This blog post is dedicated with love to the memory of Daniel Ae Roo Beer, age 11 years and six days. And it is dedicated to his grief-filled parents and brother as they put one foot in front of the other, moment by moment, day by day. I pray that my words are healing to the Beer family, to the many communities who mourn Daniel, and to anyone who faces sudden, traumatic loss. May we all be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
There is suffering and sorrow in the world. We do not look it in the face every day; we push it away because we have lives to live and children to raise and joy to seek. We know that suffering exists in this world, but thank God, we choose life.
So when sorrow hits us hard, when the loss is personal, breaking our hearts, we are in shock. We ask, “How could this be? How could this happen?”
Some of us believe we have answers based on our experience or belief or non-belief. I am familiar with the theories and the theologies. But when I face suffering as a member of a community, when I am a part of the sorrow, there is only one thing that I know. I know that I do not know why.
The loss of Daniel cannot be fixed. Answers to the question of why it happened cannot fix the reality of Daniel’s being gone from our lives. It cannot be fixed. But it can be healed.
Judaism teaches us how to heal: we heal by choosing life. Daniel showed us how by embracing life for 11 years, every moment of it, and all its fullness and luxury and joy. How can anyone in the community who loved Daniel find the way back to that kind of living from out of suffering and sorrow?
How does anyone find a way back toward life from out of the depths of loss?
Each one of us understands that we are part of concentric circles of caring. An immediate family, in the grip of loss, is the innermost circle. That is where our focus must go.
From our place outside of the most inner circle…
We choose to be quiet rather than offer theories.
We choose to be silent rather than offer opinions.
We listen first, with open hearts, without judgment, rather than distract with details and stories and any conversation other than that which is before us.
We understand the unique nature of every loss rather than offer our own experience without being asked for it.
Ultimately, Judaism teaches that healing begins when we offer nothing but our presence. Think of all the concentric circles. Imagine the power of everyone offering loving presence, directed inward toward the innermost circle, hoping to begin the process of healing.
All of us who knew and loved Daniel Beer learned from him that the world is a joyous place. Daniel’s life taught us that curiosity, limitless love, humor and kindness are the best way to live a life. Everything has changed now, except for one important thing: Daniel’s life lessons remain. The healing begins when we turn toward the joy that defined Daniel’s life.
HaMakom y’nachem etchem b’toch sha’ar avelei Tzion v’Yerushalayim. May the One who is the Place of Comfort give comfort to you among all of those who mourn in our communities.
L’shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
We faced each other on the bima of Park Avenue Synagogue before a beit din of three rabbis. Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, announced her to those gathered as a new rabbi of the people of Israel: HaRav Penina Bracha. I took her hands in mine to offer my personal blessing to her, “May your Torah reflect your soul: joyful, honest and pure.” In that liminal moment, I was keenly aware of a holy transformation as Paula Rose became Rabbi Paula Bari Rose, my new colleague.
Rabbi Rose states that she began her journey toward the rabbinate because of her deep love of continuously experiencing God’s revelation through learning Torah. In the Ordination program, she wrote: “I feel humbled by the study yet to be done, and nonetheless hope to share the learning that has been so beloved to me by teaching Torah that is personally relevant and eternally meaningful.” All of us at the Orangetown Jewish Center who came to know Paula Rose as our rabbinic intern one year ago know that she will be an excellent rabbi. It starts with her certainty about why she became a rabbi in the first place.
As I prepare for Shavuot in just a few days, I find myself thinking about Rabbi Rose’s attachment to the ongoing revelation of Torah and about the ideals which led her to become a rabbi. I have been reassessing my own motivation, my sense of purpose as a rabbi. For the first time in quite a while, I have been asking myself why I became a rabbi. It is an exercise of my soul that is valuable and humbling.
It is a question that rabbis seem to answer all the time for the first several years in the rabbinate. When everything is new, every class begun with trepidation, each hospital visit monumental and each prayer service filled with wonder, the question of motivation arises every day. And then the question recedes to the background. We tend to become busy with the busy-ness of building Jewish community.
On the eve of Shavuot, it is time to bring the question to the foreground. I begin my consideration in the verses of Torah. In these first weeks of entering the Book of Bamidbar, we read about the Levi’im, the tribe that is encamped closest to the Tent of Meeting and surrounding the Mishkan, the holy ark that is carried through the desert. The Levites’ task is to guard the boundaries of Godliness, ministering to the people. They are the interpreters and protectors of holiness, the mediators between the Israelites and the Divine Presence.
Here in the opening parshiot of the Book of Bamidbar, I find ideals that inform my purpose as a rabbi. Like the ancient Levites, I want to be a conduit between God and the Jewish people. But there is more: I want to connect Jewish people to each other in real, meaningful relationships. And I want to connect our Jewish community to the greater community for the purpose of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. We no longer have a singular holy ark or a priestly cast with a hierarchical responsibility. Judaism as we know and practice it, is democratized with equal access for all. And yet rabbis are given a referential authority by Jewish people in our communities who seek to draw close to God.
When I was ordained as a rabbi, my Dean, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, told my class something that I will never forget. He acknowledged that we had worked hard to earn the title Rabbi. But now that we had become rabbis, we needed to work every single day to continually earn the right to that title. Once conferred, the title was no guarantee.
Why did I become a rabbi? It’s a question I must never stop asking if I want to merit the title. I pray that I will find answers every day for the rest of my life.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
It is a unique command of Judaism that we not only remember but must experience history as if we were a part of it. The Passover seder instructs us about the Exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. Soon at Shavuot, we will once again stand at the foot of Sinai to receive Torah. At each moment in our Jewish lives, ritual bypasses our intellect and goes directly to our hearts, requiring us to remember and re-experience. We fulfill this mitzvah of remembering well, we Jews.
But then Yom Hashoah arrives each year. The command to remember becomes so painful that it takes our breath away. We weep for what we never knew, or as Sister Maureen of the Dominican Ministry said today as we gathered to dedicate our Shoah Memorial, we feel physically ill. With regard to the Shoah, the command to remember requires opening our hearts only to have them broken.
When Rabbi Scheff began teaching his sixth graders about the Holocaust this year, he brought them to the front door of the synagogue and asked how we remember things that we never experienced. He showed his class our memorial, then under construction, and asked them how we should remember.
Today, one hundred and fifty of us dedicated our memorial, thanking Dr. Larry Suchoff and the Holocaust Remembrance Committee for their perseverance and passion to see the project to fruition. Survivors, children of survivors, guests, nuns from the Dominican Sisters, congregants old and young, all gathered to hear shofar blasts and to dedicate ourselves to ensuring that we remember as a community. “Never again” is a goal toward which we will continually strive.
Today, Rabbi Scheff’s sixth graders showed how well they had learned the lessons he taught them. Students read short biographies they had written about survivors who are or were members of the OJC. Each student ended his or her brief statement with: “It is an honor to know you.” Spouses and children accepted the simple statements of these eleven-year old children as gifts. I watched the faces of Frieda and Marie as they listened to their stories being told, and I saw fresh grief, but also validation and hope.
From today forward, we will sit on the benches, reminiscent of train tracks. And we will look at the mosaic which depicts either six candles or six chimneys, depending on your understanding. We will teach and meditate and rest in the sunshine. And we will cherish the wall art chosen for the memorial where under the wingspan of the flying bird, our OJC logo, we read: tachat kanfei haShechina, under the protective wings of God’s Presence. And then, we will enter into our sanctified home knowing that we must act in every moment with remembrance in our hearts.
Through the night and all through tomorrow, we will pass by the memorial and quietly enter the sanctuary where six memorial candles burn as we fulfill our ritual of Keepers of the Flame.
For how long do we need to read and teach about the Shoah? Until the end of days. Until then, we will follow the command to remember m’dor l’dor, from generation to generation. Today’s sixth graders will one day teach their own children.
May Yom HaShoah call us to actions of love and understanding and the overcoming of hate and fear. As Frieda Seidner said, as quoted by her biographers today, “The key is to love all people, but love our people most of all.”
May the memory of six million be sanctified and remembered. Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Read more and watch the video on LoHud News: http://www.lohud.com/story/news/2017/04/23/orangetown-center-dedicates-holocaust-memorial/100695178/
During the week before leaving for the AIPAC Policy Conference, I received several e-mails from progressive rabbinical organizations, asking me to protest AIPAC in one way or another. During the first day of the conference, my worried son texted me: “Have you seen a large group of INN activists protesting outside? There’s stuff all over Facebook about it.” (If Not Now is a social- media-fueled group of Jewish millennials who stage protests against the occupation of the West Bank.) I did not sign any petitions against AIPAC. I did not see the protesters outside. I was busy inside, participating in a conference that welcomed disagreement and civil discourse in true Jewish fashion.
AIPAC this year reminded me of Talmud. The rabbis on the pages disagreed with each other across generations and locations, but they argued together, on the pages of our common text, the Talmud.
The Israel advocates who gathered at the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center represented the plethora of opinion that is Judaism and American politics today. Among the 18,000 participants who support a strong alliance between America and Israel, there were Jews and non-Jews. Progressive, conservative, Republican, Democrat, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and secular Jews gathered. 3,000 college students participated. Five hundred rabbis representing the spectrum from Ultra-Orthodoxy to Reform ate lunch together. Jews who support the current government in Israel and Jews who do not were present. Jews who support the current administration in America and Jews who do not were also present.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of Anti Defamation League invited the leaders of If Not Now to a conversation when they protested in the lobby of the ADL building last year. The protesters rejected his offer, and Greenblatt responded: “It’s nice to get attention but it’s better to get things done. Protests are nice but proposals are better. Slogans are easy but strategies are hard. If you really want to move the needle you’ve got to make things happen.”
I agree. I spoke this past Shabbat about today’s world fueled by high levels of knowledge but low levels of understanding. Information is easily accessed with the touch of a smart phone, but grabbing the buzz words off headlines does not mean that people with very strong opinions actually understand what they are protesting. As Dr. Zohar Raviv of Birthright Israel says, “We have become surfers without diving licenses.” Young Jews standing outside the AIPAC Conference to protest the settlements in the West Bank meant well, but they could have had a bigger impact if they had participated in the conference itself. They would have learned new ideas and ways of understanding the crazy Zionist idea of the nineteenth century that became the modern State of Israel. They would have gleaned ways to conceptualize the cauldron that is the Middle East from voices of the left and of the right. And they would have been heard. We follow rules of courtesy and civility at AIPAC, but every voice is heard.
I yearn for the day to come soon when we will find a two-State solution. I disagree with a policy that includes building more settlements. I would certainly love for my son in the IDF to serve Israel in a time of quiet. I did not go to AIPAC to support either the Prime Minister’s government in Israel or the current administration in the U.S. I went to AIPAC to ensure that the strong alliance between Israel and America, necessary to both countries I love, will be preserved via strong non-partisan support on Capitol Hill.
This past week, the courageous ones came under the roof. If Not Now protested outside. I wonder how many of those idealistic young Jews know the complete quotation from Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers from which they coined their name: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Deep diving would require the protesters to consider the entire thought, not just the convenient last phrase. Next year, perhaps we’ll all be able to talk together, unafraid and willing to learn.
With blessings and prayers for peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I write this post from Ben Gurion Airport at Gate C-9, waiting for the flight home to be with our OJC community for Shabbat. I look forward to sharing with everyone the depth of learning I experienced during the past four days in Israel.
Thirty committed Jewish lay leaders and professionals from Rockland County sat in a beautiful room overlooking the Mediterranean in the ancient town of Jaffa for many hours each day. We represented twelve different Jewish organizations and with the assistance of SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking), we learned to innovate, discuss, plan and activate. But most of all, we learned to weave.
The purpose of our seminar was to weave the Rockland Jewish community together with enough strength and beauty to last m’dor l’dor, from generation to generation.
How exactly were we weaving? What did we hook onto the wood and anchors of our loom? How did we interlace the warp and weft of the threads? Our warp was our call, our strivings, actions and teaching. Our weft consisted of our anchors, the safe people and places, our Jewish homes, our synagogues and schools and organizations.
The trick about weaving is that from where we stand below, it looks like chaos. There are knotted threads, frayed or cut, mistakes, uneven spots, mismatched colors. But on the front side, the top side, the side that is hidden from our view, perhaps even the side that God sees, there the weaving is perfect. The patterns are clear, the colors blended, the stitching precise. Our work thus requires just a little bit of faith.
We went to Israel to learn how to weave because our homeland has been the wellspring of Jewish inspiration for thousands of years. We were inspired indeed by start-ups and innovators and programs for social justice . We learned to pull out the essence of the ideals undergirding the innovation and collaboration and imagine putting it to use in Rockland.
We heard from the company SpaceIL that is building Israel’s lunar rover and from TOM, Tikkun Olam Make-a-thon. We learned about Dror Yisrael, urban educational kibbutzim and Ruach Chadasha, program to revitalize young artistic life in Jerusalem. And so much more…
Inspired by the innovation all around us, I look back across the ocean toward home just before boarding and start thinking about ways to make the life of our Rockland Jewish community strong and vibrant. I am grateful to my OJC partner on this journey, Matt Schiering as well as fellow OJC congregants representing Federation, Carol Blau and Andrea Weinberger. We all invite all of you to join us!
The weaving work has only just begun…
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I offer the words of this post just as I offered the words of my sermon this past Shabbat: as a prayer. Shabbat Parashat Sh’mot was the day after the inauguration of the 45th president and on the day of the Women’s March on Washington. I began with an intention from a poem by Neshama Carlebach written for this past Shabbat: “May we sing and pray with all that we are, loud enough for the whole world to hear, but soft enough to hear the Angels join us.” Writing words both loud and soft enough requires that I write with humility but also with confidence. Words offered with heartfelt integrity have the potential to be unifying and healing.
There are many reading these words now who believe that the world is ending. I remind you of President Obama’s words when he told us that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world. If you are one who is worrying about the new administration in Washington, I am writing for you.
There are also those reading these words who believe that perhaps Washington needs a bit of a shake up and that something good could happen from a little less business as usual. If you are one who is optimistic about our new president, I am writing for you too.
Because regardless of how we voted, the thing that unites all of us is a belief in acceptance, tolerance, and protection of the vulnerable among us.
Twenty-five members of my extended family marched in New York City on Saturday, from my five-year old nephew to my mother-in-law’s best friend who is in her eighties.
Many OJC congregants marched in Washington and in New York. Many marchers were gathered by organizations with which I am affiliated: National Council of Jewish Women, American Jewish World Service, Planned Parenthood, Hazon, National Organization of Women (NOW), and National Association of Social Workers. In sum, there were more than 600 marches around the world, on every continent. Estimates suggest that there were one million five hundred thousand marchers world-wide.
There is a difference between a march and a protest: one moves forward, the other pushes back.
I shared with my congregation the Women’s March Statement of Principles; ideals to make us a great nation, not to devolve into anger. https://www.womensmarch.com/principles/ The Mission Statement of the March explains that when we walk together, we recognize that our vibrant, diverse communities are the strength of our country. Defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us. To me, these ideas sound a lot like Jewish values of protecting the widow, orphan and stranger among us.
I asked my sister-in-law Rebecca to share with me why she organized our family and then took a train from Boston to march together down Fifth Avenue. She wrote that she was marching to support women and women’s rights, but not just for women. By marching, she wrote: “I am being visible, making a declaration, being heard. All humans’ rights and dignity matter to me and that is why I felt compelled to do something more active and visible this year. I don’t want to remain silent about something that really matters.”
Ideas about the march connect powerfully to the Torah portion we read this past Shabbat. In Sh’mot, we begin to hear the story of Moshe who ran out of Egypt to Midian and then walked back in to take his people out, to take the Israelite slaves on a walk toward redemption. Moshe is certainly the hero of the entire book, but a counter narrative exists just below the surface, the story of five heroines who put the Exodus into motion. (Read more about these women in Sh’mot Chapter 1:15 through 2:10.)
Midwives Shifra and Puah are ordered by Pharaoh to kill newborn Israelite boys but they refuse to follow through. In their refusal to obey, they teach that there are moral limits to power and serve as models of civil disobedience.
Yocheved gives birth to a baby boy. Seeing in him beauty and promise (as all mothers see in their children), she refuses to throw him in the Nile. Her actions to hide her baby show bravery and resilience. Placing her child in a basket on the river shows a stubborn refusal to relent in the face of an unfair fate.
Miriam, who later gains the appellation of Prophetess, runs along the side of the river to make sure her baby brother survives. She has the chutzpah to approach the daughter of the Pharaoh and offer a nursemaid, her mother, for the baby drawn from the Nile by the princess. She refuses to be helpless in a hopeless situation.
Bat-Paro, the daughter of Pharaoh, is perhaps the most courageous of all these women. When she opens the tiny basket and takes the baby to be her own, she is showing disobedience toward her father, the very one who decreed the infanticide. She knew who that baby was, yet still she saved its life. A midrash imagines God speaking to Bat-Paro, “Moses was not your son yet you called him your son. You are not my daughter but I shall call you my daughter.” In rabbinic tradition, she is one of the few characters of the Torah who is so righteous that she entered into paradise in her lifetime.
As Jews, our ancestors moved from slavery in Egypt toward freedom. They were not freed by standing still; they had to walk toward their redemption, one step at a time. For those of us today who wish to make history, we too must walk. This past Saturday was not about having a symbolic march in Washington as an end-goal. Success for this march began the day after January 21.
Success will be measured by the way that we stand for people at risk: people of color, identify with the LGBTQ community, belong to religious minorities, or are people with disabilities. Success will be measured in our strong statements against acts of hatred and violence against minority people, including anti-Semitic actions such as the bomb threats against JCCs nationwide. Success will be measured by the ways in which those of us who disagree about policy find compassionate and empathic ways to listen to each other, to hear the differences but recognize that we all want a United States where everyone feels secure and at home. And success will be measured by how quickly we awaken from our leisure induced comas to become alert and active participants in our government.
Jewish history is about our people’s moving from one place to another, from one reality to another. I’m ready to walk into this new chapter of American history. I choose to do it through marching forward. I hope that you will join me. There is a difference between a march and a protest: one moves forward, the other pushes back.
I look forward to the conversation,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
If someone were to ask me to describe the Orangetown Jewish Center, I might say to them, “Let me tell you about a group of people who traveled to Israel together. We are a microcosm of the greater synagogue community.”
We are a diverse group of people from age 6 to 89 who related to each other as one family. We are curious, ready to learn, and easily moved. We look out for each other and we sought the best in each other. Over the course of 10 days, we found it.
We love Israel with our eyes and our hearts wide open. We are proud Jews who accept that the Jewish people practice our faith in many different ways. We are proud Zionists who know that Israel is a complicated place, but overall, it is our home.
We have a lot of fun! And it goes without saying, we love to eat!
Today, Zalman asked us, “What did you come with and what are you taking with you?”.
I know that the pilgrims on this trip will continue answering this question for a long time to come. All of us are changed. We know more about Israel than when we first arrived, and we most certainly know something new about ourselves.
Coming here to Israel is a privilege. Our ancestors yearned to come to this land for 2000 years but could not and so we carry them with us whenever we come to Israel.
Maybe the next time OJC comes will be your time?
As the sun sets over the Mediterranean Sea, we are packing and getting ready for our final dinner before heading to the airport. We hope to see you at services at the OJC on Shabbat so that we can share our pilgrimage experience with you and celebrate the end of Chanukah together.
Chodesh tov and (almost) Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill