Archive by Author | 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and yet it is so complicated to teach, especially when generations of communities have held onto customs based in outdated norms, reinforced by bad education and laziness.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

The Power of Two

Eldad and Meidad are infused with the spirit of God, and they go about the camp in an ecstatic state (in last week’s parasha, Beha’alotecha). Joshua is concerned, but Moses doesn’t see the two as a threat to his leadership or to the community. In fact, he expresses the wish that everyone would be so graced.

Caleb and Joshua scout the Promised Land along with ten other spies. In contrast to the ten who see the challenges presented by their destination as insurmountable, the two urge the community to trust in God and to take what God promises to deliver (this week’s parasha, Shlach).

We often reflect on the difference that one person can make in the world. The influence of our actions ripple across distance and time. The work, however, is not easy. Though it might not be our individual obligation to finish the task in which we engage (“Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor…” Pirkei Avot 2:21), it is challenging to remain engaged when we feel alone, isolated, unsupported, suspect in others’ estimation, and perhaps even doubt in our capabilities.

Perhaps that is why the Torah presents so many examples of people working in tandem—for good or bad—to achieve a common goal. The solitary figures are often models of the exceptional. The duos, however, find strength and support, clarity and confidence, in each other. “Two are better off than one, in that they derive greater benefit from their efforts. For if they should fall, the one will raise up the other, as opposed to if one falls when there is no one to raise him” (Ecclesiastes 4:10-11).

 

Moses struggles with frustration and anger in his efforts because he is so alone. Time and time again we see that the weight of the burdens he bears is too much for him to carry alone. And delegating only goes so far in its effectiveness. God also experiences this frustration: “How long will they frustrate me? I’ll destroy them and start over with you,” says God. But Moses doesn’t want a new people to lead; Moses wants a partner. I imagine that when Moses calls upon God to show God’s strength through a display of compassion, he is actually saying to God: “We are both frustrated, we are in this together, we need to hear each other, learn from each other, and make this work.” God heeds Moses’ plea, anger is assuaged, and a partnership is born.

We can’t bear the burdens of our challenges alone. Creating partnerships and finding allies helps us become more self-aware, more reflective. Sharing our passion for a cause with another affords us the luxury of checking ourselves, of measuring our opinions and responses, of learning from another’s experience how to better achieve our goal.

As a faith community, we take our role of being a prophetic voice to the world seriously. While we are made up of many individual and diverse voices, we tackle issues and challenges as one. But working as a community alone can feel isolating and frustrating, often leading to feelings of anger, resentment and hopelessness. And that is why we have been so dedicated this year, and are so dedicated for the future, to building organizational partnerships. In the past week alone, we have partnered with the Rockland County Pride Center, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, and VCS (Volunteer counseling Services) to create opportunities for education, advocacy and empowerment and to serve those who find themselves on the margins of our society. We have stood for equality, learned how to better protect and advocate for the innocent, and feed the hungry. Thanks to these other organizations, our capacity to serve has increased.

 

As our tradition demands, we will love our neighbors, we will pursue justice, we will serve as a light to others in darkness. As these times demand, we will extend our hands in partnership to those who seek to do the same. And as we do so, our compassion, our power, our confidence and our love will only grow. And the Promised Land will not appear to us as an unattainable goal.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

I pledge allegiance to three flags

I pledge allegiance to three flags:

Of the United States of America
And to the republic for which it stands
One nation 
Under God
Indivisible
With liberty and justice for all;

Of the State of Israel
And to the hope for which it stands
One People
Sharing a prophetic vision of God’s sovereignty 
United in diversity
With equal rights and religious freedom for all;

Of the Rainbow of Pride
And to the sexuality and gender identities for which it stands
One emanation of God refracted in a multitude of ways
Indistinguishable as humans in the Divine image
With love for and inclusion of all.

My allegiance to any one of these three flags does not preclude my allegiance to any other. I can raise them side by side and pledge myself to each, for they are in consonance with one another. In fact, each demands my allegiance to the others. To believe in that which the American flag symbolizes is to believe in that which the others symbolize.

And though we sometimes fall short—as communities and as individuals—of the ideals to which we profess to aspire when we wrap ourselves in those flags, in pledging our allegiance we nonetheless commit ourselves to working towards the realization of the aspirations each represents. We pledge to respect the rule of law; we pledge to exercise our right to advocate, educate and vote; we pledge to demand that every person be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender or romantic orientation.

In the short span of seven days, I will have paid honor in memorium to those who sacrificed their lives so that we could breathe freely as Americans, even as I lament the treatment of families at our borders; I will have marched up 5th Avenue to celebrate the State of Israel and its remarkable achievements, even as I let it be known that I am a concerned stakeholder in the ongoing Zionist project; and I will have celebrated “Pride Shabbat” at our synagogue as an introduction to a month of events in and around our community, even as I know we have so much education to do before “inclusion” no longer needs a committee of its own.

So the next time someone asks how it is that one can pledge allegiance to three different flags, tell them that it is your God-given right and responsibility to do so. And then ask them how it is that they don’t.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Finding solace after Passover

On a 30-mile sunrise trek out of and back into Mitzpe Ramon, my colleague and fellow rider Rabbi Ed Gelb introduced me to the idea of the “solace of silence.” Or was it the “solace of solitude?”

