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Confronting the Unthinkable

This blog post is dedicated with love to the memory of Daniel Ae Roo Beer, age 11 years and six days. And it is dedicated to his grief-filled parents and brother as they put one foot in front of the other, moment by moment, day by day. I pray that my words are healing to the Beer family, to the many communities who mourn Daniel, and to anyone who faces sudden, traumatic loss. May we all be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Daniel Beer zl
There is suffering and sorrow in the world. We do not look it in the face every day; we push it away because we have lives to live and children to raise and joy to seek. We know that suffering exists in this world, but thank God, we choose life.
So when sorrow hits us hard, when the loss is personal, breaking our hearts, we are in shock. We ask, “How could this be? How could this happen?”
Some of us believe we have answers based on our experience or belief or non-belief. I am familiar with the theories and the theologies. But when I face suffering as a member of a community, when I am a part of the sorrow, there is only one thing that I know. I know that I do not know why.
The loss of Daniel cannot be fixed. Answers to the question of why it happened cannot fix the reality of Daniel’s being gone from our lives. It cannot be fixed. But it can be healed.
Judaism teaches us how to heal: we heal by choosing life. Daniel showed us how by embracing life for 11 years, every moment of it, and all its fullness and luxury and joy. How can anyone in the community who loved Daniel find the way back to that kind of living from out of suffering and sorrow?
How does anyone find a way back toward life from out of the depths of loss?
Each one of us understands that we are part of concentric circles of caring. An immediate family, in the grip of loss, is the innermost circle. That is where our focus must go.
From our place outside of the most inner circle…
We choose to be quiet rather than offer theories.
We choose to be silent rather than offer opinions.
We listen first, with open hearts, without judgment, rather than distract with details and stories and any conversation other than that which is before us.
We understand the unique nature of every loss rather than offer our own experience without being asked for it.
Ultimately, Judaism teaches that healing begins when we offer nothing but our presence. Think of all the concentric circles. Imagine the power of everyone offering loving presence, directed inward toward the innermost circle, hoping to begin the process of healing.
All of us who knew and loved Daniel Beer learned from him that the world is a joyous place. Daniel’s life taught us that curiosity, limitless love, humor and kindness are the best way to live a life. Everything has changed now, except for one important thing: Daniel’s life lessons remain. The healing begins when we turn toward the joy that defined Daniel’s life.
HaMakom y’nachem etchem b’toch sha’ar avelei Tzion v’Yerushalayim. May the One who is the Place of Comfort give comfort to you among all of those who mourn in our communities.
L’shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill


Interfaith Weddings: Responding to the Questions

My daughter called from Israel yesterday at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. “Mom, where have you been? Our family has been texting for hours about all of the social media regarding Conservative rabbis and interfaith weddings. We haven’t heard from you at all.”

It was one of those days, trying to get everything done before leaving for a week of vacation. I had not checked into our family text group or Facebook all day. When I finally opened the texts, there they were – my kids waiting for their mom, the family Rabbi, to offer an opinion.

The family discussion was mostly a furious-paced posting and re-posting of various statements that had been published by my colleagues throughout the day. So I read many of the opinions all at the same time. The idea that struck me first was how proud I am to be a rabbi. As I read the comments and opinions, I observed that rabbis ask more questions than offer absolute answers. For the most part, rabbis advocating officiating at interfaith weddings and those opposed wrote with thoughtful consideration and respect for each other. In the modern day pages of Talmud that we call Facebook, I did not see very much disparagement or lack of respect (though I did certainly read some of that). The same cannot be said about the pages of our esteemed Talmud!

I was not available for the family conversation yesterday, but today I am ready to answer my children and their questions. (Full disclosure: They are all in unanimous agreement that Conservative rabbis should not officiate at interfaith weddings.)

Dear Drill kids,

Dad and I are grateful for and proud of the people you have chosen, and are choosing, to spend your lives with. You have fallen in love with good people whose core values match your own. And you have all chosen Jewish people as your partners. We do not take these facts for granted.

