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Getting “ahead” as an egalitarian community

This past week, 36 years ago, the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to admit women into its program. And after 36 years of a “battle being won,” there is still much work to be done in making Judaism truly egalitarian in our communities and institutions. Language, symbols, existing Torah education, and deeply rooted emotional attachments have made the process of change a slow one. Practically two generations later, our daughters (and sons) still lack role models, teachers, rituals and customs that support an equality of access to our tradition and, by extension, to God. Conservative Jews, by and large, still seem content with perpetuating a tradition shaped by men for men.

Six years ago I authored the following piece about our synagogue’s choice to continue advancing the cause of egalitarianism in our community by promoting the use of headcoverings for men and women. We have had limited success in this effort, and have learned that we can’t let six years go by again without reiterating this teaching. So here it is:

Here is how the conversation with my Kitah Vav (sixth grade) students went. I asked, “Why do we require boys to wear a kippah or some kind of head covering?” The bright youngsters answered: “It is a sign of respect for God.” “Great answer,” I responded. “It shows that we know God is with us,” another suggested. “Fantastic,” I replied. “So,” I continued, “why don’t girls cover their heads?” Silence. No good answer. Finally, one student offered, “There is no good reason. It doesn’t make sense. Girls should show respect the same way boys do!”

It seems like such a simple and logical conclusion, and yet it is so complicated to teach, especially when generations of communities have held onto customs based in outdated norms, reinforced by bad education and laziness. It is true that long-held customs over time gain the weight of law; but when those customs undercut the values of a community, they must be changed. Especially for an egalitarian Conservative community, it is important to understand what we do, why we do it, and how our customs advance or detract from our ideals. If you ask most women who cover their heads in our community why they do so, they will say it is out of an acknowledgment of, or respect for, God’s presence when we pray or study. The fact that most of these women are married, and didn’t start covering their heads until they were married, stems from an understanding of this custom in an entirely different light. In Orthodox circles, married women cover their heads out of modesty, not out of respect for God. Whether the custom was generated from the desire to make single women easily identifiable, or the notion that a married woman who exposed herself to others beside her husband brought shame to herself or her family is irrelevant for our purposes. Neither rationale holds true any longer in our egalitarian communities. To hold onto a distinction between married and unmarried women in our community is to perpetuate a belief system that is untrue to our values. How are we supposed to explain to our ten year old daughters why they are not required to cover their heads? In a similar vein, how do we explain to our sons why they must? The Conservative movement set out on a bold path decades ago to empower women in all areas of Jewish life, ritual and leadership. We are so much stronger in so many ways as a result; yet, we have been lazy and slow to teach a sense of equality of obligation. One of the most difficult aspects of this change has been the absence of role models for our daughters. When something new is presented as a choice, and there are few who exercise it, what adolescent wants to stand out from among her peers? Our daughters for too long have only seen married women and rabbis covering their heads, even though true egalitarianism lies in the equality of obligation for all.

As it is our goal to advance the egalitarian ideal, and to give every child and adult, male and female, the opportunity to experience a connection to God through all rituals available to us as Jews, our OJC Ritual Committee has adopted a new policy that will go into effect in January (2014). We will continue to require all males to cover their heads in the sanctuary and daily chapel at all times (though we would never demand that anyone leave for their refusal to do so). We will continue to request that all females cover their heads in the sanctuary and daily chapel; however, anyone who ascends the bimah or who functions in a role of ritual leadership (like davening, receiving an aliyah or reading Torah) will be expected to wear a headcovering. In this way, the people who choose to lead us or represent us in prayer will model our understanding of how we show respect to God.

We understand that any change involves an ongoing process of education. The Ritual Committee undertook a year of studying the topic of headcovering, taking time out of its monthly meetings to learn before reaching this policy decision. Rabbi Drill offered three teaching sessions following Shabbat services in the summer of 2012 that ignited the committee’s consideration. Last spring (2013) I lead a session of The Observant Life dedicated to the topic. Prior to the beginning of the academic year, the majority of our teaching staff studied the issue, and took on the obligation to model for our religious school children, all of whom are now covering their heads in class and prayer. Our teachers’ aides, the group for whom fulfilling this obligation as role models is least comfortable given social (and stylistic) considerations, engaged in a text study with me and has been encouraged to continue the conversation. Our religious school children are being engaged in hands-on activities to learn the significance of the ritual. For children who will grow up seeing role models and peers following one mode of ritual expression, the only question remaining will be whether their sanctuary will be consistent with their classroom.

