It’s a cold Sunday morning in February, the time is 8:55am. Sitting by the window in our Daily Chapel, I have a good view of the synagogue driveway.
Unfortunately, there are no cars entering. From my spot, I can actually see two blocks down the main street that approaches the driveway. Not a car in sight.
And we have 8 people in the room.
And 2 of the 8 are saying Kaddish.
Just up from shiva for their loved ones, they have come to the synagogue on this morning to find solace in community, and I am afraid we are about to fail them.
I pick up my phone, open my texts, and call up my chat group “Local Jews.” These are the families with younger children who have moved into our synagogue neighborhood over the last few years. They walk to synagogue on Shabbat. They tailgate with Rabbi Hersh and his wife Loni in the parking lot after services when the weather is nice. Their children wait around for me to change my clothes and bring out the boxes of Good Humor eclairs. They share coupons to the food store in our text group, and debate whether hot dogs are sandwiches. They wish each other a Shabbat shalom.
I’ve never used this particular forum to seek support for the synagogue, so I hesitate. I don’t want my neighbors to feel that I don’t respect the boundaries between the social neighborly connection we share and the synagogue connection we have in common. I don’t want them to feel any sense of guilt if they must turn down a rabbi’s request.
But time is growing short. And the window of opportunity is closing. So I text:
“Good morning! Don’t usually (ever) do this, but there are a couple of people saying Kaddish this morning and we are 2 short of a minyan. Can anyone drop by for 15 minutes?”
I hold my breath.
Seconds later my phone buzzes: “Gives us a few minutes. Dragging kids from beds.”
Ten minutes later, mom and her two young teens walk into the room, smiles on their faces, siddurim in hand. Imagine that, I think to myself. Teenagers who have just rolled out of bed, leaning into and giggling at their mother’s side. On a Sunday morning at 9am.
The sight takes me back to my own youth, to the many Sunday mornings I spent sitting under my father‘s right arm, surrounded by people a generation (or two) ahead of me. I recall how they greeted me with warm smiles and expressions of appreciation for my presence. They made me feel seen. They made me feel important. They made me feel connected.
My guilt over crossing some imaginary boundary dissipates, as I remember why this family moved into the neighborhood in the first place, around the corner from the OJC. They chose to make the synagogue and its community a focal point of their lives. For their own benefit and for the benefit of others.
Do I wish that people would want to come to services on Sunday morning for a half hour without prompting? Of course I do. But I’ll take neighbors who eagerly answer the call when they are needed any day of the week. And I’ll always cherish that moment when a teen sees the look on the face of an adult, telling them they’ve made a difference in someone’s life.
Local Jews, I promise not to abuse the privilege of having you as neighbors. Unless you give me permission to do so!
Rayna and Zev, I see you. You are more important to us than you know. And while you may not be able to name the feeling now, I hope that someday you will look back and recognize the way connection to community was cultivated in your lives. Mom, great job.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Our grandfather, Israel Neiman, died the week the Ten Commandments were read in synagogue. Upon reflection and discussion as we find ourselves amidst the family’s observance of shiva, we realized that these mitzvot can offer important insights into the Jewish customs and traditions of mourning. As regular bloggers, and as brother and sister, we united our thoughts to co-author this week’s blog.
In the wake of loss, despite best intentions, many say and do the wrong things. This is true for those who want to comfort the mourners, as well as for mourners who receive the community that comes to pay its respects. Left to our own devices, we flounder in uncertainty and faux pas, the results of which cause anxiety and discomfort for all parties. During times of loss and grief, levels of anxiety and emotion are elevated; not a good time to “wing it” or propose constructive suggestions in the moment.
Time-tested traditions and mourning rituals are well-established to offer comfort and assurances to those who have suffered loss and are observing shiva. They also prescribe ways to receive expressions of sympathy and communal support without being overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful or burdened by the need to serve as host. These rules also benefit the community by enabling visitors to feel they truly bring comfort to the bereaved, even as they receive an opportunity for reflection and inspiration in turn.
In the spirit of the Ten Commandments, we offer these interpretations in the context of mourning:
1. “I am the Lord your God.” There is a God that created us with a breath. The death of our Zaydie is the return of that breath to God. We stand in awe of the notion that our grandfather’s soul has been returned to its source.
