Tag Archive | Israel

Speaking as prophets

Today, Israel and those who love her mourn the brutal murder of 13 year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel. The leadership once again searches for balance as it reels from the blow, struggling to arrive at the “appropriate” response. I would not dare offer an opinion on the matter, even if I could formulate one. As I prepare to share this message, another terrorist attack is unfolding in Bangladesh, with several already dead, dozens held hostage and ISIS claiming responsibility. I pray that the perpetrators be brought to justice and that the hostages emerge unscathed. But even as we struggle with how to respond to our neighbors and to the world in light of these events, I am still compelled to speak within our family to an issue that must remain at the top of our agenda as Jews. t is an issue of self-care. And such is the nature of these times. If we cannot care for our own well-being, we won’t be any good to anybody else. To that end:

Some of my colleagues believe that in this day and age rabbis must function as prophets, taking public stands on political and social issues from gun control to refugees to presidential campaigns. Judaism, no doubt, has what to say about all these topics of the day and more. As a rabbi, however, I see it as my task to educate about what Judaism says to all sides of these issues. After all, we know that Judaism rarely offers a single answer to any question, sometimes only offering another question in response. Being a rabbi certainly doesn’t qualify me as the authority on all topics that affect our society; being a Jew certainly doesn’t qualify me as owner of the only truth.

Two thousand years ago, in the wake of the Temple’s destruction (largely due to the corrupted priesthood which had concentrated religious and political authority and access in the hands of the few), the rabbis transformed Judaism from a cultic sacrificial system into a tradition based upon individuals  expressing their relationship with God through the conduct of their daily lives. No longer would religious power and access to God be owned by the few and corruptible. The written word would give equal access to all. Throughout the centuries and the various shifting locales of Jewish life, our rich tradition has recognized a plurality of authorities and a wide range of customs and interpretations.
We find ourselves today at a moment in history similar to the one our rabbis faced 2000 years ago. A small group of politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel claim sole access to and interpretation of the word of God; only through them may others connect with the Divine. This past week our American Orthodox leaders were shaken to hear that a conversion performed by one of their leading figures of our generation was invalidated by an Israeli rabbi. The week before, a group of men marched into the egalitarian section of the Kotel–where we have prayed together as a community on so many occasions–and set up a mehitzah. The Israeli government is now backpedalling from implementing an agreement reached months ago, as religious groups retract their assent to a deal that had granted the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) and Reform movements a respectable, secure and accessible spot for mixed prayer at the Kotel.
Masorti kotel
This issue, in my opinion, is the most important issue confronting us as Jews today, even more pressing than the threats of antisemitism or the BDS movement. Why? Because “we” have nothing to say to the world as Jews in response to the social and political issues of our times until “we” are recognized as Jews who can speak for Torah, for Israel and for what Judaism offers the world. The Israeli rabbinate and the government enabling it have undermined the legitimacy of our voices as Jews in the world. Before we can speak Torah with authority to any of the issues of our day, we must reclaim our legitimacy. Just as we expect others to denounce extremism, our voices of moderation raised before our own extremists. We can, and indeed we must, communicate this message to every Jewish institutional circle in which we find ourselves. This can be as simple as sharing your support of this message with the lay leadership or professional staff of your local JCC, Jewish Federation, J-Street, AIPAC, or AJC chapter. Let them know you will not tolerate being marginalized as a Jew. Write to Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, or visit his Facebook page and post a message there. Go to masorti.org to learn more about the advances that Masorti Judaism has made within Israeli society, and the challenges it faces. Let the Israeli government know that there are consequences to its continuing acquiescence to religious parties that deny all Jews the free expression of their Judaism. Our children are being disenfranchised and their connections to Israel are being attenuated–not because of Israel’s foreign policy, but first and foremost by a religious policy that denigrates and invalidates their very identities as Jews.
Kotel conflict

“You’re not Jews,” Haredi protesters shouted at the non-Orthodox worshipers

Jews of Israel and Jews of the Diaspora must take back from the hands of the self-proclaimed prophets ownership of God’s word. Each of us is a prophet, each of us hears God’s word. When we own this fact and tear down the false altars that have been erected by those who have hijacked our tradition, Torah will once again emanate from Zion, the word of God from Jerusalem. Her ways will be pleasant, and her pathways will be peace. Then we will certainly have what to tell the world.

