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Renewing our bonds with Israel in 5779

In the year ahead, our community will feature the many and diverse ways in which our households connect to Israel. As we celebrate her achievements, share in her anguish, advocate for her security, and invest our energies in her promise to be a light unto the nations, a spiritual home to all Jews and a voice of moral governance to the world, we welcome you to share your Israel story with our community. As we usher in 5779, we are pleased to share Rachel Sherman’s story. Thank you, Rachel, and g’mar chatimah tovah!

Over the summer, I participated in a month-long program called TALMA: The Israel Program for Excellence in English. The program brings educators from all over the world to teach English to children in low-income communities throughout Israel. Each non-Israeli educator is paired up with an Israeli co-teacher. As a team, the non-Israeli educator and the Israeli educator co-teach a group of around 30 children.

The 300 teachers were placed in 6 different “living locations” around Israel including Mitzpe Ramon, Ben Shemen Youth Village, Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Safed, and in the northern region of Mizra. Schools were located in the vicinity of living locations and teachers traveled by bus, carpools, or walking. The first and last weekends of the program were for the entire TALMA program, first in Shafayim near Tel Aviv and the last Shabbat in Jerusalem. The other 2 weekends we were free to travel to different parts of Israel on our own.  

I was placed in the northern region of Israel and lived at the Nof Tavor Hotel next to Kibbutz Mizra. I lived there with 14 other teachers from around the US/Canada and with 4 Israeli educators/mentors from the Teach First Israel (TFI) program. The 19 of us taught in four different locations: Menashe, The Jezreel Valley, Nazareth Lllit, and Migdal Haemek.

I taught at a school called Nitznei Reut in Menashe from 8 am to 1 pm Sunday through Thursday. My school was 40 minutes away and 4 of us were in a carpool with our Israeli mentor. With my Israeli co-teacher Sivan, we taught English to 30 third grade students together. Most knew little English so we taught letters with sounds, body parts, colors, and other topics. They learned a lot including vocabulary and phrases. For example, leading up to the “Café Day”, they learned restaurant/food related vocabulary and phrases that they would use at a café. Each child created a menu and decided whether they wanted to be a waiter/waitress or a customer and they role played using English. The students did art projects, STEAM projects, family trees, sang songs, learned chants, danced, and baked challah, chocolate balls, and pizza. My school had a petting zoo and the principal brought in her poodle every day who is a mascot for the school.

Teaching in Israel was a big culture shock for me. For example, there is no such thing as recess duty and teachers did not supervise the children when they were outside. There wasn’t much discipline compared to what I’m used to in NY schools. If students did not want to do the work given, they didn’t have to do it — it was their choice!

After school, we often swam at the Kibbutz Mizra pool, went to a nearby Café Café, or took a bus to different towns nearby such as Afula, Nazareth, and Ramat Yishai.

During my two free weekends, I went to different parts of Israel. During the first weekend, we rented cars and 8 of us went to Safed, Haifa, Akko, and a winery. The other free weekend I went to Jerusalem with friends and then split up to spend Shabbat with relatives and my family’s close friends.

I had a great time and am so appreciative that I was part of the TALMA Teaching Fellowship this summer. I learned from both the Israeli teachers and other teacher friends I met from around the world. Living and teaching in Israel has deepened my connection to Israel in a different way from previous tourist experiences. I encourage other teachers to explore this opportunity!

The Gateway to a New Year

There’s nothing like a fresh pair of eyes, or four pairs, to get a new perspective on the things you take for granted.

Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting one of my Israeli sisters, along with her husband and two sons,  for a few days of New York-style fun.

On Tuesday morning, we toured the USS Intrepid Museum. I’d been there just last year, but seeing the exhibits through the eyes of the Israelis, I was struck with a new sense of pride. We marveled at the stories of courage, ingenuity and sacrifices of the many Americans who have served our country in air, at sea, and in space.


Next, we visited the Statue of Liberty, and I was reminded that Lady Liberty was not erected to represent a person; rather, she is there to represent an idea.


From the pier we walked west on Fulton Street. As we headed towards the Freedom Tower and the 9/11 memorial, I couldn’t shake the memories in my head, images of ash-covered people walking the streets like zombies on a Tuesday morning 17 years ago.


The Twin Towers once stood like a gateway to our land, much like the two mountains between which the Israelites marched as they entered the Promised Land, with blessings pronounced to them from one and curses from the other. They too represented an idea; to me, they represented the indomitable spirit of America. That same undying spirit is represented today in the energy of the descending memorial pools and in the tower that now skyrockets to the heavens to accompany the souls of all those lost on that tragic day.