2. “You shall not create false images to bow down to them.” In the shiva home, mirrors are covered so we are not distracted from the deeper significance of the life that was lived. We are not meant to live in the physical world during the week of shiva. We tear our clothing to strip away the external; to live in limbo between the torn and the whole. Physical trappings—clothing, makeup and displays of materialism—are false images of existence that further separate us from the life of the soul we remember.
3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” In remembering loved ones, the stories we share should not demean the memory of the person or disrespect the mourner. At times we feel the need to bring levity, but humorous stories at the expense of the deceased may be degrading and hurtful to a mourner.
4. “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.” The public observance of shiva is suspended on Shabbat, though private mourning continues. Even mourners need to breathe in the sanctity of the day. Shiva is exhausting; physically and emotionally draining. Mourners need to “re-soul” themselves just like everyone else.
5. “Honor your father and mother.” Parents anticipate the needs of their children. It is a rare opportunity to show honor by anticipating the physical and emotional needs of one’s parent during in mourning period.
6. “Don’t murder.” Families have complex dynamics. The intensity of emotions at a time of loss can give way to conflict. The week of shiva is not the time to act on impulses or unpack baggage.
7. “Don’t commit adultery.” Mourn the relationship you had with the person you lost. Do not “reinvent” it. Treat the relationship with honesty and integrity, even if it was not ideal. If the relationship was lacking, honor that story too; recognize the pain that accompanies lost time and lost opportunity.
8. “Don’t steal.” Grief in a shiva house belongs to the mourner. A visit is not the time to share your own stories or express your personal sense of loss; unless you are invited to do so.
9. “Don’t bear false witness.” Offering that you feel very blessed to have known the deceased is very different than telling the mourners how blessed or lucky they were. Don’t offer that you know how a mourner feels because of your own experiences. This is plain false.
10. “Don’t covet.” Saying Kaddish, as an example, belongs to the mourners. The loss is theirs, as is their obligation to mourn. While the community may stand with mourners as a sign of support, Kaddish is not to be recited with them. Only “Amen” is said to answer and affirm their prayers. Sadly and inevitably, we all will have our own times to mourn.
That being said, our modern sensibilities—often characterized by a sense of entitlement and a lack of empathy—require a redefined set of rules to correspond with a new reality. To this end, we offer ten helpful guidelines for the modern shiva house:
1. You shall designate a non-mourner family member or friend as your Shiva Coordinator. You need someone to take charge of the details and schedule from meals to minyan.
2. You shall set defined visitation hours. So that people won’t come too early or stay too late, consider two hours in the afternoon and two hours in the evening; leaving time for a nap. Carve out personal mealtime – for you and your family – and stick to it. That’s it. (And don’t forget to put out the chicken that needs reheating, at least forty-five minutes before you want to eat.)
3. You shall plan your own menus. Too much food causes too much stress. Notify friends of the schedule for meals. Specify that the food is for the number of mourners, plus four. If there are special food considerations (Kosher, gluten-free, nut-free, etc.), be specific and clear.
4. You shall affix a sign to the front door. It should read: “Please don’t knock or ring; come right in – but only between 2pm and 4pm or 6:30pm and 8:30pm. Otherwise, please wait outside or in your car. Or use your GPS to find the nearest coffee shop.”
5. You shall place a guest book by the entryway for visitors to sign in. This will remind you after shiva who came. But also, by the book, leave a sign that says: “Please find a seat facing the mourner. Limit your time to 15 minutes maximum. However, if others are waiting without seats, please limit your visit to 10 minutes.”
6. You shall sit on a chair and stay put. Sit in a spot that provides access to visitors and offers limited seating around you. Do not get up except to go to bathroom, bedroom or to stretch (all of which are important). Visitors will get the message and limit their time with you when others are standing by waiting for a seat. If you are hungry or thirsty, ask anyone to get you what you need.
7. You shall wear an amulet around your neck. It should say: “Please don’t hug or kiss me. I am immunosuppressed. And no one wants to see your behind or your cleavage as you bend over to comfort me.”
8. You shall shut off all ringers and ask others to do the same. People should not call a shiva house (except family). If you wish to reach a mourner and can’t make an in-person visit, send an email or a text to someone else in the household. The incessant noise is unnerving!
9. You shall not network. As a visitor, do not cultivate business opportunities or play Jewish geography upon visiting a house of mourning. The mourners wear a torn ribbon or article of clothing and sit on low benches (hopefully), so they can be identified easily. When visiting, make a bee-line for them, pay your respects, avoid side conversations, and depart.
