Der mensch tracht un Gott lacht
My father and my brother both died at 61 of the heart condition that I also inherited. I am not going to die of that condition.
My mother died at 63 of cancer. I had cancer. I didn’t die.
Yesterday I turned 63 years and 3 months. I have outlived my family of origin.
Almost a year ago, I realized that this date had profound meaning for me. I overcame my worry that it was too morbid an idea and decided instead that it was time to celebrate the enormous blessings of my abundant life: a loving family, loyal friends, meaningful work and good health.
I planned to celebrate Hanukkah Shabbat with a family dinner with our kids and grandboys to mark the auspicious date. I planned the menu with my kids’ favorites and got the groceries. On Wednesday morning, I started my chicken soup.
That’s as far as I got.
In Yiddish, the saying goes: Der mensch tracht un Gott lacht. Humans plan and God laughs.
That’s how it felt last night as I lay in flu-induced fever and exhaustion, listening to the chatter and laughter of Shabbat dinner downstairs. How ironic that I was celebrating good health and long life by spending every moment since Wednesday morning horizontal in my bed, except for a visit to the doctor and a stop for a Covid PCR (negative).
My daughter, Sarah, told me on Friday morning to stop worrying about it, that the kids would all make dinner. After my third text about how to set the table and which recipe of chicken to use, she sent me a gif of Frozen’s Elsa singing “Let it Go.” I let it go.
Sarah brought me up homemade vegetable soup just after candlelighting time that eased the tightness in my chest and soothed my soul better than any medicine. I hadn’t been able to light Chanukah candles or Shabbat candles with everyone. But I felt loved.
Still I spent the evening feeling quite sorry for myself. The good thing about the flu, however, is that I will heal speedily. As of this afternoon, I felt well enough to sit up in a chair and read. And tonight we lit Hanukkah candles for the seventh night together.
So the important date came and went. Maybe that is just as well. The bottom line holds true. I am grateful for this beautiful and precious life and I plan to enjoy it for another forty years at least.
Shavua tov and Chanukah sameach!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
On the third night of Hanukkah
“It felt like it used to be….”
We tend to romanticize the past. We say the good old days are gone. We think the successes of the past can’t be matched. We lament that the lights of yesteryear burned a little brighter. And then something spectacular happens to remind us that we can consistently re-create ourselves … and maybe even climb a little higher.
Last night, the third night of Hanukkah in the year 2022/5783, we were reminded as a community who we are and how special we can be.
How was this night different from any other night? What made this night, this holiday, so special? I have some thoughts on the matter, ranging from the logistical and programmatic to the spiritual.
Not by might, not by power – It takes a spirit of collegiality and teamwork to create a successful event. Rabbi Hersh directed a vision that was embraced by the many constituents of our community. Rabbi Kniaz and the Kulanu board had no issue letting our Tuesday session end early to feed into the holiday program. Sharon Rappaport and our Naaseh/USY community were happy to build their evening off our communal time. A 5:30 start time meant that most parents could finish a work day and have younger children home at a reasonable hour. A multigenerational program offered the space for adults to shmooze over desserts after the younger crowd departed. Our planning represented a spirit of giving, of generosity and of shared aspirations.
The price is right – Thanks to the generosity of a longtime member of this community who passed away relatively recently, we have the resources to offer certain programs free of charge. For many households, financial concerns impact the choices we make and determine the level of our participation. A program that doesn’t carry an additional fee is an attractive option. Moreover, the model of anonymous giving for the benefit of the community is inspiring. Hopefully, we were all inspired to give of ourselves in some way, financially or otherwise, after last night. And perhaps when people recognize the great value they receive from what is offered, they will be willing to prioritize such experiences even at some financial cost.
If you feed them… – Food matters. Especially for an early evening program when it means parents don’t have to cook, feed their children, and clean up at home. More importantly, breaking bread together builds community, and feeds our sense of belonging and our sense of bounty.
Give ‘em the old razzle-dazzle – Laser lights are cool; candles are even cooler. Both create a sense of awe for people of all ages, but with candles we can draw close, smell them, feel their glow. They connect us to so many other moments and emotions in our lives. And as a ritual, candle lighting is familiar, accessible and meaningful in a way that not all Jewish rituals are. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, offers us the opportunity to experience radical amazement, a sense of awe and appreciation, as a participatory community in our communal space.
