Rabbi Henry Sosland came to the New City Jewish Center in 1958 straight out of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 2005, after 47 years serving the community, Rabbi Sosland retired to emeritus status. Visiting him this past week with my father, I was reminded of his gentle manner, his amazing recall for names, and the subtle ways in which he empowered, encouraged, inspired and taught me. People tend to mention his name softly, with deep veneration, respect and fondness. I am blessed to call him my rabbi and teacher, and I hope my chosen path has brought him a measure of pride and nachas.
When I entered rabbinical school in 1992, one of my main personal and professional goals was to find the kind of community upon ordination in which I would want to settle down, raise a family, build a career, and retire after 40 years of service. What I could not anticipate then was the great contentment, satisfaction and perspective that would come with sharing with families the cycles of life, from births to death, with so many celebrations in between; the great anticipation of standing under a chuppah for a bride I named when she was a baby; the sadness that would accompany the many losses I have felt so personally yet often carried so privately; the deep familiarity and connection I would enjoy with individuals and families; the pride I would derive from a community that strives to learn, grow, raise the bar for itself and others, and constantly take on new initiatives and challenges while preserving the tradition at our core; the joy upon hearing that one of my students had chosen for himself a career in the rabbinate (thanks, Ben!).
Last night, our OJC community approved the terms of a new contract that will extend my tenure here to 2030. I am so grateful to this community for its professional and personal trust and support, for the mutual respect and love we share. God willing, we’ll reach that year as a community in good health; I’ll be 65, I’ll have served the synagogue 35 years, with my goal of 40 years in the same pulpit in sight.
Our Talmud teaches that one who has taught Torah to another is credited with having given them life. That renders the teacher a spiritual parent. So as Father’s Day approaches, I thank all my teachers–my “spiritual parents”–but especially Rabbi Sosland, for sharing his Torah, for inspiring me to follow in his path. And I pray that I will have the privilege to be considered spiritual parent to many students of Torah in my lifetime.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
When it comes to comforting the mourners or caring for the sick, the Jewish tradition provides ample wise guidance. The one in need of comfort and the one offering, the one in need of healing and the one giving care, the community with which both connect–all benefit from the ritual that the tradition provides in order to manage expectations, overcome insecurities and fears, and offer structure and control where uncertainty and chaos often reign.
In the event of death, broken bones or illnesses that present in noticeable ways, the tradition serves us well. In the case of hidden illnesses, however, the traditional responses are far less effective. After all, if the person suffering illness chooses to remain silent about the affliction, so must the caregiver; and if neither is willing to share publicly that they are in need, the community is rendered ineffective. The resulting failure in connectedness is to the detriment of all three parties in multiple ways.
For a long time, cancer was greeted with this kind of ineffective response, probably because it was viewed as a death sentence. The diagnosis was whispered, family privately grieved, friends had no words. Today, cancer is shouted out and proactively battled with the support of practitioners, caregivers, support networks and public advocacy.
Sadly, mental illness remains a source of shame for those afflicted, isolation and sadness for their caregivers, and helplessness for communities. In general, people still fail to grasp the true nature of mental illness. Those suffering keep their stories and needs to themselves to avoid stigmatization. Victims are often expected to fix themselves, to get over it. All too often, we greet news of suicide with responses–“Why did they do it? They had so much to live for?”–that reflect our own refusal to acknowledge the perniciousness of the disease and that perpetuate the stigma attached to mental illness. Families protect their loved ones’ privacy, so they suffer quietly. Communities passively watch as affiliates recede to the margins.
On the Shabbat of Tazria-Metzora, a reading that offers a ritual through which the priest ministers to those afflicted of a skin disease and thereby keeps them connected to the community despite their temporary quarantine, I chose to address the topic of connecting with those who experience, or care for those who experience, mental illness. I offered that our pursuit of mental wellness must begin by removing the stigma attached to mental illness and to those who seek therapy for their own mental care. After sharing that I have sought therapy for my own mental well-being at various times over the years, and that I recommend therapy as an important part of self care to all the rabbinical students I teach, I invited anyone who has received or is currently receiving therapy to rise in their places. When half of those in the room–scores of people–rose to their feet, there was an audible release, and then tears. People found comfort, validation and relief in discovering that they were not alone. For a moment, any shame or isolation was gone.