10. You shall celebrate the life of your loved one as you choose…even if that means ignoring rules 1 through 9. But don’t forget, it is a long week and you can’t party like you used to. So pace yourself!
Mom, thanks for allowing us to take this opportunity to teach with a little humor. And we pray that you find comfort in celebrating Zaydie’s 100 years of life, 79 years of marriage, 9 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and 4 great-great-grandchildren.
We love you very much,
Craig and Cheri
Please, God, not this week.
I see my daily life through the lens that Torah provides as a construct in time. The parashat hashavua (weekly Torah portion), divided into seven parts, often provides daily insights and a thematic through line for the seven days of my week. There was a time when I considered the connections of my life with Torah teachings as coincidences. But that is no longer the case. Now I look for the connections, and they are usually pretty easy to find.
But this week, I don’t want the connections to be made. This week, I don’t want the story to fit my life.
This week’s parashah, Vayechi, reads: “Vayikrevu yemei Yisrael la’mut,” “The time approached for Israel to die….” After Jacob/Israel gathers the strength to bless his grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh, he offers insights into his sons’ lives, and he dies.
My grandfather Israel has reached the end of his years at 100, possibly the end of his months, maybe the end of his weeks. His children and grandchildren have given him their final blessings. His soul knows it has our blessings to be joined with his ancestors and loved ones, to take its leave when it so chooses.
But please God, not this week.
After all, Israel is 147 when he dies. My grandfather Israel is only 100.
Israel calls his son Joseph to his bedside, then fails to recognize Joseph’s children. My grandfather Israel saw his son Joey on Sunday, and recognized his grandchildren without a prompt.
Israel blesses his sons with the prayer that their offspring should multiply for generations to come, having lived only to see two great-grandchildren. My grandfather Israel has lived to see great-great-grandchildren, and has no such need for such prayers. His have been answered.
Israel dies in a foreign land, his descendants about to spend centuries in exile and enslavement. My grandfather Israel brought his family out of exile and enslavement to a land of freedom and prosperity.
Israel looks back on his life as difficult and frustrating, filled with challenges and suffering. My grandfather Israel considers himself the luckiest man alive, blessed with a wonderful life despite having lived through the Holocaust, illness and loss.
My Israel, son of Abraham has so little in common with the Torah’s Israel, son of Isaac. My Israel is a man of generosity and vision; the Torah’s Israel is a man of limited sight and spirit. My Israel is a patriarch who has been loved and respected by the generations that have followed him; the Torah’s Israel spent most of his days as Jacob, forging a twisting path through difficult relationships.
So you see, God, this week’s parashah Vayechi (“And he lived”) should stop right there as far as any connection with my grandfather Israel goes. Next week we’ll begin reading the story of Moses. As far as I’m concerned, his is a story that is a far better parallel to that of my grandfather Israel. Especially the part that we’ll read at the end of Moses’ life: “For there never arose in Israel another prophet like Moses, whom God knew face to face.”
Ken y’hi ratzon, so may it be Your will.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The nine year-old Israeli boy with the large soulful eyes stands alone on the stage, his teacher-counselor-accompanist off to the side on a stool with guitar in hand. The youth looks totally relaxed, the microphone a therapeutic pet in his hands.
The strings begin to reverberate their introduction and the child opens his mouth to sing. Time stops and the tears begin to flow from the eyes of the 18 American guests and the 12 Israeli teachers, therapists and foster parents in the audience. The children gathered as a makeshift audience put their arms atop each others’ shoulders and begin to sway side to side. The boy’s sweet voice ascends and descends like an angel on a ladder, and with it our souls soar, almost out of control with the swing of our emotions.
Knowing that the boy’s biological parents are not present, that the child has suffered emotional abuse (at the very least), that at a tender age his life is broken in so many ways, and that but for the presence of the caregivers in the room he might be totally lost, it is no surprise that the group is overcome with emotion in hearing his sweet and powerful voice. But to understand his Hebrew words is to be filled with awe, appreciation, inspiration and hope:
“Be not afraid to fall in love,
That the heart may break,
Be not afraid to lose along the way.
To get up every morning
And to go out into the world
And to try everything before it ends
To search from whence we came
And in the end always return to the beginning
To find yet more beauty in everything
And to dance until overcome
By exhaustion or love.
