Archive by Author | Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

AJWS Rabbinic Convening: A Civics Lesson and More

It was not the most difficult question our American Jewish World Service lobby team faced during our day of advocacy for human rights issues on the Hill, but arriving at an answer required consensus.
Where were we going to eat lunch? Three rabbis plus the AJWS Director of Rabbinic Engagement – four Jews and six opinions.
We agreed to eat in the cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building. I was glad.
It is hectic and crowded in the cafeterias of the office buildings on Capitol Hill; but there, more than anywhere, one senses her place in the experience of civic engagement.
As I looked around the large room, I saw Americans of every age and ethnicity, from all over the country, spending time in Washington to advocate for their vital issues. I overheard conversations about leadership training for teachers in struggling school systems, sanctuary cities, and Medicare funding of psychological services. Sitting in the midst of New York physicians in their white lab coats, Kentucky firefighters, and environmental activists, we ate our lunches and discussed our meetings in the afternoon ahead.

As part of the AJWS Rabbinic Convening, we had been educated on crucial issues: Burma and the Rohingya crisis, Guatemala and the Rule of Law, and the repeal of the Global Gag Rule. AJWS is an international human rights and advocacy organization operating in 19 countries in the developing world which supports grassroots organizations fighting for human rights. The work of AJWS is inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice.

Almost thirty rabbis accompanied by AJWS staff held 63 meetings with Senate and Congressional offices, reflecting our values through discourse regarding global human rights.

We had access because of the communities we represent (8500 families in our synagogues and organizations). We had moral authority because we spoke in the voice of Torah and Jewish tradition. Senators, congressmen and women and their staff were surprised that rabbis were on the Hill speaking out on issues beyond what they expected – Israel and anti-Semitism. Certainly those critical questions are our core values and concerns. But on this day, we were looking beyond our community to the global community. The world Judaism dreams of is a world where all people are acknowledged as precious creations in the image of God. The human rights issues for which we were lobbying were not about Jews, but we lobbied for them because we are Jews.


In grammar school, I learned a subject that is no longer taught in schools: Civics. More than fifty years later, those lessons came to fruition for me in three days of life experience in civics. Access to elected officials and the right to make our concerns known are two principles of democracy that make our government work for all of us. Even during difficult days in Washington, the privilege to bring our concerns to the public square works. It works for all those people in the cafeteria of the Longworth building, and for thirty rabbis working for the human rights of many of the most vulnerable on our planet.

And now I hope that it will work for the community of OJC as I work to educate and energize our congregation. Together I hope that we will heed the call of our tradition: Justice, justice pursue!

(*Pictures of the entire group in front of the Capitol, of Congressman Engel and of two icons: Engel with Ruth Messinger courtesy of Chuck Kennedy for AJWS.)

With passion and excitement, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

It’s the 9th of Adar! What are you doing about it?

It is the ninth of Adar Alef on the Jewish calendar. According to the Talmud, almost 2000 years ago on this date, two famous houses of study, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, became so entrenched in ideological battle over eighteen legal matters that they turned to violence. Tradition tells us that their destructive impulses led to the death of 3000 scholars and students all on one day. This tragic day was declared a fast day in the Shulchan Aruch, but it was never observed as one. Perhaps the joy associated with the month of Adar stifled the impulse to commemorate a day of shame and sorrow.

Hillel and Shammai

To me, this day represents something especially tragic as the disagreements between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai are most often taught as representative of constructive conflict, the ability to disagree with respect for one another’s viewpoints. What could have gone wrong? I imagine that one scholar or another in either or both of the study houses forgot to practice humility. This scholar or that one influenced his students by appealing to their egos, convincing them that arguments were made to be won. Soon the legal scholars no longer abided by the simple rules of a makhloket l’shem shamayim (disagreements for the sake of Heaven). They no longer could argue the issues while respecting their opponents, maintaining good relationships with them, and even admitting to being wrong sometimes. The inability to engage in constructive conflict led to violence as it does to this very day.