I hope that this moment marks a new beginning: when those in crisis know that they need not hide in shame; when their families have permission to speak openly with their clergy and community about the challenges they face; when the community can reach out in care to offer support and to pull into the center those who may otherwise feel marginalized.
Share your story. Offer to be part of the network of support. Join us on June 4 at 5:30pm, whether you are a professional wanting to facilitate or someone seeking to offer or receive support, as we commence this initiative to show that OJC supports you. With your help and participation, we hope to have various support groups and referral services in place by the fall.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your intention to attend our opening meeting. If you are interested in having a particular support group, please note that as well.
It’s time to bring this topic out of the shadows. And it starts with you and me stepping into the light, together.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Half way back to chametz, we should be able to hear our seder table conversations, ideally, still echoing in our heads.
In its original form, the seder was an expression of Jewish modernity. The rabbis who created the ritual were clearly influenced by the social, cultural and political conditions of their time. The resulting seder spoke to modern Jews in their language, literally (note the use of Aramaic in key places) and figuratively (the Greco-Roman practices of leaning, dipping and symposium-dining). While my grandmother and I may hope to perpetuate my family custom of “egg soup,” I highly doubt that was on the menu 1800 years ago!
Your OJC rabbis’ point of emphasis for the holiday this year was to make room for creativity, so as to allow the dynamic and flexible structure of the ritual to make room for greater meaning. “Tradition” doesn’t necessarily mean doing things “the way they have always been done” when the ritual itself calls for relevancy and contemporaneity. How do we see ourselves as having come out of Mitzrayim if we cant incorporate the symbols and language of our day that define enslavement?
To that end, I share with you the questions that I raised at my own family seder this year. I hope you will consider them over the coming weeks as we head to the holiday of Shavuot, celebrating the giving of our Torah. Or perhaps you can slip them into that place where you store your Passover items for next year, so they will be readily available for your next seder! The questions are connected thematically to each section of the seder in the order of the ritual. I hope they will bring meaning to your annual (and daily?) Jewish conversations:
Kadesh: How do you define the word “holy” and what do you consider holy to you in the world?
Urchatz: If there were a severe water shortage and you could only bathe 3 times in a week, when would you do so?
Karpas: What represents spring to you, and what would you add to the Seder plate as a symbol for it?
Yachatz: Is there something about you that you consider “broken” that you carry as a part of what makes you who you are?
Magid: When people ask where you are from, what do you tell them?
Wise: What is the best thing Judaism offers to the world?
Wicked: Name something oppressive from which you or your family have been liberated.
Simple: What oppression exists in the world today, and how does it affect you?
Doesn’t know how to ask: Is there a story you tell about yourself over and over?
Rochtza: Have you ever used a mikvah, or can you imagine a time you might?
Motzi: What role does food play in your life?
Matzah: What food would be a real sacrifice for you to give up entirely?
Maror: Can you think of a time when your actions unintentionally may have made someone feel like an “other”?
Korech: Is there a family tradition you wish were being passed on to others?
Shulchan Orech: Do you have a relationship with a community? Is it social, religious, historical, or something else?
Tzafun: What aspect of your self do you tend to hide?
Barech: Do I ever say “thank God!” and if so what do I mean when I say it?
Hallel: Is there someone you failed to thank or acknowledge and wish you had the chance to do so?
Nirtzah: What would you add to this experience next year?
Rabbi Craig Scheff
One year ago, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement adopted the position that the eating of legumes, rice and corn (kitniyot) on Passover is a valid legal option for Ashkenazic Jews. Instead of deciding at that time whether to adopt or reject the practice for our community (which is my role as mara d’atra, the religious decisor of our community), I decided to invite our Ritual and Jewish Living Committee–along with anyone else in the community who so desired–to study the topic with me. While the decision was ultimately mine to make, I had no preconceived opinion on the matter and thus invited the input of our community members to help me reach a conclusion.
People tend to be emotionally bound to custom, sometimes even to the exclusion of rational analysis. I appreciate that. We hold tightly onto family customs and tend to reject those things that challenge our sense of tradition, regardless of how or why such practices came about. I was therefore somewhat surprised that only a group of about 10 people made the commitment to study the topic with me. I anticipated far more interest! Nevertheless, our minyan of learners tackled the responsum written by Rabbis Amy Levin and Avram Israel Reiner. Our monthly studies delved into the details of the legal opinion, which reached the following conclusions:
1. Only that which can be made into matzah can become hametz. Wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye are the only flours that can be used for matzah. Therefore, it is established that rice, beans and legumes cannot fall into the category of hametz. Moreover, the authorities agree that the presence of kitniyot on a plate does not render the plate, the meal or the home unkosher, even for those who observe the custom not to eat kitniyot.