May this Shabbat bring us, and through us the world, a greater measure of shalom,
Rabbi Craig Scheff

A prayer in the wake of disaster

Dear God,

You have given me the ability to feel suffering, the blessing-curse of empathy.

You have taught me to open my heart to the condition of others, to love my neighbor as myself, to remember that we are all created in your Divine image. Through practicing these ideals, I have become more compassionate, more responsive, more understanding, more humane, more divine. I have worked hard to broaden my vision; to break the shackles of stereotype, ignorance and laziness; to know my neighbor in order to truly be able to love my neighbor; to create space within my limited experience of the world for those who live differently than I, who aspire differently and who find fulfillment differently. I have allowed myself to feel hopeful and to afford others the benefit of the doubt. I have chosen to see the divine in others.

Tonight, however, this open heart is a curse. Because I feel the suffering of my sisters and brothers. And I absorb the taunts of those who wish my children harm. And I shudder at the sounds of laughter and rejoicing over spilled blood. And I don’t see in the face of my neighbor another who is content with being my neighbor. And the voices of reason that provided me with hope just hours ago have been drowned out by the crowd applauding the gun shots in the theater of the absurd.

So in this moment I find myself closing my open heart to protect myself from the pain of all that suffering. And as the heart closes, I feel it hardening in anger and despair.

Please, God, slow my racing heart and grant me a few hours’ rest. And in my sleep, soften my heart again. Because I need to love. And I can’t truly love–even my own children–so long as this hardened heart beats within me. And once I can feel again, let the blessing-curse of my empathy move me to heal the sick, to comfort the mourner, and to set out rebuilding a shattered world.

In the words of Jeremiah from this past week’s haftarah, “Heal me, Adonai, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved.” Give me reason to praise You.

Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch she’ar aveilei tzion vi’rushalayim. May God comfort and sustain us among the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem … and Tel Aviv.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Wedding Day on The Border

After a wedding errand in Sederot with Sagi’s mom Racheli, we waited for a long line of trucks to go by before we could turn left onto the highway back to Mefalasim. When I asked her where all the trucks were coming from, she shrugged and said, “from Gaza”. Why? “They are returning from dropping off the day’s humanitarian aid, food and medicine.” Every day? “Sure. We bring them supplies every day.”
Stymied, I tried to wrap my mind around the simple fact of Israel’s taking care of people in Gaza, the neighbors who are still trying to build terrorism tunnels under the kibbutzim where Sagi grew up.
Racheli says that she does not think about missiles or terrorist attacks when it has been relatively quiet for a period of time. She tells me that she blocks it all from her mind. I am just a visitor, and I am the opposite in my response. When I am here in the south, all I can do is think about that long period of time when missiles fell every day on Sederot and the surrounding kibbutzim of Shaar HaNegev. Long before Iron Dome, missiles reached the ground and took away peace of mind and people’s lives. Since the miraculous protection of Iron Dome, still no one here lives with a complete sense of security.
I think about it all the time. I look at the waitress at the restaurant in Sederot and imagine her as a young girl, running for shelter with 15 seconds notice. I sit with Sarah as she has her hair done for the wedding later today and wonder how Shupan kept his business running through those years.

IMG_0457 IMG_0465

I sit in Racheli’s classroom at Shaar HaNegev High School as she presents an experiment to her chemistry students and notice the sign just next to the whiteboard. It is a sign we would never see in America: in case of tzeva adom, a red alert, do not leave the building. I observe Racheli’s students and acknowledge to myself that they have never lived in a world without threat from their neighbors.


At the entrance of Kibbutz Nir Am, on the way into the guest cottage, I pause to think about the very beginning of Protective Edge… and of two Israeli soldiers who were killed here. On my morning run, I cannot avoid looking at the barbed wire surrounding the entire kibbutz.


