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What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part Two

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

What I Did on Sabbatical – Part One

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:

Banyan tree

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.

Me as child

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

A Tale of Two Sundays

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.
Gratefully yours,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

House and Home

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.

One more distinction that I derive from this blessing, which we are meant to recite every time we enter a place of prayer, is that between body and soul.

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

Rabbi Paula x 2

We faced each other on the bima of Park Avenue Synagogue before a beit din of three rabbis. Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, announced her to those gathered as a new rabbi of the people of Israel: HaRav Penina Bracha. I took her hands in mine to offer my personal blessing to her, “May your Torah reflect your soul: joyful, honest and pure.” In that liminal moment, I was keenly aware of a holy transformation as Paula Rose became Rabbi Paula Bari Rose, my new colleague.

Rabbi Rose states that she began her journey toward the rabbinate because of her deep love of continuously experiencing God’s revelation through learning Torah. In the Ordination program, she wrote: “I feel humbled by the study yet to be done, and nonetheless hope to share the learning that has been so beloved to me by teaching Torah that is personally relevant and eternally meaningful.” All of us at the Orangetown Jewish Center who came to know Paula Rose as our rabbinic intern one year ago know that she will be an excellent rabbi. It starts with her certainty about why she became a rabbi in the first place.

As I prepare for Shavuot in just a few days, I find myself thinking about Rabbi Rose’s attachment to the ongoing revelation of Torah and about the ideals which led her to become a rabbi. I have been reassessing my own motivation, my sense of purpose as a rabbi. For the first time in quite a while, I have been asking myself why I became a rabbi. It is an exercise of my soul that is valuable and humbling.

It is a question that rabbis seem to answer all the time for the first several years in the rabbinate. When everything is new, every class begun with trepidation, each hospital visit monumental and each prayer service filled with wonder, the question of motivation arises every day. And then the question recedes to the background. We tend to become busy with the busy-ness of building Jewish community.


On the eve of Shavuot, it is time to bring the question to the foreground. I begin my consideration in the verses of Torah. In these first weeks of entering the Book of Bamidbar, we read about the Levi’im, the tribe that is encamped closest to the Tent of Meeting and surrounding the Mishkan, the holy ark that is carried through the desert. The Levites’ task is to guard the boundaries of Godliness, ministering to the people. They are the interpreters and protectors of holiness, the mediators between the Israelites and the Divine Presence.

Here in the opening parshiot of the Book of Bamidbar, I find ideals that inform my purpose as a rabbi. Like the ancient Levites, I want to be a conduit between God and the Jewish people. But there is more: I want to connect Jewish people to each other in real, meaningful relationships. And I want to connect our Jewish community to the greater community for the purpose of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. We no longer have a singular holy ark or a priestly cast with a hierarchical responsibility. Judaism as we know and practice it, is democratized with equal access for all. And yet rabbis are given a referential authority by Jewish people in our communities who seek to draw close to God.

When I was ordained as a rabbi, my Dean, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, told my class something that I will never forget. He acknowledged that we had worked hard to earn the title Rabbi. But now that we had become rabbis, we needed to work every single day to continually earn the right to that title. Once conferred, the title was no guarantee.

Why did I become a rabbi? It’s a question I must never stop asking if I want to merit the title. I pray that I will find answers every day for the rest of my life.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill


Talmud and AIPAC

During the week before leaving for the AIPAC Policy Conference, I received several e-mails from progressive rabbinical organizations, asking me to protest AIPAC in one way or another. During the first day of the conference, my worried son texted me: “Have you seen a large group of INN activists protesting outside? There’s stuff all over Facebook about it.” (If Not Now is a social- media-fueled group of Jewish millennials who stage protests against the occupation of the West Bank.) I did not sign any petitions against AIPAC. I did not see the protesters outside. I was busy inside, participating in a conference that welcomed disagreement and civil discourse in true Jewish fashion.


AIPAC this year reminded me of Talmud. The rabbis on the pages disagreed with each other across generations and locations, but they argued together, on the pages of our common text, the Talmud.


The Israel advocates who gathered at the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center represented the plethora of opinion that is Judaism and American politics today. Among the 18,000 participants who support a strong alliance between America and Israel, there were Jews and non-Jews. Progressive, conservative, Republican, Democrat, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and secular Jews gathered. 3,000 college students participated. Five hundred rabbis representing the spectrum from Ultra-Orthodoxy to Reform ate lunch together. Jews who support the current government in Israel and Jews who do not were present. Jews who support the current administration in America and Jews who do not were also present.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of Anti Defamation League invited the leaders of If Not Now to a conversation when they protested in the lobby of the ADL building last year. The protesters rejected his offer, and Greenblatt responded: “It’s nice to get attention but it’s better to get things done. Protests are nice but proposals are better. Slogans are easy but strategies are hard. If you really want to move the needle you’ve got to make things happen.”

