On Israel’s Highway 40 South to Bahad Echad, the IDF Officers School, Jon and I stopped with my in-laws at Sde Boker, the burial site of David and Paula Ben Gurion.
As we looked out over the awe-inspiring desert view, I thought of David Ben Gurion’s words: In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.
His words seemed to apply to me directly in that moment. Of course, he was speaking of the entire endeavor of Zionism. And I was only thinking about my own unshakable plan to be at Josh’s graduation from Officers School on June 20. Is it true? Was I in Israel thanks to a miracle?
Josh had a large cheering section at the graduation: family, friends, his host parents from kibbutz, and my cousins.
When I expressed gratitude to my cousin Elchanan for traveling so far to be with us, he said, “Is it far or is it close from Hoshaya? It just depends on the story we tell ourselves.” He is correct, of course, about the three and a half hour drive from the north to south of Israel. And he is also correct about how we all choose to live our lives.
For me, I understand this period of dealing with cancer according to the story I tell myself. It might be a horrible, unfair trial or it might be a series of many small and large kindnesses. And yes, perhaps even miracles. It just depends on the story I choose to tell myself.
From the very moment of my diagnosis, I was clear to myself and to everyone with whom I spoke that I would be at Bahad Echad on June 20. I was not missing Josh’s Siyyum Kors Katzinim (Completion of the Officers Course).
I healed from surgery faster than my surgeon thought possible, and he gave me a clearance to go after just three weeks. My oncologist started my chemotherapy early, scheduling it so that I would be as strong as possible for the trip. My healing has been supported and speeded along by the prayers and energy of family and community. And I have worked hard too, keeping a positive outlook, walking every day and trying to eat even when I did not feel like it.
Perhaps my understanding of how one experiences a miracle is best expressed in a traditional Jewish proverb: “We hope for miracles but we don’t count on them.” My intention was clear and I did everything in my power to bring it to fruition. Next, the kindness and support of others is required. But I believe with all my heart that the final essential element of a miracle is God’s will. God makes miracles happen.
זה היום עשה ה’ נגילה ונשמחה בו
Zeh hayom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nism’cha bo!
This is the day that God has made. Let us rejoice in it and be glad.
Shabbat shalom and hope to see many of you at Orangetown Jewish Center this Shabbat as Josh and his grandparents continue touring in Israel.
Why did we choose to spend our first Shabbat after the Passover festival joining with a nationwide commitment to Rohingya Justice Shabbat? The primary answer is: How could we not?
The lessons of Pesach are at the forefront of our minds. We were strangers in Egypt and we suffered there for four hundred years before God took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Our history of slavery comes to shake us out of complacency. We must protect those who are vulnerable because we know what suffering is.
The lessons of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) are implanted in our souls. Here at the OJC we spent the 24 hours of this Memorial Day guarding six candles in our sanctuary as we have done for the past fifteen years. Our people is forever changed by the Nazis’ attempt to destroy us. The Jewish people is commanded “Zachor!” Remember! We remember to mourn, to honor and to hold on to the stories, but we also remember in order to take action.
Such is the responsibility and privilege of being Jewish. We cannot stand idly by. In our community, holiness does not mean only to attach to God. Holiness requires us to attach to humanity, to all people, created in the image of God.
On August 25, 2017, the Burmese army embarked on a massive and deadly ethnic cleansing campaign targeting the Rohingya people, setting entire villages aflame, committing sexual violence against women, and murdering civilians. Since August, more than 671,000 Rohingya people have fled their homes in the western Rakhine state of Burma and made the perilous journey to crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, joining more than 300,000 other Rohingya people who had fled previous violence. In the camps, lack of food, water, medical care, security and mental health aid for those suffering trauma make the fate of the Rohingya the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world. The Rohingya refugees are now facing yet another perilous obstacle: the upcoming monsoon season, which will bring mudslides, flooding and outbreaks of waterborne diseases.
While many Rohingya refugees would like to return to their homeland, the Burmese government is preventing repatriation from occurring. For those Rohingya people still remaining in Rakhine state, violence has continued. United Nations investigators, international NGOs and press are not allowed access to those left behind in Burma. On March 6, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum announced its decision to rescind its prestigious Elie Wiesel Award from Burmese leader (and Nobel Peace Prize recipient) Aung San Suu Kyi. In an open letter, the Museum explained that its decision to revoke her award was based on her failing to halt, or even acknowledge, the ethnic cleansing happening in her country. The Holocaust Museum’s rebuke is an important reminder that the Jewish community has a moral responsibility and a strong moral standing in the international community with which to speak out on the injustices against the Rohingya people.