For the past 15 years, I have stood with fellow local clergy and Tappan’s first responders in remembrance on the mornings of 9/11. This year, I pray they will forgive my absence from the public ceremony, and I hope our non-Jewish neighbors will be reminded that the Jewish community means no disrespect by its absence, as it will be busy celebrating its holy day of Rosh Hashanah.

That being said, I hope you will join us this second day of Rosh Hashanah during our service to give honor to the memory of those who died, to pay tribute to those who secure our safety and our freedom, and to express our gratitude for the blessings we share as Jews in America. Sometimes we take for granted the lives we have in this country, as Americans and as Jews. Sometimes, in the thick of the public debates and political rancor, we forget the good that is all around us.

If you plan to be with our community on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, please consider arriving early, even if it means you’ll leave earlier than usual. We will be interrupting our regular service to make space for communal and individual remembrance with silence, song and shofar. Be on time (8:30am) to honor the day and to participate in our commemoration and prayer.

May our Rosh Hashanah usher in a year that brings us healing, wholeness, peace, and an appreciation of all our blessings.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Incest, Ethics and Yom Kippur

Over the past year, our synagogue’s Committee on Jewish Living and Ritual, along with anyone else so motivated, has engaged with me in a monthly study of the traditional Torah reading assigned to the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, and of the approved alternate reading found in many high holiday mahzors. The goal of this process was to arrive at a decision as to whether our community should keep to the traditional reading or adopt the suggested alternative. While it is solely my responsibility as Mara d’Atra (“Teacher of the Place” or Halachic decisor) to make a final determination, I did not want to do so without considering input from those people who were seriously engaged with this question.

So what’s the big deal, you might ask? I realize that most people are not even present to hear the reading that takes place just a couple hours before the blowing of the shofar, when the majority of us are busy passing the last part of the fast day with a nap. The fact is, however, that since the time of the Talmud some 1500 years ago our traditional communities have been reading the same passage, Leviticus 18:1-30, during the Yom Kippur mincha (afternoon service). This reading follows closely on the heels of the passage we read Yom Kippur morning, which details the service of the High Priest and the Yom Kippur ritual of atonement.

The traditional afternoon reading of Leviticus 18 does not, however, contain a readily apparent connection to Yom Kippur. The passage focuses on guarding against the adoption of our neighboring cultures’ illicit and immoral practices. Specifically, the assigned portion details prohibited sexual unions, including the prohibition that a man may not lie with another man in the manner that he lies with a woman. The Torah seems to be giving voice to its revulsion at the erotic components of pagan society centuries ago.

 

In rationalizing its place in our service, commentators have pointed out that just as we focus on our spiritual purity and renewal of our relationships on this holy day, so must we recommit ourselves to examining our conduct in our most intimate relationships.

There is no doubt that the social and sexual mores of that time certainly influenced the choice of this passage for this particular occasion. Note, the Torah does not dictate the reading for Yom Kippur; it is the Rabbis (men) of the Talmud who did so.

Clearly, we don’t simply skip or excise passages of the Torah that make us uncomfortable. We confront Leviticus 18 as we read the Torah throughout the year, and we wrestle with it to make sense of it in our day and age. Its relation to Yom Kippur, however, has been called into question. And an alternative reading of Leviticus 19 has been included in many mahzors.

Leviticus 19 commences with the command “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The passage contains Judaism’s central ethical teachings, detailing the kinds of behaviors that we should strive to adopt in order to achieve lives of greater holiness, and concluding with the command to love your neighbor as yourself.

The argument has been advanced that, whereas the reading for Yom Kippur morning is about ritual purity, this alternate afternoon reading provides a complement by stressing the importance of ethical purity. For those seriously engaged in self-reflection and atonement, an examination of our personal ethics certainly seems like an important endeavor.

Change should never be made simply for the sake of change or convenience. That being said, we should not avoid all change simply because we fear the slippery slope. Change in custom may be warranted  when enforcement of the status quo has the consequence of undermining the purpose of the custom.

As a reader of Torah, I have never been comfortable reading about incest and bestiality on Yom Kippur to a tired and hungry crowd. It does not enhance my experience of the day in any way; and I think my feelings mirror those of the majority of people who attend this particular service. On the other hand, reading about the kinds of behaviors I must cultivate in order to be a more ethical person feels like a far more relevant and inspiring pursuit for this particular day.

At the end of our year of studying the issue, my “advisory board” voted in favor change toward adopting the alternative reading of Leviticus 19. But as I stated above, the decision is mine alone.

