2017 Mitzvah Mission day 4 – For the precious children

This morning we departed Haifa just before 9:00am. (What an amazing group! I say 9:00am on the bus, and they were loaded up, in their seats and ready to go at 8:55! Maybe they were totally pumped by Linda’s Torah reading from the Sephardic scroll?)

In any event, by 10:00am we had arrived at Beit Lid junction just outside of Netanya, meeting up there with a group of young teens from Kfar Ahava who had been rewarded with this experience for their outstanding personal and academic performances. The junction was the site of a terrorist attack on January 22, 1995, when two suicide bombers targeted a bus stop crowded by young soldiers returning to their bases early on a Sunday morning. Twenty one soldiers and one civilian were murdered that morning, with more than sixty wounded. A crude but powerful memorial was erected within days, leaves that had fallen too early representing lives that had been cut far too short.

We learned about the long process that the community undertook to establish a permanent memorial. the site, just a few hundred feet away from the location of the bombing would become a memorial and a community center. The goals of the creators and the community were to remember the tragedy, empower the living, and bring to life the stories of the victims. The impressive sculpture ultimately created was inspired by the Biblical verse that describes Jacob’s ladder with “the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).

Twenty two figures ascend the ladder. Each victim is represented by one of the ascending figures; each family of the victims knows which figure represents its loved one. The ladder ascends to the heavens with no supports, representing the strength of the Jewish nation to support its fallen and its survivors. In completing a mosaic of a flower with the teens from Ahava, we felt empowered to create beauty, and we reaffirmed together our sense of responsibility to give life to the legacies of the fallen. One young man shared with me his feelings that, upon reaching young adulthood, he appreciated the newfound sense of responsibility to remember, to serve, and to make choices that will improve his world.

After an exciting off-road adventure that afforded us a quaint picnic lunch with the teens, it was on to Jerusalem. We arrived at Mount Scopus, Har Hatzofim, with the sunset. We cried a little (surprise!) for the sacrifices Israel demands of her children; we reflected on the hope and love that we share for a land that is far from perfect. Like our feelings for our children, though we may not always like everything she does, we still love her and believe that she represents the best possibility for getting it right. We bask in her glow even as we commit to rebuilding her atop her ruins.

An evening of shopping and enjoying the beginning of the weekend was topped off with a visit (one planned, one purely by chance!) with two of our synagogue teens spending their year in Israel. Jessica’s and Sarah’s smiles said it all. Content, happy, innocent, care-free and learning about themselves and their Jewish identities, they represent our hope so well.

This is what every child deserves. God, they are so precious. Please God, spread your shelter of peace over them. Protect them from any harm or pain. Let the Hope be realized soon, and may Your word go out from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, so that no more of our children need be depicted as angels ascending a ladder in return to You.

Rabbi Craig Scheff


2017 Mitzvah Mission, Day 3 – Love

How does one summon love for the stranger?

At a place called Love (Ahava), the stranger offers love, creating a safe space for the vulnerable; the stranger receives love, and the reassurance that they will not always be rejected; and we are inspired to give enough love to effect a slight change for the better in our world.

My first visit to Kfar Ahava was in 2007. And even in my eleventh year I am so deeply moved and inspired by the experience. Perhaps more so because once again I got to see this remarkable and unique place through the eyes of the newcomers.

After our annual reintroduction to Ahava by Executive Director Yoav Apelboim, the group gathered in the memorial corner we created in memory of, and dedicated to, Danny Klein and Rob Katz. We remembered, cried, and blessed together. Today was Rob’s birthday, so the moment was particularly poignant. We dedicated today’s acts of love to their legacies.

Next, I gave our newcomers—Ellen, Sharon and Andre—a tour of the residential facility, the school and the emergency shelter. The bright skies, cool breezes, colorful mosaics, peaceful gardens and quiet grounds belied all the brokenness and pain that lay behind so many of the closed doors around us.

But what could not be hidden away was the love. The newcomers saw it in the way the 17-year veteran social worker talked about the children she received in the emergency shelter. Every child brought in through her doors, she explained, deserved to be love, especially considering the conditions they had suffered at home, the one place that was supposed to guarantee love.

At lunch, Amy Nelson and I witnessed an eight year-old boy trying to bond with us by insisting that his father was a professional soccer player who played in New York. He just wanted to be loved. A twelve year-old oppositional girl challenged him to stop lying, so clearly lashing out in the pain of her own brokenness. An eighteen year-old doing his year of national service at Ahava subtly shook his head in disapproval of her insensitivity, and her anger was quieted. The foster mother overseeing their care, in her first year of service, turned to us to offer that she was here to change the world for the better in some small way.

Tonight, first-timer Sharon, a stranger to Ahava, reflected to the group that the experience of Ahava stripped away her armor. With the permission to be vulnerable, she felt more authentic. And the more authentic we are, the more capable we are of giving and receiving love.

Thank you, Ahava, for inspiring us all to love even the stranger.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

2017 Mitzvah Mission Day 2 – A Keeper

There are many meanings to the word “shomer,” depending on its context. Guard, observer, and watchman are just a few uses of the word.

Today we served as shomrim in almost every sense of the word. The word “keepers” probably best captures our role today. Most of us were on the beach by 7am, running or walking on the Tayelet, exercising the mitzvah of shmirat ha-guf, or keepers of our bodies. On the bus ride southward, we sang the morning service together, meditating on the mitzvah of shmirat ha-nefesh, keeping of the spirit. As we sang the words to “Shomer Yisrael,” Guardian of Israel, we didn’t appreciate in the moment what those words would come to mean by the end of the day.

On a farm called Amatziya in the Lachish region, across a valley from the city of Hebron, we met the young men of Hashomer Hachadash (“The New Guard”), who shared with us their experiences as watchmen for Israel’s farmers. Protecting farmlands from intruders who might burn their crops and kill their livestock, the Shomrim spend a year of national service learning leadership skills, volunteering on the farms, and serving as nighttime deterrents for those who might consider intruding. Hashomer Hachadash has also engaged thousands of volunteers with the Zionist dream and Israel’s rich historical connection to the land through educational programs and opportunities to work the land with their own hands.

Under Amir the farmer’s direction, we spent the day working in a vineyard, fulfilling the mitzvah of shmirat ha-adamah, keeping the land, clearing the overgrowth and making room for the grapes that will grow in the year ahead. Of course, we had plenty of opportunities to pluck the sweet grapes right from the vine to snack on through the day.

By the end of the day, we had become the keepers of the land and the keepers of the dream. Best of all, as we departed, we took with us the charge of being each other’s keepers.

This day was definitely a keeper! Tomorrow morning we are on to Ahava!

Laila tov,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

The lives of Sarah

“The lifetime of Sarah came to be one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah” (Genesis 23:1).

I offer what follows in tribute to the life of Sarah our matriarch, Sarah my grandmother on her 98th birthday, and the occasion of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.

They were nights of broken lives and broken dreams, days of broken hearts and broken families. Six years worth of brokenness. Sarah learned to cheat death and to gamble with life, to speak in half-truths to her loved ones and to lie to herself every morning just to get through the day.

The year 1941 was the worst of them all, as she now recalls. With her one-year-old daughter Hannah in her arms, she would leave Siberia and her husband behind with the intention of starting a new life back in Berdichev, where her mother and father (and his 12 siblings and their families) remained. Her husband Izzy would leave his work in Siberia once she was settled with the family. Sarah sensed, however, that Jewish life in Berdichev was coming to an end. She cried to her father endlessly, pleading with him to return to Siberia with her. She ultimately prevailed, but just in the nick of time. She can still recall looking back from afar at the city engulfed in Nazi flames, the agonizing screams of her dying aunts, uncles and cousins being drowned out by the exploding bombs.

The lives of Sarah are 20 years and 6 years and 72 years, 98 years in all.

For twenty years before those six terrible years (1939-1945) of trading tomorrow’s ration slips for today’s bread, Sarah was a mischievous, happy girl. A talented seamstress, she was the choice of the wealthy shop- and factory-owners to make lingerie for their wives (bras, to be exact!). It was a talent that would ultimately keep her growing family fed. She found love; she had dreams.

For the past 72 years, Sarah has known love, and she has known loss. She has derived pride from the four generations that she has birthed, but her arthritic fingers are evidence that she’s worked hard for every morsel of satisfaction she enjoys. Her compromised sight and hearing may frustrate communication, but her mind still knows humor, sarcasm and wit; her heart still knows love, joy, disappointment and worry. And she can still dish out the guilt with the best of them.