But then, I see a sign. I mean that I see a sign and also that I see a sign! It says: Beware! Narrow Bridge.


And I complete the significance for myself: all of the world is just a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.
Praying every day for peace for Israel, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill


Shabbat Here and There and Now and Later

One of my favorite Talmudic teachings asks what one should do if she is lost in the desert and does not know what day it is. How can she know when it is Shabbat? The rabbis answer that she should count six days from the time she remembers and the seventh day will be Shabbat. [Talmud Bavli Shabbat 69b] I love this response because it reminds me that Shabbat is not just a day on a calendar but a sacred time we can enter once a week… and a time that enters us.  When Tradition tells us that we receive neshama yeteira (an additional soul) every Shabbat, I think it is talking about this mystical, tangible quality time takes on when it becomes holy.

I was thinking about this Talmudic source as we entered into Shabbat here in Tel Aviv. When I am away from Orangetown Jewish Center for Shabbat, I picture myself sitting in the sanctuary before our stained glass windows and colorful ark curtain as the room fills up with people I love. But of course, I also enter into Shabbat where I am.


Wherever I go and whatever is happening around me, Shabbat enters me and I enter Shabbat… even in Tel Aviv, the City that Never Sleeps. (Ask any Israeli and they will tell you that New York comes in second to Tel Aviv.) On Friday afternoon, as we made our last minute purchases of challah and fruit in the shuk (market) and I dashed back to Sarah and Sagi’s apartment to check on the chicken soup,


young people in Tel Aviv were settling into pubs and cafes for the beginning of their weekend.


We ate Shabbat dinner on the roof of Sarah and Sagi’s apartment and Ben’s voice reciting motzi mixed with the sounds of a band playing at a bar just outside the Kerem haTemanim neighborhood. In the quiet peace of our Shabbat, I blessed my children and we ate our meal.

On Shabbat morning, we walked to a Masorti synagogue, Kehillat Sinai, where we were warmly greeted and where I was asked to help out as a gabbai. The chanting was different, the faces were new, but the atmosphere was friendly and open. It reminded me of the OJC in its lively community feel.

We spent Shabbat afternoon on the Tel Aviv beach, admittedly one cannot do that in Orangeburg! But while I was here in Israel for Shabbat, I was also in New York for Shabbat, and this is where the teaching from Shabbat 69b comes in handy. When I entered Shabbat, my community was in the midst of busy Friday afternoons back home. When I was hearing the Torah reading of Behar, everyone in New York was sound asleep. When I was relaxing on the beach, the congregation was hearing our intern Paula Rose give her sermon. And when Shabbat went out and I counted the twenty-ninth day of the Omer, my friends at the OJC were beginning their Shabbat naps! How could I be two places at once?

Shabbat enters me and I enter Shabbat. It’s not just time on the clock or a day on the calendar. Shabbat is far more than that. Shabbat is a place I go once a week to replenish my soul. Whether here or there, whether surrounded by people keeping Shabbat or having Saturday morning eggs at a café on Dizengoff, it’s all Shabbat. What more do I need?

See you all next Shabbat at the OJC!  Blessings from Israel,

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Remember to rejoice

Israel gives Memorial Day it’s due.

Yom Hazikaron, Israeli society’s day to remember it’s fallen soldiers and those lives lost to terrorist attacks, weighs heavily on Israel’s communal heart. As the sun goes down on the day, however, a switch is flipped, and an unbridled joy sweeps across the country. Riding a wave of relief, young and old take to the streets to sing and dance, that same communal heart racing to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s independence day.

Yom hazikaron
In Israel, our six degrees of separation are reduced to two. Everyone knows someone who has experienced the personal loss of a family member, friend or acquaintance to war or terror. So while the community shifts into celebration mode, many individuals remain clenched in the pain and sadness of the national day of mourning. And those who are dancing know that some among their friends can’t bring themselves to do so. Still, the memorial day adds meaning and purpose to the independence day that follows. It is the broken glass at the wedding. The joy of the second is an informed joy, and the loss remembered is appreciated for what it has made possible. The losses have not been in vain; the sacrifices are not unnoticed or unappreciated. Sadly, Yom Hazikaron is the silver platter upon which Yom Haatzmaut is served, and the platter needs to gleam freshly polished if the main dish is to be enjoyed.