In 2013, the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution declared the ninth of Adar as the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. 9Adar Project logoSteps

We are observing the ninth of Adar this year at Orangetown Jewish Center through a variety of educational opportunities. This past Shabbat, my 9Adar sermon was about civil discourse and the necessity to learn from multiple points of view. Rosh Hodesh Celebrations and OJSalon studied texts about constructive conflict and took pledges to participate on this day in a ta’anit dibbur, a “fast” from destructive speech. The Chafetz Chayim stated that if one chooses to fast for a spiritual purpose, it is far better to fast from speech than from food. We pledged to abstain from lashon hara, gossip. We have worked this past week to notice when we say things that are not truthful, positive, necessary, or kind. On this day, we commit to engaging either in positive speech or in silence.

Will you join us? Never before have the events of the ninth of Adar 2000 years ago felt more compelling and cautionary. In her book, From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, Rabbi Amy Eilberg offers ten suggestions for practicing the art of sacred disagreement.  (You can read all of them here: 10 Ways to Practice Peace on the 9th of Adar) I offer just three here:

  1. Invite someone of another religion or political perspective to lunch.
  2. Call or email a friend or relative with whom you have felt tension, expressing a desire to reconnect.
  3. If someone speaks sharply or critically to you today, stop and ask yourself what pain or pressure in his or her life might have led to that moment of harsh speech.

If you try any of these techniques and are moved, continue the next day, and the day after. As Rabbi Eilberg encourages us, the health of our community and our world may depend upon it.

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Says Rabbi Tarfon in Ethics of the Fathers, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” Pirke Avot 2:21

Wishing you empathic, compassionate conversation on the 9th of Adar and all the days that follow,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Healthy Body, Healthy Soul

It is that date on our calendars, December 31. If you are like most people on New Year’s Eve, you will be setting resolutions before the ball drops in Times Square.

Times Square

Many of those resolutions will be some version of being more healthy. We pledge to start a new exercise regimen, eat a healthier diet, relax more, etc.

Healthy Living

And if you are like 80% of people, by February you will no longer be meeting your goals.
I suggest that health and wellness are more achievable as a way of life rather than as a goal to be achieved in the first weeks of January. One of my yoga teachers encourages us to see changing our patterns as a curious experiment. She says that it is more effective to be gentle with ourselves and take several small actions in the direction we want to go rather than setting impossible long-term goals.
“Fine and good,” you say. “But what are these sentiments doing in my rabbi’s blog post?”
I’m glad you asked!
Jewish tradition teaches that our body is the Temple of our Soul. God created each one of us in God’s image; therefore, our body is part of our sacred being, the place where our Godly spark resides. As Rabbi Simon Jacobson has written Read More…

Spirituality and Healing

I celebrated quietly this week. On Monday, I crossed the halfway mark. I completed the fifteenth radiation treatment, leaving only thirteen more. By tomorrow, I’ll be eighteen done and ten to go. That’s nothing, right? Even though each day of radiation and chemotherapy makes me increasingly fatigued, I can do ten of anything . . . except, perhaps, chin ups.
The days and hours from last March until two weeks from tomorrow feel like the longest, slowest period of time in my life. It also feels like it has gone speeding by. I want to ask: how did I get here?
I have had so many blessings along the way: doctors who are healers, compassionate nurses, the newest chemotherapy and technology protocols, health insurance and a loving, understanding workplace. (I think often of ill people without any of these essential pieces in place.)

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My family, friends, and OJC community have provided unstinting support.
My self-care practices of healthy eating, yoga, walking, journaling, and meditation have supported and eased the regimen of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

But nothing has been as powerful in my healing process as my faith in God.
Make no mistake: I am not saying that the seeming success of my course of treatment and potentially complete healing are the result of my faith. God did not make me sick and God is not healing me.
I am saying that my optimism, positive energy, gratitude and sense of blessing are all a result of my belief in God and that God cares about me.
My spiritual life does not remove moments of fear and despair, but does give me the ability to cope.
Spirituality allows me to experience transcendent meaning in this precious life. For me, it is expressed through my relationship with God. For you, it might be about nature, family, or community. – whatever beliefs and values give you a sense of meaning and purpose in life. When we attend to these beliefs, we feel a deep sense of belonging to something greater than we are.

Celebrating nature

For me, my spirituality translates into an unshakable trust that God has plans for me. This idea has carried me through my treatment for cancer. And it will carry me through the months and years ahead from scan to scan.
Praised are you, Adonai my God, Who has helped me feel safe and free from undue suffering. Thank you, God for helping me find moments of joy in the midst of this time of challenge. Amen.