I do not say that I am grateful for your choosing Jewish partners out of prejudice or closed mindedness. I do not say that I am proud as if somehow your parents did all the right things that led you to choosing these people. Many people raise their children just as we raised you and not all of them choose to marry or partner with Jewish people. Falling in love is a very personal matter. I could never take credit. The four of you have taken the foundation we provided and moved forward in your own ways.

Still I am grateful and proud. Judaism is a particularistic religion in a world that seems to prefer universal open-mindedness. Being counter-cultural is not easy. It leaves one open to criticism of backwardness, naïveté or bigotry. But as you, my children, have heard me say since you were very young: Judaism is a very long chain and I do not want to be the one to break it.

I love my children more than anything in the world. If you had chosen (or choose one day in the future) a non-Jewish partner, neither I nor your Rabbi, Craig Scheff, will officiate under a chuppah with you. The blessings recited and the ritual enacted there contain holiness when they are completed by two people who share the same covenant with God. It is my obligation as a rabbi and also as a Jewish mother to draw the lines of distinction even when they are painful.

And yet I think you know, that if you chose a non-Jewish spouse, I would welcome that person into our family circle and teach him or her to love and respect Judaism. I would hope that with family and community influence, your future home would be a Jewish one. I know that is not easy, but I have seen many examples in my synagogue of non-Jewish partners supporting a Jewish family.

As the texts were buzzing yesterday on my unattended phone, one of the many things I was busy with was taking photographs with a bat mitzvah and her family – her Jewish mom and her non-Jewish dad. I have been attached to this family since the bat mizvah girl’s naming, seeing them through her older brother’s bar mitzvah, the funeral of her grandfather and her own bat mitzvah studies. Her non-Jewish father calls me his rabbi and I consider him my congregant.

In between the snapping of photos on the bimah, I shared with them the conversation that was going on in social media and with my family. My bat mitzvah’s mother said to me: “I know that as a rabbi you could not have married my husband and me, but as a person, you would have wanted to.”
She said that because she knows how much I respect and cherish her family. But as I thought about it last night, she was not actually correct. As a person and as a rabbi,  I cannot officiate at a Jewish wedding ceremony if both people are not Jewish.

I do not think that I will change my mind even if some rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly move toward officiating at some kind of interfaith wedding ceremony.

My job as a rabbi is to build relationship. It is also to protect a sacred obligation to the holiness of my particular religion. I know that it is possible to be a rabbi to interfaith families, to welcome interfaith couples and to raise their children as Jewish in my synagogue community. I am willing to continue asking questions and hearing the stories of real people. That is my calling.

A wedding is a sacred moment in time, but a marriage is for a lifetime. As a rabbi, in relationships where one partner is not Jewish, I won’t be under the chuppah, but I will be there for the marriage.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Under the Wings of the Shechina

It is a unique command of Judaism that we not only remember but must experience history as if we were a part of it. The Passover seder instructs us about the Exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. Soon at Shavuot, we will once again stand at the foot of Sinai to receive Torah. At each moment in our Jewish lives, ritual bypasses our intellect and goes directly to our hearts, requiring us to remember and re-experience. We fulfill this mitzvah of remembering well, we Jews.

But then Yom Hashoah arrives each year. The command to remember becomes so painful that it takes our breath away. We weep for what we never knew, or as Sister Maureen of the Dominican Ministry said today as we gathered to dedicate our Shoah Memorial, we feel physically ill. With regard to the Shoah, the command to remember requires opening our hearts only to have them broken.

When Rabbi Scheff began teaching his sixth graders about the Holocaust this year, he brought them to the front door of the synagogue and asked how we remember things that we never experienced. He showed his class our memorial, then under construction, and asked them how we should remember.

Today, one hundred and fifty of us dedicated our memorial, thanking Dr. Larry Suchoff and the Holocaust Remembrance Committee for their perseverance and passion to see the project to fruition. Survivors, children of survivors, guests, nuns from the Dominican Sisters, congregants old and young, all gathered to hear shofar blasts and to dedicate ourselves to ensuring that we remember as a community.  “Never again” is a goal toward which we will continually strive.