Yom Haatzmaut
I wonder what these two days will look like when Israel is 340 years old. Will we still be reading names of fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism before celebrating Jewish sovereignty, or will Israel have achieved six degrees of separation from the suffering? And what might that look like? Could Israel’s national days become back to back days for barbecuing and hitting the malls for sales? Somehow, I don’t think so. I imagine that even, God willing, when there are no fresh names to read, and the thousands who have died in sacrifice are generations in the past, the proximity of these two days will carry the same impact as the moment “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither” is recited under the chuppah.

If you’ve ever come to our synagogue, you’ve passed by the Camp Shanks memorial, a site erected in honor of those soldiers who passed through Camp Shanks on their way to Europe in World War II. I see it every day of my life (except sick days or a rainy Shabbat). It is a powerful reminder that even a country without enemies on its borders has endured loss and has demanded sacrifice, which all too often go unappreciated. I don’t know how many years 9/11 will continue to be  remembered by so many of us as a day of solemn assembly. I don’t think that the degrees of separation from personal loss should diminish the respect and appreciation we show for the sacrifices that have assured our freedoms.

camp shanks
This year, at 9:45am on Memorial Day, immediately following an 8:45am morning service at which a memorial prayer will be recited as part of our Torah service, I will walk down the street to stand at the Walkway of American Heroes. I will be surrounded by veterans and families of veterans, by those who have known loss and those who have known service, by local community members who make remembrance a part of their joy. I hope I will be surrounded by you.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Israel through our children’s eyes

This past Friday morning we returned from OJC’s 2015 Israel Experience, having had a wonderful time soaking up the beauty and vibrancy of the land of Israel. We enjoyed sharing our experiences with you daily on Facebook. The true authors of this guest blog entry, however, are thec hildren on our trip. These nine children, ages 6 to 21, inspired us throughout each moment of this trip.

Now, in their own words:

Rayna: Having an experience of visiting Israel is not something that everyone is able to do so, I would like to first say how fortunate I am to be on this amazing trip. An exciting ten hour plane ride across the world to the Asian continent was a pretty interesting experience on its own. This ride was especially exciting because I got to sit next to my OJC friends Victoria and Jeremy! After getting almost no sleep at all on the flight we landed and quickly headed straight to our first activities: sheep herding (not as easy as it sounds) and tree planting.

Israel 15-4 Sheep

Samuel: When you think of Israel you think of Masada, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem etc. But, in Israel there are lots of interesting things that will blow your mind. Israel was the home of the ancient Jewish people, so as soon as we landed on Thursday we headed over to a place near the Ben Gurion airport called Neot Kedumim, a nature reserve representing the Biblical times. There, we planted trees because 60% of Israel is desert. At the same site we became shepherds! We played a game where one team had to herd all of the sheep into a stone circle in a certain amount of time. Some of the sheep were quite rebellious! It was a lot of fun. After that, we headed to Machane Yehuda, the “shuk.” There we walked around and saw all the different kinds of stores and street stalls. Finally, we staggered back to the hotel and collapsed.

Israel 15-5 Shuk

Jeremy: At the Machane Yehuda outdoor market, we sampled all different kinds of foods, drinks, and even some spices. Some examples of refreshments that we had were smoothies (etrog flavored!), coffee, halva (compressed sesame seeds with sugar), olives, and pita bread stuffed with Georgian cheese! We’re talking about the Asian country Georgia, not Georgia in the United States. Even before Machane Yehuda, we made our way over to a spot (Tayellet) where we had a post card worthy photograph view of the city of Jerusalem. We could, see everything. We also said prayers there for wine, Challah and Shecheyanu.

The next day was in the Old City of Jerusalem, where we had a wonderful day under the Temple mount in the tunnels. We learned all about the design and structure of the stones of the Kotel. We learned about how King Herod designed his own style of stone now called “Herodian Masonry.” It was really hot down in the tunnels, but it was fun and educational!

