Learning from our students
We learn from Rabbi Chanina in the Talmud (Taanit 7a), “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and most from my students.” Most of us, I imagine, would guess that the best learning is “top down,” that teacher knows best. The Talmudic quote, however, reflects the attitude of a teacher who must have had an intern.
For more than two decades, our synagogue has served as a placement site for the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School’s Resnick Internship program for fourth year (the penultimate year of study) students. Our community has benefited from the teachings of an illustrious group of rabbis-to-be, now all rabbis (but the last two). And I am confident that the rabbinates of each of these former interns have been shaped in some way by their time with OJC’s rabbis and community.
What I did not expect when I first started participating in this internship program was how much I would take away, personally and professionally, from the experience of mentoring. As an intern, Rabbi Drill came to our community with a professional background in social work and a personal background as a lay leader in a synagogue community. Her perspectives, experiences and questions about my methods helped me refine and improve upon my own rabbinic practice.
Over the years and across the decades, my own understanding of Torah has been expanded by the experiences and attitudes of our interns. They have kept me current in cultural trends, language and the potential uses of technology. Their understanding of society has helped me—and I believe our community—move well beyond political correctness to a place of social awareness, intelligence, understanding and empathy. While my professors and instructors have given me knowledge, theory and the structures inside which I would learn to exercise my rabbinic voice, it has been our interns—and for that matter all out students of Torah—who have taught me how my voice and Torah would resonate best.
Today, Lindsay Goldman (who grew up in our OJC community and served as our intern last year) will deliver her Senior Sermon. The ritual is a rite of passage for every rabbinical school student. Just as our own Ben Varon did last year, Lindsay will teach Torah to her community, including her peers, colleagues and teachers. She will be acknowledged by the JTS community as a teacher of Torah.
But we know, as did Rabbi Chanina, that we have already learned so much more Torah from her in her capacity as “our” student. She and our other interns have taught us how to teach, how to listen, how to grow and change, how to expand our grasp of Torah and the world.
Mazal tov to Lindsay, to her family and to all of us. May she—and may we all—continue to be students of Torah whose learning brings honor and greater wisdom to our tradition and to our teachers.
With admiration and appreciation,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
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
Mitzvah Day by the Numbers and So Much More
Sunday, November 20 at Orangetown Jewish Center was a hub of activity as mitzvoth of every kind were accomplished. One way to try to describe the day is by the numbers. Our annual Breakfast Run brought 18 large bags overflowing with new and gently used coats, clothing, socks, and toiletries, together with a warm breakfast, to people who are homeless in NYC. This mitzvah was accomplished by 18 hearty volunteers from the age of 15 through 75.
34 congregants were blood donors who helped save over 100 lives in total!
Over 20 children of all ages who handcrafted 40+ colorful Thanksgiving turkey decorations to share with residents at The Esplanade, and 40 congregants, young and old visited with Esplanade on the Palisades residents, singing and interacting with them.
6 Chumash miracle workers mended the book spines, covers and pages of 34 Chumashim that were in disrepair.
12 Rhoda Bloom Kosher Food Pantry packers stood in the cold to load boxes of donated kosher food into recipients’ cars. OJC also collected 70 cans and boxes of food for the Rhoda Bloom Kosher Food Pantry.
10 participants learned with Rabbinic Intern Ilana Sandberg and 8 giggling yogis, raising funds to benefit The Rockland Pride Center.
18 congregants learned with Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein about making every day a Mitzvah Day and 30 Phone Buddies connected and celebrated at the Chesed Committee’s tea party in memory of Madeline Roimisher.
90 homemade muffins, 14 children’s coats, and various children’s clothing and shoes were delivered to the Martin Luther King Multi-Purpose Center in Spring Valley and Proyecto Faro in Stony Point.
Almost 20 knitted and crocheted hats and scarves will be gifted to The Rockland Pride Center Youth Program for the December holidays.
So that’s one way to understand the day – by the numbers. We can also understand the day by the emotional experiences and amazing moments felt by everyone participating: the joyful noise of a room full of children creating a craft for an elder, the power of Amichai’s guitar and children singing as Esplanade residents sang and swayed… and some even danced, the full room of people donating blood, the quiet concentration of repairing sacred books, the delight of two congregants meeting face to face for the first time after being phone buddies for two and a half years.
But I actually have another way to comprehend Mitzvah Day 2022. As the building filled with people, as we worked side by side to make this world a little bit better, we all remembered something. We remembered who we are.
For me, Mitzvah Day reminded all of us at OJC that we are who we think we are. And I thank God for that on Mitzvah Day and every day.
With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
A time to change, a time to refrain from changing
It started with a pop-up tent in the lot and a friendly greeting; it ended with ice cream sundaes and circle dancing. This year’s holiday season was the culmination of staff, professional and volunteer hours of planning, programming, and executing. The results exceeded our hopes and expectations in so many ways. We gathered in large numbers with enthusiasm and energy, with consideration and sensitivity, to reconnect, reflect and renew our commitment to tradition and community.
For some of us it was the first time in the building literally in years; for others of us it provided just the sense of “normalcy” we had been craving. It was exciting, energizing and comforting to experience the power of hundreds gathering in our physical home these past weeks. At the same time, we remained keenly aware of the absence of those who were not able or ready to join in person. We hope that those who joined us remotely had a meaningful holiday experience, and felt considered, acknowledged and valued.
We are counting on that momentum, energy, enthusiasm and good will as we “reboot” our “new and improved” in-person weekday minyan! Beginning November 1, our daily minyan will return to the traditional model of requiring 10 people physically proximate to each other at OJC, while welcoming virtually our friends who join remotely from near and far. With new technology (thanks to the family of Jack Miller z”l), we will continue to build upon our model of daily praying and learning in a “hybrid” fashion.
As the holidays, Shabbat, Men’s Club, Sisterhood, Naaseh and Kulanu have all returned to in-person programming, adult education (almost entirely) and our weekday evening minyan (entirely) have continued virtually via the Zoom Meeting platform. There are indeed great benefits to having use of this technology. Since the spring of 2020, our daily minyan, teaching and weekly programs have provided connection and comfort to so many who otherwise would have lived in isolation. We have learned so much from this experience about what is possible in terms of building virtual community and building out a virtual synagogue platform (OJC+)! And we are so indebted to those households that regularly supported our virtual community, many of whom were mourners and relied upon those present for their minyan, or required quorum for prayer, for kaddish. Our online portal to daily prayer will continue. The ability to participate virtually and feel the power of OJC’s community is, and will remain, an important piece of how we maintain and grow our community. As we return to our in-person minyan in keeping with Jewish law, we are certain that the 10 or more of your fellow friends who gather in the Daily Chapel will be strengthened by the presence of those who continue to join us remotely.
At the outset of the pandemic, the rabbinic authorities of the Conservative Movement responded swiftly and boldly to the times by declaring a ritual state of emergency, thereby authorizing the creation of “virtual community,” in particular for the purpose of saying Kaddish during weekday prayer. We as a community proudly followed their lead. And we succeeded at creating that community with astounding consistency and participation. At the same time, I was so proud that the OJC community supported my position to maintain the sanctity of Shabbat—by distinguishing the way we used technology on weekdays from the Shabbat webinar format we adopted—while so many other communities seized the rabbinical leniency as an opportunity to ignore our halachic strictures altogether.
Now, on the heels of the holiday season as hundreds have come together in our building, it is evident that the state of emergency upon which the 2020 legal leniency stood has passed. We no longer have a legal, social or moral imperative that demands or permits our creation of a prayer community via virtual attendance. We are blessed that we have the ability to continue including and welcoming remote participants, students and teachers from wherever they may choose to join us – AND WE WILL! We are shaped and enhanced by their presence. As we reassert our core value and primary purpose as a Beit Tefillah, a House of Prayer, we are stronger by virtue of our experience.
It is also important to recognize that while some of us have regularly relied upon a virtual minyan for prayer, there is an equal number among us for whom Zoom is inaccessible or feels impersonal and further isolating. Moreover, for some there is simply no substitute in community for an empathetic ear, an open heart, a shoulder to lean upon, or a hand to hold.
Returning to a daily weekday 7:30pm minyan that will have 10 attendees in person and also welcome virtual attendees will not be an easy feat to achieve. We are hoping that, just as the OJC found a way to be there for you during these past 2+ years day in and day out, you will have been inspired to find your way to being here for us. Perhaps once or twice a week, perhaps once or twice a month, any regular commitment on your part will bring us closer to achieving our goal.
Please click on this link where you will find a Fall/Winter minyan calendar, with 12 spots per day to be filled (yes 12, we are adding 2 extra spots per day just to cover any last minute conflicts!). Please commit to as many evenings as you wish, and check in as often as you wish to see when we may be in need. While you can obviously attend whenever you want, we are only recording 12 spots per date so we know we’ve reached our minimum of 10! This link will live on our website as well, so you can always visit there to see when we may be in need of more participants.
This morning I began taking down my sukkah; the “season of our joy” has reached its conclusion, but I hope we can carry elements of all we’ve learned from this holiday season into the future. In the weeks and months ahead, may we have the opportunity to share many moments of joy with one in another,
In community, good health and peace,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
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….
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.”
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