Life hangs in the balance. How can we take action? First, we must overcome the impulse to be overwhelmed and stymied by the enormity of the crisis. As Ruth Messinger, founder of American Jewish World Service, has taught: “We cannot afford the luxury of being overwhelmed.”
As I urged our congregation today during Shabbat services, we can educate, advocate and assist.
First, we must become educated ourselves and then we can talk with others about this humanitarian crisis. Learn more about the Rohingya people and their plight at:
Second, we can become advocates for aid to these far away people, so different from us, but created in God’s image. Go to AJWS Get Involved Activism to sign a petition to urge Congress t oppose the President’s proposed cuts to Foreign Aid and to write to your Senators thanking them or urging them to sign on to the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2017. This is an important opportunity for our nation and our elected officials to demonstrate real moral leadership on the international stage, and work toward a lasting, peaceful solution for the Rohingya people.
Finally, we can donate to the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network’s disaster relief fund. AJWS Rohingya Donation Page. This fund will provide immediate and longer-term humanitarian aid—including food and water— to refugees who have fled across the Burmese border into Bangladesh. The Network is also supporting Rohingya human rights activists in Burma in their efforts to stop military violence against the Rohingya community. 100% of this fund goes directly to American Jewish World Service aid and grantmaking in response to the Rohingya crisis.
It is difficult to face the trauma and crisis in the world around us. It is impossible for us to turn away. Every one of us can take one step today. I pray that we all do our part to create the kind of world in which we want to dwell.
Shavua tov and Hodesh tov, A good week and a good new month,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Toward the end of an afternoon spent learning about anatomy and physiology for yoga movement, our teacher, Kari, was explaining how the shoulder girdle is a complex joint with 16,000 possible movements motored by muscles directed by Central Headquarters (the brain). The systems of the human body, which I have not really considered since ninth grade biology class, are intricate, interconnected and miraculous.
I thought that the question was only articulated in my mind, but “Who invented this stuff?” suddenly burst out of my mouth.
Kari paused for a single, comedic beat, looked right at me and answered, “God did!”
So many moments along my month-long learning journey to become a 200 hour Kripalu Yoga Teacher were just like that.
This kipa-wearing yoga student was overjoyed to find parallels and intersections between Jewish texts, ethics and ritual and the yogic way of life. I cannot wait to bring back to the Orangetown Jewish Center (tomorrow!! when I return after my three-month sabbatical) all that I have learned. I learned yoga postures, sequencing, and alignment, of course. But I also learned about a sattvic (mindful, peaceful, balanced) way of life. I studied self-care, philosophy, and experienced various schools of yoga. With my fellow students, I also experienced 36 hours of silence. No texting, no emails, no phone calls, no conversation. We Jews are a noisy, talkative people. And I am certainly emblematic of those traits! Holding silence in the safety of our yoga training had a profound impact on me.
The learning was first and foremost through my heart and into my body although there was plenty of enchantment for my mind as well.
In classical yoga philosophy, we studied the yamas and niyamas – self restraints and personal observances to guide behavior and support character development. These beautiful ideas about how to live in balance so that we do not harm ourselves or others are very similar to the Jewish system of Covenant and Commandment that has always guided my life. Studying these values, practicing them and adhering to them reminded me of the Jewish path of Mussar that I have studied with the OJC Journey Group for fifteen years now.
At Kripalu, mindful eating is an essential element of partaking in the beautiful, organic, vegetarian food in the dining hall. I have been coming to Kripalu for 30 years now and have always enjoyed pausing before my meal to say thank you. But for this past month, I experienced profound holiness in closing my eyes before eating to recite the appropriate berakha (blessing) and reciting the words of Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) after each breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some days, those moments brought tears to my eyes. I wonder how I have gone so long in my life without completely embracing this simple Jewish habit, to always be grateful for the food that nourishes us.
Down the hallway from my fourth-floor room, there is a small meditation room. It happens to face east and also south with glorious views of the woods and mountains in the distance. It was here that I lit my electric candles each Friday night and prayed. Saturdays were serendipitously our day off from training, and I began each Shabbat morning wrapped in my tallit, enwrapped in my prayers. I tried to start at exactly 9 o’clock, to connect with my home community. Entering into Shabbat while already on sabbatical felt real and true to me. During the week, my schedule was not my own. I had to be at yoga classes and in learning sessions exactly on time, complete homework assignments, and be prepared for practice teaches. But every Shabbat, the hours returned to me, truly a free person, resting and being refreshed.
