The Gateway to a New Year

There’s nothing like a fresh pair of eyes, or four pairs, to get a new perspective on the things you take for granted.

Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting one of my Israeli sisters, along with her husband and two sons,  for a few days of New York-style fun.

On Tuesday morning, we toured the USS Intrepid Museum. I’d been there just last year, but seeing the exhibits through the eyes of the Israelis, I was struck with a new sense of pride. We marveled at the stories of courage, ingenuity and sacrifices of the many Americans who have served our country in air, at sea, and in space.


Next, we visited the Statue of Liberty, and I was reminded that Lady Liberty was not erected to represent a person; rather, she is there to represent an idea.


From the pier we walked west on Fulton Street. As we headed towards the Freedom Tower and the 9/11 memorial, I couldn’t shake the memories in my head, images of ash-covered people walking the streets like zombies on a Tuesday morning 17 years ago.


The Twin Towers once stood like a gateway to our land, much like the two mountains between which the Israelites marched as they entered the Promised Land, with blessings pronounced to them from one and curses from the other. They too represented an idea; to me, they represented the indomitable spirit of America. That same undying spirit is represented today in the energy of the descending memorial pools and in the tower that now skyrockets to the heavens to accompany the souls of all those lost on that tragic day.


For the past 15 years, I have stood with fellow local clergy and Tappan’s first responders in remembrance on the mornings of 9/11. This year, I pray they will forgive my absence from the public ceremony, and I hope our non-Jewish neighbors will be reminded that the Jewish community means no disrespect by its absence, as it will be busy celebrating its holy day of Rosh Hashanah.

That being said, I hope you will join us this second day of Rosh Hashanah during our service to give honor to the memory of those who died, to pay tribute to those who secure our safety and our freedom, and to express our gratitude for the blessings we share as Jews in America. Sometimes we take for granted the lives we have in this country, as Americans and as Jews. Sometimes, in the thick of the public debates and political rancor, we forget the good that is all around us.

If you plan to be with our community on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, please consider arriving early, even if it means you’ll leave earlier than usual. We will be interrupting our regular service to make space for communal and individual remembrance with silence, song and shofar. Be on time (8:30am) to honor the day and to participate in our commemoration and prayer.

May our Rosh Hashanah usher in a year that brings us healing, wholeness, peace, and an appreciation of all our blessings.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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

 

Incest, Ethics and Yom Kippur

Over the past year, our synagogue’s Committee on Jewish Living and Ritual, along with anyone else so motivated, has engaged with me in a monthly study of the traditional Torah reading assigned to the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, and of the approved alternate reading found in many high holiday mahzors. The goal of this process was to arrive at a decision as to whether our community should keep to the traditional reading or adopt the suggested alternative. While it is solely my responsibility as Mara d’Atra (“Teacher of the Place” or Halachic decisor) to make a final determination, I did not want to do so without considering input from those people who were seriously engaged with this question.

So what’s the big deal, you might ask? I realize that most people are not even present to hear the reading that takes place just a couple hours before the blowing of the shofar, when the majority of us are busy passing the last part of the fast day with a nap. The fact is, however, that since the time of the Talmud some 1500 years ago our traditional communities have been reading the same passage, Leviticus 18:1-30, during the Yom Kippur mincha (afternoon service). This reading follows closely on the heels of the passage we read Yom Kippur morning, which details the service of the High Priest and the Yom Kippur ritual of atonement.

The traditional afternoon reading of Leviticus 18 does not, however, contain a readily apparent connection to Yom Kippur. The passage focuses on guarding against the adoption of our neighboring cultures’ illicit and immoral practices. Specifically, the assigned portion details prohibited sexual unions, including the prohibition that a man may not lie with another man in the manner that he lies with a woman. The Torah seems to be giving voice to its revulsion at the erotic components of pagan society centuries ago.

 

In rationalizing its place in our service, commentators have pointed out that just as we focus on our spiritual purity and renewal of our relationships on this holy day, so must we recommit ourselves to examining our conduct in our most intimate relationships.

