amy the counselor comforted her. She assured Nancy that her reaction was normal, and that only a happy marriage could yield these tears. As she spoke her words of consolation, Amy the designer seamlessly moved the lace to a long narrow table and held it in place with a six-foot ruler. She noted how remarkably pristine and strong the lace was, and how much of it was salvageable. Just a few seconds and several snips later, what lay before us had been transformed from a mere remnant to a magnificent wrap.


Amy the teacher’s questions now came fast, teasing out Nancy’s reactions, drawing out her emotional connections to the significance of tallit, to the ritual of prayer, to family, to life cycle and to legacy.Amy the artist held Nancy’s responses and guided her through the creative process. After considering several connections to the number four, Nancy decided that the four corners of the garment would bear the names of our four sons. When Nancy shared that she had designed graphics for each of our son’s bnei mitzvah depicting the season of their celebrations, Amy suggested that we incorporate the graphic into each satin corner along with their names. The occasion on which they each first wore tallitot as adults would thus become a part of Nancy’s ritual every Shabbat and holiday.

Amy then set about the process of designing the atarah, or collar, of the tallit. After focusing on the aesthetics of the design, Amy guided us towards choosing words of personal meaning that Nancy would see each time she donned the ritual object. Nancy decided that if the tallit was to represent her journey towards a role she had never envisioned for herself (a tallit-wearing rabbi’s wife), these words would need to express her particular spiritual legacy. Nancy shared that she hopes that one day a granddaughter might wear this keepsake. And since it has become her practice to bless her sons’ fiancées as daughters each Friday night before Shabbat—a blessing she hopes they will transmit to the next generation—Nancy chose to place on the atarah the words Yesimech Elohim k’Sarah, Rivka, Rachel v’Leah, “May God bless you as God blessed Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” A ritual that started with her might now become part of a legacy that she will leave to future generations.



The garment is not actually a tallit until its fringes are affixed. Within a matter of a couple of days of our meeting with Amy in Needham, Massachusetts, we received word that the project was on its way to our home, with two fringes yet to be tied. Perhaps the two sons “tying the knot” in the months ahead, along with their fiancées, will each have a hand in tying the remaining knots of the tzitzit to render the tallit “kosher.”

Some people grab a prayer shawl off a rack and toss it around their neck as a matter of custom. Some people choose a tallit for the way it hangs on their shoulders. Amy Lassman is a guide, teacher and artist who connects a potentially perfunctory ritual with time, emotion, memory and dreams. Amy, you are Bezalel, a visionary who thinks deep thoughts, who gives birth to holy moments and holy creations, who constructs sacred spaces under the wings of the Divine Presence. You have given my family a new pathway into our tradition. You have reshaped my family’s story, possibly for generations to come. And though you may not have earned a formal degree towards that end, you are my rabbi.

Thank you. I hope you don’t mind if I share your Torah with the world.

Check out Amy Rosenstein Lassman’s work at adardesigns.com.

Rabbi Craig Scheff 

On the eighth day of Chanukah

On the first night of Chanukah…. On the second night of Chanukah….


Like a bad horror movie, the reports of violent attacks on Jews reached us day by day. With each candle, our anxieties increased. The seventh attack struck our Rockland community in Monsey with 5 people stabbed as they celebrated the holiday together. Lighting candles on the eighth night, we were as aware as we have ever been of the meaning of this holiday, determined to fight back the darkness, dedicated to brazenly defying the temptation to retreat into hiding.

In the light of the eighth day, we are left trying to make sense of it all. Officials and lawmakers step forward to proclaim their indignation and resolve, a reassuring fact that distinguishes our home from 1939 Germany. Reporters ask us to assess the damage, to identify the causes, and to suggest countermeasures.

Jewish resilience — founded in  our peoplehood, a sense of shared destiny, a belief in the power of goodness, and faith in God — will sustain us, just as it has through the centuries. Just as it did the Maccabees. But neither Jewish might, nor Jewish power, nor even Jewish spirit will cure the societal illness we call anti-Semitism.

