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Twenty years later, I remember

The weather was eerily similar to the same date on the calendar twenty years before: A bright and sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, a soft breeze, and if you heard no news from the outside world, you might think you were experiencing a slice of heaven, a taste of the world to come. As the sun was setting on the day of September 11, Rabbi Drill and I stood at the podium, surrounded by public servants in uniform, and offered the 23rd Psalm to the hundreds gathered on the lawn of Orangetown’s Town Hall. The psalm, we explained, is offered for those mourning the loss and seeking the presence of their loved ones; for those who wish to feel God’s presence in dark times; and for those who turn to friends and community as a source of strength and comfort.

Looking out at the crowd before us, I was struck by the realization—especially as the names of the fallen from our community were read—that I was not certain whether any family members of the 9/11 victims were actually with us to commemorate the day. This feeling only served to reinforce my belief that, at some level, the magnitude of the 9/11 tragedy robbed individuals who suffered loss the opportunity to grieve and have their personal losses acknowledged by the community. The tragedy became one that belonged to our country, and in the processing of our collective trauma we lost sight, to some degree, of the individual stories of loss, grief and mourning. Stories of heroic first responders, of courageous acts of selfless sacrifice, and of how united our country stood in the days that followed continue to shape the way we remember. We focus far less on the stories of the families that were broken by the sudden loss of a spouse, child, parent and sibling.

The circle of subsumed individual stories expands further. Two weeks before 9/11, a dear personal friend to me and many others, a beloved husband, father of two young children, son and brother, died very suddenly while on vacation with his family. Bruce Cowen was an integral community builder in our congregation. His death left his family traumatized and reeling. The shock left many members of our community devastated. But two weeks later, when the World Trade Center fell, everyone was stricken. The loss belonged to us all. And the processing of individual grief, and the communal support that was supposed to accompany that process, was somehow cut short. Some of us never fully processed Bruce’s death as a result, and some of us could never fully process the full scope of 9/11 because of our personal sense of loss.

In the Jewish tradition, comforting the mourner is a communal obligation. There are times, however, when (to paraphrase two of my favorite fictional characters) the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. When a death occurs during the intermediate days of the festival of Sukkot, for example, formal mourning for the deceased is postponed until after Simchat Torah. If the death occurrs before the festival and shiva begins, it is truncated with the onset of the holiday. Obviously, the bereaved is in an emotional state of mourning; the communal obligation to comfort the mourner, however, is outweighed by the communal obligation to celebrate the holiday to its fullest.

I understand the tension inherent in this rule, especially as a rabbi who is charged with leading the communal celebration of the holiday. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. Sometimes the needs of the one do indeed outweigh the needs of the many. Tragic loss, in my opinion, is one of those times.

That’s why, when remembering six million, it is so important to remember one story. That’s why, on every 9/11, I call a congregant who stood at Ground Zero and witnessed horror all around him. That’s why, on Bruce’s yahrzeit every year, I reach out to the ones most immediately and profoundly affected by his absence.

May we never forget, even as we are called upon to celebrate life. May we never forget the opportunity we are given, individually, to bring comfort, solace, and the blessing of memory to those who may only remember their pain.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Teshuvah after the Gates Slam Shut

Here in the valley where the tree roots form a rugged map
of chaos and danger, we step carefully to avoid falling.
Shadows of low branches on old trees play tricks on our resolve.
We walk with fear and worry, bereft of enjoyment
Getting through to get past to be out of this place
Feeling helpless and low in the dusk
Questioning the wisdom of the journey even here at the start.

Ascent is required, of course, and we know its challenges:
The breathless trudging onward, the desire to stop, the seduction
of the backward glance toward the downhill.

But we turn our face toward the summit and climb and we climb.
May we reach the summit together and there find
a well-worn trail along the ridge from which we see the
wide vast world, a perspective that brings sense and understanding.
From here we see that the journey will never be easy and we will
need to hike it again and again. But there will always be
at the close of each day, a belief in the summit and
the joy of that hike along the ridge.

I wrote this poem for Yom Kippur services this year. The metaphor of a chaotic valley, a painful and challenging ascent, and a respite at the summit felt like a much-needed affirmation after the past difficult year. The perspective and ease available from a high point on our journey are gifts of the Jewish New Year.