I recognize that so many of our customs are emotionally rooted in “how we grew up.” Intellectual and spiritual honesty with ourselves and our children, however, sometimes requires that we revisit and revise what we do so that our norms don’t lose their meaning. Our policy does not result in the exclusion of anyone from being a participant in our community as they always have. It only asks that people who want to assume a place of ritual leadership be willing to model what we want the next generation to comfortably own.”

Since the original writing of this piece, I’ve adopted a fairly liberal interpretation of what qualifies as a headcovering. Anyone may choose to wear a kippah or a hat; just as anyone may choose to wear a lace “doily” or a wide headband. It is the intention that matters most: the headwear itself is symbolic, and one’s hairstyle need not be an obstacle to giving expression to the intention.

After six years, it is clear that without the support of women sharing this passion and owning this effort, an egalitarian understanding of how Torah applies in our lives will remain elusive. I still believe that the issue of headcovering is the lowest rung of the ladder to be climbed, and the one that makes the most intellectual and educational sense as a first step.

I hope we can dare to achieve a new height together.

B’chavod,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Learning for Today’s Reality

I find it useful to start at the end.
At the conclusion of the American Jewish Committee Global Forum, before we boarded buses for the Hill to complete our advocacy assignments, CEO David Harris told the gathering of 2500 people from 39 countries what the purpose of this forum had been. Rabbi Scheff, Leslie and Allen Levinson and I had travelled to Washington DC from June 2 – 4 for days packed with inspiring plenaries and thought-provoking learning sessions with AJC experts, foreign dignitaries and policy analysts. At the closing plenary, David Harris told us that the days in which we live have created an atmosphere of confusion and conflict for the Jewish community. His goal for this year’s Forum had been to get inside the zeitgeist of the American Jewish community today and offer meaningful education and answers.
He then challenged us: the real test begins now. What will you do with all the information you have gained? My first step is to share my learning with all of you.
With anti-Semitism on the rise, global democracy in disarray, and partisanship at an all-time high, I found AJC’s clarity to be effective and refreshing. I strode past the Capitol and into the Senate Office Buildings for my lobbying meetings feeling empowered and ready.
It is difficult to encapsulate two and a half days of learning, but I will highlight three experiences that will provide a sense of what it was like to learn with AJC.
Sunday evening was the first annual gathering of the Community of Conscience. AJC had envisioned an assembly of people from many faiths and ethnicities to speak to the key values of our day. The event was planned for the Lincoln Memorial, but a hail storm kept us instead inside the Hilton. There in front of a jumbo screen showing the Lincoln Memorial, we listened to invocations from two clergymen who know firsthand the trauma of hatred in our country. Reverend Eric Manning, Senior Pastor of the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, Rabbi of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh spoke eloquently about the need for diverse communities to stand together.
Dr. Bernice King punctuated their messages by telling all of us that hate is too great a burden to bear. She told us, “I have decided to love. He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.” As her powerful words rolled over us in a cadence reminiscent of her father, in front of an image of the very place where he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, I knew with certainty that she was right. It is a long arc toward justice indeed, but love and righteousness will ultimately win over hatred.
Early (very early!) the next morning, Rabbi Scheff and I attended a Rabbinic Round Table on the rise of global anti-Semitism. Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, Director of AJC Europe, and Daniel Elbaum, AJC Chief Advocacy Officer, presented a sobering view of the situation around the world. As Daniel Elbaum said, history does not repeat, but it certainly does rhyme. Our task, of course, is to stay alert, speak out, and parse between the various layers of messages being put out into the world.