Over the past twenty centuries and more, this illness has presented in different ways. Depending on whether the form taken was political, social or religious, the symptoms differed in the kinds of stereotypes the illness relied upon to spread. From the Greco-Roman empires to the Golden Age of Islam, from the Medieval  Ages to the Enlightenment, from socialists to capitalists, from Ukrainian pogroms to Nazi death camps, “the Jew” has been an object of hatred and marginalization, characterized according to the needs of the hater, colored to be the cause of their ailments.

Today, however, the illness is different. The world is, as we know, a much smaller place. Social media has given hate an unparalleled platform. Anti-Semitism shape-shifts by the day. Its spread is not bound to any particular ideology or political party, and its expression has taken violent form in an age when speech is unbounded, inflammatory, and empowering.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Regulating speech, punishing terrorists and pushing hatred into hiding won’t defeat anti-Semitism. There may be places in the world where anti-Semitic incidents don’t occur, but that doesn’t mean that anti-Semitism doesn’t live in the hearts of inhabitants. In fact, sadly, it most likely means that Jews don’t live there.

Anti-Semitism lives in our neighbors’ hearts and homes, in the mouths of parents and the ears of their children. And the only way for “us” to defeat it is to confront it where it lives.

A solidarity rally may comfort us, provide a forum to air our sadness and fear, help us know we are not alone. But anti-Semitism will only be defeated when our non-Jewish neighbors want to fight it. When they are willing to examine and discuss their beliefs; when schools can require and facilitate meaningful conversations among students and parents; when churches, mosques, and synagogues come together in common cause—only then will we as a society have a fighting chance to win this battle.

On the eve of 2020, may we resolve to stand against hatred; to know our neighbors and to help them know us; to build alliances outside our Jewish community with those who will advocate for the conversations and education necessary to bring days of appreciation, understanding, and light.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Clergy care

I care. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been in this line of work for the last 25 years. I care about teaching a Torah that is alive, relevant and instructive; about creating moments of meaningful connection for people with their Jewish identities; about our shared past and our shared future; about empowering people to use Judaism as a perspective by which they can view, understand and influence the world around them.

I care about raising people up in their moments of joy, and about being present to those who are brought low by life’s circumstances.

I care about challenging people’s assumptions and about shaking people from their complacency, and about exposing biases and calling out intellectual laziness. I care about their ability to communicate what they believe and why.

I care about an organization, its financial health, its administration and operations and about the people who staff and volunteer their time to make it successful. I care about its reputation, its ability to welcome and meet diverse personalities, needs and challenges. I care about its mission and goals, and about the processes and procedures it follows to achieve them. I care about policies and consistency, and about the flexibility to allow for exceptions and individual needs.

I care about a building, its sanctuary and its learning spaces, its social spaces, its sound systems, WiFi, heat and air conditioning. I care about its security.

Living on the synagogue grounds for the past 25 years, I’ve been able to look out my bedroom window every morning and every night to see the parking lot and who is in it, the synagogue front door, my office window. When someone has left a light on in the building, I know it.

And I can’t imagine living my rabbinate any other way.

Of course, I also care about my family. And I care about myself and my ability to keep doing what I love. And I am so grateful that my synagogue community cares about its clergy as well.

As an adjunct faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary teaching the senior class of the Rabbinical School for the past 15 years, I advise the future rabbis and cantors who want to work in pulpits that while a synagogue may commit itself initially to a clergy-person for a two- or three-year term, the clergy-person will be at their best if they approach their commitment to the community from the outset as a  lifelong commitment. Once that commitment is recognized and appreciated, the congregation will want to honor, nurture and reward that commitment. I believe that if clergy care, congregations care.

In the world of academia, the sabbatical is a time for a scholar to pursue intellectual and personal growth. In the world of clergy, the sabbatical is an opportunity to regenerate. Just as God rested (or refrained) from the work of creating (shavat) and recharged (vayinafash), a clergy-person’s sabbatical is ideally spent re-energizing for the future. Just as the Shabbat allows us to cease from “doing” and provides the time just to “be” in order to renew our creative energy for the week ahead, the sabbatical offers clergy the opportunity to process what has been and reimagine what can be. If a community cares about its long term well-being, it will care for the long term well-being of its clergy as well.

I am grateful for the gift of a 3-month sabbatical every four years, and for the community’s care and commitment this opportunity reflects. My absence doesn’t reflect in any way a lack of care. If anything, it should tell you that I’m already preparing for the next chapter with you, excited to greet the next set of opportunities and challenges refreshed and renewed.

I already look forward to catching up with you again in March. And if you happen to see me around before then, please don’t be afraid to say hello!

L’hitraot,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Getting “ahead” as an egalitarian community

This past week, 36 years ago, the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to admit women into its program. And after 36 years of a “battle being won,” there is still much work to be done in making Judaism truly egalitarian in our communities and institutions. Language, symbols, existing Torah education, and deeply rooted emotional attachments have made the process of change a slow one. Practically two generations later, our daughters (and sons) still lack role models, teachers, rituals and customs that support an equality of access to our tradition and, by extension, to God. Conservative Jews, by and large, still seem content with perpetuating a tradition shaped by men for men.

Six years ago I authored the following piece about our synagogue’s choice to continue advancing the cause of egalitarianism in our community by promoting the use of headcoverings for men and women. We have had limited success in this effort, and have learned that we can’t let six years go by again without reiterating this teaching. So here it is:

Here is how the conversation with my Kitah Vav (sixth grade) students went. I asked, “Why do we require boys to wear a kippah or some kind of head covering?” The bright youngsters answered: “It is a sign of respect for God.” “Great answer,” I responded. “It shows that we know God is with us,” another suggested. “Fantastic,” I replied. “So,” I continued, “why don’t girls cover their heads?” Silence. No good answer. Finally, one student offered, “There is no good reason. It doesn’t make sense. Girls should show respect the same way boys do!”

It seems like such a simple and logical conclusion, and yet it is so complicated to teach, especially when generations of communities have held onto customs based in outdated norms, reinforced by bad education and laziness. It is true that long-held customs over time gain the weight of law; but when those customs undercut the values of a community, they must be changed. Especially for an egalitarian Conservative community, it is important to understand what we do, why we do it, and how our customs advance or detract from our ideals. If you ask most women who cover their heads in our community why they do so, they will say it is out of an acknowledgment of, or respect for, God’s presence when we pray or study. The fact that most of these women are married, and didn’t start covering their heads until they were married, stems from an understanding of this custom in an entirely different light. In Orthodox circles, married women cover their heads out of modesty, not out of respect for God. Whether the custom was generated from the desire to make single women easily identifiable, or the notion that a married woman who exposed herself to others beside her husband brought shame to herself or her family is irrelevant for our purposes. Neither rationale holds true any longer in our egalitarian communities. To hold onto a distinction between married and unmarried women in our community is to perpetuate a belief system that is untrue to our values. How are we supposed to explain to our ten year old daughters why they are not required to cover their heads? In a similar vein, how do we explain to our sons why they must? The Conservative movement set out on a bold path decades ago to empower women in all areas of Jewish life, ritual and leadership. We are so much stronger in so many ways as a result; yet, we have been lazy and slow to teach a sense of equality of obligation. One of the most difficult aspects of this change has been the absence of role models for our daughters. When something new is presented as a choice, and there are few who exercise it, what adolescent wants to stand out from among her peers? Our daughters for too long have only seen married women and rabbis covering their heads, even though true egalitarianism lies in the equality of obligation for all.