I share this poem now, even though Yom Kippur is already a memory as we rush forward to Sukkot, because I want to share a very important idea: Many of us never reach the summit on Yom Kippur. Despite our best intentions and honest soul-searching work, many of us do not feel cleansed, affirmed and brand new on the Day of Atonement. For us, Yom Kippur does not feel like a well-worn trail along a ridge. We say we are sorry to those we have hurt. We recite the words of the prayers. We beat our chest as we recite the confessional prayers. With all of our hearts, we believe the metaphor that we must complete the work of teshuvah before the gates slam shut at Neilah (the concluding service of Yom Kippur). We try. But we don’t accomplish what we set out to do. We hear the blasts of the shofar and head out to break our fast feeling uneasy about our lack of connection with God. We still have relationships to repair, promises to fulfill, mistakes we want to correct.

Here is the good news: we have an extension for this work of teshuvah until Hoshannah Rabbah at the end of Sukkot. We beat the willows from our lulav and etrog ritual and shake off the remainder of our sins.

And here is even better news: Judaism understands that living a good life, striving to be a contributor to a holy community, and fulfilling the desire to be our best selves are lofty goals that do not come easily to all of us. Yom Kippur is a red-letter date on the calendar each year because we humans tend to require deadlines to get serious about things. Judaism teaches, however, that every day is another opportunity to turn our lives around, to get back on the trail heading upward, and to see the world from a perspective of a well-worn path along a ridge. Teshuvah is available in our daily prayers, in the study of Torah, and in small meaningful acts of kindness. May this year offer you abundant opportunities to become your best self.

G’mar chatimah tovah, May you be sealed for a good new year,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Living a Double Life

I held a Torah in my arms last Shabbat morning for the first time in more than sixteen months. We have, of course, prayed together in person and also via zoom during these pandemic days, but that morning was my first time leading Shacharit with an in-person minyan so that we could take the Torah from the ark.
As I turned to face our congregation and chant Shema, I realized with a sudden clarity that the weight of the Torah was exactly the weight of my almost 10-month-old grandson Carmel.


I have been carrying him every day for one month from mid-June through mid-July as I cared for him in Tel Aviv while his Momma and Abba worked. For thirty days, I lived every day from 7:30 a.m. until Carmel’s bedtime as Bubbe.
I arrived home to just one week ago in time for Shabbat, Tisha B’Av, plans for High Holidays in full swing, committee meetings scheduled and classes ready to begin. I have certainly returned to my life as Rabbi.
Am I living a double life? Is it possible to live as Bubbe and Rabbi simultaneously? I am determined to do so and have decided to purposefully weave the two lives together, carrying lessons from both identities across boundaries.
When I am Bubbe, I am mindful, patient, and joyful. I live to serve, to make my tiny charge as comfortable and content as possible. With Carmel, I could spend an hour making a tower of blocks that he would immediately knock down. Over and over and over. And I was delighted.
Breakfast was an hour-long affair that consisted of his aiming his spoon toward his mouth and connecting instead with an eyebrow, his neck, and his knee. Throwing the spoon to the floor, he would reach in with his whole fist to put oatmeal in his mouth, and also all over his chest. Every oatmeal party ended with him sitting in the kitchen sink so I could wash him down. And I was delighted.

Walking Carmel in his stroller in the sticky heat of Tel Aviv often required my capacity to distract and entertain. I refused to be embarrassed as I walked down Ben Gurion Boulevard singing Baby Shark, pushing the stroller with my right hand and making tiny sharks with my left.


What can this possibly have in common with my rabbinate? It seems clear to me that mindfulness, patience and joy as well as a refusal to be embarrassed are all excellent qualities for a rabbi to cultivate.
But what aspects of my rabbinate find their way into being Bubbe? I often davened parts of Shacharit as we played together in the morning. Carmel seems to enjoy Baruch She-amar and Ashrei as much as Itsy Bitsy Spider. Although he is not yet 10 months old, I like to think that he associates me with an appreciation for the wonders of God’s world, whether the orange blossom tree on Mapu Street in front of his apartment or the sun reflecting over the Kinneret when we went away for Shabbat. Every grandparent can bless their children and grandchildren on Friday nights, but I like to think that the gentle force of Bubbe who is also Rabbi brings Shabbat to the table each week. It is important for me to think of these things as I’ll become Bubbe to a second grandchild (expected by my son and daughter-in-law in Maryland) before the end of the year.
Can my two identities be woven together? Between Shabbat afternoon and Sunday afternoon, I participated in naming three baby girls, the newest members of our congregation. I was definitely in my role as Rabbi and yet also feeling 100% Bubbe.