Israel 15-1 Ammunition

Rayna: After two exhausting and full days, I don’t know what the rabbis and our tour guide Julie were trying to do to us children, but starting at sundown on Friday we had to walk everywhere because it was Shabbat! I actually enjoyed Shabbat because, like I told my father, it felt like a holiday that happens every weekend! On Friday night we prayed together at the Western Wall – it was really nice. We went to synagogue on Shabbat morning and even though they spoke Hebrew it was a great thing observe!

Jeremy: Saturday was very different from Shabbat at home. Here in Israel, I got the experience of walking to a synagogue with the group, including the rabbis. The synagogue was Orthodox style, with the men and women separated by a curtain down the middle of the sanctuary. They did open up the curtain for the Divrei Torah though. They were in Hebrew and I therefore did not understand what they were about. I found Shabbat to be a nice experience. For one thing, it was a day in Israel that wasn’t jam-packed with tourist activities and sights. I would totally do it again if the opportunity permitted itself.

Grace: My favorite part of the trip thus far was today and our trip to Masada. After about fifty minutes of hotheadedly hiking up the Snake Path and yelling at the more fortunate cable car riders, we arrived at the top. The magnificent view took our breath away once more. As Jeremy mentioned, King Herod built part of the Kotel, but he also created the palace on Masada. After his death, it was used for a Roman army base. When the Sicarii, or Dagger Men, of the Jewish rebels infiltrated the base, they used the palace as a safe hiding space for three years, until the Roman soldiers finally made it to the top. The Romans surrounded the Sicarii. In the depths of their desperation, they decided that they would rather kill themselves than surrender to the Romans and be killed, mutilated, or sold as slaves. It is told that no one survived. We learned that what actually happened up on Masada many years ago is a little unclear. All I know is that the view there is beautiful and I liked hearing the various stories, however horrific they may have been.

Israel 2015-2 Dead Sea

Our next stop was the Dead Sea. This sea is so salty that it is impossible to have any life there. This is why they call it the Dead Sea. The salt also causes anything to be extremely buoyant, so you can literally float on the water. It’s a phenomenon that is so difficult to explain, but so amazing to experience. When we arrived at the shore we saw people walking around with the infamous mud spread over their bodies. The salt in the water magically made it completely buoyant! It was amazing. At first, I was nervous about experiencing something so odd to me. I didn’t understand how salt could make water turn into something so easy to float in. Once we finally were able to lay back in the water and experience the impossible, there would be no turning back from the fun. We laughed with our friends, attempted to get into the weirdest positions while still floating, and just relaxed in the cool sea.

My experience in Israel so far has been an amazing experience, a phenomenal one. I have loved it with every bit of my heart, and I hope, sincerely, that I will come back soon.

Israel 15-3 Kotel

Milo: This winter break, I was lucky enough to get to travel to Israel. Today we packed up our suitcases to head up north. On the way out of Jerusalem we stopped a few times. Our first stop was Yad Vashem. While we didn’t go inside the museum itself, we saw some of the monuments outside of it. The first thing we saw were the trees planted in honor of the non-Jews (righteous gentiles) who worked hard trying to save Jews. There were trees lining the stone path for a few hundred feet, and each tree had a plaque with the name of the honored person. The path that the trees bordered led toward two statues. The first statue was an engraving of a group of Jews being taken to a death camp. They looked frightened and broken. Their heads were bent, and in the background you could see Nazi soldiers’ with bayonets and helmets herding the Jews forward. The second statue was an engraving of Jews who looked strong and prepared to fight.

israel 15-6 F16

These words and images are just a sample of what we were blessed to hear and see throughout our time in Israel. Most meaningful of all was the desire expressed by each child on the trip: to return again soon; to continue exploring Israel, her history, and her connections to our Jewish identities; to be a part of supporting Israel as she strides into the future with hope.

With great appreciation for these days with our OJC Family,

Rabbi Ami Hersh and Rabbi Craig Scheff

Days 3 and 4: Planting for the future

Day Three of our 10th annual mitzvah mission proved to be an emotional roller coaster. We returned to Ahava, anxious to finish our projects, determined to dedicate a final product at the end of the day. We worked hard and fast, skipping lunch. As we waited for the cement stools to dry and the tile mosaics to set, a young girl by the name of Efrat entertained us with her exuberant dancing, magnetic personality and charming smile. We danced and laughed as the final touches were completed. Finally, the work of our hearts and our hands was permanently memorialized. Efrat and her friends quietly stood with us as David Klein spoke of his son and Rob, and of the significance of our community shoveling soil together once again, this time for the purpose of planting. Two ficus trees now stand side by side, one in memory of Rob Katz and one in memory of Danny Klein. They will grow together and ultimately become intertwined. They will spring large leaves that will offer shade to those who seek shelter sit in “Rob’s Corner.” We charged the children to care for this corner of their lives, always remembering how they witnessed a group of adults sharing raw emotion, love, respect, comfort and care. We had come to Ahava to offer comfort, but in the end, amidst our tears, these children comforted us.

ceremonyHeartsRobs sign


Driving into Jerusalem, we stopped atop Mount Scopus to see the city from afar. We stood next to Christian pilgrims who sang songs of praise. The Muslim call to prayer rang out atop their song, and we stood quietly in a tight circle for a moment to take in the significance of these three faiths in momentary peaceful coexistence. We then offered our own pilgrim’s prayer, thanking God for the ability to give of ourselves and appreciating the opportunity share the moment together.

Day Four began with a morning service at the Masorti Kotel. We were completely alone in the archaeological park. We celebrated several “firsts” as Miriam led Shacharit, Linda and robin read Torah, and Lesley received her first aliyah. Once again, the ability to pray together and stand side by side at the wall was not lost on any of us. We drew together in a circle of prayers for peace, comfort, healing and gratitude. The sentiments pulled us closer to one another, and the prayer became one.

Masorti kotel

The final stop before our closing lunch was Hand in Hand, a school in Jerusalem where 600 Israeli Arab and Jewish children learn together. As the children grow through their high school years, they engage one another openly in confronting the difficult challenges that their conflicting national narratives present. They come to recognize that hearing each other’s personal family narratives, and appreciating each other’s suffering, is the most important lesson if they are to be able to move forward constructively. They recognize that there are many extremists (and not-so-extremists) from their respective communities who don’t  support their decision to coexist in this fashion. A year ago, the students saw their school set afire by Jewish arsonists. Graffiti on the walls of their school is not uncommon. Their response: We may disagree about the past, but we have a shared future whether we like it or not. The teens with whom we met were not idealists; they recognize the many challenges they face. But they are determined–even in a time of fear and anxiety–to continue living their shared lives. We thanked them for their courage and determination, and we prayed that their glimmer of hopefulness would carry them bravely into the future. Perhaps their voices will one day proclaim peace in the land.

Hand in hand girls

A final lunch gave each of us the ability to reflect on what we had accomplished and on the gifts we received from one another and from being the community that we are. Due to the intentions we bring to this experience, our circle is one that is able to expand easily, and to welcome those who are similarly committed. We invite you to join us, next year in Israel.

Two trees

As I finish writing this entry, I am watching news about 2 more attacks today, one in Tel Aviv this morning and one in Gush Etzion this evening. The second hits closer to home than any of the attacks thus far. It is suddenly harder to leave than it was before. I want to remain in a place of hope, and I want to do my part to bring hope to others. And I don’t want to have to wait until next year to do it.

Perhaps Mitzvah Dy this Sunday back at the OJC will restore a measure of the hope we have felt all week long.


Rabbi Craig Scheff

It was evening and it was morning

Day One of our 10th mitzvah mission to Israel began officially with a dinner. But this dinner was unlike any other I have shared on our mission before. We drank a toast and sang happy birthday to a man in Rob Katz who inspired us, modeled generosity, and dared each of us to move beyond our comfort zones. This would have been his 54th, and he would have loved to share it, as he did each year for the past eight, in Israel. We shared our favorite memories and we dedicated ourselves to continuing his legacy.


After far too late a night for some of us who caught the Giants-Patriots game at a local bar, we were up early to daven on the beach and head for South Tel Aviv. There we met Felicia, a woman who came to Israel from Ghana twenty years ago. Today, she and one other person were caring for 45 preschoolers and babies, children of Sudanese refugees. They greeted us with easily offered hugs and the excitement of anticipating a treat that comes along with visitors. We carried some,and led others by the hand (and even chased after a few!) as we accompanied them several blocks and down busy streets to small park under a porous tent. The children burned energy playing, and suddenly the heavens opened. First we were drenched in the rain, and then came the hail! Small marbles of ice bounced all around us. Some of the kids held us tightly to stay warm; others ran from under the leaky tent to dance in the icy shower. Our bus finally came to the rescue, and we loaded the children onto their coach to return them to their over crowded playroom. Leaving them was the low point of the day for many of us. Several of us committed ourselves to a return visit next year.

Robin and kids

As we rode to our next stop, we wrestled with the conflicting realities Israel faces in remembering its roots as a safe haven for those escaping persecution and in wanting to preserve a healthy economy, a strong defense, and the Jewish character of the state.

This conflict was further complicated by our visit to the Rabin Center, an exhibit dedicated to the life and death of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Once again, we were bombarded by images of an Israeli society struggling to pursue peace while negotiating among its own citizens and with its neighbors for secure and defensible borders for all.

Rabin flag

Dinner brought us to Zichron Yakov and the rabbi and leadership of Kehillat Ve’Ahavta, our new sister Masorti community. The warmth and comfort with one another followed quickly, and we began brainstorming ways by which our communities can build a lasting, supportive and mutually beneficial bond.

Until tomorrow, shalom to us all,

Rabbi Craig Scheff



The crux of the matter

As far as I am concerned, reading a sermon in print—especially a high holiday sermon—is nowhere near as effective as hearing a message in a room filled with community brothers and sisters. That being said, I am told that people often want to hear the crux of the messages if they could not be present for whatever reason. So hear is the crux, and just the crux (minus the lead in, the joke, and the sources in support thereof, available upon request)!

I’ll get right to it:


In May, the mayor of Rehovot cancels a bar mitzvah celebration for children with disabilities because it is scheduled to take place in a Masorti (Israeli Conservative) synagogue. After Israeli President Rivlin reschedules the service to take place in his own residence, he cancels the service.

On Shavuot, the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah, Tzohar (an Israeli organization of supposedly more open-minded Orthodox rabbis) cancels its invitation to Masorti and Reform rabbis to participate in the holiday’s all-night study session. The rabbis are subsequently re-invited, but are placed in a separate space from the rest of the program.

In June, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel tries to force the retirement of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat. The reason given is his age, but his willingness to train women to be Jewish legal experts and his willingness to engage in interfaith dialogue were the more plausible motivating factors.

In July, I am invited to participate in my cousin’s wedding ceremony (in my sister’s back yard), to be conducted by a Tzohar rabbi. Originally I was to be the officiant, but my cousin’s bride’s family pressured the couple to use an Orthodox rabbi whose wedding could be registered with the state as a religious wedding. The officiant calls me to the huppah as “Mister” Craig Scheff. I feel the sting on my cheek as if someone publicly slapped me. In that moment, I want to disappear. I am not a rabbi, and as far as I am concerned, in the eyes of the State of Israel, I am not a Jew.

Israel is my story. I was a slave. I came out of Egypt. I stood at Sinai. And so did you! We were all there! But someone, in the unlikeliest of places and with disproportionate power and influence, is attacking our identities, telling us were not there!


Ironically, the land of Israel was never guaranteed as a possession to our ancestors. It was part of a promise, conditioned upon our community’s behavior. We need to merit being in the land as a community of Jews. Somehow, the average Israeli has forgotten this message, and the ruling religious factions are happy to keep them in the dark. Israel’s survival depends upon more than secure borders and a strong defense. The larger community of Israel is being torn apart by a failure in shared ethics, by a disunity that is sweeping the Jewish community, and by a breach in our rich tradition of embracing diversity and pluralism of Jewish practice. The divide can be seen in our political arenas; it can be seen in the gaps between the generations and between the American and Israeli Jewish communities.