Today, she feels her way around her daughter’s kitchen, finding a yogurt and two pieces of bread just where she left them.  She carefully washes her plate and the serrated knife in the sink. I️ hold my breath, debating whether I️ should jump in or give her the control she desires.

Let her be, I️ decide. After 98 years, she’s earned the right to control her own destiny, if only until my mother emerges from the bedroom.

These are the lives of Sarah.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

OJC Hazak Adventure – Post IV

Volunteering at the food security program, Pantry Packers, is a completely fun experience. On Tuesday morning, we put on aprons and hairnets and learned assembly line tasks to package food for hungry people all over Israel.

Of course, the hour and a half we spent putting pasta into sealed and labeled packages was much more than fun. We thought about what it means to provide food for parents of hungry children, survivors of the Shoah, or people who are mentally ill. Rabbi Menachem Traxler, Director of Pantry Packers, challenged us: “Do you know what it means to be hungry? Really. Truly. Hungry?” We were proud to begin our day by providing help with dignity. You can help at: https://pantrypackers.org/.

Next we drove to Gush Etzion to hear first-hand about the courageous work of Shorashim (Roots), a program of dialogue, understanding and bridge building between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

We were enlightened and inspired by our conversation with Shaul Yudelman and a Palestinian partner, Noor.

The story we heard was one of “us versus them,” an existential conflict, and a deep sense of fear that is common to both sides. According to Noor and Shaul, participants in Roots have enough courage to meet each other and take responsibility for their stories. As Shaul said, “We must come to see that we belong to the same land.

Before we left, I asked Noor to offer a poem or prayer for peace before we sang Oseh Shalom. In English and Arabic, he quoted “Think of Others” by Mahmoud Darwish:

As you prepare your breakfast, think of others
     (do not forget the pigeon’s food).
As you conduct your wars, think of others
     (do not forget those who seek peace)…
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
     (say: “If only I were a candle in the dark”).

Our day was completed by a return to ancient history with a visit to the Israel Museum. We saw the model of the Old City in the 1st century BCE and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Today, Wednesday, began with a visit to Yad Vashem, a visit I consider to be a moral obligation on every trip to Jerusalem.

Our final tour experience was an exhilarating visit to Hadassah Hospital where we were honored by Barbara Goldstein, Deputy Executive Director of Hadassah Offices in Israel, who gave us a complete explanation of the Chagall windows in the hospital synagogue.

She shared a lovely story about Mark Chagall‘s response when asked if he would create windows for the hospital. He said, “Thank you. I have been waiting to be asked.” What did he mean? He said, “I have been waiting to serve the Jewish people.” Barbara challenged all of us, “How have you served the Jewish People today?”

We were inspired to hear from Dvir Musai, a young man who owes his life to Haddassah Hospital. In 2002, doctors at the hospital saved three young boys, one of whom was Dvir, who were the victims of a terrorist bomb while on a school trip.

Dvir told us, “I imagine that my surgeon must have thought to himself that a 13 year old boy is too young to lose his legs.” Against all odds, and 30 surgeries later, Dvir is the father of two boys and an employee of Hadassah Hospital. He was given back his life in the trauma unit and given two new lives in the Mother and Child Pavilion. There was not a dry eye when Rhoda Friedman gave to Dvir infant caps she had crocheted for newborns at the hospital.

As I write this from Sarah and Sagi’s apartment, most of the travelers are getting ready to board the flight home, filled with memories to last a lifetime. I will be home soon too, after a celebration of the wedding of Sagi‘s brother Roi to Lera and a Shabbat with my kids here in Tel Aviv.

Maybe next time you will be the one to travel to Israel with an OJC trip?!

Warmest regards from Israel,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

OJC Hazak Israel Adventure – Post III

For the OJC Hazak trip, Sunday began in Israel’s City that Never Sleeps, Tel Aviv. We visited two museums not common to most tours, each unique in its own way.

At the newly renovated Beit Hatefusot, Museum of the Jewish People, we appreciated the way that Jews from all over the world are part of one people. I had visited this museum two decades ago and remembered well the exhibit on synagogues from around the world. I shared with the group the following Yehuda Amichai poem, which he wrote after the original museum opened on the campus of Tel Aviv University.

