Thoughts on Joy: Moadim l’Simcha
The first two holy days of Passover came to an end last night and with the holy days, so went my children. As we made Havdalah, Josh left for the airport to return to Israel and his IDF unit. Noah returned to Maryland, Ben to college finals, and soon Sarah and Sagi will return to Israel as well. Moadim l’simcha, we say, may these middle days of Passover be filled with joy. Forgive me if my joy feels a bit diminished.
And I really mean: Forgive me. I have so many reasons to be filled with an abundance of joy. Like Elijah’s cup at the seder, the joy should be flowing over the top of the cup.
All four of my children became “all five of my children” this year as we added Sagi, a son by marriage to our ranks. On the Sunday before Passover, our daughter Sarah and Sagi stood under the chuppah with Rabbi Craig Scheff officiating. For anyone who might have been second guessing attendance at a simcha on the last really great cleaning/preparation day before Pesach, Rabbi Scheff told us that celebrating the wedding was exactly the kind of Passover preparation we should be doing. The ruach of the wedding was an experience of simcha that no one in our families will ever forget, pouring joy into my cup.
My own preparations for Pesach were put into perspective with absolute clarity. I could not have angst and agita because there was simply no time. On Monday we were serving bagels to thirty out of town guests. On Friday, we were sitting down to our family seder. The lived-understanding that my best was good enough and that the seder is meant to be completely a time of rejoicing freed me from years of self-imposed rigor.
I have taught for years that we don’t need to be tortured in our Passover preparations. This year I walked my talk. The sense of freedom of the seder was another level of simcha poured into my cup.
It was a blessing to celebrate the first two days of Passover with such an abundance of old and new family, a blessing that I don’t take for granted.
Two wonderful seders, sunny days, lunches of matza lasagna with friends, long walks with my new machatenasta (Yiddish for mother of my son-in-law) enhanced the beauty of the chag. The sense of quiet contentment is another kind of simcha to add to my cup.
Still, as the holy day ended last night and the middle days of Pesach began, I felt the diminishment of my joy as one by one, the Drill children and members of the Fainshtain family started peeling away, leaving us with great memories and (forgive me) matzah crumbs. But here is where Jewish ritual came to the rescue, reminding me that given a choice between feelings of loss and feelings of gratitude, I can choose gratitude.
Last night we counted the second day of the Omer. As we continue on the calendar arc from Passover to Shavuot, from redemption to revelation, we count up, not down. Each day toward the holiday of Shavuot reminds us that we choose to make every day one of meaning, to make every day count. I can let go of the lessons learned about simcha or I can hold fast to joy by being grateful. Forgive me If I choose joy!
Moadim l’simcha! Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
The Only Woman at the Table
His seat was directly across the table from me. He called me Rabbi Drill, but he did not look directly at me. I know that calling me “Rabbi” was a concession he made for me and he knew that my understanding of his lack of eye contact was a compromise I accepted from him. Rabbi Mayer Schiller represented the Skver community in the Village of New Square and I represented a very different religious world. We were two of twelve religious leaders from Rockland County and New York City who gathered at the invitation of Rockland County Executive, Ed Day. Everyone around the table accommodated each other so that we could meet in the middle, in a place where we could listen to each other and truly feel heard.
When I was invited to the two hour summit that took place at Rockland Community College President’s Office yesterday, the meeting was described as an opportunity to sit down to open lines of communication between various religious groups of Rockland County. I accepted with the hope that a process of healing and reconciliation could begin.
But I arrived with low expectations. I knew that leaders of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, of NAACP and of parent groups in East Ramapo have tried to meet with members of the Ultra-Orthodox community for open dialogue. I knew that these attempts had not been successful. I wondered what could possibly be different.
And here is what was different: Mr. Day invited religious leaders from Spring Valley and Suffern churches, the Islamic Center of Rockland, the Board of Rabbis (Conservative and Reform colleagues) and the Orthodox Jewish and Chassidic communities. Mr. Day told us that he is working to make Rockland County a place where we can live next to each other with respect and cooperation, with fair treatment for all and special privilege for none. He asked us to speak our truth and established an atmosphere of safety. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, was invited as our facilitator. He established the tenor of the meeting when he said that it is better to discuss without resolution rather than resolve without discussion.
Two powerful pictures of broken community emerged from our conversation that struck powerful chords with me. First, Rockland County was compared to a ride on a New York City subway. We get on and get off at different stations, and while we share the space, no one makes eye contact or greets the other. We are as close as can be, but we pretend that the others are not there at all, sharing a bench or even hanging onto the same subway strap. Such travel through our days may be adaptive for New York City’s underground (though I would disagree) but it is not the way to be a cohesive county where all citizens have a profound sense of belonging.