I believe that I am not required to live a double life. I can take the best of each role and apply it to the other. I am passionate about both of my roles – Bubbe and Rabbi, and I can be both at once. A good thing since I plan on being both for a nice long time to come!

Wishing all of us many roles, many lives, all rolled into one great adventure, Rabbi Bubbe Paula Mack Drill

2020 Hindsight

Dear OJC Family, 

One year ago this coming Shabbat, we closed the doors of our synagogue building due to what we thought was an extreme abundance of caution. We had the sense that we would be back together again in a few months. Some of you predicted this “long haul,” but your clergy did not. We were optimistic and naïve.

The doors of our beloved building are still mostly closed. Yet our community has never been more resilient, ambitious, and connected.  Dedication, congregational support, and deep resolve have brought us here. 

We invite you to mark this anniversary by coming to the OJC on Sunday, March 14, between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 to greet your rabbis and our president, Michael Pucci, outside, and to mark the passage of time through ritual. We invite you to enter the sanctuary if you so choose, one pod at a time, to spend a short time before the ark to reconnect to the space we have all missed.

Perhaps it feels strange to consider marking such a moment in time. Your rabbis do not want to let this anniversary slip away. This year has been marked by many losses and deep sorrow: illness, death, isolation, unemployment, children’s struggles, and fear. Yet this year has also been filled with loving kindness, optimism, connection, faith, learning, and activism.

At the OJC, we have learned that Jewish tradition and peoplehood can overcome any adversity we face. We took stock, reimagined, and provided the essentials: prayer experience, learning for adults and children, justice work, and social programming.  Your rabbis agree that we are a stronger community than we were a year ago.

We invite you to think about a moment of the past year with 2020 Hindsight, to remember and feel proud of an OJC moment. Please capture that moment in one or two sentences and send your memory to office@theojc.org with the Subject: 2020 Hindsight. We will gather all of our memories into an online Memory Book, an artifact of this challenging year.

With much gratitude to our Medical Task Force, we commit to continuing our Covid-19 safety protocols of distancing and mask-wearing, in an effort to care for the safety of all our community members.

We commit and call upon each other to reach out in support of those whose struggles are seen and unseen. We are not alone. As a wise congregant said to us: We have learned to live alone; now we must learn how to live together once again.

We are proof of the essential nature of community. May we continue our path forward as a sacred community anchored in Torah, Avodah (prayer) and Gemilut Hasadim (acts of loving kindness).

With gratitude, 

Rabbi Craig Scheff, Rabbi Ami Hersh, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

#JDAIM2021 A Year of Lessons in One Month

Carmel Louis flipped himself from his back to his stomach three times in a row one morning. We fawning adults applauded wildly, so proud of his new feat. What an accomplishment, what prowess, what a genius at 4 1/2 months! Yes, we celebrated his ability. Not one of us questioned why he was not getting up onto all fours to crawl once he was on his stomach. No, we were proud and content with what he accomplished.

Exactly here lies the key takeaway lesson of this year’s Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. #JDAIM2021 Each Wednesday night through the month of February, our guest teachers shared the same message: Celebrate the abilities of people instead of judging, pitying or harming them for their differences.
Robert Anthony’s right leg was amputated below the knee when he was 10 months old, but this fact is not what any of us privileged to hear him speak will remember about him. When we think about Robert, we will remember that he is a world ranked athlete, a motivational speaker, and the founder of Limb Possible, a nonprofit organization that supports people who have lost one or more limbs. I will remember the way he lit up with pride when he talked about his two children. Robert Anthony told his story through the prism of learning from every experience. Robert is living proof that with a positive mental attitude, anything is possible.

Pamela Rae Schuller lives with Tourette’s Syndrome, but that is not what we will remember about her. We’ll continue to marvel at the way Pamela uses comedy and storytelling to change people’s minds about what inclusion really means. Pamela taught us that inclusion leads to creativity, that understanding disabilities is not about what people cannot do because someone with special needs is present, but rather what people can do because of the presence of someone with different abilities.

Staff of The Arc Rockland, including our own Esther Schulman, spoke about the challenges and rewards of inclusion in the community. Karen and Alan, two residents of Arc homes, reminded us all that every community is made up of lots of different kinds of people. Their presence as our teachers speaks volumes to us as we dedicate ourselves to fight stigma and advance opportunities for and with people with disabilities.

This coming week, #JDAIM2021 will conclude with a Zoom visit from Steve Possell, a DJ on the radio station WRCR, who is blind. On Wednesday night, February 24 at 7:30, Steve will share his stories and the challenges he has overcome. I am confident that what we will remember about Steve is not that he is blind, but that he is a capable and interesting man who lives his passion.