One of the most inspiring sessions was called: Ghosts from our Past: The legacy of American Racism and a Call for Unity. We were privileged to learn from Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans from 2010 until 2018. Author of In the Shadow of the Statues, he provided an engaging and inspiring story of his personal journey growing up as a white child in the South in a neighborhood of African-Americans. He described how he came to understand entrenched racism and to use his position of power to fight back against it. Put his memoir on your reading list!
All of the conversations and lectures prepared us for lobbying on Capitol Hill. In our senators’ and congressmen’s offices, we asked for support of the Protecting Faith-based and Nonprofit Organizations from Terrorism Act and for the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, a bill that my own Senator Menendez co-sponsored. With the power of AJC behind us, we felt affirmed and acknowledged.

David Harris told us that our work comes down to following the Golden Rule. The problem, he said, is not in finding the right words, but in actualizing them. Because we are all created in the image of God, desecrating even one human being is equal to desecrating God. He charged us to delete and discard the word tolerance. No person or group of persons should merely be tolerated. Rather, we must seek and offer respect, understanding and love. That is the work that lies ahead of each one of us.
That is the work that we must do in every interaction every day.
With friendship,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Spirituality and Healing

I celebrated quietly this week. On Monday, I crossed the halfway mark. I completed the fifteenth radiation treatment, leaving only thirteen more. By tomorrow, I’ll be eighteen done and ten to go. That’s nothing, right? Even though each day of radiation and chemotherapy makes me increasingly fatigued, I can do ten of anything . . . except, perhaps, chin ups.
The days and hours from last March until two weeks from tomorrow feel like the longest, slowest period of time in my life. It also feels like it has gone speeding by. I want to ask: how did I get here?
I have had so many blessings along the way: doctors who are healers, compassionate nurses, the newest chemotherapy and technology protocols, health insurance and a loving, understanding workplace. (I think often of ill people without any of these essential pieces in place.)

BA205OrangetownJCOrangeburgNY-270x180

My family, friends, and OJC community have provided unstinting support.
My self-care practices of healthy eating, yoga, walking, journaling, and meditation have supported and eased the regimen of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

But nothing has been as powerful in my healing process as my faith in God.
Make no mistake: I am not saying that the seeming success of my course of treatment and potentially complete healing are the result of my faith. God did not make me sick and God is not healing me.
I am saying that my optimism, positive energy, gratitude and sense of blessing are all a result of my belief in God and that God cares about me.
My spiritual life does not remove moments of fear and despair, but does give me the ability to cope.
Spirituality allows me to experience transcendent meaning in this precious life. For me, it is expressed through my relationship with God. For you, it might be about nature, family, or community. – whatever beliefs and values give you a sense of meaning and purpose in life. When we attend to these beliefs, we feel a deep sense of belonging to something greater than we are.

Celebrating nature

For me, my spirituality translates into an unshakable trust that God has plans for me. This idea has carried me through my treatment for cancer. And it will carry me through the months and years ahead from scan to scan.
Praised are you, Adonai my God, Who has helped me feel safe and free from undue suffering. Thank you, God for helping me find moments of joy in the midst of this time of challenge. Amen.

 

This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared

Every year, by the time I finish reading the name of the book by Rabbi Alan Lew z”l, I wonder if I actually need to open the cover. The title says it all: This is real and you are completely unprepared. I read Rabbi Lew’s book about the Days of Awe as spiritual transformation every August.


I dedicate myself to preparation for Rosh Hashanah during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the new year. (By preparation, I do not actually mean rabbinic preparation though I must, of course, do that too: writing sermons, finding new inspirations for the service, figuring out how to welcome all the people who come to the doors of the synagogue for services and programs.)
When I write “preparation for the New Year,” I mean Cheshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of my soul.
I take the work seriously every year.
This year, I take it even more seriously.
Lew writes:
“In the visible world, we live out our routine and sometimes messy lives. We have jobs, families, and houses. Our lives seem quite ordinary and undramatic. It is only beneath the surface of this world that the real and unseen drama of our lives is unfolding… only there that the horn sounds 100 times, that the gate between heaven and earth opens and the great books of life and death open as well. It is there that the court is convened, that we rehearse our own death, that the gate closes again, and that we finally come home…”


How do I prepare? How do I go below the surface of my ordinary life to do the work that Rabbi Lew so eloquently describes? I pray. I make lists of what I am proud of and what I need to improve. I apologize with full heart to anyone I might have harmed.
Most of all, I get very quiet. Only by turning off the noise of the world can I go below the surface.
This year, because of my cancer diagnosis and my chemotherapy regimen, I have less energy for this work. Yet the work that I am able to do feels more poignant and so much more real.
I am more capable of focusing on what is important. I am kinder to myself, recognizing moments where I push myself beyond reasonable effort and calling a halt to such perfectionism. Because I am tired more often, I am quiet more often. It is amazing what my soul has to say when I stop and listen.
When I greet my community this year at services for Rosh Hashanah, I intend to be shining.
I am so grateful for the strength and health that I do have.
I am blessed by wise and compassionate physicians and nurses.
I am held by family, friends and community.
I have so many plans for the future, and this forward focus fuels my healing. I am filled with creativity and spiritual energy, almost as if God is saying to me, “Have no fear. I have many more plans for you.”
For the first time in my life during the month of Elul, I am indeed not entirely unprepared.
I encourage all of you not to wait for a crisis to find yourself able to truly prepare for a new year. Feel the urgency as this year comes to a close and a bright new year awaits you.


L’Shana Tova Tikateivu. May you be written for a good new year.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

 

Doing and Being

I like schedules. I like lists. A lot. I like to fill my oversized Daytimer with schedules and lists, checking the items off as I complete them. I keep track of my phone calls, visits, classes, meetings and sermon preparation.  At the end of each day, I look with satisfaction at my to-do list to measure all that I have done. I feel gratified as each day comes to a close and I imagine accomplishing, in incremental steps, my mission – the building up and support of my OJC community in the context of the Jewish world and the world-at-large.

Daytimer

A life of doing is a Jewish way. Just consider what the rabbis say in Ethics of the Fathers: “The day is short, the task is great…and the Master insistent!” (Pirkei Avot 2:20)
A life of doing is my way of living.
And so it was, until it wasn’t.
These months of illness have catapulted me right out of the life of doing. My calendar is empty except for doctor appointments and treatments. My to-do list includes taking a walk and making a phone call, on a good day.
What I have learned is the benefit of a life of being.
I do not mean being sick in my bed.
I mean those days when I am well enough to go out and walk in God‘s world or re-enter my OJC world filled with gratitude.
Only in a state of being can I truly appreciate the wonders of God’s world and the preciousness of our community.
One month ago, our butterfly bush was cut down to its very roots to allow for new growth. If I were busy doing rather than being, I would have missed the first visit of a butterfly, way ahead of schedule.

Butterfly


My favorite tree at the end of our driveway lights up to an incandescent red at just the right moment of sunset. I would never notice if I were busy doing rather than being.
We all notice the deer in our yards, with different responses ranging from annoyance to tenderness. This spring and summer, I have gotten to know the families of deer who congregate in my yard, watching the baby fawns grow up and naming a few of them. I would never have time for deer-watching if I were busy doing rather than being.


The OJC has been a powerful partner in my treatment. When I am in the synagogue, I have no to-do list. I am simply being with people who are seeking to connect to something bigger than we are. These times lift my soul. It is such a different way to be a rabbi. It is a way of being.
Doing is most definitely a Jewish way. But being is also a Jewish way.
In a state of being, we notice enough to experience gratitude and see that our world is filled with blessings. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.”
I do not want to be in a state of being only. I yearn for a return to my state of doing, a natural rhythm that suits me best. But I will carry this very important lesson with me into my healthy future. Some days, I will leave my Daytimer blank. I will spend the day just being, filling myself with spiritual amazement, ready to return to my to-do list and my schedules… another day.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

 

Gratitude for Miracles

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?

I have decided that the answer is yes and no. Let me explain.

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).

Bahad Echad

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.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Why a Jewish Response to the Rohingya Crisis?

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.”

rohingya-refugees-795

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:

Jewish World Watch on Burma Crisis

JCPA Webinar on Rohingya

Rohingya Justice Shabbat Resource Guide

CNN Special Report on Rohingya

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

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