As it is our goal to advance the egalitarian ideal, and to give every child and adult, male and female, the opportunity to experience a connection to God through all rituals available to us as Jews, our OJC Ritual Committee has adopted a new policy that will go into effect in January (2014). We will continue to require all males to cover their heads in the sanctuary and daily chapel at all times (though we would never demand that anyone leave for their refusal to do so). We will continue to request that all females cover their heads in the sanctuary and daily chapel; however, anyone who ascends the bimah or who functions in a role of ritual leadership (like davening, receiving an aliyah or reading Torah) will be expected to wear a headcovering. In this way, the people who choose to lead us or represent us in prayer will model our understanding of how we show respect to God.

We understand that any change involves an ongoing process of education. The Ritual Committee undertook a year of studying the topic of headcovering, taking time out of its monthly meetings to learn before reaching this policy decision. Rabbi Drill offered three teaching sessions following Shabbat services in the summer of 2012 that ignited the committee’s consideration. Last spring (2013) I lead a session of The Observant Life dedicated to the topic. Prior to the beginning of the academic year, the majority of our teaching staff studied the issue, and took on the obligation to model for our religious school children, all of whom are now covering their heads in class and prayer. Our teachers’ aides, the group for whom fulfilling this obligation as role models is least comfortable given social (and stylistic) considerations, engaged in a text study with me and has been encouraged to continue the conversation. Our religious school children are being engaged in hands-on activities to learn the significance of the ritual. For children who will grow up seeing role models and peers following one mode of ritual expression, the only question remaining will be whether their sanctuary will be consistent with their classroom.

I recognize that so many of our customs are emotionally rooted in “how we grew up.” Intellectual and spiritual honesty with ourselves and our children, however, sometimes requires that we revisit and revise what we do so that our norms don’t lose their meaning. Our policy does not result in the exclusion of anyone from being a participant in our community as they always have. It only asks that people who want to assume a place of ritual leadership be willing to model what we want the next generation to comfortably own.”

Since the original writing of this piece, I’ve adopted a fairly liberal interpretation of what qualifies as a headcovering. Anyone may choose to wear a kippah or a hat; just as anyone may choose to wear a lace “doily” or a wide headband. It is the intention that matters most: the headwear itself is symbolic, and one’s hairstyle need not be an obstacle to giving expression to the intention.

After six years, it is clear that without the support of women sharing this passion and owning this effort, an egalitarian understanding of how Torah applies in our lives will remain elusive. I still believe that the issue of headcovering is the lowest rung of the ladder to be climbed, and the one that makes the most intellectual and educational sense as a first step.

I hope we can dare to achieve a new height together.

B’chavod,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Beyond the numbers

1919 was the year my grandmother, née Sonja Gelerman, was born. Lucky enough to be the daughter of a butcher, and blessed with strong and steady fingers that could thread the eye of a needle with the best of them, she’d never starve.

Well, there was that one stint in a Siberian labor camp in 1940 (when she needed to be eating for two) that tested her endurance. Otherwise, fighting a cold was about as sick as I can recall her ever being. Despite living during the darkest of decades and through the most uncertain of conditions, Sonia Neiman arose every day to make time matter.

Her age, the years of marriage, the number of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren … all make for a fascinating human interest story beyond the relatable experiences of most. As she approaches her 100th birthday, however, it is remarkable that she has never been one to count.

My Baba is a superstitious person. And while there is a bias in the Jewish tradition against counting people (it invites the evil eye?), I don’t believe that is what has motivated her to ignore her numerical accomplishments.

The true achievement of my grandmother’s life has been arising to every day with a sense of purpose—a friend to call, a husband to clothe, a child to nurse, a meal to prepare, a kitchen to clean, a holiday gathering to relish, a simcha to celebrate—and investing all her emotional energy—her laughter, her tears, her disappointments—in her waking hours.

When I consider the greatest lessons my grandmother has taught me, the most important one of all will be to live beyond the numbers. One love, one friend, one conversation, one laugh, one cry, one opportunity to matter—any one of these is enough of a reason to live one more day.