At our final session before graduation, each of us spoke about the gifts of our month long training. I shared that I will always hear in my ear the voice of Cristie, our teacher, saying, “Be bold and confident. Take the seat of the teacher.”
For me, however, the transformation took place in taking the seat of the student. I learned from every single one of my co-students, from our compassionate and gentle teaching assistants, and from our yoga master teachers, Cristie and Kari. Like the great rabbis of Jewish tradition, I learned much from what they taught, but much more from how they live.
I look forward to seeing all of my congregants back at Orangetown Jewish Center in the coming weeks. I have missed you all, and a tiny glimpse of you on live-stream Purim evening was simply not enough!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
As I complete my final week in Israel, I had the funny thought that I should write to you in Hebrew! Then I realized that if I followed through on that idea, my modest readership would become even more modest! Therefore I have decided to stick with English and show off of with a few key Hebrew words in transliteration here and there!
I came to Israel for a month to improve my Hebrew, but kamuvan (obviously) I have gained much more than an increase in my vocabulary and a refresher course in binyanei hapoalim (structure of verb forms). The best way to express what I have learned is to describe living in the city of Tel Aviv. I mastered the secrets of traveling by bus, train, and bicycle. I was at ease when stopping by at the makolet (market) to pick up chalav v’afarsimonim (milk and persimmons). By the way, these are my favorite fruit and one can only find them here in Israel during certain months. I absolutely eat one per day.
Every day I walked through the Yarkon Park to and from my shiurim (lessons) at Tel Aviv University. I enjoyed the beautiful campus and loved the people-watching there.
I found a nearby yoga studio where I practiced several times a week, figuring out the directions in a combination of Hebrew and yoga-speak: she’ifa v’neshifa (inhalation and exhalation).
I became accustomed to grabbing a late dinner with Sarah and Sagi at one of the neighborhood cafes and greeting my chayal (soldier), Josh, when he would come home from the tzava (army) on Thursday night or Friday morning. I cheered at Sarah’s rugby matches and biked along the many city bike lanes with Josh.
One Friday I traveled with Sagi’s mother Racheli to hike in Timna on our way to Eilat for Shabbat. Speaking b’Ivrit (in Hebrew) while hiking in the desert was a great way to practice words like madhim (amazing), chavaya m’yuchedet (unique experience) and tizahari (be careful)!
And all the while, I have been working hard to improve my Hebrew. Of course, learning for 4 1/2 hours every day in an intensive Ulpan (Hebrew class) with excellent teachers is the beginning. Those of you who know me well will not be surprised to learn that I took great care with all of my homework, completed all my assignments and studied very hard for the weekly test!
But class time has not been the only path to speaking Hebrew more easily. Perhaps, it’s only the foundation for the most important way which is living in Israel and speaking Hebrew every day.
When I needed directions to the botanical gardens, asked an Ethiopian artist at the craft fair on Nachalat Benyamin about her artwork, or ordered a cafe hafuch (cappuccino), I used my Hebrew.
It is true that many Israelis answered me in English despite my best efforts in Hebrew, but it became kind of a joke. Even I can hear my American accent!
One young woman on her bike at a major intersection stumbled through her Hebrew to ask me how to find the entrance to the park. After I explained it to her in Hebrew, she exclaimed, “Oh thank goodness, you speak English!” and asked me to explain again! Yes, it is good to remember always to be humble!
I have found that the best way of all to learn Hebrew has been walking the streets of Tel Aviv and listening to the conversations going by. In the morning hours, students and workers rush for the bus stop, talking into their headsets or phones to their mother or whoever they are meeting later that day.
In the early afternoon, the elders are out in the park, tucked in blankets, hats and warm coats into their wheelchairs. Their aides speak kindly to them about the weather, the children playing, or the people on scooters going by.
Later in the afternoon, packs of school kids take over the sidewalks on their way home. They travel in groups of seven or eight, talking loud, with confidence and slang. I listen in to their worlds and realize that some things are the same everywhere in the world: flirting, teasing and laughing.
In the early evening, mothers or fathers pick up the little ones from gan (nursery school). Some buckle their children into bike seats in the front and on the back. Others walk home slowly, hand-in-hand, an unmistakable bargaining for ice cream before dinner ensuing.