(Before it ends, Idan Raichel)
Resilience has been defined as the power to be able to recover readily from adversity or challenge. And it is one of those human traits that I consider to be among God’s greatest gifts.
This past week, seventeen of our community members have been in Israel witnessing the power of resilience. We have seen resilience in the ability of an abused child to sing before a crowd of peers and strangers; in the work of Yoav Apelboim, the executive director of Kfar Ahava Youth Village who sees too much suffering, yet continues to make meaningful improvements in the lives of so many; in a society that resumes school and work a day after rockets rained down on its homes; in a kibbutz that has reinvented itself to stand as a beacon of religious pluralism and an advocate for societal change in the face of extremism.
We have seen resilience in ourselves: in our ability to make the sacrifices of time and resources to do the work that takes us out of our comfort zones year after year; in our willingness to suffer the emotional toll of being inside the suffering of children; in sharing the pains of loss, memory and empathy inside our own community family.
We have seen resilience from afar, as the natural elements have wreaked havoc across the ocean, from fires on the west coast to snow on the east coast, families have abandoned homes to survive and begin anew, and individual acts of kindness and sacrifice have eased the burden of others.
There is something within the human spirit that enables us to get up every morning, to go out into the world, and to try everything before it ends. Despite the disappointment, despite the pain, despite the knowledge that we may not complete our task and that our hearts may be broken yet again. To me, there is nothing more miraculous or more divine.
Join us on Monday night, November 19 at 7:30pm, as we explore “Community preparedness and resilience in the face of threats: Lessons from Israel” with Dr. Danny Brom, Director of the Israel Psychotrauma Center. Please register at OJCcares4U@gmail.com for an evening of learning, reflection and discovery. From the scientific to the spiritual, we’ll learn a little more about what keeps us going, and what we can do to bolster that ability “to dance until overcome by exhaustion or love.”
Oh, by the way, the little boy with the angelic voice? His name happens to be Or, meaning light. And as is his name, so is he. May he always know it, and may he always be.
Shabbat shalom from Israel, and hope to see you on Mitzvah Day Sunday!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Thank you to the hundreds who showed up for Shabbat this past weekend to hear our message, and to know and to love one another a little better. The following is the message I shared:
You don’t know me.
As I stand here on this Shabbat morning welcoming those who have come to celebrate with our Bar Mitzvah and his family, those who chose to show up for Shabbat with their synagogue community, and those who have come from our neighborhood or larger community, Jewish or not, in order to pledge solidarity and unity in the face of hatred, I realize you probably don’t know me. Not the way I’d like you to.
If you did, you’d know that last Saturday, while I was reading a story in my synagogue about my ancestor Abraham—how he welcomed strangers into his tent, providing them food and shelter from the heat of the day—eleven members of my extended Jewish family were being executed for no reason other than that they were Jewish, and that they were learning the value of welcoming the stranger.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that while I was learning this week about my ancestor Abraham and how he purchased a burial place for his wife Sarah, how he saw himself as a stranger amongst his neighbors and thus insisted on paying the full price for his plot so no one would ever question the legitimacy of his presence in their midst, my extended family was burying its dead, suddenly feeling very much like strangers themselves and, by extension, shaking my own sense of belonging.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know the pain I feel as a result of having been offered more wishes of congratulations on my favorite baseball team’s victory than wishes of condolence on my sense of personal loss because of the murders in Pittsburgh.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that in the week ahead I’d be commemorating the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a night that signaled the start of the Holocaust, sending my grandparents into flight from their home in Poland, to Russia where my mother would be born in a labor camp, then to a displaced person camp in Germany, and finally to the shores of these United States.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that this past week I made a donation to HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the same organization that my fellow Pittsburgh community supported, because I too believe in protecting refugees, and because without its support my family would not be here today.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that this past Tuesday Rabbi Drill and I took our sixth and seventh grade students around our OJC neighborhood to extend personal invitations to our 35 neighboring homes to join us this Shabbat in solidarity, and again on our Mitzvah Day in two weeks for breakfast, just to know one another and share in doing some good.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that when I was growing up here in this community, I knew my neighbors by name, but my children have grown up in this neighborhood not knowing the people who lived across the street.