2. The legal authorities of medieval Ashkenaz recognized that forbidding kitniyot was an added restriction to the Passover laws, possibly based in the fear that certain varieties of wheat might possibly get mixed with varieties of kitniyot. Some authorities considered the measure excessive, but the more restrictive custom ultimately prevailed.
3. In the 18th century the debate was revived. The opponents of the restrictive position argued that the high cost of matzah prevented some from experiencing the requisite joy of the holiday, whereas kitniyot were readily available, affordable and not prohibited by law. For the benefit of the masses, they argued, the stumbling block to holiday joy should be removed.
4. The original reason for the restrictive custom is lost. If the reason was concern about the possible admixture with wheat, such confusion does not exist in production and packaging today. But a compelling justification is needed to overturn a long-standing custom. That justification, according to the authors, is the enhancement of our joy. Beans are a significant source of protein for those who don’t eat meat and for those who can’t afford meat, especially considering how prices are inflated as they are on Passover. The enjoyment of food and adequate sources of protein is part of the joy we are meant to experience. Additionally, protecting people’s pocketbooks from those who would seek to gouge is in fact a Jewish value worthy of legal consideration.
Given these legal conclusions and the input provided by those who participated in our studies, I offer my own opinion, which will represent a change in the official position of our community going forward. (Please note: This does not mean you are doing something “wrong” in the eyes of our community should your personal practice differ!)
While I recognize that many people will continue personal practice according to their inherited family custom, I believe there is great value in adopting this change in custom. I don’t believe in change just for the sake of change; but I also will not reject change simply because it is hard or because it is something to which we are unaccustomed. Nor will I reject what is considered a more lenient position out of fear that greater leniency will follow. All too often, necessary change is stifled by the sometimes irrational hold of our emotional attachment to the ways of the past. I choose not to oppose change simply for the sake of opposing change. That is not the way of authentic Jewish thought.
On a practical level, I am in favor of Jewish law that encourages adherence to the law; the more our Passover laws allow people to keep Passover, the better that is for everyone. Contrary to the ways in which some observe Passover, we are not meant to be reliving slavery for seven days or for the days leading up to the holiday. There is no joy or satisfaction to be derived from being more restricted or burdened by the holiday’s laws. Are we supposed to feel different from others and from the way we live for the other 51 weeks of the year? Yes. But Passover is meant to be a time of joy, despite the remembrance of our affliction.
Most importantly, changing dietary habits and sensitivities in our society dictate that alternate sources of protein should be made available if they are not hametz. Moreover, the exorbitant cost of keeping kosher in general, and of kosher meat in particular–not to mention the premiums imposed for Passover–is a compelling justification for offering consumers a more affordable way to stock their pantries.
Finally, I am mindful that this ruling will not necessarily impact individuals in their homes. They can continue to keep Passover as they always have. And even in our synagogue, as studied in the law, serving kitniyot among our foods does not affect the other foods served. So even in the synagogue, those who do not eat kitniyot will still be able to observe Passover in their own way at all times.
Please note that there are controls and restrictions on the purchasing of kitniyot for the holiday. Specifically, fresh corn and beans may be purchased before and during Passover, like other fresh vegetables; dried kitniyot (legumes, rice and corn) can be purchased in bags or boxes and sifted before Passover; canned kitniyot may only be purchased with Passover certification due to the canning process; frozen raw kitniyot (corn, edamame) may be purchased in bags before the holiday without a heksher, though one should still inspect contents before use; and all processed foods (like tofu) require Passover certification.
I am grateful to those who shared this process with me. I believe that the process of seriously engaging with our tradition is as important as any result of such deliberation. May we all have a happy and kosher Passover, whether we are among the bean counters or not!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
In this mission to remain positive, I want to acknowledge that there are certain situations when grief is deep and time is a key component in the healing. And I also want to acknowledge that there are instances when a positive disposition is not enough.