Today, Rabbi Scheff’s sixth graders showed how well they had learned the lessons he taught them. Students read short biographies they had written about survivors who are or were members of the OJC. Each student ended his or her brief statement with: “It is an honor to know you.” Spouses and children accepted the simple statements of these eleven-year old children as gifts. I watched the faces of Frieda and Marie as they listened to their stories being told, and I saw fresh grief, but also validation and hope.

From today forward, we will sit on the benches, reminiscent of train tracks. And we will look at the mosaic which depicts either six candles or six chimneys, depending on your understanding. We will teach and meditate and rest in the sunshine. And we will cherish the wall art chosen for the memorial where under the wingspan of the flying bird, our OJC logo, we read: tachat kanfei haShechina, under the protective wings of God’s Presence. And then, we will enter into our sanctified home knowing that we must act in every moment with remembrance in our hearts.

Through the night and all through tomorrow, we will pass by the memorial and quietly enter the sanctuary where six memorial candles burn as we fulfill our ritual of Keepers of the Flame.

For how long do we need to read and teach about the Shoah? Until the end of days. Until then, we will follow the command to remember m’dor l’dor, from generation to generation. Today’s sixth graders will one day teach their own children.

May Yom HaShoah call us to actions of love and understanding and the overcoming of hate and fear. As Frieda Seidner said, as quoted by her biographers today, “The key is to love all people, but love our people most of all.”

May the memory of six million be sanctified and remembered.   Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Read more and watch the video on LoHud News:


#JDAIM Spotlight 4 – Beth Steinberg, Director of Shutaf

We are proud to include the writing of Beth Steinberg, founder and director of Shutaf, an organization in Jerusalem that provides inclusive programs for children and teens with special needs. Check out the program here:

Beth is our Scholar in Residence this Shabbat, February 24 and 25, as we honor Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month.  Join us for Friday evening services at 6:00 pm, Shabbat morning at 9:00 am and stay after Kiddush for more learning with Beth.

I am not afraid. Finding strength in difference.

Hi, I’m Beth. I’m mother to Akiva, who’s 17 and has disabilities.I am not afraid.

My son’s challenges are significant but I’m not afraid.

I am unsure about the future. His happy adulthood, my happy years as an older adult. What are his rights, what do I deserve, what will be the responsibilities his older brothers will shoulder? Will he be happy?

I worry he might not be happy. But he’s almost always happy. That makes me less afraid.

When I write about Akiva – his needs, his challenges, my challenges – I choose my words carefully but I am not afraid. Except for when I hit ‘publish.’

When I talk about our journey as a family – the tough moments, the tearful moments, the moments that I just wish it were different – I try to be honest. I know honesty is important. I know many people pity us, pity him, don’t truly understand what it means to be his parent, his full-time advocate, his person, his people, his caring community. We’re the people who help him shower and dress, who care for him when he is sick, who sing songs with him. We’re the people who love him. Sometimes, I wish it were different but I am not afraid.

When I post a picture of Akiva, I choose the happy ones, the ones where his cute, uneven teeth, his often crossed-eyes, his sometimes grubby face, are softened by the happy smile on his face. He’s kinda funny-looking but aren’t we all?

I am not afraid to show the face of disability – his disabilities that is – via my son. I am not taking advantage of his well-being. I am letting the world know that disability is happy, disability is every emotion and more. Just like not having a disability is so many things and so many emotions and so many experiences.

I am not afraid of exposing us, of sharing him. While I know he’s unaware of this exposure, I know that showing him to the world, my extended world, will help ease fears and misconceptions about disability. I hope.

But I am afraid of a world that treasures beauty. Where skinny bodies and 6-pack abs, along with being blonde and gorgeous, is regurgitated on television and in movies. There are few positive images shown of real people who look different, as opposed to actors playing a part.

I’m afraid of a Jewish world that treasures learning. Where how many degrees and how much you earn, gets more respect than your dedication to being a good person, an inclusive person, a person who believes that we were all created in G-d’s many images.

I’m afraid for other parents of children, teens and adults with disabilities. Those who feel unsure that the world will appreciate their loved ones. That the world will look kindly on their stories. Their tales of difference and challenge, of unusual beauty lost and found.