In the evening, people walk their dogs toward the park, greeting other dog walkers and giving the dogs a pat. Always they are happy to see Nandi, Sagi and Sarah’s Hungarian Hound. “Eyzeh chamud!” (What a sweetie!) they all say. In return, I offer a polite compliment to their dog, but it is really just to practice my Hebrew! There is no dog in Tel Aviv as special as Nandi!
As I am about to transition to my third and final sabbatical month, I acknowledge the many people who have made these adventures possible. I am thankful to the president and board of trustees at our synagogue who understand the gift of time to their clergy, to my fellow rabbis for continuing all of our ongoing commitments and initiatives, and to Jon for his ongoing support. For this month, I thank Sarah and Sagi for opening their home and daily lives to me… and a special thank you to Joshie who slept on the couch each Shabbat as I had taken over his room.
Happy Purim to everyone and I will write again next month to share the experience of yoga training.
With friendship and blessings,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I playfully named my three-month sabbatical “Root, Speak, Stretch” to define the way I had planned my time: visits back to my roots, speaking Hebrew in Israel, and stretching my comfort zone (and body) in yoga teacher training.
Now at the end of my first month, I have learned more about roots than I ever expected.
I begin by an admission that when I practice mindful awareness, coincidences start feeling like intentional signs. As soon as I embarked on a discovery of my roots, I took note of trees everywhere. Trees in Portland, Maine were dressed up for the holidays by artist Pandora LaCasse; trees throughout Massachusetts were dressed up after an ice storm by God .
Trees in botanic gardens in Huntsville, Alabama, West Palm Beach and Sarasota, Florida all seemed to lead me on my path. Banyan trees, the pride of Florida, signified the metaphor I had been seeking:
Roots typically remain unseen, growing solidly just under the surface. They provide nourishment, strength, and the source of everything that grows toward the light. New branches and shoots, fragile leaves, blossoms, and fruit demand attention: pruning, picking, trimming, tending. How easy it is to forget that roots also need tending.
And so I am grateful for this sabbatical pause in my full and busy life that has allowed me the calm space to learn something new. Places that represent my beginnings, people who “knew me when” – all deserve attention, all have deep truths to offer.
The idea of an obligation to nurture roots occurred to me first in the context of someone else’s place of beginnings. I spent an afternoon in Boynton Beach with Rabbi Scheff’s parents, Stan and Hannah. Almost a year ago, Hannah‘s parents, Israel and Sonia Neiman, best known as Zaidy Cha and Baba, moved into Stan and Hannah’s home. Tucked into a corner of the couch where I could hold Baba’s hand and listen to Zaidy Cha’s stories, I enjoyed a wonderful afternoon of Scheff hospitality.
What I found of significance about that afternoon is something that they all take for granted. The children of these precious elders come to spend the day, son, son-in-law, cousin and their partners, every single Sunday. I am certain that the shmoozing every Sunday includes weather updates, sports controversies and discussions of the waiting times for certain restaurants. The content of the conversations is not what matters. What matters is the very gathering itself. Zaidy and Baba are blessed by a family that acknowledges and nurtures its roots. This awareness of the value of roots came home to me in that moment and has shaped my understanding of the entire month.
I felt fully the power of my origins when I stood on the rocks of Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. I respected the strength of memory when Jon and I drove by my childhood home, junior high and high school, and when we drove into the silent, snow-covered Jewish cemetery. At the Maine Jewish Museum (yes, there is such a place and no, it is not as small as a closet!) I looked at pictures of the old Jewish Community Center, my childhood synagogue, and Old Orchard Beach. I had discovered the roots of my roots. These kinds of roots require tending.
Sharing time with Cathy, my best friend in Maine, who has known me longer than anyone else except for my brother and cousins, reminded me of who I was as an eighteen year old. Cathy called my parents Momma and Poppa Mack. She and I lived together after college, back when I had never before written a check to pay rent. Cathy has been there for me through every major transition in my life, applauding my decision to attend Rabbinical School even though it was not in the realm of anything either of us could have dreamed of back in the summer of 1978! These kinds of roots require tending.
I traveled to Alabama and Florida to spend time with my maternal cousins. Pam, Ilene, Beth, and Wendy are my closest family members, and we share what no one else does: stories about our parents and grandparents, all gone now.
We laughed about Grandma Blanche’s afternoon tea parties and Grandpa Lou’s adventures collecting shells on Siesta Key, my Uncle Mel’s terrible jokes and my mom’s rules for making grocery lists. My cousin Pam calls me Paula Ellen, the name my grandparents called me. She is the only person who calls me that today. These kinds of roots require tending.