I’d like to share with you the power of positive thinking and the importance of seeing the good. I’d like to share with you the story of my father-in-law, Kenny Hersh. As a child growing up in New Jersey and, later in life, in Providence, Kenny was someone who took full advantage of every day. He trained and ran 5Ks, was the first one on the dance floor at a simhah, played clarinet in a klezmer band, could manually mix paints at work to match any color, and volunteered at his shul. He was an incredible father, a loving husband to his wife Leah, and for better or worse, a Yankees fan. After working as a high school guidance counselor for a few years, Kenny eventually joined Leah’s family business, American Wallpaper in Fall River, MA. After a series of inexplicable falls and some problems with his coordination, Kenny visited medical experts in Providence and Boston. Through a series of tests, Kenny was diagnosed with Primary Lateral Sclerosis, PLS. A degenerative neurological condition that weakens voluntary muscles. Although relieved to finally have a diagnosis, the condition would mean increasing difficulty with basic tasks like walking, eating, and speaking.
That was more than 10 years ago. And yet, despite the challenges, despite the muscle stiffness, despite the difficulty speaking, despite the mobility issues, despite the fact that he often communicates through his ipad, despite the slips and falls on to icy sidewalks, despite that nearly everything takes longer and can be more frustrating, Kenny continues to be an unstoppable and unignorable presence in our family.
Whether you just met Kenny or you’ve known him all your life, it takes only a few minutes and a few keystrokes to appreciate Kenny’s charm, his humor, his kindness, his compassion, and his intelligence. Kenny continues to go to the gym, using the stair climber to reach the top of a 110-story building every week. Kenny continues to, despite all logic, drive and put in a day’s work at the family business. Kenny continues to be a comedic force at family meals, Kenny continues to be an ezer knegdo, a perfect partner to his wife Leah, a wise and loving parent to his six children and children-in-law, and perhaps most importantly, the most playful and treat-giving saba to his eight grandchildren. Rather than wallow in his sadness, Kenny makes the most out of every day, with a spirit and a love of life that is enviable.
I recently asked Kenny, if he ever got frustrated. “Of course! There are things I miss, but the thing that I find most frustrating is the inability to speak. I love to talk and that is frustrating. I would trade off being in a wheelchair to be able to speak freely again. It is especially hard dealing with my wonderful grandchildren. I would love to be able to read to Nadav and Eliana in English, Spanish, or Hebrew. What joy I miss in not being able to sing with them and talk with them. What a pleasure it would be to walk with them on the beach and swim with them; to run with them, to fly a kite with them and crawl on the floor with them. As I have seen with Micah, [his 7-year-old grandchild], once he was able to read, our relationship really grew as we were able to laugh together and have a “conversation.” I look forward to the day when I can do that with all my grandchildren. I think that there are choices when put in a situation like this: crawl under the covers and hibernate or try to work around the challenges and move forward and enjoy an exciting life. I choose the latter. I don’t want a pity party, but just the realization that I am still the same person I always was, but with a disability. I have so much to be thankful for and get inner strength from my wife, children, and grandchildren. They make me want to push the envelope to be an important part of their lives. Our friends and community in Providence and around the country give me support and make me feel included as an intelligent and mindful part of their lives. And of course, having fun and being able to laugh makes this ride much easier.”
My friends, I do not deny that there are problems in the world. I do not deny that there are times when we feel that we have insurmountable challenges. And I do not deny that at times we have to embrace that sadness. But in 5777, I implore you to also look for the positive in the world. Just by the virtue of where and when we live we are blessed with so much. It is okay to not be burdened by sorrow all the time. It is okay to focus on the positive. Not because we need to ignore the negative. Adarabah, to the contrary, because it is only by recognizing the good that we can tackle the bad. It is only by crying that we can feel the joy more deeply. It is only by rejoicing, that we can be there to understand someone’s sorrow more deeply. Let us cry together. Let us rejoice together. Let us feel the full spectrum of human emotion in the new year.
Rabbi Michael Fel
There are those times though… I’m human, I fail, I fall short. In my family, we have a Christmas Eve tradition of meeting all the Hartmans (my in-laws) for dinner at a kosher restaurant in NYC. This year, the night was unseasonably warm and dry. Some rain earlier in the day had cleared out. The parking near midtown was typically tricky so we had several blocks to traverse to get from our parking garage to the restaurant. Our start into the city from home was typically late so we were in a bit of a rush. It’s those times when I’m a bit stressed that the young boy with sharp teeth comes back. I was going to set the pace and it would be brisk. I was going to push the wheelchair myself. Well, I should have thought that one through. The second curb that we came to was hidden under dark puddle of rain water… at least I hope it was rain water. I approached at “lift off” speed. Unfortunately, my wheelchair didn’t “lift off” … the wheelchair stopped cold. You know what else was cold? The water was cold! I know because I bounced out of my wheelchair and was sitting in that puddle and soaked to the skin. My wife and a kind stranger helped me back into the wheelchair. I hadn’t learned my lesson yet though. I was still intent on pushing myself. That wasn’t the last time I fell out of my wheelchair that night…twice more. I was very stubborn; I was very wet; I was very cold. Ever sit through a 2-and-a-half-hour dinner with wet pants? After you were three years old? That was a 4-scotch dinner. The story I tell now has Hara pushing me into the puddle and trying to drown me for the insurance….
As Bruce Wayne’s father said to him, “Why do we fall…? So we can learn to pick ourselves up” Forgive me for having the audacity to think I could improve on Thomas Wayne’s quote… “Why do we fall…? So we can learn to accept the blessing of help from others.” But you should still watch out for the sharp teeth.
I’ve enjoyed telling you this story. I hope you’ve found it fun and amusing. It’s true in all its absurdity but I would be remiss if I didn’t add a serious aside. The blessing in allowing someone to help me is only fully realized by me when I am confident that I could achieve the same physical result without help. In other words, if physical barriers exist to my access to a place that I reasonably want to go on my own (i.e., reasonable means not necessarily access to the peak of Mt. Everest) and the place is accessible to the average Joe, my joy and fulfillment are diminished. It’s complicated, I know….
The traditional names for the synagogue–beit knesset, beit tefilah, beit midrash–connote a house of assembly, a house of worship and a house of inquiry and learning. These days, the synagogue is also considered the center of a faith community.
What does it mean to me to be a faith community? It means collectively embracing a hopeful and optimistic view of the world, where faith in God, in people, and in the potential Godliness of every person shapes values, morals and personal choices. In keeping with the ethical codes of our sages, it means giving others the benefit of the doubt without taking unreasonable risk to one’s own well being.
Judaism’s prophetic tradition envisioned a world order where all people would ultimately see God as one and recognize one another as the creation of that one God. In post-Biblical times, this vision of an era to come (olam ha-ba) was transformed into an other-worldly vision, one that could only arrive through divine intervention. Some even embraced the idea that a super-human or semi-divine figure would be needed to bring about this new world order.
Our sages of Rabbinic Judaism brought us back to our emphasis on human agency. We don’t rely on divine fiat to bring about the days of the era to come. Our messianic age is not ushered in by God, but by those of us here doing the work of God.
Israel and America are two potential entities through which this new world order can be brought about. There is nothing wrong with America or Israel wanting to put themselves “first” in this new order, so long as being first doesn’t mean being exclusive. Being first in this order means leading the way for all of humanity to ultimately be a part of the same vision, the same order. If I am first, and no one is following, then I am also last. Isolation and exclusivity did not fit with the prophets’ notion that Judaism’s values would serve as a light drawing humanity to unite as one.
As a leader of a faith community, I will continue to have faith in God; in people; and in policies that move us closer to a world order where all people search for the image of God in others. Our assembly, our worship, our inquiry and learning all point us in this direction as a worldview. Your vision of where we need to go as a society, as a country, as a world or as Jews may differ from mine; but as someone (who doesn’t see the world as I do) recently told me, I must speak the words that are in my heart. They are the wisdom of my experiences and my truths, and my responsibility to espouse in leading a faith community.
I don’t seek to be political in my views or to take sides. Different times demand that different values be prioritized and championed. I will speak out against Islamic fundamentalism that threatens my security and I will call out Jewish fundamentalism that chips away at my identity. I will warn against Islamophobia and I will defend against anti-Semitism. I will advocate for the rights of women to control their own bodies and I will demand the need for people to make responsible choices. I will educate for Jewish continuity and I will explore new ways to welcome interfaith households. I will support the rights of countries to protect their citizens, and I will march to demand the protection of the stranger, the vulnerable and those who can’t protect themselves. I will teach towards a greater awareness of the needs of people with disabilities and I will push for us to see one another as people first. I will own responsibility for my actions and I will accept the collective responsibility we have to our neighbors.
These are the values, among others, that I believe our faith community must advance in moving our world toward a better era for humankind. May that time come soon and in our day.
Rabbi Craig Scheff