I’m afraid of a world that divides people up according to who can and who can’t. A world that divides those with disabilities according to who’s got this and who’s got that. A world that decides who’s high-functioning – whatever that really means – and who’s not. A world that sentences you and judges you for your difference without knowing what that really means.

So, I work past the fears. I tell his story. I tell our story. I invite you in, to read, listen and comment, so that you can understand and appreciate. So you can smile at the different-looking-behaving-whatever person the next time you see them on the street and be glad that they’re a member of your community. Because their people, those who love them, need you to try to be less afraid.

“And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.”  Paul Simon

Beth Steinberg

Forward March… and then…

I offer the words of this post just as I offered the words of my sermon this past Shabbat: as a prayer. Shabbat Parashat Sh’mot was the day after the inauguration of the 45th president and on the day of the Women’s March on Washington. I began with an intention from a poem by Neshama Carlebach written for this past Shabbat: “May we sing and pray with all that we are, loud enough for the whole world to hear, but soft enough to hear the Angels join us.” Writing words both loud and soft enough requires that I write with humility but also with confidence. Words offered with heartfelt integrity have the potential to be unifying and healing.

There are many reading these words now who believe that the world is ending. I remind you of President Obama’s words when he told us that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world. If you are one who is worrying about the new administration in Washington, I am writing for you.

There are also those reading these words who believe that perhaps Washington needs a bit of a shake up and that something good could happen from a little less business as usual. If you are one who is optimistic about our new president, I am writing for you too.

Because regardless of how we voted, the thing that unites all of us is a belief in acceptance, tolerance, and protection of the vulnerable among us.

Twenty-five members of my extended family marched in New York City on Saturday, from my five-year old nephew to my mother-in-law’s best friend who is in her eighties.


Many OJC congregants marched in Washington and in New York. Many marchers were gathered by organizations with which I am affiliated: National Council of Jewish Women, American Jewish World Service, Planned Parenthood, Hazon, National Organization of Women (NOW), and National Association of Social Workers. In sum, there were more than 600 marches around the world, on every continent. Estimates suggest that there were one million five hundred thousand marchers world-wide.

There is a difference between a march and a protest: one moves forward, the other pushes back.

I shared with my congregation the Women’s March Statement of Principles; ideals to make us a great nation, not to devolve into anger. The Mission Statement of the March explains that when we walk together, we recognize that our vibrant, diverse communities are the strength of our country. Defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us. To me, these ideas sound a lot like Jewish values of protecting the widow, orphan and stranger among us.

I asked my sister-in-law Rebecca to share with me why she organized our family and then took a train from Boston to march together down Fifth Avenue. She wrote that she was marching to support women and women’s rights, but not just for women. By marching, she wrote: “I am being visible, making a declaration, being heard. All humans’ rights and dignity matter to me and that is why I felt compelled to do something more active and visible this year. I don’t want to remain silent about something that really matters.”


Ideas about the march connect powerfully to the Torah portion we read this past Shabbat. In Sh’mot, we begin to hear the story of Moshe who ran out of Egypt to Midian and then walked back in to take his people out, to take the Israelite slaves on a walk toward redemption. Moshe is certainly the hero of the entire book, but a counter narrative exists just below the surface, the story of five heroines who put the Exodus into motion. (Read more about these women in Sh’mot Chapter 1:15 through 2:10.)

Midwives Shifra and Puah are ordered by Pharaoh to kill newborn Israelite boys but they refuse to follow through. In their refusal to obey, they teach that there are moral limits to power and serve as models of civil disobedience.

Yocheved gives birth to a baby boy. Seeing in him beauty and promise (as all mothers see in their children), she refuses to throw him in the Nile. Her actions to hide her baby show bravery and resilience. Placing her child in a basket on the river shows a stubborn refusal to relent in the face of an unfair fate.

Miriam, who later gains the appellation of Prophetess, runs along the side of the river to make sure her baby brother survives. She has the chutzpah to approach the daughter of the Pharaoh and offer a nursemaid, her mother, for the baby drawn from the Nile by the princess. She refuses to be helpless in a hopeless situation.