I agree. I spoke this past Shabbat about today’s world fueled by high levels of knowledge but low levels of understanding. Information is easily accessed with the touch of a smart phone, but grabbing the buzz words off headlines does not mean that people with very strong opinions actually understand what they are protesting. As Dr. Zohar Raviv of Birthright Israel says, “We have become surfers without diving licenses.” Young Jews standing outside the AIPAC Conference to protest the settlements in the West Bank meant well, but they could have had a bigger impact if they had participated in the conference itself. They would have learned new ideas and ways of understanding the crazy Zionist idea of the nineteenth century that became the modern State of Israel. They would have gleaned ways to conceptualize the cauldron that is the Middle East from voices of the left and of the right. And they would have been heard. We follow rules of courtesy and civility at AIPAC, but every voice is heard.

I yearn for the day to come soon when we will find a two-State solution. I disagree with a policy that includes building more settlements. I would certainly love for my son in the IDF to serve Israel in a time of quiet. I did not go to AIPAC to support either the Prime Minister’s government in Israel or the current administration in the U.S. I went to AIPAC to ensure that the strong alliance between Israel and America, necessary to both countries I love, will be preserved via strong non-partisan support on Capitol Hill.

This past week, the courageous ones came under the roof. If Not Now protested outside. I wonder how many of those idealistic young Jews know the complete quotation from Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers from which they coined their name: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Deep diving would require the protesters to consider the entire thought, not just the convenient last phrase. Next year, perhaps we’ll all be able to talk together, unafraid and willing to learn.

With blessings and prayers for peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Jewish Disabilities Awareness – Spotlight 1

This is the first in a series of email blogs from folks who have a story to tell about the challenges and experiences of dealing with physical disabilities daily. We hope that through these stories we can show our families, friends and community that, while we deal with physical challenges every day, they don’t set us apart; they can bring us together. The human condition places challenges to overcome for all of us whether they are physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual.
If you are reading this blog and have a story of your own to tell, PLEASE write it down and send it to  We would be thrilled to include your story along with ours. If you have questions, you can email the address above or call Michael Pucci (914 262-1354).
Thank you to Allen Levinson for our first spotlight:
How I deal with blindness
As many of you know, I lost much of my vision 6 years ago. Since then, I have often been seen with a smile, working hard to invent and perfect “blind guy tricks.” The tricks are merely ways to maximize the use of my senses, as well as my memory and common sense, to help me “see.” This challenge is quite great, but I am able to work on it 24/7, and that’s what I do.  While my vision is severely impaired, I do have the ability, when the light is right, to see shadows, or silhouettes. That is why my sunglasses are always with me and used whenever I think they might be helpful. I lack central vision but my peripheral vision is often somewhat useful, though relying on it is very exhausting. Keeping my eyes closed for a period of time, or just a short nap, provides a respite from the persistent battle with eye strain.

To grapple with my limited visual world, I make greater use of hearing and touch, and occasionally, even a bit of sight. While many people presume that blind people have enhanced levels of these senses, that is often not the case for me. My tricks using these other senses are successful because of my increased focus, not greater capability. Some of these skills develop through instinct, more through notable attentiveness. Listening for sounds is important. Individuals have different footsteps. Among those with leather soles, men are always heavier- sounding than women, and children are in a class by themselves. If I hear you walk on a hard floor first thing in the morning, I’ll probably recognize you at lunch time. Rubber soles? Forget about it.  Voices and speech patterns are also clearly distinctive. If you introduce yourself to me often enough, eventually, I recognize your voice; a pleasant thing for both of us.  One of my new mottos, pertaining to the fact that I cannot, with confidence, discern the words or symbols “Men” or “Women” on a restroom door, is “thank God for urinals!” 😉  In fact, finding the restroom is at times a bit of a challenge, especially in a place where I have never been before. Even though there are many amusing stories about my escapades finding the right restroom, the question “Where is the restroom?” is easily answered by plenty of friendly waiters who are happy to direct me. Good luck asking the ensuing question on the return trip- “Where is my table?”! The important thing to remember, I’ve learned, is always look around and count the number of tables along the route to the restroom. Counting is always a very important tool.  Most notably, counting the number of steps on my way up a staircase and remembering that number on my way back down, is a great way to help keep me on my feet. If my companion leads, counts, and announces the number of steps, that is truly, as long as it is precise, very helpful. Another strategy that often leads to amusing outcomes is using my sense of touch. For example, it is not unusual to see me tapping my fingers around on the dining table until I find the salt shaker. Touch, in circumstances like this works quite well.  I’ve learned however, that an important area in which I can get in trouble using this technique is when “looking” at a woman!  😉   I can go on and on with anecdotes; hopefully, you have gotten at least a bit of the picture.

So, how can you be most sensitive to my needs? I think that the following observation applies to most all physically challenged people: remember we all want to work on our feelings of independence. Saying “Can I help you?” is always a thoughtful thing to do. When you hear “no” in response, don’t push. On some occasions, I don’t just say “no,” but rather “I don’t know,” followed by “if I can do it myself, I’d much prefer that. If I find I need help, I’ll ask you.” You can always help me most by using words, not by grabbing or otherwise touching me to guide me, and remembering that your words should not include gestures. “Over there” is rarely helpful. “Watch out” or “look out,” are for obvious reasons, not useful phrases when communicating with me. I feel least “exceptional” when I can be most like everyone else.

Thanks to all of you for your support and understanding. It is truly a mitzvah.
Wishing for all the best for all of us,
Allen Levinson
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