‘Tis the season – There is an underlying motif in the biblical story of Joseph (which we read a part of this week) to which we don’t give enough attention. Can we as individuals, as families, as communities and as a people encounter (and even be attracted to!) a culture, adopt some of its enticing elements, adapt our own customs to the prevailing trends, and still not only maintain our sense of identity but thrive? The holiday of Hanukkah answers this question with a resounding yes! Some may perceive the Christmas holiday season to be in conflict with what we hope to experience of Hanukkah; but there is also the possibility that the season brings out our desire to connect with others, to embrace our own identities a bit tighter, to wear and show off our (tacky?) holiday sweaters, socks, ties, and pajamas like never before.
I hope you were among those who got to experience the magic of the evening. I hope you are among those who create some of this magic in their own homes. I hope you’ll be among those coming back to the synagogue to discover the next magical moment created for you.
Chag Urim sameach, wishing you a happy Festival of Lights,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Counting up to 2016
Okay, I admit that I am not a big fan of the countdown to the new year. I find the experience fairly anti-climactic. Jewish tradition teaches me that time spent anticipating a time to come is wasted time. What matters most is what we do with the time we have.
Our Talmudic sages teach that the reason we ascend from one candle on Chanukah’s first night to eight on the last night, as opposed to counting down the days of the holiday, is that we are meant to ascend in holiness, not to descend. We therefore count up our days after Passover to the day we celebrate receiving the Torah.
The lesson speaks to me. I don’t enjoy counting down the days left in a vacation. I much prefer to look ahead to each day of celebration, adding to the joy, as opposed to counting down the days to its conclusion.
On the eighth night of Chanukah, I lit a chanukiah in my grandparents’ kitchen, reflecting on their 75 years of marriage and a celebration of time that would bring most of their children, grandschildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren together. Their lives have not been easy, though they have certainly had many causes for celebration. Surviviors of the Holocaust who have experienced their share of loss, their lives have been enriched by a generosity of spirit and a sincere appreciation for every relationship they share. A phone call today, a lunch date tomorrow, a card game the next day, a get-together with children on the weekend, a great grandson’s bar mitzvah in the summer — each day presents another opportunity to add a deposit to the time bank of our lives.
On this first day of 2015, we can start counting up to 2016. Each day can present an opportunity. Each experience can be a jewel added to a treasure chest of time and experience. May we never wish the time away, may we never miss today by wishing for tomorrow. May 2016 arrive after 365 days completed with a sense of accomplishment, appreciation and ascension.
Wishing you a happy and healthy 2015,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Festival of the Daughters
What is a group of women doing in someone’s living room one night each month, introducing themselves with their matriarchal line and passing a candle from one to the next? We are celebrating Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish new month, a time designated by the rabbis as a festival for women. Rosh Chodesh Celebrations began this year to bring together women who are raising children at home for evenings of study, sharing and celebrating.
Each month our gatherings have been uplifting and meaningful. Through tears and laughter these women have found support and understanding in a close circle of OJC congregants, luxuriating in the gift of time dedicated to self and community.
Last night was a special Rosh Chodesh celebration as the group of younger moms met together with Sisters in Spirit, a group of OJC women whose nests are empty facilitated each month by Sally Kagan and Miriam Suchoff.
Rosh Chodesh Tevet is unique as it falls in the middle of a holiday, on the seventh night of Chanukah each year. Among the Jewish communities of North Africa, this auspicious night was designated as the Festival of the Daughters — a time for the generations to celebrate together. And so that is what the two Rosh Chodesh groups of the Orangetown Jewish Center did last night: we brought the generations together to celebrate.
One of the Rosh Chodesh Celebrations participants wrote about how much she enjoyed the special evening, “I always look to learn from the older, wiser and more experienced women (and men) in the world and often say that those sage people (like my dad) are hard to find these days. Their simple advice is so enlightening and comforting.”
Together we lit the chanukiah and immediately felt the magic begin.