Reflecting on my recent participation in the Ramah Israel Bike and Hike in the Negev (which included 250 miles of biking over 5 days the week before Passover), I sat with my memories of the silence, the solitude and the solace I experienced in the open spaces of the desert. Given the timing of the trip, I was particularly excited to travel along the Jordanian-Israeli border and the Egyptian-Israeli border at the same time of year the Israelites of the Torah would have exited Egypt. Due to this year’s very wet winter in Israel, the Negev was green along the “river” beds that would carry the rains. I was reminded of the words of Psalm 104, which we read just this morning in celebration of the new month: “You make springs gush forth in torrents to flow between the hills.” I imagined the flock that accompanied the Israelites feeding on the greenery, the children picking the purple and yellow flowers. I wondered whether the winter that preceded the exodus was an unusually wet one in God’s anticipation of the challenging journey.

As I rode with my group (we “Bogrim” were the intermediate riders, encompassing a wide range of biking abilities), we’d often get spread out along our route. Sometimes we’d be divided into small packs, where we could push, encourage, joke with, and occasionally sing to one another. Sometimes we’d feel entirely alone on the road, though there was always someone just a minute ahead or a minute behind us.

The moments of community and the moments of solitude in the open and quiet space of the wilderness gave me a new perspective on the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom. I’d always understood the desert as a necessary transformational experience for our people, but never fully appreciated the effects of the surroundings on the fledgling community. Barren, silent and expansive, yet beautiful, peaceful and awe-inspiring, the Negev invited me to clear my head, to shed my burdens, to breathe deeply into my faith and to connect at a soul-level with the land, the journey and the people sharing both with me.

Wanting to pursue the topic further, I searched for the book that Rabbi Gelb had mentioned. As it turns out, I had the title entirely wrong. The book he referenced that morning was The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, a collection of essays about the author’s life and encounters in Wyoming! My mistake, however, led me to two wonderful blogs. One was about the benefits of practicing silence, entitled “Finding Solace in Silence” by Kerine W. on wittedroots.com. She writes: “There’s always been more to silence than we think. It hasn’t been obvious because we’ve villainized it. We’ve given it negative connotations of loneliness, isolation, and the illusion that we’ll be missing out on all the things around us. I think we too often associate silence with loneliness, but a void filled with noise is still empty. I believe silence is recuperation.”

In the second, entitled “Finding Solace in Solitude,” Zat Rana comments on upliftconnect.com: “When you surround yourself with moments of solitude and stillness, you become intimately familiar with your environment in a way that forced stimulation doesn’t allow.

My time in the desert brought me a solace born of solitude, silence, open spaces, unbounded time, new friends, shared goals and purposeful community. In a sense it renewed my faith and my hope, both in God and in humanity.

Sadly, the events transpiring in the world around us on this new moon challenge our faith and our hopes. We don’t have the luxury of such time in the wilderness when rockets give only seconds to find shelter. And ceasefires rarely yield the silences that bring about the reflection and reassessment required for true transformation.

Then again, maybe a few days off will give everyone a chance to take a long bike ride in the desert. It certainly worked for me.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Heart in hand

“Bilvavi mishkan evneh l’hadar k’vodo, Uv’mishkan mizbei’ach asim l’karnei hodo….”

In my heart I will build a sanctuary for the splendor of God’s honor, and in the sanctuary I shall place an altar to the rays of glory. And I will take for myself the fire of the Binding (of Isaac) as an Eternal Flame. And as a sacrifice I shall offer Him my soul, my one and only soul. (From “Sefer Chareidim” by R’ Elazar Az’kari)

Over the last several weeks, we have studied the laws of the sacrifices detailed in the Torah, culminating with the dedication of the altar and the installation of the High Priest. But this past week’s parasha (Shemini), using the narrative of the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu as a vehicle, reminds us that the sacrificial cult is accompanied by strict boundaries that are not to be transgressed. And just as the priests must abide by these rules, if we are to be the “Kingdom of Priests” that God desires us to be, we too must recognize the inherent risks inherent in being given access to the Divine, and respect the sanctity of the boundaries in our own lives.

The root of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, can be translated as near or close. Sacrifice, then, is better understood in the biblical context as the way in which we draw near to the Divine. It is an invitation to achieve a sense of intimacy and communion with God. In our modern context, sacrifice is what we offer of ourselves in our attempt to achieve a deeper connection with those people, causes and things about which we are passionate.

Not everyone, however, is so comfortable with intimacy. Drawing near means being seen, possibly exposing our vulnerabilities, revealing our flaws. Maintaining distance, on the other hand, keeps us safe, protects our anonymity, and avoids risk.

Moreover, the fiery passion that may accompany intimacy, if unchecked, can be all-consuming, excluding to others, and costly to the self. When we care passionately about a person or a cause, we may throw ourselves–our emotional energy, our time, our resources–into the relationship. Sometimes we may even go too far in our zeal, forgetting about self-care and about our other priorities, and excluding the voices of others who may share our passions or who may stand in opposition because of their own hierarchy of values.

Relationship requires sacrifice. If we are to achieve true intimacy, we must be ready to give with no expectation of reward, to assume the risk of being hurt or even of hurting another despite our best intentions. We must be prepared to get messy, because the intensity and zeal that can accompany intimacy is not always accompanied by rational behavior.

But sacrifice also requires regulation and control. The failure to curb one’s enthusiasm can lead to disastrous results, harming the parties to the intimacy and those tangentially related. While we may no longer approach God with sacrifices in hand, we must build sanctuaries in our hearts, with altars fed by our purest intentions, upon which we offer our deeds. And as we bring our souls to the altar of intimate connections, may we not lose sight of those around us ready to do the same.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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