Note: Both Rabbi Drill and Rabbi Scheff tested positive for Covid, one week apart, during this uptick due to the Omicron variant. Thankfully, both rabbis had fairly mild symptoms. Rabbi Drill shares her thoughts on the experience of having the virus as she comes out of isolation at the end of today. Rabbi Scheff will share his thoughts in Part Two next week.
I could tell you my story like this: You all could not feel as bad for me as I feel for myself. I finally began my long awaited and much-needed three-month sabbatical and after only three days, I tested positive for Covid. After almost two years of precaution and careful rule following, I have the virus. Not only is my trip to Israel canceled due to the travel ban, but the trip to New England and the yoga retreat I had planned to replace my time in Israel are now canceled as well. Instead of new sights and experiences, I am sitting in my eldest son‘s old bedroom (surrounded by sports pennants and his high school fantasy literature collection) for the next ten days.
I would rather tell you my story like this: You do not need to feel so bad for me. It is true that the beginning of my sabbatical is not what I expected, but how blessed am I to have a sabbatical in the first place? It is true that I got Covid, but I got it at a time when I was boosted, the symptoms were mild, and I have a safe place to isolate. Three meals a day are delivered outside my door, my laptop provides daily virtual yoga and an online sacred chant course. I have my journals and books borrowed from the library. I could call it ten days of isolation, but I choose to call it a ten-day silent retreat.
Our reality is shaped by the narrative we tell ourselves about it. My experience is shaped by my story. I choose to feel blessed and grateful. And so I am. Blessed. And so grateful.
I catch up on magazines I have not had time for since the summer and found many articles to inspire me. I pull out my library of books about the craft of writing and feel more creative than I have in a long time. I keep a daily gratitude journal and take notes of all the learning I am doing in another journal. And of course, I have a journal to … journal! I have time for daily prayer at my own pace. I join OJC for Zoom webinar Shabbat services and feel connected to my unseen community and to God.
The truth is, my goals for the sabbatical can be met regardless of where I am. My goals are about my inner life: presence, curiosity, gratitude and grace. My sabbatical is about shaping myself from the inside out, not the other way around.
This past week, we entered into the book of Sh’mot. This book contains so many big Jewish ideas. It is a book about leaving slavery for freedom, exiting a narrow place for the broad expanses, learning in the wilderness, becoming a people, and receiving God’s Torah. During my isolation, I started considering that the biggest idea of all in the Book of Sh’mot might be something else all together. Perhaps the point of the book is the creation of the Mishkan (the portable, holy tabernacle).
I need to heal; our community must heal; the whole world needs healing of the body and the spirit. This difficult work of leaving behind fear, anxiety and vulnerability requires a sturdy container to hold it all. The Mishkan takes up about one third of the Book of Sh’mot. Minute details of the materials, design and preparation are repeated over and over. Rather than think about the building of the Mishkan as a part of the Torah to merely tolerate, Rabbi Shefa Gold suggests that it is the whole point of the Book. The Mishkan is that place where the finite (we humans) meets the Infinite. God says, “Build for Me a holy place and I will dwell within.”
Perhaps my ten days of isolation have been about building a Mikdash me’at (a small replica of the Holy of Holies) within myself. God dwells within me: in my heart, in my soul, and in my body. I thought that I needed to travel far from home in order to open myself to God. I thought I needed new vistas for my eyes and new experiences for my soul. The truth is, forced into isolation, all I had was myself. And I learned that by opening myself during these days of isolation, there is a place within for God to dwell.
Be safe and well, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin) was an American Jewish composer and songwriter who, like many other Jewish artists of his era, found an open door to the expression of his gifts in the music industry. He is considered among the greatest of American songwriters, and “White Christmas” was among his most famous contributions to American culture. The song may have been born out of his own personal experience of loss, it may have been intended as a tribute to what he loved about life in America. Though not religious, Berlin identified ethnically and culturally Jewish until his death in 1989 at the age of 101.
In the spirit of living Jewishly in America at this time of year, I offer the following rendition of Berlin’s timeless contributions. Note: Most people are unaware that the song’s original version has an introductory paragraph about living in Beverly Hills and yearning to be celebrating the holiday up north!
(Sung to the tune of “White Christmas”)
The sun is hiding, the sky is grey
The naked branches sway
It feels like every other day
In Rockland County, you say?
But it’s the 24th of December
And I am longing to be with our members….
I’m dreaming of a bright Shabbos
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the challahs glisten
And children listen
To hear Kiddush chanted slow
(But please, not too slow….)
