We can be proud of OJC.
I do not write that sentence lightly. It is something to be proud of our synagogue, and let me be clear: I am speaking about the people of the place, not the place itself.
This past Shabbat, #ojcsupportsU, under the creative leadership of Miriam Suchoff and Mark Brownstein, once again served our community with a sacred, meaningful consideration of mental illness and mental health. Together, we spent a Shabbat and Sunday putting a face to mental illness.
A Friday evening Neshama service lead by Music Director Amichai Margolis and a community dinner after established the tone of the Shabbaton: Olam hesed yibaneh. We will build a world with loving kindness.
Shabbat morning services were highlighted by a transformative sermon given by one of our own congregants, Sharona Levine: Sharona Levine’s sermon January 2020. In powerful and accessible words, Sharona shared her story. She explained why she decided to tell her community about her family’s struggles with mental illness: “What made me decide to speak up was the day I finally felt empowered. And I wanted to pass that feeling on to someone else. I went from feeling bereft in the beginning stages, to ashamed, from self-blame to angry – to educated – to empowered. Why am I standing here in front of you today? Because I want you to know: If you are the sufferer – you are not alone; if you are the caretaker – you are the key, and you are not alone; and if you are a community member or passerby in anyone’s life with mental illness— you can make all the difference by your language, your non-whispers, and your role modeling to others.”
Those of us who heard Sharona‘s words will be changed forever. So many people approached her after to share their own story. After all, when it comes to mental illness, everyone has a story.
Miriam Suchoff led a special program for the children of our community and their parents about recognizing emotional responses in others. At the end of kiddush lunch, congregants participated in interactive dramatics and discussion. We had a Rabbis’ Tisch for our teens where we discussed how and when to reach out to others. In the afternoon, we practiced a variety of ways to cultivate mental wellness: a walk, a talk, or yoga were the choices.
On Sunday morning, 25 people attended a breakfast roundtable presented by NAMI.
And the weekend was completed by a seasonal healing service led by Amichai Margolis and me.
So what was accomplished?
The people who participated in the Shabbaton experienced insights, gained information, and felt the support of our community.
The committee was invigorated and is busy planning next steps.
The clear message of OJC as an inclusive community was heard loud and clear.
And what of all the people who could have benefited from the Shabbat or the weekend but were not able to attend? The very people who need support so often are not able to come into community. We know this fact to be true.
We just keep trying. We just keep sharing the message that our intention is to stop the stigma. Want to join us? Contact Miriam and Mark: email@example.com.
When we put a face to mental illness, we look all around and we see that it affects all of us.
With friendship, hope and optimism, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Rabbi Scheff and I arrived in Boston on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2019 for the USCJ/RA (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Rabbinical Assembly) conference and planned to have our first dinner together with OJC leaders Sharon Aach, Michael Pucci and Hara Hartman. What an additional pleasure to be joined by Michael and Hara’s two daughters, Greta and Sophia, who are both students in Boston. Sophia is a freshman at Northeastern University, and Greta is studying optometry at New England College of Optometry. As Greta filled me in on what it is like to be studying optometry, I reflected on how perfectly apt was the name of this year‘s conference: 20/20 Judaism.
As we are on the cusp of entering a new decade, Conservative Judaism’s leaders, professionals, clergy, and educators need to see clearly. With our vision corrected for 20/20, we will be able to make sense of today’s great challenges.
At this tumultuous time of change, threat, and discord the conference provided an optimistic space for sacred dialogue, for harnessing our collective wisdom and strength.
While there are many who claim that the Conservative Movement is broken, I see us instead in a period of transition. We are the Ramah Camping Movement, United Synagogue Youth, Day Schools, Nativ Year Course, seminaries and graduate schools, synagogues and their supplemental schools. We are powerful communities, institutions, and places of higher education bound together by a collective belief in the covenant we hold with God. Within our movement, there are many ways to understand this covenant, but we are all bound by it.
It seems to me that the unique task of Conservative Judaism among the many rich streams of Judaism is to hold the center. Tradition and change, practicality and spirituality, prayer and action, halakha (law) and autonomy… in each pair of values held in tension, we strive to be balanced.
It is not easy to hold the center. It is not as seductive as claiming one side or the other. But after spending days praying, learning, debating, and singing with the people of my particular brand of Judaism, I believe that it is the essential way to live Judaism today.
If the meaning of community has changed, still the need for meaning is stronger than ever. We must go deep and we must be real.
If Judaism is the creative application of Torah across the generations, then Abraham Joshua Heschel was correct: It is not required of us to take a leap of faith but rather a leap of action.
B’yedidut, With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I made plans for dinner with a friend who returned from a year of rabbinical study in Israel. On impulse, I invited him to arrive early to the OJC for our appointment in order to see Kulanu (our children’s education program) in action. At 5:30 on Tuesday, I walked Andrew through the bright, light hallways of our new Kulanu wing, the Walerstein Family Center for Jewish Living and Learning. So much was going on!
Kindergarten,1st and 2nd graders sat on mats in the Daniel Beer Music and Tefillah Room with their teachers and Amichai Margolis, our Music Director. To the lively tunes Amichai played on guitar, they sang enthusiastically (and loudly!), preparing for Mitzvah Day when we’ll be singing for the elders of Esplanade on the Palisades.
In several different rooms, in small clusters, volunteer congregants mentored one or two learners in reading Hebrew. The Yachad program empowers children to conquer the decoding and practice required to read fluently. We saw heads bent toward each other, and heard a low rumble of reading that was punctuated by an occasional “Great!” and even some applause.
Teen madrichim (teacher assistants) were engaged in the Beit Midrash (Learning Center) with Youth Director Sharon Rappaport. Their monthly training in leadership and education skills fosters their sense of dedication and responsibility. I’m not exactly sure what they were doing but it definitely involved Jenga and Oreo cookies!
Rabbinical student Ben Varon teaches a parent education course during Kulanu hours every other week. Parents have the opportunity to model lifelong learning for their children.
At the close of two hours of hevruta (partnered) study, learning in the Jewish living room, and Yachad, all of the learners and several parents gathered in the Sanctuary to sing with Amichai. Rabbi Scheff and Rabbinical student Jesse Nagelberg danced in the aisle! We all stood together to sing HaTikvah, Israel’s national anthem. What an incredible learning experience! This is not your Zayde’s cheder… or my own Hebrew School experience…or even our successful Religious School as it was at OJC for decades. This is something brand new.
Kulanu means All of Us, and as Andrew and I walked amidst all that energy and joy, I felt how aptly the name fits our education program. All of us who identify with the sacred obligation of educating our children can participate in Kulanu. Seeing the program through the eyes of a guest was satisfying.
I felt proud of OJC after a year of dreaming, strategizing and working hard to bring this vision to fruition.
If you know a Jewish child who is not currently receiving education or if you are interested in getting involved, contact Rabbi Miriam, Kulanu Director, at Kulanu@theojc.org.
Who will build the Judaism of the next generation? Kulanu! All of us!
B’yedidut, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
There are days that offer us lessons we never forget, as long as we are paying attention. One long, overfilled day several years ago was such a day. I paid a shiva call to a community member whose six-year old child had died. As I sat next to him in a rare moment of quiet during that excruciating week, he told me that a visitor earlier in the day had told him that she had also lost a child. She shared that life was never the same, but that he could look at her and know that life would go on. As he shared the story with me, I saw that he was incredibly angry and hurt. When I asked him to explain his response, he did not try to contain his outrage, “How dare she tell me that my life will not be the same? And how dare she tell me that life will go on? What does she know about me and my loss? She barely knows me.”
That same day, I called my cousin whose child had died earlier in the year after a long bout with cancer. When I asked my cousin how she was doing in this moment, she told me she was feeling quite good. She had gone to the grocery store, no small feat in those difficult days, and had bumped into another mother from her children’s school. This parent shared that she had also lost a child. According to my cousin, the mom told her that life was never the same but here she was, still living, taking care of her family, and even finding moments of joy. My cousin told me that this short conversation had opened her heart to a feeling of hope she had not experienced in all the months since Sami had died. “Can you imagine that?” she wondered aloud. “And this woman barely knows me.”
There are days that teach us necessary lessons if we are paying attention. It was a hard day, that confusing and painful day of reaching out to others with the worst kind of traumatic loss. But I was paying attention.
Here is what I know for sure.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how we bring comfort to people who are grieving.
I read well-intentioned advice about how to speak with people who have experienced traumatic loss, and I think back to that day. Two people in similar circumstances experienced similar condolences in completely opposite ways. Why? Because we are all different and so we experience loss differently.
People do not suddenly become the same because they have gone through similar losses – death of a child or divorce or chronic illness. To assume that we can offer support in the same way to all people leads to the kind of hurt I heard about from the man in whose shiva house I sat.
But it also just might lead to the kind of elevation and hope that I heard about from my cousin.
My advice regarding offering condolence or support is that there is no advice. What not to do is straightforward. Don’t preach; don’t share your own sorrows as if that is helpful; don’t tell people what they need to do. Don’t tell stories in a loud voice; don’t do business with other visitors. Don’t stay too long; don’t put yourself into the middle of conversations as an expert. Don’t come to a shiva house for lunch.
But what to do? This question is much more nuanced. We who seek to offer loving kindness must depend upon empathy, humility, and deep listening. Jewish tradition has it right when it teaches us to enter a shiva house and be quiet. We are meant to wait for the mourner to speak first and follow their lead. We must listen before we speak and never assume that what we offer is what the person before us needs.
And we must try. Just because it is hard, we must not give up. Long after shiva, after thirty days, after the unveiling, after years, grief continues. We must continue to be present to people in our lives. If we make a false start, we back up and try again. We say that we are sorry that what we tried seems to have been the wrong thing. As a rabbi, I speak with family members and friends who worry because nothing they offer seems to help. In fact, often what they offer seems to infuriate or hurt their loved one. My advice is consistent: This is not about you. The grieving person is the only one who matters in this configuration.
There is no deadline for grief to be complete. People trying to be supportive say, “But he is still so depressed.” or “She isn’t moving forward.” They may be correct; the person might be depressed or stuck. But it is not our job to “fix” something. There will be a moment when someone will offer with an open-handed wisdom that the mourner might find support in therapy or prayer or travel or exercise. But that wisdom will not be motivated by the supportive person’s own discomfort. This is not about us.
Now we are at the beginning of a brand new year. We love the promise of a fresh start. We want to kindle hope in others and believe that good things will happen because of our desire to help. This year, I have been excited about my own fresh start. I am grateful, prayerful and inspired to do good. But I am also thinking about all the people whose current circumstances cheat them out of the gift of beginning anew. I hope that you will join me in thinking about people in the throes of chronic situations that steal away any promise of a good night of sleep, people whose loss is still so raw that tomorrow will bring no relief, people who struggle with depression that scoffs in the face of hope. I hope that I will be able to sit with their pain, sustain their sorrow and be supportive in a way that may help.
This week, as I open my heart to a glorious new year, I pledge to offer support, condolence and hope in small, humble ways. I will not always get it right. There is no ready answer. There is simply listening well, deeply, as carefully as I can and offering in small gifts and gestures what each person needs.
It is hard work to stay steady, to open our hearts to grief.
When we ask, “How are you?” we hope desperately to hear, “Great” or “Much better” or “I’m getting there.” Two years later or ten years later, we don’t want to hear how deep the pain still goes. But that is what grief does. It does not let go.
The point is, those in pain do not have access to a fresh start. If we are the blessed ones who look forward to the new year with joy, then we must carry them too in our hearts. The new year is not about my teshuva alone. Jewish repentance is about the entire community; we all stand before God: the whole, the broken, the lost and the found. I pray you stand with us this year, bringing whatever is in your heart with you.
With prayers for a new year of peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
My horse, Naapi, stepped gently through the trees, stopping now and then to munch on the grasses and wildflowers along the trail. I was supposed to pull his head up and give him a heel to the ribs. Of course, I did not have much heart to do that! He knew in an instant that he had a softie in his saddle. Naapi was named for the Old Man in the Blackfeet Indian origin story; he is the one who designs and shapes the world into being. He is also a trickster. (Maybe it was not only my compassion that kept me from steering him away from his mid-ride snacks – I took his name seriously!)
I asked our guide, Shane, what he thought about a Creator who is also a trickster. Shane laughed, and then turned our light banter immediately to a theological discussion. It turns out that not only is Shane a prize winning rodeo competitor, a high school teacher, and an entrepreneur, but he is also pastor of his church.
He told me about his sense of wonder at the birth of his first child just three days earlier, a funeral at which he had officiated the day before, and community healing he hopes to effect in his church. I told him about my synagogue, the social action and prayer in which we engage, and the serious work of preparation for the High Holy Days that begins (tonight!) with Rosh Hodesh Elul.
Shane was especially moved to learn about the Jewish idea of repentance. I explained that the Hebrew word teshuva does not mean punishment or forgiveness; but rather, return. When I told him about returning to our best selves and to God as the true work of repentance, he thought this would be a good lesson for the people in his church.
I joked that I would be teaching about his church on Saturday and he would be preaching about our synagogue on Sunday!
As our scheduled one hour horseback ride lengthened into two hours, we spoke about obligations to family, privileges of community and our connection to God through nature. Shane told me that he believes that there are more atheists in urban areas than in back country. I understood exactly what he meant. In our normal suburban/urban lives, we are surrounded by the accomplishments of humans: bridges and buildings, roadways and highways. We spend our days connected to electronics and social media. It makes sense that there is not much room for God in our busy, human-centered lives. How different it is in the back country where I was privileged to spend ten days of vacation. I spent my days on a bicycle or in hiking shoes. I rarely used my phone. The tallest things in every direction were the glorious mountains of Glacier National Park. When I considered the Rocky Mountains decorated on top by ever-changing cloud formations, glacial lakes, fast-running rivers, endless plains and deep forests, I felt deeply God‘s presence. Who else could have “invented all of this stuff”?!
It is time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We will be hearing the blast of the shofar for the first time on Sunday morning. How will we wake up? OJC is offering several opportunities to do the work of Heshbon haNefesh, taking an accounting of our souls.
Women of OJC are invited to a Saturday evening program on September 7 to Envision a New Year . #OJCSupportsU is hosting a workshop, Hope into the new year, at two different times: Monday, September 16 at 4 o’clock in the afternoon or Wednesday, September 18 at 7:30 pm. Hope into the New Year.
After my amazing experience at Glacier National Park, I have one more suggestion for Elul preparation. Consider preparing your soul by connecting to God in nature. Rockland County, New York and Bergen County, New Jersey have some of the most beautiful outdoor areas in our country. Unplug, disconnect, and find the green spaces to quiet your mind and listen to your soul. Bring with you a prayer book, a poetry collection, a journal or a book of Psalms. Close your eyes and breathe in as the trees breathe out. Listen to the sounds of the woods or the ocean. Be present to yourself in the majesty of God’s creation. On my vacation, every morning when I prayed, I could never figure out if I should read a Psalm about God’s creation or simply look up from the page at God’s creation. Ultimately, I chose to do both. I hope that you will do the same.
Whether on footpath or sandy beach, I wish you luck on your journey toward the High Holy Days. Perhaps you will be rewarded, as I was, with a rainbow. God keeps God’s promises. Do we keep ours?