As we approach the Jewish new year of 5780, I am personally wrestling with the awareness that my grandmother is no longer finding meaning in her daily life. All of the roles from which she gained pleasure throughout her days are no longer possible for her to fulfill. I know, however, that the best way I can honor her in the year ahead is to live best (and not just exist) by taking note of the one thing I do each day that makes my life worth living.

L’shanah tovah umetukah,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Let my people go … to camp

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

Your grandmother passes down her recipe (in writing!) for her famous chicken soup. You follow it to a tee. But if you are a vegetarian and don’t actually taste it, can you ever create a soup that replicates hers?

You can describe what it feels like to be loved. You can use every modifier known to human language. But can your audience truly relate, unless they themselves have experienced such love?

You can teach about Shabbat. You can try to relate the benefits of a day of unplugging and of being present to the people and world around you. But to your average listener, the description simply sounds like a series of dos and don’ts. Unless you have fully lived Shabbat, will it ever find its fullest expression in your mind and heart?

Decades ago, Jewish life shifted from urban areas to the suburbs. As Jews settled in neighborhoods, tightly knit Jewish communities dissipated into spread out regions. Jewish identification, which had been facilitated by the smells, sights, sounds, rhythms and culture that permeated daily life, suddenly became something that needed to be sought out. Over a relatively short period of time, Jewish identity became an extracurricular pursuit, and the synagogue became the place to find it.

But as wonderful as the synagogue and its community might be, so long as Jewish identification was a choice as opposed to a fact of life, the Judaism of your average Jewish household would have to be scheduled — usually against athletics, the arts, school and leisure time. And the competition has only gotten stiffer over the last decades.

Enter Jewish camping.

This summer, I visited 6 different Jewish camps, 5 of them in the Ramah network, the camping arm of the Conservative Movement. Each camp had its own culture, its own particular appeal and camper demographic. What the camps shared, however, was a commitment to building Jewish identity and community rooted in Jewish values. These camps have moved far past Friday night prayer and kosher food as the defining features of their Jewishness. They have created models of education that infuse Jewish values and Jewish living into the daily activities of the campers. Values like community, pride, and joy are reinforced on the climbing wall, on the basketball court and in the art room. At these camps, Judaism is alive, relevant and informative. And Jewish community is the all-encompassing context of daily life.


From my somewhat limited perspective, the great magic of Ramah camps is the way in which the staff members live and grow. Especially given how concerned we are about life on college campuses, it is refreshing and heartening to see teens seriously engaged in Jewish living and learning, wrestling with one another and with Rabbis and teachers over issues of theology, observance and the centrality of Israel as parts of Jewish identity. Again, it is one thing to engage in these discussions in an intellectual fashion; it is quite another to do so from within the framework of Jewish community.


After a week of volunteering at Ramah Sports Academy and an afternoon of revisiting my childhood at Camp Ramah in New England, I am more convinced than ever that Benjamin Franklin had it right. Even the best teachers will not transform the lives of their students unless the teachers create the moments and contexts in which students can participate in and live out the lessons learned.

In the year ahead, we as a synagogue community are dedicating ourselves to creating Jewish living experiences for our children. We are excited about the “campy” program we have created. But it takes more for us to be successful; it takes commitment and resources to support experiences beyond the synagogue walls. It takes parents who encourage their children to attend a two-week experience like USY Encampment (coming soon, call me, Bruce Varon or Sharon Rappaport for more information). It takes donors to make Jewish camping more affordable to families who prioritize Jewish identity-building. And it takes parents who recognize that a summer job as a Jewish camp counselor is as—if not more—important to Jewish community and continuity than a career-boosting internship.

Like you, I want our children and grandchildren to have it all, including the richness of our Jewish tradition. This summer, I got a glimpse of how our dreams could be achieved.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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