I’m dreaming of a bright Shabbos
With every guest that I’d invite
May your soup be salted just right,
And may all your Shabboses be bright!
I’m dreaming of a bright Shabbos
But COVID’s got some other plans,
Will you all get tested?
Will germs be bested?
Of masks the guests are just not fans.
I’m dreaming of a bright Shabbos
Though all’s shut down and dark tonight.
May your hearts be open and light,
And may all your Shabboses be bright.
Shabbat shalom, and enjoy the spirit of others’ holidays as we wish others to enjoy ours! And to my friends celebrating Christmas in the northeast, so glad it snowed for you last night!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Oh my bags were packed, I was ready to go…
As you read this post, I should be landing at Ben-Gurion Airport with 18 Hazak congregants to begin ten days of adventure in Israel. Highlights included staying at the gracious Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, a painting party with street graffiti artist Rami Meiri in Tel Aviv, and home hospitality with my son-in-law‘s mother on Kibbutz Mefalsim in the south.
It was going to be a truly wonderful trip, and I had been saying for weeks that the third time was the charm. This trip was originally scheduled for March 2020 when forty of us were scheduled to travel together. When COVID-19 grounded us, we rescheduled to December 2020. When that date still proved impossible, we rescheduled to a trip that was to have begun last night, December 7, 2021.
Many of us had started packing already and had scheduled our Covid tests. As soon as I heard the news about the Omicron variant a week and a half ago, I knew our trip would be canceled once again. Israel closed her borders to all but citizens for two weeks, and in a snap, our trip was canceled.
(We have already rescheduled for December 6 – 16, 2022. Perhaps the fourth time is the real charm?!)
It is disappointing to be at home instead of traveling. It is worrisome to think that the world is undependable and unpredictable. It is true that many who planned to go with us back in March 2020 are no longer able to travel with us at this point for a variety of reasons.
What do we do with disappointment? I have learned from all of my congregants and their life experiences to reframe, to be grateful, and to maintain hope in a positive outcome.
REFRAME: I feel so sad not to be in Israel, a place that I love to share with congregants, a place where I feel at home, a place that lifts people up in transformative ways. And also – I know that we are among the most fortunate people who can even dream of international travel. As one wise congregant told me, “Commit to no complaining and then watch for miracles.” We will get to Israel yet. Perhaps some of you who wanted to join our group but were not able to go this year will be able to go with us next year. Perhaps it is a blessing that I get an extra week and a half with my sixth graders in Kulanu. I know that it is a blessing to be at OJC for one more Shabbat before sabbatical, celebrating Carl Roth’s birthday!
GRATITUDE: Congregants who have been planning to travel with me have been inspiring in their graciousness since the cancellation. One told me, “Whenever you go, I am ready to go with you.” Another wrote to me: “I didn’t realize just how much I wanted to go until the trip was canceled.” I am grateful for a congregation filled with people who love Israel. I am grateful for courageous older people still willing to accept the risks of international travel. I am grateful for Ayelet, an amazing Israel tour company that knows how to pivot and bend over backwards when necessary. I am grateful for the good health of the OJC travelers, and pray for the continuation of good health so that we can travel together next year. Our blessings outweigh everything else.
HOPE: Our world is not an easy place. We can no longer depend upon things we used to take for granted. I do not, however, subscribe to the idea that humans plan and God laughs. The God I believe in does not trivialize our hopes and dreams.
I hope that we will travel to Israel in December 2022. I hope that the world will be a safer and more open place by that time. I even hope that you will consider traveling with us!
And in the meanwhile, I will miss writing to you for the next three months while I am on sabbatical. But know that I will be collecting experiences and replenishing my heart so that I return to you from sabbatical refreshed and energized to continue being your rabbi, a position that I feel with gratitude and hope.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
We are pleased to feature this contribution to our OJC Rabbis’ blog by Lindsay Goldman, this year’s rabbinic intern:
In my first year of rabbinical school my classmates and I all tried to prove to one another how frum (Yiddish: פֿרום, lit. ‘religious’, ‘pious’) we were. Someone told us they waited six hours between meat and milk, another classmate shared that they put on two different kinds of tefillin every day, and someone else said that they would not say amen to the blessing in the amidah if it included the matriarchs. We were trying to prove how much we belonged here at the Jewish Theological Seminary. However by second year, third year, and now in fourth year, we know that what it means to belong in this community looks different. We show that we belong by talking about our journey to and with our practice and our struggle along the way.
