“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.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
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.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
When I think about my dad at home through all the years of my growing up, I think of him as alone. And when I think about my mom through those same years, I think of her as lonely.
Living with bipolar disorder, my dad spent months at a time inside our house, often in his bed, almost always alone. My mom went out to work every day, and my brother and I went to school. When we got home, there he was, on the couch, watching television. I was a kid. It never occurred to me to wonder about how alone he was.
In the 1950s and 1960s, no one understood my father’s mood swings. My parents’ friends wondered and perhaps pitied, but mostly stayed away. My dad‘s parents fretted that they had done something wrong to cause such brokenness. My mother’s parents urged her to leave my dad, and bring my brother and me to live in their house. Instead, my mother stood by my father, the love of her life. She held him and us together. There were no support groups for her; synagogue was not a safe place; and her friends were not equipped to understand. I wonder who could have possibly listened to her without judgment even if she could have articulated her sorrow and her rage. She must have been very lonely.
I thought a great deal about my parents yesterday as we celebrated a beautiful Shabbat of mental health awareness at OJC.
Thanks to the dedication and planning of #OJCSupportsU chairs Miriam Suchoff and Mark Brownstein, congregants experienced a wealth of opportunities to open our hearts and minds, and to create feelings of well-being and happiness – keystones to nurturing and sustaining good mental health. Through meditative prayer, singing, text study, and guided building of relationships, we practiced experiences that promote resilience.
We walked in silent meditation from the Daily Chapel to the bima in the Sanctuary to receive Torah, a powerful reenactment of Mount Sinai where everyone received Torah in his or her own way. God does not see anyone as broken; everyone is created in God’s image. We walked together as a community, from the four-year-old twins skipping to the 90-year-old couple walking carefully with canes. Being together in a community where everyone is accepted as “just fine,” just the way they are, is a most powerful sustainer of mental wellness. Everyone who was in synagogue yesterday felt this crucial teaching in our very souls.
But what about everyone who was not able to be in synagogue with us? What about the people who struggle with mental illness in their homes or in facilities and cannot leave, trapped there, unable to enter into our community of faith? What about the caregivers of those people, too exhausted and fearful of stigma to come out and join us in community? They probably do not see a sanctuary, rather they see an unbearable barrier to entry. How can we begin to change this reality for Jewish people who feel isolated due to mental illness?
We must continue to speak out. We must work hard to enable people to feel safe enough to be vulnerable in our sanctuary spaces.
There are many opportunities in the month of May, #MentalHealthAwareness.
Wednesday, May 15 at 7:00 pm at the Rockland Jewish Community Campus, Rockland Jewish Family Service and Board of Rabbis present Lo Levad, You are Not Alone.
Thursdays, May 16, 23 and 30 at 7:30 pm at OJC, join Rabbi Scheff to study Jewish sources and mental health issues.
Thursday, May 30 at 6:30 pm at OJC, join me and Amichai Margolis for a spring time service of healing and harmony.
If you are struggling with mental health issues and you feel alone, reach out to your rabbis or to #OJCSupportsU in any way that you feel able so that we can meet you halfway. Even if you can only reach out a very short distance, we will meet you the rest of the way.
If you are lonely because you are a caregiver for someone you love struggling with mental health issues, we invite you in to listen, share and strengthen yourself.
You might feel alone and you might feel lonely. We want to provide a community for you in whatever way we can, not just in the month of May, but always.
Yesterday, before the Musaf Amidah, Mark Brownstein read Merle Feld’s poem, “Dreaming of Home.” To me, it reads as a clarion call to all homes of worship to be places where people are safe and known.
We want so much to be in that place
where we are respected and cherished,
protected, acknowledged, nurtured, encouraged, heard.
And seen, seen
in all our loveliness,
in all our fragile strength.
And safe, safe in all our trembling
vulnerability. Where we are known
and safe, safe and known —
is it possible?
In closing, I dedicate this post on Mother’s Day to my mother, Frances Weisberg Mack z”l, a woman of extraordinary strength and dedication.
With prayers for a refuah shlayma, a complete healing, a healing of body and healing of spirit,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
It’s a cold Sunday morning in February, the time is 8:55am. Sitting by the window in our Daily Chapel, I have a good view of the synagogue driveway.
Unfortunately, there are no cars entering. From my spot, I can actually see two blocks down the main street that approaches the driveway. Not a car in sight.
And we have 8 people in the room.
And 2 of the 8 are saying Kaddish.
Just up from shiva for their loved ones, they have come to the synagogue on this morning to find solace in community, and I am afraid we are about to fail them.
I pick up my phone, open my texts, and call up my chat group “Local Jews.” These are the families with younger children who have moved into our synagogue neighborhood over the last few years. They walk to synagogue on Shabbat. They tailgate with Rabbi Hersh and his wife Loni in the parking lot after services when the weather is nice. Their children wait around for me to change my clothes and bring out the boxes of Good Humor eclairs. They share coupons to the food store in our text group, and debate whether hot dogs are sandwiches. They wish each other a Shabbat shalom.
I’ve never used this particular forum to seek support for the synagogue, so I hesitate. I don’t want my neighbors to feel that I don’t respect the boundaries between the social neighborly connection we share and the synagogue connection we have in common. I don’t want them to feel any sense of guilt if they must turn down a rabbi’s request.
But time is growing short. And the window of opportunity is closing. So I text:
“Good morning! Don’t usually (ever) do this, but there are a couple of people saying Kaddish this morning and we are 2 short of a minyan. Can anyone drop by for 15 minutes?”
I hold my breath.
Seconds later my phone buzzes: “Gives us a few minutes. Dragging kids from beds.”
Ten minutes later, mom and her two young teens walk into the room, smiles on their faces, siddurim in hand. Imagine that, I think to myself. Teenagers who have just rolled out of bed, leaning into and giggling at their mother’s side. On a Sunday morning at 9am.
The sight takes me back to my own youth, to the many Sunday mornings I spent sitting under my father‘s right arm, surrounded by people a generation (or two) ahead of me. I recall how they greeted me with warm smiles and expressions of appreciation for my presence. They made me feel seen. They made me feel important. They made me feel connected.
My guilt over crossing some imaginary boundary dissipates, as I remember why this family moved into the neighborhood in the first place, around the corner from the OJC. They chose to make the synagogue and its community a focal point of their lives. For their own benefit and for the benefit of others.
Do I wish that people would want to come to services on Sunday morning for a half hour without prompting? Of course I do. But I’ll take neighbors who eagerly answer the call when they are needed any day of the week. And I’ll always cherish that moment when a teen sees the look on the face of an adult, telling them they’ve made a difference in someone’s life.
Local Jews, I promise not to abuse the privilege of having you as neighbors. Unless you give me permission to do so!
Rayna and Zev, I see you. You are more important to us than you know. And while you may not be able to name the feeling now, I hope that someday you will look back and recognize the way connection to community was cultivated in your lives. Mom, great job.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Thank you to the hundreds who showed up for Shabbat this past weekend to hear our message, and to know and to love one another a little better. The following is the message I shared:
You don’t know me.
As I stand here on this Shabbat morning welcoming those who have come to celebrate with our Bar Mitzvah and his family, those who chose to show up for Shabbat with their synagogue community, and those who have come from our neighborhood or larger community, Jewish or not, in order to pledge solidarity and unity in the face of hatred, I realize you probably don’t know me. Not the way I’d like you to.
If you did, you’d know that last Saturday, while I was reading a story in my synagogue about my ancestor Abraham—how he welcomed strangers into his tent, providing them food and shelter from the heat of the day—eleven members of my extended Jewish family were being executed for no reason other than that they were Jewish, and that they were learning the value of welcoming the stranger.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that while I was learning this week about my ancestor Abraham and how he purchased a burial place for his wife Sarah, how he saw himself as a stranger amongst his neighbors and thus insisted on paying the full price for his plot so no one would ever question the legitimacy of his presence in their midst, my extended family was burying its dead, suddenly feeling very much like strangers themselves and, by extension, shaking my own sense of belonging.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know the pain I feel as a result of having been offered more wishes of congratulations on my favorite baseball team’s victory than wishes of condolence on my sense of personal loss because of the murders in Pittsburgh.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that in the week ahead I’d be commemorating the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a night that signaled the start of the Holocaust, sending my grandparents into flight from their home in Poland, to Russia where my mother would be born in a labor camp, then to a displaced person camp in Germany, and finally to the shores of these United States.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that this past week I made a donation to HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the same organization that my fellow Pittsburgh community supported, because I too believe in protecting refugees, and because without its support my family would not be here today.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that this past Tuesday Rabbi Drill and I took our sixth and seventh grade students around our OJC neighborhood to extend personal invitations to our 35 neighboring homes to join us this Shabbat in solidarity, and again on our Mitzvah Day in two weeks for breakfast, just to know one another and share in doing some good.
You don’t know me.
If you did, you’d know that when I was growing up here in this community, I knew my neighbors by name, but my children have grown up in this neighborhood not knowing the people who lived across the street.
Winter is coming. (Yes, I am a fan of Game of Thrones.) And while this winter may not be ushering in the ultimate battle between the forces of good and evil, I do believe we are on a dangerous path. When I was a child, winter meant shoveling my own driveway and going to my neighbors with a friend to ask if they wanted their driveways cleared or their cars cleaned off. Today, winter means locking your doors, lowering your shades and communicating with a friend virtually.
I do not believe that we find ourselves today in the winter of 1938 Nazi Germany. Most importantly, the police and the law are here to stand with us and to protect us, as they have been throughout this week. Our Town Supervisor and neighbor Chris Day is with us today to assert that an act of hatred against one of us is an act of hatred against us all. Our sisters from the Dominican Convent in Sparkill are here with us to share our pain and our mission in combating violent acts of hate with loving acts of kindness. Our Rockland Human Rights Commissioner Constance Frazier is with us today to share our outrage and determination not to let our community be home to those who target the weak, the aged, the young, those of a particular religion, gender, race, sexual identity or political persuasion.
If you don’t know me by now, I bear partial responsibility for not knowing you, for not introducing myself and giving you the chance to know me and what I value.
If you don’t know me by now, let me share with you that my faith commands me to love my neighbor and my tradition teaches me that I cannot love whom I do not know. In the days ahead may we come to know one another, so that our love for one another and for our neighborhoods, communities and country will truly come to be stronger than the hatred that seeks to tear us apart.
I can go to the polls this Tuesday and vote according to my values and who I am, but that is not going to change my relationship with you. And so I beg of you—as we leave here today and as we head to the polls in the week ahead to elect those with the power to shape our communities on a policy level—to knock on a neighbor’s door this week, to make an introduction, to maybe even extend an invitation, so that we may know one another again.
This blog post is dedicated with love to the memory of Daniel Ae Roo Beer, age 11 years and six days. And it is dedicated to his grief-filled parents and brother as they put one foot in front of the other, moment by moment, day by day. I pray that my words are healing to the Beer family, to the many communities who mourn Daniel, and to anyone who faces sudden, traumatic loss. May we all be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
There is suffering and sorrow in the world. We do not look it in the face every day; we push it away because we have lives to live and children to raise and joy to seek. We know that suffering exists in this world, but thank God, we choose life.
So when sorrow hits us hard, when the loss is personal, breaking our hearts, we are in shock. We ask, “How could this be? How could this happen?”
Some of us believe we have answers based on our experience or belief or non-belief. I am familiar with the theories and the theologies. But when I face suffering as a member of a community, when I am a part of the sorrow, there is only one thing that I know. I know that I do not know why.
The loss of Daniel cannot be fixed. Answers to the question of why it happened cannot fix the reality of Daniel’s being gone from our lives. It cannot be fixed. But it can be healed.
Judaism teaches us how to heal: we heal by choosing life. Daniel showed us how by embracing life for 11 years, every moment of it, and all its fullness and luxury and joy. How can anyone in the community who loved Daniel find the way back to that kind of living from out of suffering and sorrow?
How does anyone find a way back toward life from out of the depths of loss?
Each one of us understands that we are part of concentric circles of caring. An immediate family, in the grip of loss, is the innermost circle. That is where our focus must go.
From our place outside of the most inner circle…
We choose to be quiet rather than offer theories.
We choose to be silent rather than offer opinions.
We listen first, with open hearts, without judgment, rather than distract with details and stories and any conversation other than that which is before us.
We understand the unique nature of every loss rather than offer our own experience without being asked for it.
Ultimately, Judaism teaches that healing begins when we offer nothing but our presence. Think of all the concentric circles. Imagine the power of everyone offering loving presence, directed inward toward the innermost circle, hoping to begin the process of healing.
All of us who knew and loved Daniel Beer learned from him that the world is a joyous place. Daniel’s life taught us that curiosity, limitless love, humor and kindness are the best way to live a life. Everything has changed now, except for one important thing: Daniel’s life lessons remain. The healing begins when we turn toward the joy that defined Daniel’s life.
HaMakom y’nachem etchem b’toch sha’ar avelei Tzion v’Yerushalayim. May the One who is the Place of Comfort give comfort to you among all of those who mourn in our communities.
L’shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
The traditional names for the synagogue–beit knesset, beit tefilah, beit midrash–connote a house of assembly, a house of worship and a house of inquiry and learning. These days, the synagogue is also considered the center of a faith community.
What does it mean to me to be a faith community? It means collectively embracing a hopeful and optimistic view of the world, where faith in God, in people, and in the potential Godliness of every person shapes values, morals and personal choices. In keeping with the ethical codes of our sages, it means giving others the benefit of the doubt without taking unreasonable risk to one’s own well being.
Judaism’s prophetic tradition envisioned a world order where all people would ultimately see God as one and recognize one another as the creation of that one God. In post-Biblical times, this vision of an era to come (olam ha-ba) was transformed into an other-worldly vision, one that could only arrive through divine intervention. Some even embraced the idea that a super-human or semi-divine figure would be needed to bring about this new world order.
Our sages of Rabbinic Judaism brought us back to our emphasis on human agency. We don’t rely on divine fiat to bring about the days of the era to come. Our messianic age is not ushered in by God, but by those of us here doing the work of God.
Israel and America are two potential entities through which this new world order can be brought about. There is nothing wrong with America or Israel wanting to put themselves “first” in this new order, so long as being first doesn’t mean being exclusive. Being first in this order means leading the way for all of humanity to ultimately be a part of the same vision, the same order. If I am first, and no one is following, then I am also last. Isolation and exclusivity did not fit with the prophets’ notion that Judaism’s values would serve as a light drawing humanity to unite as one.
As a leader of a faith community, I will continue to have faith in God; in people; and in policies that move us closer to a world order where all people search for the image of God in others. Our assembly, our worship, our inquiry and learning all point us in this direction as a worldview. Your vision of where we need to go as a society, as a country, as a world or as Jews may differ from mine; but as someone (who doesn’t see the world as I do) recently told me, I must speak the words that are in my heart. They are the wisdom of my experiences and my truths, and my responsibility to espouse in leading a faith community.
I don’t seek to be political in my views or to take sides. Different times demand that different values be prioritized and championed. I will speak out against Islamic fundamentalism that threatens my security and I will call out Jewish fundamentalism that chips away at my identity. I will warn against Islamophobia and I will defend against anti-Semitism. I will advocate for the rights of women to control their own bodies and I will demand the need for people to make responsible choices. I will educate for Jewish continuity and I will explore new ways to welcome interfaith households. I will support the rights of countries to protect their citizens, and I will march to demand the protection of the stranger, the vulnerable and those who can’t protect themselves. I will teach towards a greater awareness of the needs of people with disabilities and I will push for us to see one another as people first. I will own responsibility for my actions and I will accept the collective responsibility we have to our neighbors.
These are the values, among others, that I believe our faith community must advance in moving our world toward a better era for humankind. May that time come soon and in our day.
Rabbi Craig Scheff