There is no doubt that I find the content of the alternative reading more suitable to Yom Kippur contemplation. And there is no doubt that I place value on the process of change itself; it trains us to guard against complacency. But the ultimate reason for my decision to adopt this change is my desire to capitalize on an opportunity. On the one day of the year that finds more of our constituents in synagogue and exposed to Torah, I hope we will be captivated in greater numbers by the beauty and relevance of Torah in our lives. I hope we will be inspired to examine our interactions daily, and recognize the ways in which the ethics of Leviticus 19 inform the most mundane aspects of our lives.

With this in mind, perhaps you’ll join us for mincha on Yom Kippur at 5:15pm for a short Torah study and the reading we are implementing. And perhaps you’ll consider picking up a Bible and studying the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19 in anticipation of the holy day. And perhaps, in so doing, you’ll make my decision the right one for you.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Mas’ei: These are the voyages

Over the past week, I had an opportunity to share some vacation travel with my two older sons. Aside from being a time to rest, relax and rejuvenate, it was also an opportunity to experience a new city, reconnect with my adult children, and revisit relationships with extended family and friends.

Sharing space and time with others for an extended period, especially in close proximity, was an excellent exercise in self-awareness. The experience brought on a heightened consciousness of personal habits and a test of comfort with making conversation or with the lack thereof. Even our pace of movement as a group was something to be considered and negotiated.

Our destination was more familiar to some and brand new to others. This imbalance dictated that some would step up to lead while others would be relegated to follow. Some accepted their roles with complete comfort; others were forced to confront the insecurities that can accompany such powerlessness. While some of us sought to take in the experience from an intellectual perspective, diving deep into each historical site and building, others of us preferred the bird’s eye view, preferring the forest to the trees of the landscape.

Now, imagine that we were two million travelers instead of just three! These challenges (relatively insignificant, especially given that the context was a vacation!) must have been multiplied exponentially for the Israelite families journeying from Egypt to the Promised Land. The Torah, however, goes to great lengths to recount the places that served as mileposts of the trek and the people who led the migration. Let’s not lose sight of the many emotions and dynamics that had to be addressed by individuals, families and communities along the way.

And the next time we venture to a new place or choose to share an experience with others in a new configuration, perhaps we can examine our own responses more closely, especially relative to others. Perhaps we’ll come to appreciate the journey as much as, if not more than, the destination.


Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Now is not always the right time

Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism, has occupied the headlines of the Jewish press over the last week. At issue is Ramah’s educational approach regarding Israel and Zionism. In particular, IfNotNow (INN), an organization whose stated goal is to end American support for Israel’s current policies with respect to the Palestinians, has begun training Jewish camp counselors to effect change in the Israel education of Jewish summer camps.Three months ago, a group of Ramah alumni involved with INN approached the Ramah national leadership seeking a commitment from Ramah to change its Israel education to include the Palestinian narrative. As news of INN’s camp counselor training program became public, the Ramah leadership issued a statement distancing itself from any partnership with INN and affirming its commitment to teaching Ahavat Yisrael, a love of Israel. Backlash came from both the right and the left. From one extreme, Ramah was being ordered to conduct a purge of any counselors who might express any sympathies to the Palestinian cause; from the other side, Ramah was being accused of betraying alumni who felt they had been labeled as anti-Zionist at best and anti-Semitic at worst.

Change, no matter how warranted, typically takes time in established institutions. Change requires education, building consensus, and the development of stakeholders who can model the proposed change as a natural and mission-driven extension of the institution itself. Change imposed from outside the institutional framework will, more often than not, fail, especially if it is expected to take effect immediately.

The Ramah camping movement, one of the great and long-lasting successes of Conservative Judaism and a breeding ground for ideas, leadership and best practices, is well aware of the changing landscape of the Jewish world, and in particular as it relates to Israel. Hundreds of young Israeli emissaries (shlchim) staff the Ramah camps each summer, bringing with them their many perspectives on Jewish identity, Zionism and Israel. The shlichim are not screened for their political leanings in advance of their placement. Each Ramah camp has its own board, its own professional leadership, its own unique demographic of staff, campers and families. Each camp has met the challenges of change in its own way, always sensitive to the Ramah mission, the camp’s constituent communities, and the reality that staff and campers come from a diversity of religious and educational backgrounds. To this day, the camp cultures differ in their religious and educational philosophies, even as they pursue the same mission.


The Ramah camps also face the challenge of educating students—campers and staff—who range in age from 6 to 60, many of whom live together in community. Learning takes place in formal, informal and experiential settings. The unintended curriculum is often more important than the intended curriculum, as so much of the learning occurs in the context of late-night one on one conversations. It is in the context of personal relationships that nuanced opinions are best expressed and best able to be heard. That is the true magic of Ramah.