Bat-Paro, the daughter of Pharaoh, is perhaps the most courageous of all these women. When she opens the tiny basket and takes the baby to be her own, she is showing disobedience toward her father, the very one who decreed the infanticide. She knew who that baby was, yet still she saved its life. A midrash imagines God speaking to Bat-Paro, “Moses was not your son yet you called him your son. You are not my daughter but I shall call you my daughter.” In rabbinic tradition, she is one of the few characters of the Torah who is so righteous that she entered into paradise in her lifetime.


As Jews, our ancestors moved from slavery in Egypt toward freedom. They were not freed by standing still; they had to walk toward their redemption, one step at a time. For those of us today who wish to make history, we too must walk. This past Saturday was not about having a symbolic march in Washington as an end-goal. Success for this march began the day after January 21.

Success will be measured by the way that we stand for people at risk: people of color, identify with the LGBTQ community, belong to religious minorities, or are people with disabilities. Success will be measured in our strong statements against acts of hatred and violence against minority people, including anti-Semitic actions such as the bomb threats against JCCs nationwide. Success will be measured by the ways in which those of us who disagree about policy find compassionate and empathic ways to listen to each other, to hear the differences but recognize that we all want a United States where everyone feels secure and at home. And success will be measured by how quickly we awaken from our leisure induced comas to become alert and active participants in our government.

Jewish history is about our people’s moving from one place to another, from one reality to another. I’m ready to walk into this new chapter of American history. I choose to do it through marching forward. I hope that you will join me. There is a difference between a march and a protest: one moves forward, the other pushes back.

I look forward to the conversation,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Breast Cancer Awareness Does Not End on October 31

Time collapses each time I have my annual mammogram. Months and years fold in upon themselves like an accordion. My last mammogram was a year ago and yet, as I signed in at the reception desk today, it felt like I had just checked in not a month before. How does the just-been-here-just-done-this feeling surface every year?


Millie Ibarra walked 39 miles for Avon Breast Cancer Walk 2016


Millie Ibarra, our family nanny and dear friend, is a ten-year breast cancer survivor. I made my mammogram appointment today, November 30, to honor her birthday. I know that it has been more than ten years since Millie’s diagnosis, but when I put on the robe before the mammogram, time collapsed for me. It felt like just a moment ago that I was sitting in an office at UMDNJ with her, listening to Dr. Clark tell us that Millie had stage four breast cancer.

My mother and maternal aunt both died of metastasized breast cancer. I bring them with me into the cold, antiseptic room with the spaceship-like imaging machine every year, wishing that they had benefited from all the advances in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment of the past decades. Although my mother’s twentieth yahrzeit is in two weeks, it feels like just a minute ago that she was on the phone, telling me that the cancer had spread and that it was time for me to come home to help her. I packed up Josh, just five months old, left the older three at home with Jon and flew to Maine. Time collapses.

For my mom and my aunt and Millie and my friends, and for the scores of women at the Orangetown Jewish Center who are fighting or have fought breast cancer, I religiously make my annual mammogram appointment . And I go on time. I say a prayer, smile bravely through the test and leave, hearing the precious words, “Looks good! We’ll mail the report.” The Breast Center provides bouquets for every woman and I always choose yellow roses, my mother’s favorite.


One year, the technician could not find any yellow roses amidst the pinks and reds. When I burst into tears, she put her arm around me. “Don’t take any roses this year,” she said. “Next year, take two”. I am one of the lucky ones; the seven in eight, not the one in eight.

Breast cancer awareness does not end on October 31st each year. Women (and men who are at risk) must stay vigilant all through the year. The courageous women of Orangetown Jewish Center who established the Pink Bag Project take care of each other and anyone who is diagnosed as time goes on.

On December 9 and 10, they are bringing Pink Bag Project Shabbat to us at Orangetown Jewish Center. Melissa Rosen, Director of National Outreach of Sharsheret, will join us for Shabbat to teach about breast and ovarian cancer awareness, research, treatment and family support. The purpose of this Shabbat is to share ways to support caregivers of family and friends who are ill. Join us on Friday, December 9 at 6:00 pm for services and Dinner and Dialogue (RSVP today to Diane Goldstein, and on December 10 for Shabbat learning during services and after kiddush.

And if it has been more than a year, if you have let time slip by, consider making your mammogram appointment today.

With prayers for good health,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Partners for Peace, Day Five

I bring you Rabbi Drill’s continuing journal from Israel:

As we walked back to our hotel from dinner at Piccolino in Jerusalem’s city center tonight, one of the trip participants pointed out that we had been on the go for fourteen hours! Today flew for me; every moment filled with deep new understandings.
Our day began at the impressive St. George’s Cathedral, where we met with Rabbi David Rosen and Rev. Canon Hosam Naoum to hear about the many ways in which they try to fight back against growing insularity, lack of trust and extremism as people of faith. Hosam explained his complex identity as follows: “I am a Christian, an Arab (but not a Muslim), an Israeli (but not a Jew), and a Palestinian (but not a terrorist).” He mused that this difficult, complicated identity is perhaps a gift as it enables his role as a bridge builder. Rabbi Rosen suggested that he also has a multiple identity. “For conservative Jews, I am liberal and for liberal Jews, I am conservative.” Once the rabbi of the largest Orthodox congregation in South Africa, he became Chief Rabbi of Ireland before coming to Jerusalem. He told us, tongue-in-cheek, that places seem to improve when he leaves. Both men agree that religion is one of the problems in the region but can also be part of the solution. Rabbi Rosen described the tragedy of a zero-sum approach; Palestinian dignity and Israel security are intertwined and so there is a need for dual empathy.

Our next meeting, certainly to become one of the highlights of this trip, was a meeting with Meredith Rothbart and Mohammed Joulany of Kids4Peace.
As these two colleagues and dear friends described the work that brings together Palestinian and Jewish children in Jerusalem and prepares them for coexistence through six intensive years of programming, they showed us what could be possible. When Meredith’s three-month-old son Ishai started fussing, Muhamed picked him up where the baby quickly fell asleep in his arms. At the end of their presentation, Meredith mused that in 20 years, Ishai will undoubtedly be serving in the IDF. She said, “I hope he doesn’t look back at this photograph of him passed out in Muhamed’s arms and see a terrible irony.” There was not a dry eye in the room.

After experiencing worship at the Cathedral where Rev. Naoum asked everyone there to pray for Jerusalem, for the Israelis and the Palestinians, we left for a tour of the seam, an in-depth seminar with Col. Danny Tirza,  the developer of the security fence. As he explained the history and psychology of the fence (although media calls it a wall, only 5% of the entire 451 kilometers is concrete wall), I realized with a shock that many of my Christian colleagues did not know even the basic history of the first and second Intifadas. Placenames like Sbarro Pizza, the Dolphinarium, Park Hotel, Hebrew University Cafeteria, and Supersol, bus numbers like 6, 823, 32, 22 — all were completely unknown. That which is seared into the soul of the Jewish community was brand-new learning from many of my friends on this trip.

Our trip to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity was followed by a visit to Shorashim, a new initiative of community building and grassroots advocacy by settlers and Palestinians working together.
We heard the heart-wrenching stories of Shaul Judelman and Ali Abu Awwad who shared with striking honesty their narratives of assumptions, prejudice and violence and how they both changed over time. Each of them came to a place of understanding that cooperation and knowing the other is the only way forward. Shaul told us about how he learned that the person we are afraid of is afraid of us. Ali Abu told us about how he was transformed from a terrorist to a peacemaker.
When we said goodbye, I looked into the eyes of both these men and shook their hands, thanking them for their heroism, for taking the risk to step outside of the cultural assumptions of their communities to try to build a different future.

Dr. Peter Pettit, one of our trip leaders, framed the core lesson of Partners for Peace: every historical experience, every conflict and every cultural trauma takes place in three steps: events happen, we experience events, and then we create narratives about those events that we carry with us. To those narratives we must commit ourselves to listen open heartedly. We do not have to agree, and we do not have to change our own narratives. But we must acknowledge the narratives of the other if we are ever to break out of this conflict.

With prayers for peace in Jerusalem,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

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