In between my travels, I spent time with my in-laws, Jonathan’s siblings, and friends from my Caldwell synagogue. These people too represent roots. One Shabbat in Caldwell, at Congregation Agudath Israel, Cantor Joel Caplan asked me to lead musaph. I felt the power of leading prayer before the person who taught me to lead it, in the place where I grew as a Jewish adult. These kinds of roots require tending.
As I have been sharing these experiences by phone with my brother Eric, I know that he understands completely what I am experiencing. My insights are not surprising to him. After all, he has known me longer than anyone else alive today. He knows me from before I knew myself.
And these are the kinds of roots that truly require tending.
Who are you calling today? To whom are you sending a handwritten letter? Are you making a reservation for that flight today? We all have roots that require tending.
We are more than where we came from. But we are not all that we hope to be if we do not acknowledge, remember, and honor from where we came.
With love and friendship, and on to Month Two,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
As I fold the last laundry load of sheets and tablecloths, I stop for a moment of pure gratitude. The Sunday after Thanksgiving was filled with the obligatory breakfast at the Pancake House, a competitive game of Scrabble, and yoga with three of my kids. In my family, from Wednesday evening through today, we have enjoyed an abundance of family time, food, and joy.
According to Jewish law, if I do not give thanks to God for all of the gifts of the earth that I have enjoyed, then I am stealing. So thank you, God, for holiday tables and Shabbat meals shared with loved ones.
According to Jewish ethics, if I live in plenty without caring for those who live without, then I turn my blessings into curses. On this Sunday, I reflect back to last Sunday.
I was privileged to travel into New York City with an OJC crew of volunteers who have been serving breakfast and providing warm clothing to people who are homeless for at least fifteen years. Meals from the trays of egg and broccoli frittatas, boxes of coffee, bagels, and fresh fruit were accepted with dignity and thankfulness by the sixty people who lined up on the corner of 24th and Ninth Avenue last Sunday morning. Just as important as the nourishment we provided was the respectful friendship we offered in that hour.
The teens who traveled with me in my car reflected on the people they had met during our drive back to Rockland County. They met an opera singer, a Hasidic Jew, a comedian, a recovering addict, and a woman who had lost the ability to provide for her family. I wondered aloud with them about a society that lacks a safety net for so many thousands of people. How alone in the world must a person be to stand on a line in New York City waiting for a free breakfast?
Tonight I write a tale of two Sundays; a tale of two very different Thanksgivings.
Let me always be open to assisting those who have so little and remembering what it means to have so much.
Hallelujah, hodu l’Adonai!
Praise God and give thanks to God.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
“Mah tovu–How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5, from this week’s parasha, Balak).
The Bible’s poetry often appears as a parallelism, where elements of a sentence are identical in construction and meaning. On a first reading, we might understand the quote above, spoken by the prophet Balaam, as an example of this technique. Traditional rabbinic commentaries, however, attempt to show that this verse is more than simple repetition of an idea for the sake of poetry, that “Jacob” and “Israel” are not parallels, that “tents” and “dwelling places” carry different connotations.
According to the Sefat Emet, a nineteenth century Hasidic commentary by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, “Jacob” is the Jew who wanders (in tents) outside the Land of Israel (in Poland, in his case); “Israel” is the Jewish People in the Land, connected to the home of the Temple (the dwelling place). “Beauty” (or holiness), he argues, attaches to both.
We can also draw a distinction in the blessing between the temporary (tents) and the permanent (dwelling place), the fleeting and the fixed. Whether we are on the move or settled at home, out in public or in the privacy of our space, we have the ability to evoke a sense of holiness by virtue of the ways in which we interact with the people and the world around us.
For me, the tent represents the physical and tangible things with which we surround ourselves–our homes, our clothing, our financial resources–even as we struggle like Jacob to discover our true identities. These things may be impermanent, but they are necessary, and they can be put to use in a way that garners appreciation and evokes a sense of holiness.
The dwelling place, in contrast, is where the soul resides. It represents the intangibles of our lives–our values, character traits and relationships–that lie at the heart of what it means to be connected with one another as the People of Israel. These things are always part of us, no matter where we find ourselves, no matter where we wander. We welcome beauty and holiness into our lives when we learn to access this dwelling place, this internal sanctuary.
Can we live in two places at once? Can we create for ourselves both a house and a home? Can we open to others both our doors and our hearts? When we are finally able to do so, no matter where we find ourselves in life or in the world, we will find the blessing of God’s presence.
Rabbi Craig Scheff