Winter is coming. (Yes, I am a fan of Game of Thrones.) And while this winter may not be ushering in the ultimate battle between the forces of good and evil, I do believe we are on a dangerous path. When I was a child, winter meant shoveling my own driveway and going to my neighbors with a friend to ask if they wanted their driveways cleared or their cars cleaned off. Today, winter means locking your doors, lowering your shades and communicating with a friend virtually.
I do not believe that we find ourselves today in the winter of 1938 Nazi Germany. Most importantly, the police and the law are here to stand with us and to protect us, as they have been throughout this week. Our Town Supervisor and neighbor Chris Day is with us today to assert that an act of hatred against one of us is an act of hatred against us all. Our sisters from the Dominican Convent in Sparkill are here with us to share our pain and our mission in combating violent acts of hate with loving acts of kindness. Our Rockland Human Rights Commissioner Constance Frazier is with us today to share our outrage and determination not to let our community be home to those who target the weak, the aged, the young, those of a particular religion, gender, race, sexual identity or political persuasion.
If you don’t know me by now, I bear partial responsibility for not knowing you, for not introducing myself and giving you the chance to know me and what I value.
If you don’t know me by now, let me share with you that my faith commands me to love my neighbor and my tradition teaches me that I cannot love whom I do not know. In the days ahead may we come to know one another, so that our love for one another and for our neighborhoods, communities and country will truly come to be stronger than the hatred that seeks to tear us apart.
I can go to the polls this Tuesday and vote according to my values and who I am, but that is not going to change my relationship with you. And so I beg of you—as we leave here today and as we head to the polls in the week ahead to elect those with the power to shape our communities on a policy level—to knock on a neighbor’s door this week, to make an introduction, to maybe even extend an invitation, so that we may know one another again.
“What are you going to do Friday night?”
I just heard it again! At first, I didn’t understand the question. My initial answer was, “What I always do on the first Friday of the month! I’m going to go to our OJC family service and and then home to have Shabbat dinner!” But by the third time I was asked the question over the last two days, I understood. One person went so far as to inquire whether I am among those who would leave a television on somewhere in the house in order to watch the baseball game. While I understand that it is the practice of some Sabbath-observant people to stay within the letter of the law in this fashion, I personally don’t believe that doing so would be in keeping with the spirit of the day.
Before 2004, watching the Red Sox (my favorite baseball team) play would instantly result in my blood pressure elevating to 170/110. Not a healthy experience. Since that miraculous fall of 2004, however, I am much less personally bound up with the Bosox (and the bp is normal). Even so, when it comes to playing the Yankees, old wounds resurface and scars are revealed. Honestly, it’s hard to enjoy the moment, and I often feel relieved just to have it behind me, win or lose (though the satisfaction of the win does linger a bit longer than the pain of defeat). Don’t get me wrong—I love the sport and will watch the Sox any time I am free to do so; I just won’t put them ahead of the other priorities in my life … like Shabbat.
As we begin the Torah again this week, we read that God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it God desisted (“shavat”) from all God’s work. But to what end? For what purpose? Later we are told that we are to “keep” or “guard” the Sabbath as an eternal covenant for all generations, a remembrance that God created the world in six days, and that on the seventh God rested and recharged, or perhaps more literally “re-souled” (vayinafash).
Shabbat is a holy day because God said so, regardless of how we “keep” it. But its potential effect on us is only realized in how we spend it. If it is not qualitatively different than our other days off from work, we have not truly kept it. If “re-souling” is the goal, our time should be spent reflecting on, and deepening our appreciation of, the world we’ve played a role in creating. We should engage with people and matters that uplift us. We should feed our souls the things that nourish us spiritually; we are not meant to fill ourselves with more agitation and anxiety, or even with the short-lived pleasures with which we engage on any other day.
So why would I choose to ruin the most precious hours of my week over a game that has no bearing on my self-worth, but could only serve to further drain my battery and leave me exhausted, amped up and sleepless, win or lose? If the Sox lose, I’m glad I didn’t suffer; if they win, I’ll watch the highlights. And if they win in some miraculous fashion as if God had intervened (as God did, according to some, in 2004), then I’ll record the replay and save it for posterity.
Not that it really means anything to me. And not that God would punish me or my team if I did sneak a peek through the neighbors’ window . . . .
On the other hand, if it were Game 7 of the World Series, I might need to revisit the question . . . .
Oh boy, do I need to talk to my Rabbi. Or my therapist.
Rabbi Craig Scheff