After our opening ritual, Sally told the story of brave and wise Judith who saved the Jews who were under siege by the evil Holofernes. Sally’s storytelling technique was engaging and fun; you’ll have to ask her for a synopsis, but be sure to ask what she pulled out of her basket at the end of the story!
We used the lighting of seven candles to open us to seven questions about women we admire, blessings we would bestow on daughters, our own gifts to family, and more.
There were tears and words of support and much laughter. We concluded the evening with each woman offering a blessing to the woman to her right.
Without a doubt, there is magic in a Rosh Chodesh group. A group of women empowers one another to reach inside and tap into a place we often ignore. The group energizes us so that people not only feel good about themselves, but about the women surrounding them! As Sally Kagan says, “This is the essence of women gathering for Rosh Chodesh: that we all have the ability within our souls to capture the roots of our faith, the belief that we can nurture and be nourished by one another, and to understand what those first women in the red tents knew: that through the camaraderie and learning we are stronger!”
If you are a woman of the Orangetown Jewish Center, we hope that you’ll join one of the Rosh Chodesh groups. Contact me at Rabbi.Drill@theojc.org for more information. If you are a blog reader who is not connected to the OJC, be in contact for information on how to create a group of your own. And if you are a man, be happy for the women in your life that there is a safe and nurturing place for us to grow in a Jewish context.
Enjoy this eighth night of Chanukah. I pray that the lights in the darkness bring optimism to your hearts.
Chag Chanukah Sameach and Chodesh Tov, Happy Chanukah and Happy New Month,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
On the third night of Chanukah, my rabbi said to me…
A past-president of our synagogue, Nohra Leff, once said to me, “I don’t just believe in miracles, I EXPECT THEM!” What a great way to go through life. Expecting miracles means that we engage in behaviors that ultimately create an environment where what some perceive as the “miraculous” becomes that much more possible.
In the fall of 1995, I took a job as part-time cantor at the OJC. Still a full-time student and father of two young boys, I treated the job like it was the fulfillment of a dream. A year later, I was negotiating my first contract to be Student-Rabbi and to stay on as Rabbi after my ordination. I was advised by people “in the know” to avoid such a commitment. After all, the synagogue had gone through so many rabbis in its relatively short history, and I “could do better,” according to the more experienced. Three years later, another past-president, Michael Scolnick, would ask me how long I thought the honeymoon could last. I am glad to say that, even in my 20th year, I still feel like we met just yesterday. Okay, maybe just the day before yesterday.
When I speak to rabbinical students in their final years at JTS, I try to emphasize that every synagogue community has the potential to be a place that can be transformed and re-dedicated to Torah, service and deeds of loving kindness. That can only happen, however, if the rabbi is willing to see him or herself as spending the rest of their professional life serving that one community. If we invest ourselves in a plan believing that we have only two years to work toward achieving our goals, then we doom ourselves to failure; but if we invest ourselves planning for the long term, we can create an environment where the seemingly impossible is indeed achievable.
In the midst of Chanukah, we consider the nature of miracles, and the role that “dedication” (the literal meaning of the word Chanukah) plays in making one day’s worth of oil last for eight, or in leading one small band of soldiers to victory against overwhelming odds. I am so proud of what we have achieved and how we have continued to grow as a Conservative egalitarian community. Beyond our impressive numbers, we have attained a level of learning, service to the broader community, participation and spirit of which we can all be proud. The dedication that has brought us to this place in our history, however, has also given us the wisdom to understand that we must continue striving to build and to deepen relationships; to reach in to our membership and to reach out to those still searching; to develop more pathways into our OJC community, into a life of purpose and meaning, and into relationship with God; and to lookto the future with faith, optimism and vision. Some people might call our success a miracle. Perhaps we have witnessed something miraculous as a community; if so, the miracle only happened because of the wise people–presidents, boards, volunteers, congregants, professionals and clergy–who were looking for one, who expected one, and who acted to create the environment where such a miracle could take root.
Chag Urim Sameach,
Happy Festival of Lights,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Gratitude, Light and Miracles at the OJC
Like you, I cannot count the number of emails and posts I have received regarding the confluence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah this year. Before I delete them all from my in-box or my attention, I want to consider the importance of this week for us as Jews, Americans, and members (or friends) of an amazing synagogue in Rockland County, New York.