One month out of every year spent raising awareness, inclusion, and advocacy about people who have special needs is meaningful only when it spurs us to continue the learning and action all year long.
Robert Anthony told us, “I want people to see me as someone who inspires them to do better and be better despite their circumstances.” Robert, Pamela, Karen and Alan, and Steve are teachers for all of us, carrying their message by focusing on what they can do rather than on what they cannot do.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Before We Bury 2020…

I know that you are seeing them too: pictures on your Instagram feed, texts sent by friends, photographs attached to emails. Healthcare workers we know are receiving their first vaccination dose against COVID-19.  I celebrate each picture, text and phone call because the rolling out of the vaccines offers concrete proof that 2021 will be different.

No picture gave me as much optimism as this one of Dr. Debbie Goodman Scheff. Matthew and Debbie‘s wedding was the last time that I was in a large gathering, in a space of celebration, feeling complete joy. I think back to the hora of that Sunday at the beginning of March, and I cannot believe how 2020 unrolled
And now we are just beginning a brand-new year. We have all been more than ready to say goodbye to a year that was filled with illness, tragedy, violence, and isolation.

But before I leave 2020 in the trash heap of nightmares and unwanted daymares, I would like to offer some perspective on this year.
If we think back and sort through the long, difficult months, we can pull out from those days moments that in retrospect might have been a blessing, experiences that were our teacher, and joys that we should not forget despite the sorrow.
Our sacred community gathered every evening and Shabbat for prayer, learning and comfort. Supportive conversations helped isolated friends through difficult days. Walks in nature alerted us to God’s grandeur all around us. All of these were blessings and I know that you can think of many more.
People lost their beloved family members and friends during this pandemic and lost so much of our tradition, of the very ritual that helps us grieve. Yet we figured out how to receive some semblance of comfort in backyards, via Facetime and on zoom. Families felt the ambivalent loss of missed graduations, holiday celebrations, and gatherings for milestones. Our community could not gather in full force for the pinnacle of our year, to hear the shofar blown in our beautiful sanctuary on Rosh Hashana, and instead listened to the T’kiah in our parking lot. As difficult as these moments were, they taught us about what is truly essential. Being there does not actually require being there. We can virtually be there too.
Babies were born, couples were married, and 13 year-olds became Jewish adults in 2020. Nothing happened as expected, but real joy was experienced. Perhaps even a sweeter joy was felt because we were in the midst of a dangerous moment.

Weddings had fewer participating but no diminishment in the joy.
Zoom bat mitzvah had all the joy that we could muster!

Judaism has always taught that life goes on even in the midst of pain. This pandemic helped me incorporate that teaching into my very soul.
So yes, bring on those vaccinations! Let’s move beyond the stay-at-home mandates of 2020, finally take our masks off and greet each other once again face-to-face. When we move into this new year, however, let us not leave behind all of the important lessons of this difficult year… dare I say it? Let’s remember to have 2020 hindsight. The lessons are there for us if we keep our minds and hearts open.
This past zooming Shabbat, Rabbi Scheff happened to mention that there were 55 families gathered together in our webinar service. We could not see or hear each other, but he encouraged us to feel the power of knowing that we had gathered for Shabbat worship and learning. After Shabbat, one congregant reflected on that idea and wrote to us: “I have been remembering back to my first trip to Israel when Rabbi Scheff explained how the years of wandering in the desert strengthened the Israelites’ feeling as a community. I was thinking that this pandemic has been our desert: an experience that has strengthened our feelings of community and the realization that it is not the building that builds us, but we as a community are the builders.

Let us enter 2021 together as builders. Wishing everyone a happy and safe new year, and may a vaccination be in your future very soon!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

A Thanksgiving Story

Two candles burn side by side in my dining room as I prepare for another pandemic Shabbat. First is a tall seven-day shiva candle, blackened around the top after burning for six days. Jon is coming to the conclusion of shiva for his mother, Ruth Finkelstein Ignatoff, z”l. The second was lit last night for the 11th of Kislev, a yahrzeit candle for my mother, Frances Weisberg Mack, z”l, who died just before Thanksgiving twenty-four years ago. Every year at the end of November from now on, we will remember two mothers whose most sacred holiday was Thanksgiving.