 

Answer Hatred with Love

We heard about the shootings in Pittsburgh at our synagogue after services during kiddush. Not yet knowing details, and a bit in shock, we sang Shabbat songs with joy, belting out medieval poems to the tunes of the Bumblebee Tuna jingle and “Sloop John B.” That’s what we do when we gather to celebrate Shabbat: we pray, eat, laugh and sing.

On the way out of synagogue, our security guard filled us in a bit more. An Orangetown police car, he told us, would be staying at the synagogue all afternoon. It started to become more real.

After Havdalah, I turned on my phone and found a plethora of messages on Facebook from colleagues and friends, expressing a range of sorrow, outrage, and fear.

I reached out to a dear friend who lives in Squirrel Hill with support and concern. Though her family attends another synagogue, I know that everyone in that close-knit community knows each other. She appreciated my contacting her, and wrote back, “It could have been any synagogue anywhere in America.”

Over this past day, I have heard many versions of that sentiment. “They are my family members.” “I am connected to them all.” “What happens to one Jewish community happens to us all.”

Israelis who come from Pittsburgh organize a vigil in Kikar Rabin, Tel Aviv

What do Jewish people do with this overwhelming sense of connectedness? How do we respond to a tragedy when we live by the dictum:

‏כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה

All of Israel is responsible one for the other.

We seek to be together as a community. As one of my congregants said to me, “We need to claim our seats after something like this happens.”

And once we are together, what are we meant to do?

How do we cope with the feelings of sorrow and helplessness when confronted with senseless hatred? We look hatred in the face and we answer it with love.

How do we grieve?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “There are three ascending levels of mourning: with tears — that is the lowest. With silence — that is higher. And with a song — that is the highest.”

It was perhaps a coincidence, but I believe it was Providence… the OJC had planned our singing extravaganza, Kol OJC, the Voice of OJC, for this morning. Amichai Margolis, our Music Director, had been rehearsing with our band for a month. We had videography and sound engineering in place. 175 of us, of all ages, came together to learn a song in five parts in under an hour. We began with a moment of silence and dedicated our singing to the Pittsburgh Jewish community.

And once again, Providence played a hand in the songs that we sang: “Hineh mah tov,” How good and pleasant it is to sit, brothers and sisters together, and “V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha,” Love your neighbor as yourself. The messages could not have been more meaningful or more timely.

Koolulam, the amazing Israel project which inspired us to organize Kol OJC, gathers thousands of singers. But we had just as much excitement and energy in our sanctuary as Koolulam gathers in any stadium throughout Israel. (Watch for our video around Chanukah time!)

When we feel afraid, sorrowful, and devastated by events over which we have no control, we have a choice about how we will respond. We can despair or we can take action.Today, at the OJC, we powerfully experienced the way that taking spiritual action can lift up a community.

May we go from strength to strength. May the community of Tree of Life Ohr L’Simcha Synagogue feel our solidarity and support in the face of their devastating loss. May the Squirrel Hill community, and Jewish people everywhere discover reservoirs of strength and optimism. May we remember that we are God’s partners in repairing our world. May we never give in to despair.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

 

The Time of Our Joy

One of my childhood friends told me that he decided to go to a synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so that he could say prayers for my healing. Knowing that he is a non-believing, non-practicing Jewish person, I was very touched by his impulse.
But, I wanted to warn him against his plan. Instead, I let him find his own way.

Afterward, I called him to find out how it went.
He told me, “Honestly, this is why I never go to synagogue. I felt empty and lost and very lonely. I could not understand the prayers and they seemed to go on forever. I was to nervous to even say a prayer for you.”
I was not surprised. I told him, “It is not that synagogues are empty of spiritual space for prayer. As a novice, you just went on the wrong days.”
Trying to find a sense of peace, connection to God, and deep prayer experiences on the three most fearsome, awesome and busy days of the Jewish calendar is like trying to learn to speak French by sitting in on a college literature course taught entirely in French… or trying to learn to ice skate by gliding out onto the ice in the midst of a Stanley Cup playoff match.
And yet my old friend is not the only one who tries to pry open the treasure of Judaism once a year for three days. So many of us come to synagogue just for the High Holy Days, and as a rabbi, believe me, I am very glad to see you.
But every year, just five days after Yom Kippur, we enter the joyous festival of Sukkot and I wonder how to convince my fellow Jews to come on these days instead! We sing praises to God while shaking branches of the palm, myrtle, and willow together with an etrog (a lemon-like fruit). It’s inexplicably awesome! We line up with these agricultural treasures and parade around the synagogue singing to God, “Save us!” It’s crazy fun! Everyone is grinning because no one can exactly explain what we’re doing.
After these prayers, we go outside into a sukkah (a temporary booth) decorated with lights, flowers, fruit, paper chains and posters and partially open to the sky to study, eat and sing. We live in these booths for seven days.

At the end of this lovely festival of connecting to nature, community, and our best selves, we celebrate Simchat Torah (Monday evening 10/1 through Tuesday 10/2), rejoicing as we finish an annual cycle of reading the entire Torah and start again “In the Beginning”. We dance with the Torahs and ensure that everyone gets an honor to the Torah. It’s a raucous Jewish holiday of merriment and true joy.

Attending Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services is meaningful and important. I am not telling you not to do so. But only doing so means that you are missing out on some of the most spiritually connected moments in the Jewish calendar.
Think of it this way:
On Rosh Hashanah your Parent calls you into the study and says: “Let’s just take a look at how you’ve been behaving over the past year and make a plan for you to improve. Perhaps it will help us feel more connected.”
On Yom Kippur, your Parent calls you back into that study and says: “Okay, what have you done about showing some progress over the past 10 days?”
But on Sukkot, your Parent comes out to you in the backyard and says, “Let’s have a great celebration for a week. Let’s enjoy each other’s company and feel close to one another!”
Who would really want the disciplinarian Parent without the celebrating Parent as well?
I’ll take both! I hope you’ll join me.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared

Every year, by the time I finish reading the name of the book by Rabbi Alan Lew z”l, I wonder if I actually need to open the cover. The title says it all: This is real and you are completely unprepared. I read Rabbi Lew’s book about the Days of Awe as spiritual transformation every August.


I dedicate myself to preparation for Rosh Hashanah during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the new year. (By preparation, I do not actually mean rabbinic preparation though I must, of course, do that too: writing sermons, finding new inspirations for the service, figuring out how to welcome all the people who come to the doors of the synagogue for services and programs.)
When I write “preparation for the New Year,” I mean Cheshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of my soul.
I take the work seriously every year.
This year, I take it even more seriously.
Lew writes:
“In the visible world, we live out our routine and sometimes messy lives. We have jobs, families, and houses. Our lives seem quite ordinary and undramatic. It is only beneath the surface of this world that the real and unseen drama of our lives is unfolding… only there that the horn sounds 100 times, that the gate between heaven and earth opens and the great books of life and death open as well. It is there that the court is convened, that we rehearse our own death, that the gate closes again, and that we finally come home…”


How do I prepare? How do I go below the surface of my ordinary life to do the work that Rabbi Lew so eloquently describes? I pray. I make lists of what I am proud of and what I need to improve. I apologize with full heart to anyone I might have harmed.
Most of all, I get very quiet. Only by turning off the noise of the world can I go below the surface.
This year, because of my cancer diagnosis and my chemotherapy regimen, I have less energy for this work. Yet the work that I am able to do feels more poignant and so much more real.
I am more capable of focusing on what is important. I am kinder to myself, recognizing moments where I push myself beyond reasonable effort and calling a halt to such perfectionism. Because I am tired more often, I am quiet more often. It is amazing what my soul has to say when I stop and listen.
When I greet my community this year at services for Rosh Hashanah, I intend to be shining.
I am so grateful for the strength and health that I do have.
I am blessed by wise and compassionate physicians and nurses.
I am held by family, friends and community.
I have so many plans for the future, and this forward focus fuels my healing. I am filled with creativity and spiritual energy, almost as if God is saying to me, “Have no fear. I have many more plans for you.”
For the first time in my life during the month of Elul, I am indeed not entirely unprepared.
I encourage all of you not to wait for a crisis to find yourself able to truly prepare for a new year. Feel the urgency as this year comes to a close and a bright new year awaits you.


L’Shana Tova Tikateivu. May you be written for a good new year.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

 

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