Every Wednesday at JTS is “Rabbinical School community time,” where we gather to discuss pressing issues in our future rabbinates over lunch. Last Wednesday we were each given a few minutes to fill out a survey about our ideas of halakhah. The survey was guided by the question: “Which of the following most closely aligns with what you think halakhah is?” This is not a question we are asked before being admitted to the institution, nor is this a question the answer to which we know about our rabbis or classmates, but it is a question that is essential to the way we live our lives. Does it matter what the halacha says if we don’t know how it impacts our lives?
The four multiple choice options that followed were:
- Halakhah is a direct expression of God’s will.
- Halakhah is a humanly-influenced approximation of God’s “will”.
- Halakhah is a human attempt to live in God’s presence.
- Halakhah is a collection of humanly created consensual norms.
Someone who believes that halakhah is God’s will approaches Jewish law drastically differently than one who assumes it is a compiled set of human norms. Students shared what it felt like when their idea of God’s will was conflicting with humanly created norms. And I added what it felt like when God’s divine will conflicts with the self compassion with which I want to treat myself.
I believe this conversation to figure out how we believe halakhah has a claim on us matters significantly more than the actual practice of Jewish law itself, or at the very least needs to be considered primarily. I am proud of how the dialogue has changed both within the institution and within myself over the last couple of years. I recall the flexibility of my Shabbat practice during the peak of Covid when I was keeping Shabbat without a community, differently than it was intended to be kept. I chose to consider my needs first and the needs of my relationship with God second because of what I believe about halakhah. I don’t know what God’s will is but I believe that being in relationship with human beings is God’s mission in the world. My life is built around trying to be in relationship with God, what I choose to put in my body, when I work and when I rest, as well as learning and teaching Torah. But if I do not have a relationship with myself, I do not feel I can connect as deeply to God.
I won’t spoil which answer students chose overwhelmingly because I want you to consider for yourself which of these options is true for you without any undue influences (but email me at email@example.com if you want to talk more about the results!). I encourage you to explore your practice and why you do what you do; I personally and strongly believe that the first step is to articulate what halakhah means to you.
Lindsay Goldman, OJC Rabbinic Intern
I look forward to every Shabbat, but I was particularly excited for this past Shabbat. My daughter Sarah was flying in with baby Carmel and they were planning to come to synagogue with us. During services we were celebrating the auf ruf of Marisa Kelly and Josh Rappaport whom I have known since they were young. And I had prepared a sermon about Lekh L’kha that I was excited to give.
Humans plan and God laughs, they say. Sarah arrived with Carmel at Newark Airport at 3:45 am. We were so happy to greet them, but as the day continued, it became clear that Sarah‘s congestion was not a simple cold. As she felt worse and worse with what turned out to be a serious nasal infection,* it became clear that we were not going to Orangeburg and would be staying home in West Caldwell for Shabbat. “Don’t worry,” I told my friend Sharon, the groom’s mom. “I’ll be logged in to the webinar so you’ll know I’m with you.”
On Shabbat morning, as I approached my computer screen for morning services, however, I realized something was the matter. Once again, humans plan and God laughs. The screen from the synagogue was on mute and the service was completely silenced. I realized that there must have been a disruption to the zoom webinar overnight and proceeded to pray by myself. Of course, I was disappointed not to hear the blessings recited by Marisa and Josh, and sad to miss Rabbi Scheff’s words of Torah. But I quickly came to terms with four interwoven truths. 1. It was Shabbat. 2. There are limits to technology. 3. We are still living through a pandemic. 4. We are a community committed to halakha.
These four points describe the creative tension, the push-me-pull-you nature of OJC and these strange times in which we are living. Throughout the pandemic, we have pushed the halakha to its outer boundaries to enable our congregants and guests to gather and still maintain the integrity of our sacred community.
I understand the disappointment of all those who want to gather for Shabbat. This past Shabbat is not the first time that service has been interrupted for virtual worshippers. Why couldn’t a mistakenly muted microphone be fixed with one tap of a finger? So many of us know intellectually that the answer is clear: in our synagogue, we don’t use electricity, a modern adaptation of the original command to light no fires on Shabbat or holidays. We understand that every opportunity has been protected for those of us who want to gather virtually and maintain this basic Shabbat law.
It’s in our hearts and souls that we don’t want to accept the “imposition” of halakha. Emotionally, it certainly feels that the gathering itself is the ultimate value.
To those of us who respond in this way, I ask the following questions: What is it about OJC that calls you to gather with us and what does gathering really mean?
Think about it… we choose to participate, support and identify with OJC for some reason. What is it?
For me, OJC’s call is anchored in the eternal values that constitute our mission: Torah, prayer and loving kindness. We hold up those values in service to God and community. But the magic of OJC is that we live the mission and the values with integrity. I believe that our synagogue is a beloved community because we stand for something bigger than ourselves and our own individual desires.
And whether it’s in person or virtually, why do we gather at all? Why is it so important to us that we are very disappointed when we are not able to gather? Author Priya Parker (priyaparker.com) defines gatherings in her acclaimed book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. Her words describe the OJC. She writes: “Why do we gather? We gather to solve problems we can’t solve on our own. We gather to celebrate, to mourn, and to mark transitions. We gather to make decisions. We gather because we need one another. We gather to show strength. We gather to honor and acknowledge. We gather to welcome, and we gather to say goodbye.”
Our gatherings are essential. Zoom minyanim, Kabbalat Shabbat in the Lot, Sisterhood programs, Men’s Club tailgates and Na’aseh events, Kulanu classes and Shabbat morning in synagogue – all allow us to connect to God and to each other face to face or through our virtual grid.
There are limits to our virtual community, as our failed technology last Shabbat proved to be true. There are also limits to our community in person, as we await the time when all congregants are safe to gather once again.
As we continue to figure it all out and to negotiate the push-me-pull-you of health and halakhic requirements to preserve our sacred community, two things remain true: First, it is worth the struggle because we at OJC love to gather. And second, I imagine that God takes pleasure in watching us struggle to find our balance as we try to get it all right. I can imagine God saying, “Now there’s a community involved in debate L’shem Shamayim, in the name of heaven.”
(*A special note of gratitude to Dr. Jonathan Lesserson whose professional skill and healing, gentle kindness put Sarah on the road to a refuah shlayma, a complete healing.)
Shabbat shalom, and may it truly be a Shabbat of peace,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
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
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
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
At the end of March 2020, in response to the spreading pandemic and the New York State prohibition against gathering in groups of ten or more, I issued an halachic (Jewish legal) ruling that permitted the OJC community to constitute a minyan (quorum of 10 for the purpose of prayer) via virtual participation, so long as ten people could see and hear each other. I was careful to add:
PLEASE NOTE: It is important to recognize that this ruling only applies under these extraordinary circumstances, and does not establish a precedent for minyan in times when we are free to congregate in groups of 10 once again.
We were not alone in following this legal leniency instituted for a sha’at d’chak, a time of extreme circumstances. And there was much discussion among Conservative rabbis at the time, as synagogues were transitioning to remote participation, about whether this bell could ever be unrung.
We have now reached the stage, by virtue of climbing vaccination and dropping infection rates, where restrictions have been lifted and people are gathering publicly in large numbers, both indoors and outdoors.
It is important to recognize that we, individually and communally, have been traumatized at some level by our experience of the pandemic, which still rages on in parts of the world and continues to produce variants and unanticipated effects. Though current science may tell us that our risk of infection once vaccinated is very low and our risk of serious illness even lower, some of us are simply not prepared to place ourselves in a crowd, especially indoors.
For some of us, there is also a certain level of inertia that has set in. The convenience of life coming to us through a screen, the elimination of our commuting time, the comfort of our loungewear—these things have all contributed to a welcomed slower pace to our days. It is difficult to ramp back up to life in the fast lane when our lives have felt more like a Sunday drive for the last sixteen months.
As a Jewish community whose mission is to care for the vulnerable and preserve life, we have moved deliberately and cautiously towards the resumption of in-person programs and services. As a Jewish community whose mission is also to gather people for the full experience of connection through ritual, prayer, study and celebration, we are anxious to provide all the programs and services we can. Our challenge as a community is to balance these competing values.
We must continue to be there for those people who are not ready to join us inside the walls of the synagogue. We will continue to offer our programming through a hybrid of in-person services and live stream along with the occasional outdoor service.
We must also strive to meet the needs of those who wish to gather in person, and continue to expand on our indoor programming so long as we can do so safely and comfortably.
This goal, however, requires a level of individual commitment that we have not yet expected or even requested as a community. If we are truly to be there for each other—and for those not ready to rejoin us—we must regard showing up as a commitment, an obligation to each other.
I recognize that we may not love the language of obligation, that perhaps in some way it undermines the purity of intention. But intention does not create community. A community for the purpose of prayer is only created when ten individuals commit to showing up. The call for our resumption of in-person services had been loud, but the response has been weak.
The halachic process requires that a rabbi consider the practice of their community, or “where the people are at.” Perhaps we should conclude from the unenthusiastic response to indoor, in-person services that we as a community are not yet prepared to commit to creating physical community. Honestly, I can live with that. I am prepared to view the summer as a transitional time, and to continue to count the daily evening minyan virtually; however, barring a resurgence of the pandemic, in the new year of 5782 I am hoping that we can institute a system where we will gather ten people every night in our building so that a proper quorum can be offered to those who are at home and to those who are present.
In this past week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we read about the obligatory individual sacrifices the Israelites were told to offer at specific appointed times, in addition to their free-will (voluntary) and votive offerings. Are you among those comfortable gathering in person? If so, are you prepared to bring more than your “free-will offering” to your community, to make a commitment to the community that will enable us to serve others and to answer the demands of Jewish law?
Let me know who you are. Together, we will get there, eventually, with and for each other. Together, I believe we will unring that bell.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Both of my parents died in their early 60s. My father died at 61, just the age that I am now.
His yahrzeit, the 16th of Sivan, is this coming evening through tomorrow. It is his 30th yahrzeit, a fact that I can only describe as surprising. How is it possible that my dad has been dead for so long?
Today, my dad would have been a nonagenarian.
If that word does not sound familiar to you, it is because we did not used to have so many of them in our lives, even just a decade ago. According to the Census Bureau, people 90 and older now comprise 4.7 percent of the older population (age 65 and older), as compared with only 2.8 percent in 1980. Driven by improvements in health care and medical breakthroughs, by 2050, this share is likely to reach 10 percent. Today, people in their 90s, if blessed with health and intellectual faculties, are among the most wise, vibrant, and inspiring people I know. By the time I get there in 2050, I’m going to be surrounded by my peers!
I love to spend time with nonagenarians. I seem to seek them out. Until I received the reminder for my father’s thirtieth yahrzeit, it did not occur to me that he would have been one of them.
I wonder quite often about who my father would have become through these many years of change. Who would he have been for his grandchildren? I know that he would have continued to be my sounding board, confidant and cheerleader.
In all of these 30 years, I have consistently sought out people who were the age he would have been. In my monthly call list, so many of my treasured congregants are well into their 90s, filled with wisdom, humor, and plans. This year of the pandemic has taken a toll on many of them, yet there is always an ability to have perspective and to adjust expectations. These calls often feel that they are much more about my needs than theirs.
Four particular nonagenarians are my teachers and parent-replacements. (The surprising realization that we never outgrow the need for parents is an idea for another blog post altogether.) Phil, Arthur, Reggie and Joseph give me optimism about my next 30 years, and teach me a lot about who I am today.
My father-in-law, Phil, is a whirlwind of energy who still works full-time in his third-generation commercial construction company, takes Pilate classes twice a week, walks his dog and rides his bike. Yes, when he turned ninety three years ago, his kids asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He told us he’d like a new bike! When Phil stops by for lunch with Jonathan, he always leaves with words that go something like, “I have to get going; I have too much to do.”
My mother-in-law’s partner, Arthur, not only survived her death in November, but also survived Covid-19 that sent him to the hospital the day after her funeral. I worried that, having lost his best friend, he would not find the will to go on. But here he is, gathering his vast library of artistic photographs into self-published books, learning new skills in watercolor and moving last week into an independent living apartment… a decision he made and carried out independently! When I visited him to see the new place, he was busy watching a YouTube about different types of clay that are useful for sculpture.
My daughter-in law’s grandmother, Reggie, is that person who gets adopted by every person who meets her. I could not love my daughter-in-law more than I do, but it sure does add something fantastic that her grandmother came along with the package. I look forward to my long phone conversations with Reggie, whom we all call Grandmommy. She is always interested and interesting. When I speak with her, it is as if I am speaking with a sister, not a woman who is the age my mother would have been.
My dear friend Susan’s father, Joseph (who for reasons that I can no longer remember we often call George) has been a friend of mine since Susan and I became friends 30 years ago. Joseph attends minyan daily here in Caldwell and for years, has taught the nursery school children how to keep a garden. And he shares with me his memories and stories of survival through the years of the Holocaust. When we used to attend services regularly here in Caldwell, Joseph always saved the seat next to him for me. Susan was on one side and I was on the other. He was the dad I had lost. He even has a little white goatee just like my dad.
These nonagenarians offer wisdom, experience, and perspective. When they reminisce with me about their lives, I feel immense gratitude, as if I am recovering something I lost 30 years ago. When they share with me their solid perspective on today, I am able to breathe easier and gain perspective. When I think of my own life, I see that I still have so much time to grow and learn just as they have. Thanks to inspiring nonagenarians, I look forward to 2051!