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?
When I think about my dad at home through all the years of my growing up, I think of him as alone. And when I think about my mom through those same years, I think of her as lonely.
Living with bipolar disorder, my dad spent months at a time inside our house, often in his bed, almost always alone. My mom went out to work every day, and my brother and I went to school. When we got home, there he was, on the couch, watching television. I was a kid. It never occurred to me to wonder about how alone he was.
In the 1950s and 1960s, no one understood my father’s mood swings. My parents’ friends wondered and perhaps pitied, but mostly stayed away. My dad‘s parents fretted that they had done something wrong to cause such brokenness. My mother’s parents urged her to leave my dad, and bring my brother and me to live in their house. Instead, my mother stood by my father, the love of her life. She held him and us together. There were no support groups for her; synagogue was not a safe place; and her friends were not equipped to understand. I wonder who could have possibly listened to her without judgment even if she could have articulated her sorrow and her rage. She must have been very lonely.
I thought a great deal about my parents yesterday as we celebrated a beautiful Shabbat of mental health awareness at OJC.
Thanks to the dedication and planning of #OJCSupportsU chairs Miriam Suchoff and Mark Brownstein, congregants experienced a wealth of opportunities to open our hearts and minds, and to create feelings of well-being and happiness – keystones to nurturing and sustaining good mental health. Through meditative prayer, singing, text study, and guided building of relationships, we practiced experiences that promote resilience.
We walked in silent meditation from the Daily Chapel to the bima in the Sanctuary to receive Torah, a powerful reenactment of Mount Sinai where everyone received Torah in his or her own way. God does not see anyone as broken; everyone is created in God’s image. We walked together as a community, from the four-year-old twins skipping to the 90-year-old couple walking carefully with canes. Being together in a community where everyone is accepted as “just fine,” just the way they are, is a most powerful sustainer of mental wellness. Everyone who was in synagogue yesterday felt this crucial teaching in our very souls.
But what about everyone who was not able to be in synagogue with us? What about the people who struggle with mental illness in their homes or in facilities and cannot leave, trapped there, unable to enter into our community of faith? What about the caregivers of those people, too exhausted and fearful of stigma to come out and join us in community? They probably do not see a sanctuary, rather they see an unbearable barrier to entry. How can we begin to change this reality for Jewish people who feel isolated due to mental illness?
We must continue to speak out. We must work hard to enable people to feel safe enough to be vulnerable in our sanctuary spaces.
There are many opportunities in the month of May, #MentalHealthAwareness.
Wednesday, May 15 at 7:00 pm at the Rockland Jewish Community Campus, Rockland Jewish Family Service and Board of Rabbis present Lo Levad, You are Not Alone.
Thursdays, May 16, 23 and 30 at 7:30 pm at OJC, join Rabbi Scheff to study Jewish sources and mental health issues.
Thursday, May 30 at 6:30 pm at OJC, join me and Amichai Margolis for a spring time service of healing and harmony.
If you are struggling with mental health issues and you feel alone, reach out to your rabbis or to #OJCSupportsU in any way that you feel able so that we can meet you halfway. Even if you can only reach out a very short distance, we will meet you the rest of the way.
If you are lonely because you are a caregiver for someone you love struggling with mental health issues, we invite you in to listen, share and strengthen yourself.
You might feel alone and you might feel lonely. We want to provide a community for you in whatever way we can, not just in the month of May, but always.
Yesterday, before the Musaf Amidah, Mark Brownstein read Merle Feld’s poem, “Dreaming of Home.” To me, it reads as a clarion call to all homes of worship to be places where people are safe and known.
We want so much to be in that place
where we are respected and cherished,
protected, acknowledged, nurtured, encouraged, heard.
And seen, seen
in all our loveliness,
in all our fragile strength.
And safe, safe in all our trembling
vulnerability. Where we are known
and safe, safe and known —
is it possible?
In closing, I dedicate this post on Mother’s Day to my mother, Frances Weisberg Mack z”l, a woman of extraordinary strength and dedication.
With prayers for a refuah shlayma, a complete healing, a healing of body and healing of spirit,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
As a rabbi, one of my favorite things is when our youth lead Shabbat services. The high school leaders take ownership of the evening; they daven with authority, encourage our religious school kids to participate, and always create and perform an engaging parasha play.
This past Friday, April 12, was all of that and more. In fact, it was a great deal more. Not only was it Youth Shabbat at OJC, but it was also the Day of Silence nationally, and our youth wove these two experiences into one very special evening.
Begun in 1996 at the University of Virginia, the Day of Silence is now observed at colleges and high schools across America to spread awareness about bullying and harassment of people in the LGBTQ community. Students and teachers vow to be silent for the day, showing solidarity for LGBTQ students who are too often silenced.
At services, our OJC kids gave out rainbow stickers, read poems and quotations to educate our congregation, and taught sign language for Sh’ma. One teen read a poem she wrote; in part it follows:
One day a year my silence speaks more than I ever could out loud.
My silence speaks for those who stop talking,
those who are forced to stop talking by a world that can’t accept them
for who they are or who they love.
After services, the brother of one of our congregants shared with me that he had never felt so accepted as a gay man and a religious Jew. He was overwhelmed by the feeling of welcome and comfort that he experienced. This man has been looking for a spiritual home for years. I thank our kids for leading the way in establishing OJC as safe space.
We grownups are doing our part as well. OJC is one of sixteen Conservative Jewish congregations across America in the third cohort being trained by United Synagogue and Keshet to be an inclusive, safe space for people who identify as LGBTQ. During Pride month (June), we are planning a Pride Shabbat (May 31 and June 1) and an inclusion and advocacy training with our Board of Trustees, Pride Committee, and professional staff.
Four of our Pride Committee members are teenagers. They lead the way for all of us, teaching us about what they accept as a natural part of their lives: God created all of us in God’s image. Some of us have brown hair, some are blonde. Some of us have blue eyes and some have green. Some of us are straight and some of us are gay. All of us deserve a seat in a sanctuary. That’s why it’s called a sanctuary.
Please let us know if you are interested in participating in OJC Pride. Contact our chairs, Sabina Tyler and Doug Stone at email@example.com.
And if you have questions about the LGBTQ community, ask a young person. They will be our teachers!
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.
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
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:
- Invite someone of another religion or political perspective to lunch.
- Call or email a friend or relative with whom you have felt tension, expressing a desire to reconnect.
- 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.
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