When I realized that today is Black Friday, an intensive retail engrossment that I have never fully understood, I said jokingly to a friend, “Black Friday has a brand-new meaning for me this year.” He agreed and added, “I guess Thanksgiving ever after is ruined for you.”
That could be one way of looking at it. But that is not the way I look at it.
It is true that Thanksgiving is now attached to two significant deaths. But Thanksgiving is also the holiday when our first born, Noah, arrived in the world. And Thanksgiving is also the holiday when Ben and Lindsay were engaged to be married last year.

There is enormous power in the stories that we tell ourselves, in the way that we tell our stories and the perspective we take as narrators. We can shape our stories so that they are useful and comforting, or we can take on a viewpoint that creates a story with us as suffering protagonists at the center of depressing events beyond our control. So often we seem to forget that WE are the authors of our own stories. So this is how I will tell my family Thanksgiving story:

Thanksgiving has been sacred in Jonathan‘s family from a time long before he can remember. His Grandma Sadye’s large, extended family would gather in the Woonsocket, Rhode Island house for an entire weekend which included a Thanksgiving dinner for sixty family members in two seatings. Jon’s siblings and cousins share happy memories of candlepin bowling, Uncle Rick’s drooling St. Bernard, annual trips to Grandpa Noah‘s coat factory for new jackets, and Friday lunch at Howard Johnson’s.
Thanksgiving shifted and changed over the years, but it always remained Jon’s mother’s holiday. Elements of the invitation list and menu have stayed in place; and the weekend long celebration and treasured traditions continue with new participants and locations. My house filled up every year with my in-laws and my nieces and nephews; everyone magically finding someplace to put down a pillow. My sister-in-law Maggie and Jon’s brother Dave found a way to fit all the tables in their house and welcomed us in for a day of eating, board games and poker. And my mother-in-law always reigned over the day. Maggie has copious notes in Ruth’s handwriting to prove it!

If we held the perspective that those good old days will never return again, we would be missing the new experiences there to be enjoyed over the years. If we held the perspective that this season is now one of loss, we would negate the special joys that continue at Thanksgiving time.
Just two of us sat down to dinner last night with a 20-pound turkey and only one meat eater. But after zoom calls to express gratitude, we were perfectly content with our Thanksgiving experience. The main point is the gratitude, and that is the story Jon and I told each other as we shared a meal of plenty.
Last night after minyan, Rabbi Scheff shared a playlist of five Israeli songs about gratitude to enhance our Thanksgivings. My favorite, by the late, great Uzi Hitman, is called “Todah” (Thanks).
He sings:
Thanks for all that You’ve created, thanks for what You’ve given me. For our eyesight, a friend or two,
for what I have in the world.
For the song which flows,
and a forgiving heart
– because of all this – I exist.
Several congregants have mentioned to me that in the past couple of weeks, it feels like the clouds are starting to part and the sun will break through to shine again. I think, however, that we still have months to go in this pandemic. I am not expecting complete sunshine quite yet. But I am grateful that I have arms that can reach up to the sky and help push those clouds out of the way.
Because of all this, I exist.

Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Carmel Louis, Teacher of Mindfulness

On October 14th at 8:45 am, my watch battery died. The date is significant because it is the morning when we finally left two weeks of quarantine in Tel Aviv and held our new grandson in our arms for the first time.

As I write these words, I am sitting on my return flight home. Recollecting two magical weeks with Sagi, Sarah and newborn Carmel Louis, I can see now the significance of lacking a functioning watch. 

What time was it? It was the present moment in every moment.

I have tried to be intentional for many years, studying and practicing mindfulness, even having the chutzpah to teach it. But for the first time, I experienced complete presence without working at it.

Carmel Louis was my teacher.

What time was it? Without my watch and with my phone tucked away, it was just this moment. 

It was time for Carmel to cuddle in my arms, listening to me sing “White Cliffs of Dover.”

It was time for Sagi and Sarah to give Carmel a bath. (He screamed throughout!)

It was time to bless Carmel for Shabbat.

It was time to push Carmel’s stroller to the tayelet (the walkway beside the Mediterranean) to see the sunset.

It was time to take three chicken pot pies out of the oven, one for dinner, one for Josh, and one for the freezer. 

It was time to sit on the balcony beside Sagi’s herb garden as Sarah nursed Carmel.

It was time to stare endlessly at Carmel Louis Fainshtain Drill, mesmerized by every expression that passed across his tiny face.

Before I post these words, I will have returned home, turned off my away message, and begun responding to my emails. I am grateful for the lessons taught by Carmel and I will maintain them as I reenter the hectic pace of rabbinic work during a pandemic. 

