My youngest son Josh flew back to Israel this afternoon after three months in the United States following completion of his army service.
As soon as he lands, he will go straight to his apartment where he will begin 14 days of quarantine. His roommates will leave food for him outside his bedroom door and whenever he emerges, he will need to wipe down every surface he touches. Josh has a great attitude about the quarantine, explaining that he has a lot to read and will have plenty of time to prepare for his entrance exams for Tel Aviv University. The quarantine is inconvenient and worrisome, but it is required by Israeli law and certainly not devastating for Josh.
My in-laws are 87 and 92 years old. Earlier tonight, I brought dinner over as is our Wednesday night custom. We sheepishly bumped elbows and it felt very strange not to embrace them. They told me that they had sold their tickets to see the Philadelphia Philharmonic this Sunday, and my mother-in-law regrets missing her favorite conductor. It is isolating and worrisome to be an elder through this time of Covid-19 precautions, but the precautions are necessary and not devastating for them.
My niece and her roommate moved into my guestroom tonight since their college announced its closure just three days after they had returned from spring break. They brought most of their stuff here with them, not sure if their college will reopen this year. Online courses are beginning for them next week, but they wonder how much learning they’ll accomplish. College and university closures are extraordinary and difficult for everyone involved, but they are prudent and not devastating for my niece or her roommate.
Throughout this roller coaster of a growing national medical emergency, I have tried to maintain balance and perspective for myself and on behalf of the OJC community. I am proud of our president, Michael Pucci, and our professional staff, who have made very difficult decisions in a reasonable, calm, and careful manner. If we err, we err on the side of safety. The decisions that we make impact every age and stage of our congregation.
It was disappointing to cancel festivities for Purim – a carnival for children, a dance party for which our in-house band rehearsed for months, an adult night club, and a grand seudah on Purim day. Volunteer committees had worked for months to plan all of these joyful programs, and everything except for the Megillah readings was canceled. Disappointing, yes. Devastating? No.
But let’s consider together what truly is devastating about the Coronavirus pandemic.
People are becoming very ill with this terrible flu, especially elderly people and those with compromised immune systems. We pray for speedy recoveries.
People who live on the edge financially will be pushed over that edge by weeks of quarantine or illness. Those who are paid daily wages, who punch a clock, who do not have adequate sick leave, will struggle mightily to recover long after the flu is gone.
People with inadequate medical insurance will struggle to pay for prescriptions and doctors’ bills. People who are undocumented will hesitate to go to hospitals or doctors.
Many of the children whose schools are closing will miss their free breakfasts and lunches, dependable nutrition for 2/3 of their daily meals. Many parents will have a difficult time replacing those meals for their children. Many parents will be left figuring out how to go to work without childcare now that schools are closed.
Elderly people, adults with developmental disabilities or mental health issues, the youth who attend the twice weekly drop-in program at the Rockland Pride Center, family members who attend support groups, all will be impacted by the closure of community centers and other gathering places.
It is always true in our society that those who are most vulnerable suffer first and suffer the greatest amount when difficult times hit. I pray that we keep all of these people in mind and take action if we are able to help.
Reach out with phone calls to the elders of our community who are experiencing social distancing now. Many are staying at home as advised. Others live in nursing homes and assisted care residences where visiting is currently discouraged. Be sure they know that you are thinking of them.
Write an extra check to Meals on Wheels. Drop off more food than usual for People to People or Rhoda Bloom Kosher Food Pantry, great Rockland organizations that help those in need make ends meet.
Write a supportive note to friends who are at high risk from Covid-19 because of their professional work – hospital emergency room workers, EMTs, nurse aides in facilities for the elderly, doctors and nurses.
At the very time when we need to be close to one another, we are counseled toward a necessary “social distancing.” When the world feels unpredictable, we yearn to be in community, yet we are canceling gathering after gathering. We are used to planning ahead, but we cannot prepare because we do not know what will happen next.
But for the most part, most of us are among the privileged few. If we are quarantined, our community and friends will ensure that we have food to eat. If we need to miss work, we will not risk losing our jobs. If our children’s schools close, they will have plenty to eat for breakfast and lunch. If we grumble about doctors’ bills, we can eventually pay them without going under. And if these things are not all true for you and your family, but you are a part of the OJC, you belong to a supportive, sacred community that will help. You are not alone.
Maintaining an attitude of gratitude will help us get through these confusing and difficult times.
Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – All of Israel is responsible one for the other. When we say bazeh (in each other) instead of lazeh (to each other), we add a deeper truth to this foundational rabbinic teaching. Not only are we responsible, we are intertwined.
With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
What if you knew for sure that you would see or hear something unusual? What if you knew for certain that you would experience something extraordinary? Would you miss it?
Oh, I know that Saturday mornings are just right for getting errands done, picking up the dry cleaning or purchasing a new shower curtain. Saturdays are perfect for boot camp workouts, kids’ soccer tournaments, or – on crisp sunny days – hiking in Harriman State Park. On Saturday mornings, you can meet your cousin for coffee or visit your niece after surgery. I know… on Saturdays you can even just sleep in after an over-scheduled week.
But what if being in Shabbat on a Saturday morning promised something that transcends all of that? Would you just skip it?
If you come to synagogue on Saturday morning instead of everything else you do…
Perhaps the davenner* will chant El Adon in a different tune, not the expected tune, but in the one that was sung in your childhood when you sat next to your grandfather in shul.*
Perhaps you’ll watch as five-year-old twins run purposefully down the aisle and onto the bima* at the start of the Torah service to be handed silver Torah crowns which they hold up proudly as if they are the whole point of the service. You definitely find yourself grinning as you watch them walk solemnly behind the adult holding the Torah.
Perhaps you’ll see a proud nonagenarian ascend the bima, slow but sure-footed, to accept an aliyah* and receive a blessing for the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah.
Perhaps you’ll see a seven-month-old baby girl receive her Hebrew name on the bima and lean forward to send a big, sloppy toothless grin in the direction of her great- grandmother for whose husband she has just been named.
Perhaps you will rise when the Prayer for Healing is chanted and you will have a clear picture in your mind of your friend who is recuperating from surgery. You will sense that your prayer can reach him in his Boston hospital.
Perhaps you’ll be invited to open the ark when the Torah is placed back there after the recessional and when you look at the colorfully decorated Torahs, the congregation sings Hashivenu, “Return us to the days of old.” And you aren’t sure why, but you feel something in your heart unlock.
Perhaps you’ll see a man chant the haftara* to honor his brother’s yahrzeit* and as you follow in the English, you realize that this story of Jonathan and David from the Book of Samuel was your haftara when you became bat mitzvah. As you pay closer attention, you remember all the words.
Perhaps you’ll sit down next to a woman you don’t know well, but has always reminded you from a distance of your mother. And as you silently tear up, missing your mother so much even after 24 years, this fellow congregant hands you a tissue. And you feel your mother’s soul closer than you have in years.
Perhaps the words of the Dvar Torah* will strike a chord deep within you, answering a question that has been lurking in your mind, an important question not yet articulated.
If any one of these transcendent moments were likely to happen on a Saturday morning, would you just miss it?
Holiness does not arrive with trumpets and drums but with quietly perceived moments.
All of these moments do happen. Will you be there with me to experience them? Life holds the promise of being so much more than our own routine.
A community of holiness awaits you every Saturday at nine. I’ll see you there.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
*Translations so we’re all on the same page:
Davenner – one who is praying, in this case, the one who is leading the prayers.
Shul – a cozy Yiddish word meaning synagogue.
Bima – platform at the front of a synagogue where the Torah service takes place.
Aliyah – the honor of reciting blessings before and after a portion of the Torah (also called an aliyah) is chanted.
Haftara – a section from the Book of Prophets chanted on Shabbat and holiday mornings.
Yahrzeit – the anniversary of the death of a person according to the Jewish calendar.
Dvar Torah – literally, words of Torah, designates a sermon or a teaching given by a rabbi or a knowledgeable person at Shabbat services.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?