Ramah directors across the camps, I believe, sympathize with those Ramah alumni who want to see staff and older campers engage in Israel discussions that reflect the complexity and nuance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, in light of INN’s demands for immediate and sweeping change, it should come as no surprise that the Ramah leadership felt the need to make a strong statement in response, officially distancing Ramah camps from any organizational or philosophical partnership, especially considering that INN’s platform specifically states that it does not take a position regarding the support of Israeli statehood. Critics may have cause to say that Ramah leadership’s latest statement was an attempt to appease the majority of its base and its financial supporters. Even if this were to be true, it doesn’t mean that Ramah has abandoned its dedication to pluralism and to permitting a diversity of opinions.


The world of Jewish education is still learning how to address the moral challenges of Israeli statehood and Jewish power. The Shalom Hartman Institute, as far as I am concerned, has done an excellent job of creating informative, nuanced and challenging educational materials for adults. (Check out the iEngage Israel curricula; our synagogue community has already implemented three of its courses to a positive reception.) Adapting these conversations for middle schoolers or high school students is going to take time and expertise, especially given the widely diverse ages and backgrounds of the intended students.


I firmly believe that now is the time to wrestle with the question of how to teach about Israel’s conflicts. But the answer to that question, especially when it comes to good Israel education, is certainly not one to be arrived at in a matter of months. Ramah camps are as good a place as any to advance this discussion—but not necessarily this summer or even next. Not if it is going to be done well, with the result producing the best informed Israel lovers and advocates for our future.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Abiding in the amazement

Cain kills Abel; God asks Cain where is his brother; Cain claims not to know, and challenges God by proclaiming he is not Abel’s keeper. God replies that the blood of Abel is calling out. The Midrash boldly suggests an alternative reading: the blood of Abel is yelling at (or against) God, accusing God of standing by and permitting the injustice. (Genesis Rabbah 22:9)

As has been pointed out with respect to the Shoah, we are quick to ask where God was; less frequently do we ask where was Humanity.

As Holocaust survivors, my grandparents have never held God responsible for the deaths of family members or for their earlier years of torment. They do, however, consider their lives and their descendants miracles of God. They’ve never claimed to be more righteous or deserving of God’s attention or intervention; but they accept their gifts of life as miraculous nonetheless. For them, every day — despite the aches and pains, the losses of loved ones and the toll of the mundane — is a miracle.

Just off of Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut, I wrestle with my seemingly conflicting understanding of God. In reflecting on the Shoah, I say God was not accountable, except to the extent that God made room in the world for our free will. That conscious act created the possibility for the distinctiveness of good versus bad, of right versus wrong, of exultation versus disappointment. Put another way, in making room for evil, God created the possibility for us to live lives of meaning, as opposed to merely existing.

And yet, when it comes to the birth of the State of Israel — as is the case of the birth of my children — I proclaim that God was “in the room.” Despite the many sleepless nights that follow those births, I abide in the amazement of the miracle, as my grandparents do and as we as a people do, every single day.

I personally cannot believe in a God that would desire the suffering of the innocent or the young, of family or friends. I choose to believe in the God that invites me to choose life over death, blessings above curses. My God is the God that abides in the blessings I bring when I offer comfort, strength and healing energy. My God is the God that is revealed when I come together in community to offer prayer and to mobilize in action. My God is the God that is felt in the hearts of the suffering when they feel me acting as their keeper.

Do you wish to help a friend, but don’t know how? Do you wonder where God is in the suffering? Choose life. Recite Psalm 121 daily at 7:30pm with and for Rabbi Drill as she, with God’s and our help, experiences a refuah shleimah (complete healing), and add a psalm of healing for those in your life who are in need. Give someone else the gift of life, and donate blood. Perform an act of kindness in the name of a loved one. Remember someone you love. Abide in the amazement of something you once called a miracle.

Shabbat shalom, and a speedy recovery, my friend,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

The CaLL

Draw near
Place before Me
Your vulnerability and regret
Your wholeness and gratitude
Stand in My presence
With outstretched hands
Offer Me your heart

Do You not recognize the companion of Your soul?
From every stranger, neighbor, friend and lover
I summon,
In every dawn and dusk
I reveal,
In every breath
I call

Return to
The garden
The mountain
The sanctuary
The body
The heart
The makom-place
where You will find me waiting

I CaLL to You, with a small “a-aleph
To remind You that I am,
That We are One
In all things

Raise Your body to the heavens
Stretch Your fingers to the skies
Wave Your offering to the universe;
But look to Your palms
And discover:
I have sacrificed for You
My heart

“AND THE LORD CaLLED TO MOSES….” (Leviticus 1:1)

 Rabbi Craig Scheff
Vayikra 5778
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