Israeli Jewish identity is shaped, by and large, by a sense of belonging to the land. There are no “religious” choices that need to be made. There is no soccer on Shabbat; school is closed for the holidays; and everywhere you go you are reminded of your rich, deep rootedness in the land as a Jew. American Jewish identity is shaped by religious values that have to be exercised and chosen from among a long list of competing social values, Israel being only one of them.

And there lies the disconnect. Jewish identity is controlled in Israel by those who deny us our Judaism, our very identity. We proudly send our children to serve in the IDF, only to discover that they have to fight a battle to preserve their Jewish identities, the ones we gave them. And we can’t afford the apathy, either here or in Israel, being created as a result of this disconnect.

 Israel, the seat of our ideals, has lost sight of and must reclaim its mission as the destination, the intention, the hope of all Jewish people. And we as American Jews must awaken to the issue, engage in the cause and assist in bolstering the “secular Israeli” Jewish community’s efforts to reclaim its historic Jewish identity. We can no longer tolerate a Jewish Agency–an Israeli establishment–that will send emissaries to teach us about Israel without knowing who we are as Jews, without learning from us and carrying our message back to Israel. For Israel to be the home of all Jewish people, all Jewish people need to feel at home in Israel.

For centuries, our disunity has consistently led to expulsion, exile, and persecution. These events have almost always followed on the heels of schisms in our community that were the direct results of intolerance, a lack of empathy, one side’s claim of authority. For centuries, our unity has been based upon a multiplicity of approaches to Torah and to learning from others. Our rich tradition of arguing for the sake of heaven has helped us remain dynamic, adaptable, modern—a true light unto the nations. Torah has remained relevant because it has 70 faces.

In the year ahead, we plan to deepen our connection to Israel: through our partnership with Masorti and with the Masorti community of Zichron Yakov; by participation in Rav Siach (“Multiple Conversations”), the first partnership between the Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and the Masorti Movement in Israel designed to enhance the exchange of ideas; by hosting guest speakers who will educate on the topic of religious pluralism; and by supporting the Masorti movement in our missions and family trips to Israel. In so doing, perhaps “Israel” will come to a broader acceptance and embrace of the Jewish identity, of the role we play in ensuring the continuation of our rich history, and of the great empathy we are meant to carry as Jews who came out of Egypt together.


Pass it on with love.

Gemar chatimah tovah,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Scout’s honor

I did not know that this something was missing from our grounds. When Jared and his father Matt presented the idea to our synagogue board, I started having an inkling of what it might feel like. As the grounds were prepared for their new guests, I felt the energy of those involved in the project–younger and older, Jewish and not–and my anticipation grew. But nothing could prepare me for the sight of seeing those flags flying at the entrance to our synagogue. And there are few things about which I have ever felt as proud as the sight of those flags outside my bedroom window each morning as I roll up the shade.

Eagle scout

It took a scout to have the vision. To be exact, it took an Eagle Scout. Ironic, given that as the Israelites send out scouts to see the land promised to them, their shortsightedness and narrow vision caused the great majority of the scouts to see themselves as unqualified for the task. In contrast, our scout inspired a community, excited the leadership, and motivated us to achieve the possible.

Scouts with flags

There is something to these stars and stripes, the blue ones on white, and the red, white and blue ones. They remind us of sacrifices made, traditions upheld, identity shared and loyalty earned. For many, they call up feelings of pride and courage; for others, they stir up conflict, enmity and resentment. Even among the standard bearers, the flag can be a source of disagreement as to which of our freedoms requires protection at any moment in time, and as to how we go about providing that protection. (This is what happens when you see the final scene of A Few Good Men three times in the same week!)

flags against sky

As for me, the two flags represent companions to the mezuzah on my doorpost, a gateway through which I will pass each day as I leave my home. And I will be reminded in my coming and my going to scout my world with the lasting hope that I can advance the cause of liberty and justice for all.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Craig Scheff


%d bloggers like this: