This past Sunday night, our OJC community and friends celebrated our community. Yes, Rabbi Paula Drill was the honoree for the evening, but—sorry—the night was only in part about her. It was a love-fest that spanned the generations: a night of Jewish learning, music, food and appreciation of one another. The night was about our community: our heart, our simplicity, our humility, our relationships, our Torah, our mission and our vision.
In trying to summarize our community’s success, I realize that we have not relied upon any new strategies. We haven’t created any unique ways of doing business; nor have we abandoned our commitment to traditional models of Jewish life. It is the Jewish values exhibited in the building of the Mishkan (the Israelites’ portable sanctuary), described in this week’s Torah portion, that serve as the blueprint for our own community.
The very idea that the people can participate in a process that will invite God’s presence is enough to inspire participation. Perhaps there is an element of guilt or a desire for repentance in their motivation, but after the debacle of the Golden Calf, the Israelites have a chance to merit a legacy. And the project is as much about the process as it is about the ultimate edifice that is constructed. The freewill service to a higher calling adds meaning and the sense of God’s presence to a life that is otherwise enslaved to fear and uncertainty.
God instructs Moses to engage the community by inviting them to donate to the project whatever they are moved to share. Several opportunities are created for that giving by virtue of the many types of materials being collected and utilized in the project. Engagement is transformed into empowerment as each individual becomes a participant in the processes of manufacturing, design and construction.
The appointment of Betzalel as project manager, the inclusion of artisans, and the participation of the broader community creates a new dynamic for the Israelites’ engagement with the Divine One. Before this change, leadership was purely hierarchical, and the population was steps removed in relation to God. As a result of the new appointee, the community operates in partnership with its leadership. In partnerships, the success of one is the success of all. Relationships deepen between the volunteers who recognize that they are working together towards a shared vision; relationships also deepen between the volunteers and the leadership, who now recognize the value of the other’s contributions towards a shared goal.
Finally, there is the matter of expectations and of how we define our success. Success can’t be about the number of people who participate or about the amounts they contribute. Success is found in the knowledge that the process of building—serving, empowering, partnering and relating—is an ongoing effort.
On Sunday night, we celebrated a milestone for a community in process. God said, “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” As we continue the process of building a world deserving of God’s presence, may we continue to merit God’s presence among us.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
What is a group of women doing in someone’s living room one night each month, introducing themselves with their matriarchal line and passing a candle from one to the next? We are celebrating Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish new month, a time designated by the rabbis as a festival for women. Rosh Chodesh Celebrations began this year to bring together women who are raising children at home for evenings of study, sharing and celebrating.
Each month our gatherings have been uplifting and meaningful. Through tears and laughter these women have found support and understanding in a close circle of OJC congregants, luxuriating in the gift of time dedicated to self and community.
Last night was a special Rosh Chodesh celebration as the group of younger moms met together with Sisters in Spirit, a group of OJC women whose nests are empty facilitated each month by Sally Kagan and Miriam Suchoff.
Rosh Chodesh Tevet is unique as it falls in the middle of a holiday, on the seventh night of Chanukah each year. Among the Jewish communities of North Africa, this auspicious night was designated as the Festival of the Daughters — a time for the generations to celebrate together. And so that is what the two Rosh Chodesh groups of the Orangetown Jewish Center did last night: we brought the generations together to celebrate.
One of the Rosh Chodesh Celebrations participants wrote about how much she enjoyed the special evening, “I always look to learn from the older, wiser and more experienced women (and men) in the world and often say that those sage people (like my dad) are hard to find these days. Their simple advice is so enlightening and comforting.”
Together we lit the chanukiah and immediately felt the magic begin.
After our opening ritual, Sally told the story of brave and wise Judith who saved the Jews who were under siege by the evil Holofernes. Sally’s storytelling technique was engaging and fun; you’ll have to ask her for a synopsis, but be sure to ask what she pulled out of her basket at the end of the story!
We used the lighting of seven candles to open us to seven questions about women we admire, blessings we would bestow on daughters, our own gifts to family, and more.
There were tears and words of support and much laughter. We concluded the evening with each woman offering a blessing to the woman to her right.
Without a doubt, there is magic in a Rosh Chodesh group. A group of women empowers one another to reach inside and tap into a place we often ignore. The group energizes us so that people not only feel good about themselves, but about the women surrounding them! As Sally Kagan says, “This is the essence of women gathering for Rosh Chodesh: that we all have the ability within our souls to capture the roots of our faith, the belief that we can nurture and be nourished by one another, and to understand what those first women in the red tents knew: that through the camaraderie and learning we are stronger!”
If you are a woman of the Orangetown Jewish Center, we hope that you’ll join one of the Rosh Chodesh groups. Contact me at Rabbi.Drill@theojc.org for more information. If you are a blog reader who is not connected to the OJC, be in contact for information on how to create a group of your own. And if you are a man, be happy for the women in your life that there is a safe and nurturing place for us to grow in a Jewish context.
Enjoy this eighth night of Chanukah. I pray that the lights in the darkness bring optimism to your hearts.
Chag Chanukah Sameach and Chodesh Tov, Happy Chanukah and Happy New Month,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
A past-president of our synagogue, Nohra Leff, once said to me, “I don’t just believe in miracles, I EXPECT THEM!” What a great way to go through life. Expecting miracles means that we engage in behaviors that ultimately create an environment where what some perceive as the “miraculous” becomes that much more possible.
In the fall of 1995, I took a job as part-time cantor at the OJC. Still a full-time student and father of two young boys, I treated the job like it was the fulfillment of a dream. A year later, I was negotiating my first contract to be Student-Rabbi and to stay on as Rabbi after my ordination. I was advised by people “in the know” to avoid such a commitment. After all, the synagogue had gone through so many rabbis in its relatively short history, and I “could do better,” according to the more experienced. Three years later, another past-president, Michael Scolnick, would ask me how long I thought the honeymoon could last. I am glad to say that, even in my 20th year, I still feel like we met just yesterday. Okay, maybe just the day before yesterday.
When I speak to rabbinical students in their final years at JTS, I try to emphasize that every synagogue community has the potential to be a place that can be transformed and re-dedicated to Torah, service and deeds of loving kindness. That can only happen, however, if the rabbi is willing to see him or herself as spending the rest of their professional life serving that one community. If we invest ourselves in a plan believing that we have only two years to work toward achieving our goals, then we doom ourselves to failure; but if we invest ourselves planning for the long term, we can create an environment where the seemingly impossible is indeed achievable.
In the midst of Chanukah, we consider the nature of miracles, and the role that “dedication” (the literal meaning of the word Chanukah) plays in making one day’s worth of oil last for eight, or in leading one small band of soldiers to victory against overwhelming odds. I am so proud of what we have achieved and how we have continued to grow as a Conservative egalitarian community. Beyond our impressive numbers, we have attained a level of learning, service to the broader community, participation and spirit of which we can all be proud. The dedication that has brought us to this place in our history, however, has also given us the wisdom to understand that we must continue striving to build and to deepen relationships; to reach in to our membership and to reach out to those still searching; to develop more pathways into our OJC community, into a life of purpose and meaning, and into relationship with God; and to lookto the future with faith, optimism and vision. Some people might call our success a miracle. Perhaps we have witnessed something miraculous as a community; if so, the miracle only happened because of the wise people–presidents, boards, volunteers, congregants, professionals and clergy–who were looking for one, who expected one, and who acted to create the environment where such a miracle could take root.
Chag Urim Sameach,
Happy Festival of Lights,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Those pilgrims who established the first Thanksgiving back in1621 had some chutzpah celebrating gratitude. Fleeing religious persecution, they sailed through dangerous waters, accidentally ending up in Massachusetts instead of Virginia. Arriving in winter, they endured bitter cold, food shortages, bewildering farming practices, insufficient shelter, illness and despair. Within a short time, many had died. When we imagine being one of those pilgrims, it becomes clear that it was an act of faith and courage to sit down with new neighbors and give thanks.
For what did they feel grateful? Perhaps their thanksgiving was an acknowledgement that despite trials and sorrows, it was still necessary to experience gratitude. Perhaps… their gratitude was an antidote to the painful life that was their lot.
Today many of us also struggle. We experience personal challenges, illness, death, family conflict, unemployment. Gratitude is not an emotion that always comes naturally, but Judaism teaches that gratitude is not a choice. As Jews, the expression of thanksgiving is not conditional on whether we have all that we want.
The Talmud teaches that each time we benefit from something in this world, it should be preceded by the recitation of a blessing. Otherwise, we are labeled a thief, stealing from God or the community in which we live. Jews recite berakhot (blessings) to acknowledge the One who provides everything. Jews become blessings when we express our gratitude for the good that is ours by acts of loving kindness toward others. As God’s partners, such behavior is required.
This past weekend, the Orangetown Jewish Center once again remembered to show our gratitude for all the good that is ours by becoming blessings to each other and the general community. For the first time, Mitzvah Day became Mitzvah Weekend. Thanks to the passion and capable organization of Co-Chairs Lorraine Brown and Carolyn Wodar, hundreds of congregants of every age and stage participated in some part of the experience.
After welcoming the Orangeburg Library Interfaith Study Group to Friday evening services led by our youth, seventy congregants gathered for Dinner and Dialogue. We hosted Andrea Weinberger and Rob Grosser, co-presidents of Rockland County Jewish Federation (http://www.jewishrockland.org) and learned together about the organization that anchors all tzedaka in our community, Israel, and around the globe.
On Shabbat morning, just returned from the annual volunteer Mitzvah Mission to Israel with twenty OJCers, Rabbi Scheff reminded us that performing mitzvoth requires stepping out of our comfort zones. Guests from neighboring faith communities joined us at the end of Shabbat for Havdalah and guided conversation to learn about each others’ traditions and beliefs.
Sunday was the culmination of months of planning as congregants volunteered from early morning with Keep Rockland Beautiful and the annual Breakfast Run to deliver warm blankets and food. Throughout the day, congregants danced to Zumba for United Hospice of Rockland (http://hospiceofrockland.org), learned about TAPS (http://www.taps.org) (support for widows and orphans of American servicemen and women) from CFO (and congregant) Scott Rutter, created flannel blankets and other craft projects for area hospitals and nursing facilities, and went out to visit patients and residents in those places. The day concluded with congregants being invited to minyanim in their neighborhoods.
As many of us enter into the joy and contentment of celebrating Thanksgiving, it is important to remember that for many this time offers neither joy nor contentment. What can we do? If we are surrounded by an abundance of blessings, we can give thanks and become blessings to others. If this time of year emphasizes feelings of need and sadness, still we can find ways to give thanks. All of us can show gratitude to God by becoming blessings to each other. We can offer gratitude as a celebration of God’s gifts or as an antidote to despair.
May you be a blessing,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Our sages tell us that we are meant to live as if there is an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and a book that keeps track of all we do. You might think this is enough to drive us to paranoia! In fact, living one’s life as if someone is always watching even our most secretive acts can lead to a more conscious, more intentional existence.
Case in point: a few weeks ago I attended a Saturday night community jazz concert. Shabbat had been a busy one, including a Friday night program, a Shabbat morning bar mitzvah, a lecture after lunch, and a Shabbat afternoon bat mitzvah. Needless to say, I had no Shabbat nap. I settled into the comfortable auditorium seat, the lights were dimmed, and the mellow saxophone began to sing. You can guess what happened next.
That’s right, I fell asleep.
A week later, I had a meeting at our community campus. A colleague said to me, “I heard you are not much of a jazz fan.” “What do you mean?” “I heard you fell asleep!” Ouch. A few days later, while shopping at Fairway, I saw someone from the community I hadn’t seen in a while. “When was the last time we saw each other?” “Actually,” he answered, “I saw you at the jazz concert. You must have been pretty tired.” Double ouch! I actually enjoy jazz; if I ever need some help falling asleep, it’s the Carpenters, John Denver or jazz that does the trick. But one short shloof, induced by exhaustion, mood lighting and music, and I am the talk of the town!
Okay, so I exaggerate a bit to make my point. I understand that I live in a fishbowl, as do many public figures and leaders. The point our sages make, however, is that we should all feel that we are living in a fishbowl, and guard our words and deeds accordingly. Every action, reaction or inaction can be understood as intentional, so we must live intentionally. Every action, reaction or inaction can be understood as a conscious choice, so we must live consciously. In doing so, perhaps we save ourselves a bit of shame, a bit of guilt, a bit of regret, and a bit of being a topic of other people’s conversations!
Rabbi Craig Scheff