Poem Without an End

Inside the brand-new museum
there’s an old synagogue.
Inside the synagogue
is me.
Inside me
my heart.
Inside my heart
a museum.
Inside the museum
a synagogue,
inside it
inside me
my heart,
inside my heart
a museum

We did not want to leave the exhibits of Ethiopian olim offering videotaped oral history, a celebration of Bob Dylan (Robert Allen Zimmerman) at 75, and Shim’s photography- (later known as David Seymour; he is buried in Cedar Park, Paramus. I found the location of his grave and plan to pay respects.)

The second museum we visited was the Israel Museum at the Yitzhak Rabin Center. For almost two hours, we were guided through Rabin’s life, both personal and professional, Israel’s history and world history, all wrapped into one amazing, complicated story.

On our drive along the Tel Aviv promenade we were blessed with a breathtaking sunset over the Mediterranean.

We ate dinner “in the dark” and watched the play Not by Bread Alone, with actors who are blind and deaf. The lesson of the play is that we should never assume we can know all about a person because of how they present in the world; we all have dreams.

Monday has been a day spent in the Old City. We began as archaeologists, doing artifact sifting from the Second Temple period. We found pottery, blown glass, and bones. Our guide did not enter into the politics of the mindless bulldozing at the site of the Temple in the 90’s. She simply said, “Excavation without supervision,  whether legal or illegal, is immoral.”

We continued on to the Jewish Quarter. Our fantastic guide, Nir Ofer (veterans of Rabbi Scheff’s November volunteer missions might remember him) said, “Look at the Western Wall. In reality, we see only  stones. And so, if we feel anything spiritually, it must come from within us. Thus the Wall epitomizes a religion that taught the world to worship a God we cannot see.”

As always, we shopped in the Cardo, the main shopping avenue of ancient Jerusalem, and found gifts, jewelry and tallitot.

The tour of the Western Wall Tunnels was challenging but enlightening – so much history in Jerusalem, so little time.

In the evening, we watched the sound and light show at the Tower of David and were able to use today’s Hebrew word of the day most appropriately: magniv (wonderful)!

With love from Jerusalem,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

OJC Hazak Israel Adventure – Post II

Every Shabbat at the OJC, we turn toward Jerusalem and intend our hearts toward what remains of the site of the Temple, the Western Wall.

This Shabbat in Jerusalem, we turned toward the Wall itself, at Ezrat Yisrael, the Egalitarian platform of the Western Wall. As our voices rose together in the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat, our hearts were intended toward friends and loved ones back at the Orangetown Jewish Center. We brought into our minds all those we wish could have been with us on such a beautiful evening.

Shabbat dinner at our hotel was enhanced by our guests, Sarah Machlis, Drill-bits, and two lone soldiers. We each shared a highlight of our week and the hardest thing was choosing just one thing to say. Shaya, one of the soldiers, adopted Eileen Rogers as his grandmother before he left us. Who could blame him?

Shabbat morning, we were welcomed to the Masorti synagogue attached to the Fuchsburg Center for Conservative Judaism, Moreshet Yisrael. The chanting of Chazzanit Saralee Shrell Fox lifted us through the entire service, but especially as we joined her in singing Hallel. Rabbi Adam Frank moved us with a drash about the command: Be fruitful and multiply. Why did God so badly want humanity to continue that God made it a positive command? And why do we humans bring children into a world that is so difficult? Rabbi Frank suggested that we believe we can continue to improve the world into the next generations. Judaism teaches that we can.

After lunch, we learned Torah with a Conservative Yeshiva student, Liza Bernstein. She challenged us with a comparison of Noah, a pure man who walked with God, to Abraham, a pure man who walked before God. Participants on our trip brought honor to the OJC through their insightful and enthusiastic participation in the Torah study. Liza will begin rabbinical studies next year at the Hebrew college in Boston, and she will make a wonderful rabbi one day.

After just a little bit of time to relax in the afternoon, we gathered for Havdalah.

We separated from the holy to re-enter the weekday, but we will surely carry holiness with us as we continue our adventures.

Chazzanit Shrell Fox, who led us on Shabbat morning, happens to be an old friend. Among many other talents, she creates beautiful women’s kippot. After Shabbat, she met us in our hotel lobby with samples of her work.

When you see our new kippot in synagogue over the next next weeks, you will be wanting one of your own or one for a woman in your life! Luckily, I will gladly share her website with you:

Shavua tov
from Jerusalem,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
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