I hope that the lessons I learned will not only stay with me, but be helpful to you as well.

  1. Do one thing at a time. Multi-tasking means that you’re going to miss something.
  2. Practice doing nothing at all except for gazing at something perfect and beautiful in God’s world. If you don’t have Carmel handy, practice with the view from your window, your pet, or a loved one on Zoom.
  3. Be completely aware of your blessings in every moment. If you feel down or fatigued or worried (as we are apt to feel in these days), reframe the moment. Despite your experience at the time, look for and count your blessings. (Sarah described feeling so tired when she heard Carmel cry just one-half hour after a middle of the night feeding. Then she looked into his little face and was flooded with love.)
  4. Put your phone down and take off your watch. I know that I cannot do this in my normal days as I did for two weeks on Mapu Street in Tel Aviv. But I can do it for an hour every day. And I can do it on Shabbat.

Let me know how you do! Drop me a note anytime! What time? The present moment in every moment will be just the right time!

With blessings, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Z’man Simchateinu

One day before the beginning of Sukkot, Z’man Simchateinu, the Time of our Joy, I became a Bubbe for the first time. It is an honorific title for which I have waited fairly patiently and for which I am humbly grateful. I write “fairly patiently” because while I did not annoy my children with expectation, I certainly practiced Bubbehood  with all of the children at OJC and let it be known that I was ready! And I write “humbly grateful” because while I am filled with an uncanny, indescribable joy, I am well aware of so many people who will never become grandparents for one reason of life or another. May we always have humility when acknowledging a blessing.

Carmel Louis Fainshtain and his Ima, One Day Old

And so, I acknowledge my blessing. Carmel Louis Fainshtain entered the world and Z’man Simchateinu took on vast new dictionaries of meaning. This is truly a time of great joy and yet it is not complete. Due to the vagaries of COVID-19, Jonathan and I arrived in Israel in time for the birth, but we will be in quarantine for a total of 14 days. I can offer Sarah comfort and whatever wisdom I recall, but only over FaceTime. Jonathan will be sandek at the bris of his first grandchild, but via Zoom. 

Is it still Z’man Simchateinu if it is not complete?

And now it actually is Sukkot, Z’man Simchateinu. Being in Israel for the holiday is absolutely a time of great joy, but again, it is not complete. Here in our quarantine apartment, there is no sukkah. Josh purchased lulav and etrog from the shuk for me, but I daven alone on the balcony. 

Davening on the balcony of our quarantine apartment.

Is it a time of great joy or will I allow Covid-19 and this quarantine to diminish it? Talmud has something valuable to offer to my question about the incompleteness of joy. In Sukkah 11b, we find an argument between Rabbi Eleazer and Rabbi Akiva:

These booths were ‏ענני כבוד clouds of glory, this is the statement of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says: They established for themselves ‏סוכות ממש actual sukkot

Every year for the past 35 years before this one, I have spent time in an actual sukkah, making kiddush with my community, welcoming guests, eating autumn meals; and throughout the week, embracing the idea of my vulnerability and the world’s fragility. The three temporary walls and star-pricked skhach roof teach me to reject the idea that any of us has control. With or without a sukkah, we now know in our very souls that none of us has control. One message of Sukkot is that the only true safety and shelter is found in God‘s protection.

If the actual sukkah is the antithesis of real shelter, the Clouds of Glory are the ultimate shelter. Our ancestors who wandered through the wilderness should have been vulnerable in every way, but instead, they were completely safe, sheltered by God. God’s cloud shielded the Israelites from the desert’s harshness and protected them from enemies.

The time of our great joy is about both vulnerability and protection. Humanity has never been in as much turmoil and fear during my lifetime as we are now. And yet in the midst of the upheaval, here I am welcoming a brand new precious life. Incomplete joy, Judaism teaches, is the only kind of real simcha that we ever have. We gather at holidays and remember those we’ve lost. We celebrate a wedding and smash a glass to remember tragedy even at the beginning of a new marriage. I celebrate Sukkot without an actual sukkah. I have a new grandson whom I cannot yet hold in my arms. Yet it’s all joy if it’s connected to acknowledging the blessing of God’s loving abundance.

This year, I may not have a sukkah mamash (an actual sukkah) but I most certainly have the experience of being protected by Ananei Kavod (God’s Clouds of Glory).

Moadim l’simcha, may these days of Sukkot be filled with joy for you!

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

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

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