There is no doubt that the social and sexual mores of that time certainly influenced the choice of this passage for this particular occasion. Note, the Torah does not dictate the reading for Yom Kippur; it is the Rabbis (men) of the Talmud who did so.

Clearly, we don’t simply skip or excise passages of the Torah that make us uncomfortable. We confront Leviticus 18 as we read the Torah throughout the year, and we wrestle with it to make sense of it in our day and age. Its relation to Yom Kippur, however, has been called into question. And an alternative reading of Leviticus 19 has been included in many mahzors.

Leviticus 19 commences with the command “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The passage contains Judaism’s central ethical teachings, detailing the kinds of behaviors that we should strive to adopt in order to achieve lives of greater holiness, and concluding with the command to love your neighbor as yourself.

The argument has been advanced that, whereas the reading for Yom Kippur morning is about ritual purity, this alternate afternoon reading provides a complement by stressing the importance of ethical purity. For those seriously engaged in self-reflection and atonement, an examination of our personal ethics certainly seems like an important endeavor.

Change should never be made simply for the sake of change or convenience. That being said, we should not avoid all change simply because we fear the slippery slope. Change in custom may be warranted  when enforcement of the status quo has the consequence of undermining the purpose of the custom.

As a reader of Torah, I have never been comfortable reading about incest and bestiality on Yom Kippur to a tired and hungry crowd. It does not enhance my experience of the day in any way; and I think my feelings mirror those of the majority of people who attend this particular service. On the other hand, reading about the kinds of behaviors I must cultivate in order to be a more ethical person feels like a far more relevant and inspiring pursuit for this particular day.

At the end of our year of studying the issue, my “advisory board” voted in favor change toward adopting the alternative reading of Leviticus 19. But as I stated above, the decision is mine alone.

There is no doubt that I find the content of the alternative reading more suitable to Yom Kippur contemplation. And there is no doubt that I place value on the process of change itself; it trains us to guard against complacency. But the ultimate reason for my decision to adopt this change is my desire to capitalize on an opportunity. On the one day of the year that finds more of our constituents in synagogue and exposed to Torah, I hope we will be captivated in greater numbers by the beauty and relevance of Torah in our lives. I hope we will be inspired to examine our interactions daily, and recognize the ways in which the ethics of Leviticus 19 inform the most mundane aspects of our lives.

With this in mind, perhaps you’ll join us for mincha on Yom Kippur at 5:15pm for a short Torah study and the reading we are implementing. And perhaps you’ll consider picking up a Bible and studying the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19 in anticipation of the holy day. And perhaps, in so doing, you’ll make my decision the right one for you.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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

 

Mas’ei: These are the voyages

Over the past week, I had an opportunity to share some vacation travel with my two older sons. Aside from being a time to rest, relax and rejuvenate, it was also an opportunity to experience a new city, reconnect with my adult children, and revisit relationships with extended family and friends.

Sharing space and time with others for an extended period, especially in close proximity, was an excellent exercise in self-awareness. The experience brought on a heightened consciousness of personal habits and a test of comfort with making conversation or with the lack thereof. Even our pace of movement as a group was something to be considered and negotiated.

Our destination was more familiar to some and brand new to others. This imbalance dictated that some would step up to lead while others would be relegated to follow. Some accepted their roles with complete comfort; others were forced to confront the insecurities that can accompany such powerlessness. While some of us sought to take in the experience from an intellectual perspective, diving deep into each historical site and building, others of us preferred the bird’s eye view, preferring the forest to the trees of the landscape.

Now, imagine that we were two million travelers instead of just three! These challenges (relatively insignificant, especially given that the context was a vacation!) must have been multiplied exponentially for the Israelite families journeying from Egypt to the Promised Land. The Torah, however, goes to great lengths to recount the places that served as mileposts of the trek and the people who led the migration. Let’s not lose sight of the many emotions and dynamics that had to be addressed by individuals, families and communities along the way.

And the next time we venture to a new place or choose to share an experience with others in a new configuration, perhaps we can examine our own responses more closely, especially relative to others. Perhaps we’ll come to appreciate the journey as much as, if not more than, the destination.


Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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

Now is not always the right time

Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism, has occupied the headlines of the Jewish press over the last week. At issue is Ramah’s educational approach regarding Israel and Zionism. In particular, IfNotNow (INN), an organization whose stated goal is to end American support for Israel’s current policies with respect to the Palestinians, has begun training Jewish camp counselors to effect change in the Israel education of Jewish summer camps.Three months ago, a group of Ramah alumni involved with INN approached the Ramah national leadership seeking a commitment from Ramah to change its Israel education to include the Palestinian narrative. As news of INN’s camp counselor training program became public, the Ramah leadership issued a statement distancing itself from any partnership with INN and affirming its commitment to teaching Ahavat Yisrael, a love of Israel. Backlash came from both the right and the left. From one extreme, Ramah was being ordered to conduct a purge of any counselors who might express any sympathies to the Palestinian cause; from the other side, Ramah was being accused of betraying alumni who felt they had been labeled as anti-Zionist at best and anti-Semitic at worst.

Change, no matter how warranted, typically takes time in established institutions. Change requires education, building consensus, and the development of stakeholders who can model the proposed change as a natural and mission-driven extension of the institution itself. Change imposed from outside the institutional framework will, more often than not, fail, especially if it is expected to take effect immediately.

The Ramah camping movement, one of the great and long-lasting successes of Conservative Judaism and a breeding ground for ideas, leadership and best practices, is well aware of the changing landscape of the Jewish world, and in particular as it relates to Israel. Hundreds of young Israeli emissaries (shlchim) staff the Ramah camps each summer, bringing with them their many perspectives on Jewish identity, Zionism and Israel. The shlichim are not screened for their political leanings in advance of their placement. Each Ramah camp has its own board, its own professional leadership, its own unique demographic of staff, campers and families. Each camp has met the challenges of change in its own way, always sensitive to the Ramah mission, the camp’s constituent communities, and the reality that staff and campers come from a diversity of religious and educational backgrounds. To this day, the camp cultures differ in their religious and educational philosophies, even as they pursue the same mission.


The Ramah camps also face the challenge of educating students—campers and staff—who range in age from 6 to 60, many of whom live together in community. Learning takes place in formal, informal and experiential settings. The unintended curriculum is often more important than the intended curriculum, as so much of the learning occurs in the context of late-night one on one conversations. It is in the context of personal relationships that nuanced opinions are best expressed and best able to be heard. That is the true magic of Ramah.


Ramah directors across the camps, I believe, sympathize with those Ramah alumni who want to see staff and older campers engage in Israel discussions that reflect the complexity and nuance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, in light of INN’s demands for immediate and sweeping change, it should come as no surprise that the Ramah leadership felt the need to make a strong statement in response, officially distancing Ramah camps from any organizational or philosophical partnership, especially considering that INN’s platform specifically states that it does not take a position regarding the support of Israeli statehood. Critics may have cause to say that Ramah leadership’s latest statement was an attempt to appease the majority of its base and its financial supporters. Even if this were to be true, it doesn’t mean that Ramah has abandoned its dedication to pluralism and to permitting a diversity of opinions.


The world of Jewish education is still learning how to address the moral challenges of Israeli statehood and Jewish power. The Shalom Hartman Institute, as far as I am concerned, has done an excellent job of creating informative, nuanced and challenging educational materials for adults. (Check out the iEngage Israel curricula; our synagogue community has already implemented three of its courses to a positive reception.) Adapting these conversations for middle schoolers or high school students is going to take time and expertise, especially given the widely diverse ages and backgrounds of the intended students.


I firmly believe that now is the time to wrestle with the question of how to teach about Israel’s conflicts. But the answer to that question, especially when it comes to good Israel education, is certainly not one to be arrived at in a matter of months. Ramah camps are as good a place as any to advance this discussion—but not necessarily this summer or even next. Not if it is going to be done well, with the result producing the best informed Israel lovers and advocates for our future.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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