The second description was shared by Reverend Raymond C. Caliman of the Fairmont Baptist Church in Haverstraw. He described a visit to Walmart in Suffern. People pass each other as they shop, but no one looks at the other. Instead, they look away. He said that the turning away speaks volumes about distrust and a refusal to know the “other”.
We spoke honestly and with open hearts from the anchor of our various religious traditions. Reverend Dr. Weldon McWilliams Jr. of the First Baptist Church of Spring Valley reminded us that we are all God’s children. Rabbi Schiller acknowledged that members of the Chassidic community must be taught that all people are created in God’s image. We talked about the need for a balance of power and empathy.
We explored next steps which include Rabbi Greenwald and Rabbi Schiller bringing members of their communities to the table, a statement of principles to which religious leaders can sign on, and a confederation of religious leaders who can stand together to condemn actions of bias against any group in the county as well as to celebrate positive steps forward.
It was only a beginning. But I feel optimistic. I felt heard. And Rabbi Schiller called me Rabbi.
With optimism and friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook said, “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.” From the beginning of my work with Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, I have felt the powerful call to speak out against the injustice being done to the children, their families, and the educators of the East Ramapo Central School District. In speaking out about the constitutionally given right to an education for all children in Rockland County, I have joined my voice to an interfaith coalition of Rockland clergy, to the congregants of the Orangetown Jewish Center, to all Jews who pursue tzedek (righteousness), and to all people of conscience.
Rockland Clergy for Social Justice (RC4SJ) is an interfaith coalition of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders who began working together over a year ago with a single unifying focus: the 9000 public school children of East Ramapo who are not receiving an adequate education that will prepare them to be successful citizens of our country.
Today RC4SJ held a press conference at the First Baptist Church of Spring Valley to support the courageous work of State Legislators Ellen Jaffee, David Carlucci, and Ken Zebrowski. Since November, when special monitor Hank Greenberg presented his findings on the dysfunctional school district, they have been working to write legislation to ensure compliance with state and federal law, financial integrity and transparency and functional school governance. Our press conference, planned weeks ago to announce RC4SJ’s upcoming lobbying trip to Albany on March 3, coincidentally happened at the exact time that our county legislators introduced their bill. http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/albany/2015/02/8562498/rockland-pols-introduce-east-ramapo-oversight-bill
The bill shows the commitment of Jaffee, Carlucci and Zebrowski to implementing both the spirit and letter of Hank Greenberg’s recommendations. To read the bill as it has been introduced, click here: http://open.nysenate.gov/legislation/bill/A5355-2015.
When I spoke at the press conference today, I began by recalling my feeling of dedication to 9000 children when I stood on the very same dais last year. 9000 seemed like a very large number, a compelling reason to stand up and speak up. Today, however, those 9000 children have become personal. Through my volunteer experiences together with fellow OJCers at the Kakiat School Early Childhood Center, I have come to know the children we are fighting for. Kindergarten children who need a full day of education receive instead two hours a day, one half hour of which is taken up with breakfast or lunch. The valiant, dedicated administrators and teachers at the ECC work to provide learning to children, who number thirty in a class without an aide. 9000 is not just a number. 9000 is Kiran, a bright, precocious five year old who would be reading chapter books already if he had more education hours. 9000 is Tyron, a child who has fine motor difficulties. I help him at the learning centers to hold scissors straight and cut paper. I wonder who helps him on the vast majority of days when I am not there. 9000 is Rosie, an imaginative little artist. My heart sinks when I think about Rosie entering grade school without art or music to continue fueling her curiosity. 9000 is not a number. It’s personal. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CxColw3FnI
RC4SJ will be traveling once again to Albany on March 3, hoping to build on today’s momentum and seeking support from other legislative leaders and the Executive Chamber in Albany for the bill introduced today by Jaffee, Carlucci.and Zebrowski.
Last Friday, Governor Cuomo came to East Ramapo and bravely announced that he expected to sign legislation before June of this year. He said that he is grateful to special monitor Hank Greenberg for providing us with facts. I agree that having facts gives us with the leverage to create change. But facts are only the beginning. To see this through to a happy ending for the public school students of ERCSD, we will need passion, dedication to justice and clear vision of a moral high ground.
“Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. Justice, justice, you will pursue.”
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
News from Far (Israel) and Near (East Ramapo)
The news this morning from Jerusalem was shocking and tragic. As soon as I woke up, I checked the news from Israel as I always do. Reading about a brutal murder of four Jews davenning their morning prayers in their shul, I called my friend Rena in Jerusalem. “What a long, lonely day this has been,” she told me. “I have been alone here in Israel with this news since 7:00 this morning, while all of my loved ones in America were sleeping. Now that morning is arriving in America, I have to go through the story again and again, as you wake up on the East Coast, then my family in the Midwest, and then on to California.”
By now you have read Rabbi Scheff’s blog, so you know that our fellow OJCers on the Volunteer Work Mission are far from Jerusalem, up in the North. They are all safe, but like us, their hearts are broken. Truly, this is the meaning of Am Echad, One People: When one of us is hurt, we are all hurt.
Call your friends and family in Israel today. Tell them that we are thinking of them. We are well aware of the shocking terrorist attacks that have been happening in these last few weeks, and we care deeply about the people of Israel. As my friend Rena said, they are feeling lonely.
Closer to home, last evening the State Appointed Monitor, Hank Greenberg, gave his report to the Chancellery in Albany after months of research into the crisis in the East Ramapo Central School District. As I listened to the live broadcast, I felt both proud of the work that the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice has done and undaunted, knowing how much work lies ahead. You can view an archive of the broadcast for a limited period of time. Copy and paste this link into your browser:
Please consider the dozen volunteers who are spending time at the Early Childhood Center at the Kakiat School. When I go to help in Mrs. Greenwood’s classroom, I experience in my very being the urgency of the issue of the education of the children of our county. Contact Sally Kagan: email@example.com or call 845-290-0085.
With prayers for peace and blessings, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Open the Gates of Justice (in Albany)
At 6:00 am this morning, Ariella Rosen, our Rabbinic Intern, and I boarded a bus together with thirty interfaith clergy bound for Albany. The Rockland Clergy for Social Justice fulfilled our pledge to call on Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders to initiate immediate fiscal and administrative oversight in the East Ramapo Central School District and to revise the structure, governance and financing of that school district. On the two hour ride up the Thruway we were briefed about our mission and the many advocacy meetings that we would have. Just after a stop for coffee, I davenned the prayers of Rosh Hodesh, the New Month. When I reached Hallel, I sang softly to myself: Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek – Open for me the Gates of Justice. “How perfect,” I thought to myself, “the Jewish calendar can be so in sync with the world.
The day was a big success. I will be sharing information with everyone about the ways in which each one of us can become involved in this issue that is of concern to so many of our congregants in the days ahead. Today we met with Larry Schwartz, Secretary to Governor Cuomo, Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate leaders Dean Skelos, Jeffrey Klein and John Flanagan, and Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Throughout the day we were accompanied by Senator David Carlucci, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffe and Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski; all three are champions of our cause and deserve our thanks.
For tonight, I would like to share with you the words that I spoke at the Prayer Vigil/Press Conference, to give you a sense of the impact felt in Albany when a unified band of rabbis, ministers, pastors and imams raised our voices together for justice.
I am proud to stand before you this afternoon representing the Orangetown Jewish Center, a congregation of more than 500 families who are concerned about the issue of fair and meaningful access to education for all young people in our county.
On the Jewish calendar, today is Rosh Hodesh, the first day of a new month. It is appropriate to be here today because Rosh Hodesh is a day of introspection and renewal. It is a day of optimism. Interestingly, it is also a day set apart for women and today as the sole woman clergy in attendance, I raise my voice for all of the mothers who send their children to school in the East Ramapo Central School District and for the teachers in that school district, the vast majority of whom are women.
Rosh Hodesh is a day of witnessing. In history, a new month was not declared until witnesses saw a new moon in the sky. Now this witnessing was by necessity subtle because what was being seen in the sky was actually the absence of the moon. Today, we stand before you as witnesses to important things that are absent from the lives of the families in the East Ramapo Central School District. Absent is protection for the children. Absent is fair governance of their schools. Absent is the education that is the Constitutional right of every child in the State of New York.
I stand today as a witness.
Consider the student in Spring Valley High School who has no Child Psychology and Day Care class to take because it was eliminated from the budget. Her dream to begin a career in Day Care will not be fulfilled. I am a witness to her dream.
Consider the student in Ramapo High School whose dream of a college scholarship in swimming or wrestling or tennis is crushed because those teams were eliminated from the budget. I am a witness to his dream.
Consider the mother sending her children to school each day who has sidelined her dreams of their succeeding in a competitive world thanks to education. Now she is more concerned that they return from school safely each day. Security guards were eliminated form the budget. I am a witness to her dreams for her children.
Consider the father who is a mathematician or a musician or … fill in the blank. Like any father, he had dreams of his children’s following in his footsteps. But there are no math electives, not even Advanced Algebra. There are no music programs at all in the Elementary Schools and the award winning marching band no longer exists. All were cut from the budget. I am a witness to his dreams.
Consider the guidance counselor in the high school or the sports coaches in the middle schools or the kindergarten teaching assistant. They were committed to careers in education but their jobs were eliminated. I am a witness to their dreams.
All that I witness leads me to the only possible response: a cry for justice. Here in Albany, I pray that you hear the same call. We clergy of every faith have gathered together as witnesses. We represent our congregations who stand as witnesses. We cannot and will not look away. You are our elected officials. We pray that you join us as witnesses so that we can take action together.