GRATITUDE: Two holidays falling together on one day helped me ponder the gratitude I feel about being an American who is free to be an observant Jew. In our family, we take turns around a table filled with three generations, sharing what we are thankful for. This year, we then turned to a chanukiyah sculpted by my father-in-law and chanted the blessings of the holiday. We had too much to eat, laughed at family stories told year after year and held quiet conversations to catch up with family members who live far away. We are blessed and recognized it with thankfulness.
LIGHT: The rabbis taught that the soul is God’s candle. When we kindle the lights with the shamash each night, it is clear to see the wisdom in this teaching. The flame is not diminished in the least as it touches the wicks of each night’s candle, causing each one to light. So too with us. When we share the light of our unique souls, we are not diminished in the least. Rather, we spread light to others.
MIRACLES: This past Shabbat, Rabbi Scheff spoke about the requirement of human initiative to bring about miracles large and small in our day. Consider the fact that Mitzvah Day has turned into Mitzvah-Week-and-a-Half and we can see how many congregants have taken the steps to bring about moments that should not be taken for granted.
Mitzvah-Week-and-a-Half began on Sunday, November 17 when a dozen congregants joined Rabbi Scheff in Israel for the annual Orangetown Jewish Center Mitzvah Mission. Members of the group carried with them cozy hats knit by our congregants for children in Kfar Ahava, our beloved residential program for children who must be removed from abusive or neglectful homes. Watches were wrapped with gift cards created by our sixth grade Religious School students as b’nai mitzvah gifts for the children. Teenager Tamar Weinger (traveling with her dad) brought rainbow looms with her and taught the children how to make the bracelets that are all the rage. Members of the Mission spent important time at the residence, renewing bonds, assisting children in a mitzvah project of their own, and celebrating the milestones of Kfar Ahava. They also volunteered with Leket Yisrael and toured a handicap-accessible nature path in the north. I hope that you read all about the adventures and miracles created by our fellow congregants in Rabbi Scheff’s daily letters from Israel.
Like all important Jewish days, Mitzvah Day began at sundown of the day before. Young children and their grownups gathered with Rabbi Ami and Loni Hersh and their boys for Havdalah and a movie. While the kids were engrossed in the movie, the adults created blankets for hospitals and nursing homes.
At the same time, our Ruach group (grades four and five) led by April Kupferman met to bake for the homeless.
Mitzvah Day, November 24, was an example of the OJC at its very best. A dozen congregants were trained in CPR at the Orangetown Ambulance Corps while one hundred congregants donated blood.
After a breakfast and presentation about Leket Yisrael, congregants participated in a variety of activities in the synagogue as well as at a local nursing home, the Hi Tor Animal Shelter and the Salmon House, one of the Jawonio Group Homes for adults with disabilities. In each gesture and interaction, our congregants were empowered to know that they can change the world. We can argue over the definition of “miracle” — but to me, the day was miraculous.
Kol hakavod to Lorraine Brown and Carolyn Wodar and their amazing team of volunteers for creating a meaningful, successful day.
We didn’t stop there! Tuesday evening, November 26 was the OJC’s first hosting for Helping Hands of this new season. For eight years, we have participated in this important interfaith Rockland County initiative that provides warm, dry places to sleep and hot meals to people who are homeless in our neighborhood. OJC takes it to a different level under the enthusiastic guidance of Gabi Lewy, Geof Cantor, Jack Teadore, Susan Edelstein and Bruce Machlis who gather a large crew of volunteers to shop, set up, cook, greet and stay overnight (thank you Bruce and Liza Machlis!). Helping Hands guests at the OJC experience gourmet meals, donated warm clothing, and the respectful friendship of a crew of teens who participate year after year.
Opportunities for your own miracle making abound at the OJC! Contact Adele Garber or Maddy Roimisher to find out how you can give your time and energy to the Chesed Committee. Maybe next year, when Thanksgiving and Chanukah no longer coincide, I’ll be writing about Mitzvah Year instead of Mitzvah-Week-and-a-Half!
Join us on Tuesday, December 3 from 6:30 to 7:30 pm as we light Chanukah candles together as our amazing OJC community celebrates our countless miracles!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill