Tag Archive | community

Strategic Thinking to Stay Ahead of the Curve

If you have been an OJCer for more than a few months, then you have probably heard our origin story. It is a heroic tale that begins with a struggling synagogue made up of arguing congregants, a stream of short-term rabbis, and money woes that all turned around (trumpets sound!) with the arrival of Rabbi Craig Scheff in the late nineties. Congregants started learning, celebrating, and anchoring the synagogue in Torah and relationship. Drawn to this positive energy, people flocked to the shul. OJC began a path toward stability and growth that was supported with my arrival as a rabbinic intern and then rabbi in 2002. Rabbi Hersh’s bringing his family to “the house in our parking lot” added a vital and younger complement when it was needed. Sharon Rappaport (20-year Youth Director), Amichai Margolis (Music Director), and Rabbi Joseph Robinson (Kulanu Director) together with our office and custodial staff complete the tale of the successful, joyful synagogue we know today.

You might think our narrative is a sweet and simple story of a community’s rise from a low point to high. Perhaps. I think there is more to the story than “rags to riches.”

Underpinning our story is the fact that since the beginning of our stability and growth, OJC has never rested in the comfort of our success. We have always worked to stay steps ahead of the curve. We did not depend on wishes and dreams. As a community, we thought strategically and critically about what was coming next.
This moment in time is no different. Despite the uncertainty and worry in our world today, we are embarking on a strategic plan once again.
Who could have predicted the turbulence of these past two years of the Covid pandemic? Who knew how difficult previously straightforward conversations about Israel, religion, and politics would become? Who could have envisioned a reality with security guards at our doors and in our parking lot at every gathering?
As a community, through these past two years, we never stopped providing our community with meaningful connection anchored in Torah, prayer, and loving kindness. How do we do it?
OJC leadership, volunteers, staff, and clergy are consistently poised to grow and change. Our ability to pivot is anchored in decades of staying ahead of the curve by thinking strategically.

We are envisioning a strategic plan for the next five and ten years. Our committee began work this past week under the able guidance and inspiration of our chairs, Steve Abrams and Benay Josselson.


OJC is consistently progressive and proactive. We are wondering about how to create a solid sense of belonging. We are thinking about new definitions of community beyond a physical presence in our building. We are taking lessons from the pandemic and looking ahead to the world that we are all moving toward. We are planning ahead for the needs of a younger generation. And most of all, we are here for what you are looking for. So please be in touch and tell us: what are you looking for?
Rabbi Paula Drill

A Ramah Shabbat-a-gram to my community

It started with a letter from my rabbi, Henry Sosland of blessed memory, to my parents. No emails or texts way back in 1976, just a typed letter. It was an invitation to send me to Camp Ramah in New England, accompanied by an offer of financial assistance from the rabbi to help make it happen.

My parents didn’t know much about Ramah. They knew it was a Jewish camp. I think (?) they knew that daily prayer, daily learning and Hebrew were part of the program. They knew the rabbi sent his own kids there. In fact, Rachel Sosland, who was one grade ahead of me, was the only person I knew who attended. I’m not really sure why I agreed at the age of 12, sight unseen, to be shipped off for the summer to a dust bowl in Palmer, Massachusetts. But it was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

This year, Ramah is celebrating 75 years of Jewish camping. Since the founding in 1947 of the first Camp Ramah in Wisconsin—intended in part as a training ground for future Jewish leadership and in part as an experiment in enhancing Jewish education for children—Ramah has grown into a network of five day camps, ten overnight camps, family camps, Israel programs, global partnerships and educational experiences that continues to shape the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, teens and young adults. Ramah has produced a foundation for Judaism’s Conservative movement and continues to be the jewel in its crown. Nearly one quarter of our own synagogue families share a connection to the Ramah vision through camping or staffing. Our proximity to Ramah Day Camp in Nyack in particular has led to a unique relationship that has been mutually beneficial to both communities. Over the past 26 years, our OJC professional staff has been fed by the Ramah pipeline of educators. Today, Rabbi Drill, Rabbi Hersh, our youth director Sharon Rappaport, our music director Amichai Margolis and I can all trace our earliest connections to each other through Ramah.

I learned about the creation of Jewish family and the Jewish home from my parents and grandparents; but I learned about the creation of Jewish community from my time at Camp Ramah. What stayed with me from my three summers as a camper was not the feeling of praying on a Friday night at the lake; it was not the thrill of intra- or inter-camp competition; it was not the excitement of camping out on a three-day canoe trip. What I took away from camp—and what has informed my life all these years later—was an appreciation of the power of Jewish community.

When I finally chose the rabbinate as my career, I knew that my goal in serving a synagogue community would be to help fashion a community in the image of camp, the kind of community that I experienced and loved as a child. I also knew that the way there was not to bring a lake or a sunset to the synagogue, as some suggest. The emotional attachment to a physical space is insufficient for the purposes of creating holy community, though our stained glass windows certainly provide a beautiful focal point for gathering. For me, camp was—and synagogue would need to be—about empowerment, acceptance, and inclusion; about passion, care and connection; about experiences, growth and aspiration. Ramah taught me that Judaism is not a spectator sport, that prayer is best practiced and best received as a communal endeavor, and that Torah is best understood in the context of our personal interactions and shared moments.

Nancy, our four sons and I have 125 combined years of Ramah experiences. This summer, as Jason and I head to Ramah Sports Academy (RSA) for the summer and Nancy continues in her post as Communications Director of National Ramah, that number will climb a little higher. The Hebrew word ramah literally means “level” or “height.” As we give of our passion and experience to raise Ramah, its staff and campers to new heights, I know that we will bring back to our communities a renewed appreciation for what it means to be in kehillah kedoshah, holy community. I know that we will continue to learn, grow and be inspired by what Camp Ramah is teaching us about Jewish living.

Join us this Shabbat as we host Ramah‘s National Director Amy Skopp Cooper and celebrate our community’s connection to Ramah. Hopefully, together, we will continue to reach for new heights in Jewish learning and living, bringing us closer to each other and to the realization of our Divinely imbued potential.

And if you happen to get a letter from one of your rabbis….

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Humans Plan and God Laughs

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.”

Dr. Priya Parker

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

Unringing the bell

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

Drawing near in the second year

“On the first day of the first month in the second year….” (Exodus 40:17)

Millenia ago, we are told, Moses erected the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, on the first day of the month Nisan, one year out of Egypt. This portable sanctuary would replace Mount Sinai as the location at which which the Israelites would draw close to God.

On the same day on the Jewish calendar, earlier this week, we opened the doors to our sanctuary after having closed them one year ago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One by one, over a two-hour period of time in the afternoon, our inheritors of the Israelites’ legacy entered the synagogue to draw close in prayer before the open ark.

When Moses completed the Tabernacle’s construction, the cloud of God‘s presence filled the tent; so thick was it that no one could enter. True, our building has been closed to unfettered entrance for a year now, but our community has felt the presence of the Divine at its center. We have traveled this past year‘s journey with a shared sense of connection, care and trust.

As individuals emerged from the warm building into the chilly afternoon air on Sunday afternoon, several inquired from behind their masks when we would be resuming our in-person, indoor services. My initial response was to remind the inquirers that we are blessed to have a relatively full calendar of lifecycle events. Between now and the middle of May, we have families celebrating lifecycle events in the sanctuary almost every Shabbat, albeit with limited attendance, masking and physical distancing.

I followed this response, however, with a question. What does “returning” look like? We are accustomed to Shabbat mornings that are uplifting, inspiring and intimate. Hypothetically, if we were to resume services in May with 50 masked people dispersed in a space that holds 300, would we achieve any of the goals we aspire to in our congregational services? Moreover, are we prepared to have services that are accessible only to the vaccinated, thereby excluding a large segment of our community?

The varied responses of the people who attended our Sunday afternoon “open house” program were also telling. Some felt filled up simply by having a few quiet moments in the sanctuary. Others felt deeply saddened by the sense of lost time, friends and community that our largely empty sanctuary represents. Still others came simply to express gratitude for the ways in which the Divine presence has extended beyond the walls of the building and permeated the walls of our Zoom rooms.

In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to monitor the pulse of our community, weighing our desire to be together against the behavior we can model to move our community closer to full vaccination. In the absence of a compelling need to change course, we will continue to operate deliberately, striving to take advantage of every opportunity to safely and meaningfully bring people together.

As we turn to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) this week, we are reminded that God calls to us to “draw near” in sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrificial offering, korban, literally means “near” or “close” at its root. Some would say that this past year of the pandemic has brought our community closer together than ever before. Drawing closer in the year ahead, however, may require even greater sacrifice: greater patience; greater understanding; greater appreciation for the many ways we can serve God, community and humanity.

We have already dabbled in the world of “hybrid” programming, where the experience for some is in person and for others is virtual. There is no doubt that our next phase of programming will involve an increase in our hybrid offerings. So long as we can gather in person while there are some who cannot access vaccination or who remain at risk, we will in essence need to create two simultaneous experiences. This will demand even greater creativity and commitment, individually and communally, than we have ever shown before. And in light of all I have seen over these past months, I have no doubt that we are up to the task.

We have proven that our tabernacle transcends—and must continue to transcend— the fixed and the portable, the physical and the virtual, accessible to all who seek to draw near.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

A kingdom of priests

Do I turn to God more often from a place of distress, or from a place of contentment?

For three weeks in January, Lindsay Goldman, a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a long-time member of our synagogue community, challenged her students (that includes me!) to consider their relationships with God. In her third session, she posed the question above. Nearly all the participants, not so surprisingly, responded that they turn to God most often when they find themselves in need.

These past months have presented so many painful moments, and I can certainly understand why people would be moved to prayer for Divine intervention, healing and equanimity. Our traditional liturgy reassures us that “God is near to all who call, to all who call upon God in truth” (Psalm 145). In those moments of distress, we are given words to use when “Help me, God” doesn’t come so easily: “From the narrowest places I have called out to You; answer me in your Divine expansiveness” (Psalm 118). And the tradition reassures us of God’s presence: “God is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit” (Psalm 34).

As we call to God from our pain, we are told that God is near us, embracing us in our pain. Yet, while we may be assured that God hears our prayers, God’s reply is more difficult to discern. Does God intervene to relieve us of our suffering? Does God bind our wounds? Or is God’s answer to be found in our knowing that we are heard, that we are not alone, that our “healing” at some level will emerge from the relationship we share with God? 

I have revisited my response to Lindsay’s question numerous times in the last days. And on a snowy day in February, I return to my answer again. Safe and warm, with a stocked refrigerator and a phone that can connect me to the other side of the globe, with family and friends who offer voices of support and comfort, I turn to God in gratitude. 

Personally, I rarely call out to God from a place of distress. When I am in need of strength or comfort, I turn first to the other people in my life—my family, my friends, my community. They are my strength, my comfort, my healers. Their presence lifts me, and their love is the source of my resilience. I don’t call out to God in need, perhaps because I recognize that God has given me—in the form of the people in my life—everything I need to endure, find meaning, heal and persevere. 

Perhaps I choose to put my faith in others in my times of need because my personal experience has been one of others putting their faith in me. In my role of rabbi, I have been charged with the responsibility, and have been granted the privilege, to step into many of those moments when others find themselves in pain. Although even friends and family are left wondering what they can do, I am empowered by the ritual of our tradition, the wisdom of our sages and the trust of a community to be among the primary responders to people’s crises. My experience has reinforced my belief that, in the midst of hardship, people must step into the breach to bring relief. God’s listening ear brings one measure of comfort, but the work of our hands will deliver God’s love. Especially for those who feel alone in the world, it is incumbent upon each of us to offer those hands in care and kindness.

In this week’s parsha, Yitro, God expresses the hope that we will be to God “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The Hebrew word for “priest” is kohein, and is more accurately translated as “minister.” Like that English word, the Hebrew word carries the connotation of service (as in “to minister to the needs of others”). God, then, expects us to be a community of individuals who minister to each other’s needs. In doing so, we become holy. In my mind, being holy means that we carry with us God’s presence. It is this holiness I choose to make note of in my world, day in and day out, in the simplest of kindnesses and the most common of beauties.

It is this practice of gratitude—acknowledging God in moments of peace and thanking God when I recognize blessings—that has conditioned me to see the presence of God through the goodness of others.

In the Talmud, we are taught: “And I shall pray to you God at a time of favor. When is it a time of favor? When the community prays” (Berachot 7b).

I find my comfort, contentment and calm in community. I find my energy, uplift and inspiration in community. I thank God for you all every day, whether we connect personally, virtually or at the level of the soul. From a place of love, appreciation and joy.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Social Bridging

For the past 3 months, with several notable exceptions, I have been in a self-imposed social isolation of sorts. Not due to any physical condition, I have spent the last 13 weeks exercising spiritual self-care as part of a sabbatical the synagogue I serve grants me every four years. This time around, I set out to explore my “identity.” After serving a community for 25 years, I wanted to reflect on who I am, independent of my rabbinic persona — as a husband, father, son, and brother. As a human being. For three months I avoided contact with the people whose stories I carry, whose worries I assuage, whose needs I accommodate, and whom I embrace on a weekly basis.


The distance from my daily routine afforded me the opportunity to reconnect with people who don’t usually get my primary attention. The clarity of mind granted me by this break allowed me to grieve recent losses, to read for growth and pleasure, to write creatively and give birth to ideas, to exercise body and spirit, and to breathe deeply. I was not immune to life going on around me. I was present to loss and to celebration, current on events affecting us all, and informed of developments in our community. I was also insulated from responsibility and excused from control.

The distance also, however, came at a cost. There were hours, even days, where my “aloneness” moved into loneliness. There were times I craved social interaction, just wanting someone–anyone–to see me. I began going out of my way as I was running an errand or taking a walk to be noticed, if only by asking a stranger how their day was going. I was grateful for the occasions when I had a book with a noticeable cover, a hat with an emblem, a t-shirt with a logo that invited a passerby into conversation.


As my date of return to synagogue life drew closer, I actually had the pleasure of being in community several times. Aside from the occasions when I would sneak into our sanctuary late at night to sit in the presence of our glowing windows, I attended minyan with my father for my grandfather’s yahrzeit; I celebrated my son’s aufruf; and I made a masked appearance to read Megillah on Purim eve. Each time I came into the building, I felt the joy and satisfaction of my chosen life path. And my sabbatical “exploration” brought me to the conclusion that who I am as a human being is inextricably bound up with what I do. Living Jewishly, for me, means utilizing learning, ritual and daily choices as a way of bringing people closer together.


I return to the synagogue energized, excited and anxious to resume the duties that afford me the privilege of connecting with others in a meaningful way. I WANT TO SEE YOU!!! Yet here I am, required out of caution to keep my physical distance a bit longer.

So here is what I suggest. As I go about getting caught up on the status of individuals in need of more immediate attention and the community as a whole, I invite you to reach out to me in the days ahead. Come Tuesday, please call me and leave a message (so much nicer than an email!), and I’ll call back within 24 hours. Even better? If you are sufficiently tech-savvy, pick up your phone, go to your camera, slide the setting to video mode, and record your message to me. Upload it to your email, and send it to me. And I promise that I will do the same in response!

The “social distance” we’ve been asked to maintain to “flatten the curve” of the Coronavirus spread is certainly a challenge to the way community was meant to be experienced, but it also challenges us to be our best at building social caring bridges to those who need us most. This moment also presents the opportunities for individuals to experience personal exploration and creative rejuvenation, and for communities to explore how they can maximize the use of “virtual community” to their benefit.

It is a moment like no other. I’m glad I’m back to experience it with you. And I pray that the time comes soon when we will be free to congregate as we choose once again.

With love,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Clergy care

I care. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been in this line of work for the last 25 years. I care about teaching a Torah that is alive, relevant and instructive; about creating moments of meaningful connection for people with their Jewish identities; about our shared past and our shared future; about empowering people to use Judaism as a perspective by which they can view, understand and influence the world around them.

I care about raising people up in their moments of joy, and about being present to those who are brought low by life’s circumstances.

I care about challenging people’s assumptions and about shaking people from their complacency, and about exposing biases and calling out intellectual laziness. I care about their ability to communicate what they believe and why.

I care about an organization, its financial health, its administration and operations and about the people who staff and volunteer their time to make it successful. I care about its reputation, its ability to welcome and meet diverse personalities, needs and challenges. I care about its mission and goals, and about the processes and procedures it follows to achieve them. I care about policies and consistency, and about the flexibility to allow for exceptions and individual needs.

I care about a building, its sanctuary and its learning spaces, its social spaces, its sound systems, WiFi, heat and air conditioning. I care about its security.

Living on the synagogue grounds for the past 25 years, I’ve been able to look out my bedroom window every morning and every night to see the parking lot and who is in it, the synagogue front door, my office window. When someone has left a light on in the building, I know it.

And I can’t imagine living my rabbinate any other way.

Of course, I also care about my family. And I care about myself and my ability to keep doing what I love. And I am so grateful that my synagogue community cares about its clergy as well.

As an adjunct faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary teaching the senior class of the Rabbinical School for the past 15 years, I advise the future rabbis and cantors who want to work in pulpits that while a synagogue may commit itself initially to a clergy-person for a two- or three-year term, the clergy-person will be at their best if they approach their commitment to the community from the outset as a  lifelong commitment. Once that commitment is recognized and appreciated, the congregation will want to honor, nurture and reward that commitment. I believe that if clergy care, congregations care.

In the world of academia, the sabbatical is a time for a scholar to pursue intellectual and personal growth. In the world of clergy, the sabbatical is an opportunity to regenerate. Just as God rested (or refrained) from the work of creating (shavat) and recharged (vayinafash), a clergy-person’s sabbatical is ideally spent re-energizing for the future. Just as the Shabbat allows us to cease from “doing” and provides the time just to “be” in order to renew our creative energy for the week ahead, the sabbatical offers clergy the opportunity to process what has been and reimagine what can be. If a community cares about its long term well-being, it will care for the long term well-being of its clergy as well.

I am grateful for the gift of a 3-month sabbatical every four years, and for the community’s care and commitment this opportunity reflects. My absence doesn’t reflect in any way a lack of care. If anything, it should tell you that I’m already preparing for the next chapter with you, excited to greet the next set of opportunities and challenges refreshed and renewed.

I already look forward to catching up with you again in March. And if you happen to see me around before then, please don’t be afraid to say hello!

L’hitraot,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Let my people go … to camp

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

Your grandmother passes down her recipe (in writing!) for her famous chicken soup. You follow it to a tee. But if you are a vegetarian and don’t actually taste it, can you ever create a soup that replicates hers?

You can describe what it feels like to be loved. You can use every modifier known to human language. But can your audience truly relate, unless they themselves have experienced such love?

You can teach about Shabbat. You can try to relate the benefits of a day of unplugging and of being present to the people and world around you. But to your average listener, the description simply sounds like a series of dos and don’ts. Unless you have fully lived Shabbat, will it ever find its fullest expression in your mind and heart?

Decades ago, Jewish life shifted from urban areas to the suburbs. As Jews settled in neighborhoods, tightly knit Jewish communities dissipated into spread out regions. Jewish identification, which had been facilitated by the smells, sights, sounds, rhythms and culture that permeated daily life, suddenly became something that needed to be sought out. Over a relatively short period of time, Jewish identity became an extracurricular pursuit, and the synagogue became the place to find it.

But as wonderful as the synagogue and its community might be, so long as Jewish identification was a choice as opposed to a fact of life, the Judaism of your average Jewish household would have to be scheduled — usually against athletics, the arts, school and leisure time. And the competition has only gotten stiffer over the last decades.

Enter Jewish camping.

This summer, I visited 6 different Jewish camps, 5 of them in the Ramah network, the camping arm of the Conservative Movement. Each camp had its own culture, its own particular appeal and camper demographic. What the camps shared, however, was a commitment to building Jewish identity and community rooted in Jewish values. These camps have moved far past Friday night prayer and kosher food as the defining features of their Jewishness. They have created models of education that infuse Jewish values and Jewish living into the daily activities of the campers. Values like community, pride, and joy are reinforced on the climbing wall, on the basketball court and in the art room. At these camps, Judaism is alive, relevant and informative. And Jewish community is the all-encompassing context of daily life.


From my somewhat limited perspective, the great magic of Ramah camps is the way in which the staff members live and grow. Especially given how concerned we are about life on college campuses, it is refreshing and heartening to see teens seriously engaged in Jewish living and learning, wrestling with one another and with Rabbis and teachers over issues of theology, observance and the centrality of Israel as parts of Jewish identity. Again, it is one thing to engage in these discussions in an intellectual fashion; it is quite another to do so from within the framework of Jewish community.


After a week of volunteering at Ramah Sports Academy and an afternoon of revisiting my childhood at Camp Ramah in New England, I am more convinced than ever that Benjamin Franklin had it right. Even the best teachers will not transform the lives of their students unless the teachers create the moments and contexts in which students can participate in and live out the lessons learned.

In the year ahead, we as a synagogue community are dedicating ourselves to creating Jewish living experiences for our children. We are excited about the “campy” program we have created. But it takes more for us to be successful; it takes commitment and resources to support experiences beyond the synagogue walls. It takes parents who encourage their children to attend a two-week experience like USY Encampment (coming soon, call me, Bruce Varon or Sharon Rappaport for more information). It takes donors to make Jewish camping more affordable to families who prioritize Jewish identity-building. And it takes parents who recognize that a summer job as a Jewish camp counselor is as—if not more—important to Jewish community and continuity than a career-boosting internship.

Like you, I want our children and grandchildren to have it all, including the richness of our Jewish tradition. This summer, I got a glimpse of how our dreams could be achieved.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

The Power of Two

Eldad and Meidad are infused with the spirit of God, and they go about the camp in an ecstatic state (in last week’s parasha, Beha’alotecha). Joshua is concerned, but Moses doesn’t see the two as a threat to his leadership or to the community. In fact, he expresses the wish that everyone would be so graced.

Caleb and Joshua scout the Promised Land along with ten other spies. In contrast to the ten who see the challenges presented by their destination as insurmountable, the two urge the community to trust in God and to take what God promises to deliver (this week’s parasha, Shlach).

We often reflect on the difference that one person can make in the world. The influence of our actions ripple across distance and time. The work, however, is not easy. Though it might not be our individual obligation to finish the task in which we engage (“Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor…” Pirkei Avot 2:21), it is challenging to remain engaged when we feel alone, isolated, unsupported, suspect in others’ estimation, and perhaps even doubt in our capabilities.

Perhaps that is why the Torah presents so many examples of people working in tandem—for good or bad—to achieve a common goal. The solitary figures are often models of the exceptional. The duos, however, find strength and support, clarity and confidence, in each other. “Two are better off than one, in that they derive greater benefit from their efforts. For if they should fall, the one will raise up the other, as opposed to if one falls when there is no one to raise him” (Ecclesiastes 4:10-11).

 

Moses struggles with frustration and anger in his efforts because he is so alone. Time and time again we see that the weight of the burdens he bears is too much for him to carry alone. And delegating only goes so far in its effectiveness. God also experiences this frustration: “How long will they frustrate me? I’ll destroy them and start over with you,” says God. But Moses doesn’t want a new people to lead; Moses wants a partner. I imagine that when Moses calls upon God to show God’s strength through a display of compassion, he is actually saying to God: “We are both frustrated, we are in this together, we need to hear each other, learn from each other, and make this work.” God heeds Moses’ plea, anger is assuaged, and a partnership is born.

We can’t bear the burdens of our challenges alone. Creating partnerships and finding allies helps us become more self-aware, more reflective. Sharing our passion for a cause with another affords us the luxury of checking ourselves, of measuring our opinions and responses, of learning from another’s experience how to better achieve our goal.

As a faith community, we take our role of being a prophetic voice to the world seriously. While we are made up of many individual and diverse voices, we tackle issues and challenges as one. But working as a community alone can feel isolating and frustrating, often leading to feelings of anger, resentment and hopelessness. And that is why we have been so dedicated this year, and are so dedicated for the future, to building organizational partnerships. In the past week alone, we have partnered with the Rockland County Pride Center, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, and VCS (Volunteer counseling Services) to create opportunities for education, advocacy and empowerment and to serve those who find themselves on the margins of our society. We have stood for equality, learned how to better protect and advocate for the innocent, and feed the hungry. Thanks to these other organizations, our capacity to serve has increased.

 

As our tradition demands, we will love our neighbors, we will pursue justice, we will serve as a light to others in darkness. As these times demand, we will extend our hands in partnership to those who seek to do the same. And as we do so, our compassion, our power, our confidence and our love will only grow. And the Promised Land will not appear to us as an unattainable goal.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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