Friday morning in Jerusalem, our OJC track team greeted the day with a brisk 3-mile run (4 for Steve!) down and up a scenic trail through Jerusalem’s original train station and its surrounding neighborhoods. After morning tefillah and breakfast, we boarded the bus promptly (they are so good!) at 9am.
Pantry Packers, run by Colel Chabad, is a food distribution facility that packages and delivers food to the most needy citizens identified by their municipalities. Divided into 3 teams, we donned aprons and hairnets, and got to work. In an hour and a half we bagged, sealed, labeled, date-stamped and boxed 500 packages of grains for delivery to the needy. We had fun, even as we remained conscious of the sad reality that necessitates our efforts.
Our driver Nati delivered us next to the shuk in Machaneh Yehuda, where the bustling market place was teeming with shoppers prepping for Shabbat. We were individually assigned different categories of food to acquire and contribute to our Shabbat afternoon potluck lunch. Among the throngs of people, we still managed to bump into familiar faces!
After a brief afternoon breather back at the hotel, we rode to the Old City and arrived at Ezrat Yisrael, at the southern end of the Western Wall, to welcome Shabbat in song as a community. The sun dipped below the horizon behind us. While we appreciated the beauty and peace of the space we occupied, many of us felt the discomfort of being separated and hidden away from the thousands of Jews just north of us in the main plaza sharing the same words we sang. More about that on a different occasion.
The walk back to the hotel got us good and hungry! We made kiddush, attracting the warm and welcoming gestures of a group of Messianic Jews who wanted us to join them in Bim Bam and Am Yisrael Chai—interesting!!! We delighted in blessing the younger generation that had joined us for Shabbat. After dinner, our group sat in a private hall and shared highlights of the week.
Shabbat morning, we attended Moreshet Yisrael, the nearest Conservative Masorti congregation. Jeff Lance served as a greeter and gabbai, and we were warmly received with several honors to the Torah.
We sat on 7th floor terrace for hours, eating and laughing, enjoying the leisure of Shabbat, until darkness fell on Jerusalem and we recited Havdallah together. Warm goodbyes, expressions of appreciation and gratitude, and most of us were on the way to the airport.
As I descend into Newark, I already look forward to the next time in which we make the ascent together.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
How does one summon love for the stranger?
At a place called Love (Ahava), the stranger offers love, creating a safe space for the vulnerable; the stranger receives love, and the reassurance that they will not always be rejected; and we are inspired to give enough love to effect a slight change for the better in our world.
My first visit to Kfar Ahava was in 2007. And even in my eleventh year I am so deeply moved and inspired by the experience. Perhaps more so because once again I got to see this remarkable and unique place through the eyes of the newcomers.
After our annual reintroduction to Ahava by Executive Director Yoav Apelboim, the group gathered in the memorial corner we created in memory of, and dedicated to, Danny Klein and Rob Katz. We remembered, cried, and blessed together. Today was Rob’s birthday, so the moment was particularly poignant. We dedicated today’s acts of love to their legacies.
Next, I gave our newcomers—Ellen, Sharon and Andre—a tour of the residential facility, the school and the emergency shelter. The bright skies, cool breezes, colorful mosaics, peaceful gardens and quiet grounds belied all the brokenness and pain that lay behind so many of the closed doors around us.
But what could not be hidden away was the love. The newcomers saw it in the way the 17-year veteran social worker talked about the children she received in the emergency shelter. Every child brought in through her doors, she explained, deserved to be love, especially considering the conditions they had suffered at home, the one place that was supposed to guarantee love.
At lunch, Amy Nelson and I witnessed an eight year-old boy trying to bond with us by insisting that his father was a professional soccer player who played in New York. He just wanted to be loved. A twelve year-old oppositional girl challenged him to stop lying, so clearly lashing out in the pain of her own brokenness. An eighteen year-old doing his year of national service at Ahava subtly shook his head in disapproval of her insensitivity, and her anger was quieted. The foster mother overseeing their care, in her first year of service, turned to us to offer that she was here to change the world for the better in some small way.
Tonight, first-timer Sharon, a stranger to Ahava, reflected to the group that the experience of Ahava stripped away her armor. With the permission to be vulnerable, she felt more authentic. And the more authentic we are, the more capable we are of giving and receiving love.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The beauty of Jerusalem was on full display this morning, as our running club jogged through the gentrified railway station and the German Colony and the rising sun burned through the early haze to clear the sky. Our first formal stop was the Masorti Kotel, the spot where we are most comfortable praying as a community, and one that has generated much controversy in the last months. The Israeli government has failed to implement legislation, passed last year, that would formally extend the Kotel, its plaza and its security, to the southern end of the western wall. Our presence here is, in part, a stand for what we believe and what we expect from the state we call our Jewish homeland.
The morning service was participatory and upbeat; Amy Schwartz led shacharit, Linda Varon and Mikalah Weinger read Torah. Most special of all, however, was the moment our group quietly stepped over to the next Torah station at the wall to complete a minyan for a family’s bar mitzvah celebration. When they boy looked up from reciting his blessings, he was shocked to see 23 of us standing around him! And when we started to sing “mazel tov,” we could see the boy’s joy and the parents’ emotion and appreciation. It’s always amazing how the most meaningful moments are often the ones not planned. Add one more beautiful mitzvah to the list of the many fulfilled this week!
We drove west to Motza, where we visited Beit Yellin, established in 1860 as the first Jewish agricultural settlement outside the Old City. We learned the history and historical significance of this home, now rebuilt and revitalized by the Jewish National Fund. An hour of digging, planting and staining gave us the satisfaction of preserving a piece of our pioneering history and beautifying another natural setting.
Our closing lunch once again was an emotional time of sharing impressions and highlights, validating our decisions to commit to this unusual and challenging experience, whether for the first time or the eleventh.
As I sit on the plane anxiously awaiting takeoff, I am looking forward to my own pillow and a restful Shabbat. Leaving Israel, however, is never easy. There is so much work still to be done. That being said, I take solace in knowing that, as the sun sets on this mission, in 4 short weeks I will return with our OJC Israel Family Experience with a group of 39; and in one short year, the sun will rise upon OJC’s 12th annual mitzvah mission, November 12-19, 2017. Join us!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Day 3 of our 11th annual mitzvah mission to Israel was graced with a brilliant blue sky and a warming sun, so any work outdoors today was going to be welcome. It was great to be back at Ahava, seeing familiar faces of children and counselors who anticipate our arrival each November, hearing “the group from Orangetown” being acknowledged with familiarity and gratitude, and sweating a little from our physical labor.
We started the day in “Rob’s Corner,” which we created and dedicated last year in memory of Rob Katz z”l and Danny Klein z”l. Being there today was particularly poignant, given that this date was Rob’s birthday, and this was where he celebrated for nearly the last decade. This home for children “at risk” held a special place in his heart, and Rob was beloved by the administrators, staff and children alike. We quietly prayed, and rededicated our efforts to honor the legacies of 2 beloved people, to stretch beyond our comfort zones and to give freely to others.
The Ahava stories of resiliency and generosity–those of the children and of their caregivers–continually inspire us; but we have come to recognize that we inspire them as well. The work of our hands can be seen all around the village, and the village administrators have expanded their vision of what is possible. As a result, our projects have become more intricate, artistic and interesting, and the village facilities more beautiful.
Our group broke into pairs to share lunch with the children and their caregiver families, and our experiences in this setting are always quite diverse. Some home settings are quite functional, familial and warm; others exhibit difficult dynamics of disciplining adults and oppositional children. I happened to sit next to a talkative 15 year-old boy who shared with me that, before coming to Ahava, he had been in a residential facility that could not teach him to address his challenges. In contrast, three years at Ahava, along with the loving discipline of his second family, have given him the skills and confidence to overcome his past and to look ahead with a sense of hope.
Tomorrow we return to Ahava to complete our flower gardens, trellises, planting, painting, photography project, bracelet-making and mosaics. We’ll celebrate with, and offer gifts to, this year’s bar mitzvah class. We pray that God will bless the work of our hands so that it–and we–may serve as a legacy to the benefit of others.
Happy birthday, Rob. Miss you.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
My teacher, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Ismar Schorsch, likes to say that the requirement of a minyan is the secret of Jewish survival throughout the centuries of dispersion.
Every week in News You Need to Know, we remind you to fulfill your obligation to attend a morning or evening minyan.
Every OJC member is assigned a number which represents the day of the month that one is required to attend the minyan at the synagogue.
With regard to a prayer quorum, we singularly use the language of obligation and responsibility. On the one hand, these words are appropriate. Gathering ten to say prayers that praise God’s name publicly is a mitzvah, a commandment of Judaism. On the other hand, perhaps we should instead employ the language of loving kindness. Gathering for a minyan provides a setting for chesed (loving kindness). How so? One of the most painful elements of modern life is a sense of isolation and loneliness which it can foster. A minyan just might be an antidote. I formulated this idea over the past week as I davened with different kinds of OJC minyanim.
Last Tuesday morning, ten of us gathered at Esplanade on the Palisades to make a minyan for Estelle Sollish, our much loved congregant who recently moved there. Bringing the minyan to her was a sign of devotion and our desire to ease her transition to a new living situation.
On Thursday morning as we stood at the Torah, one of the people of the minyan added the name of a loved one during the prayer for healing. The tears in his eyes bespoke a concern and worry that he was not yet able to articulate. But the minyan allowed him a safe space to be vulnerable.
On Saturday afternoon I chanted the words of the memorial prayer on behalf of a congregant’s mother whose twentieth yahrzeit falls this week. As I prayed that her mother’s neshama would have an aliyah, I saw that the gathering of fellow congregants gave her permission to express her grief even after all these years.
Last night there was a minyan at a shivah house. As the family gathered close for comfort, the arrival of fellow congregants brought the sure sense that they were not alone.
Admitting what we need, asking for help, showing our vulnerability — can lead us out of isolation and into community. A twenty-minute prayer service can accomplish all that. Mark Nepo has written: “As water fills a hole and as light fills the dark, kindness wraps around what is soft, if what is soft can be seen.” It is indeed the obligation of a community to create minyanim so that people can pray together. I have no doubt that Dr. Schorsh is correct in his estimation that the minyan has kept the Jewish people together. But perhaps the most important reason for a minyan is that gathering together allows others to be vulnerable, to know one another, to seek a path away from loneliness. Gathering to be one of ten allows us to be our very best selves through this act of loving kindness.
As February draws to a close, it is time to look back to consider the Orangetown Jewish Center’s commemoration of Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month #JDAIM.
By the end of the month, we will have posted seven spotlights of congregants who have eloquently reflected on lives impacted by disabilities. Rabbi Scheff and I have blogged, taught and reflected in our classes on Jewish values with respect to people who have disabilities. Tonight, congregants will join with our Education Director, Sandy Borowsky, to view and discuss the important film “How Hard Can This Be.”
This coming Shabbat, February 26 and 27 will be dedicated to Disability Awareness as fellow congregant Scott Salmon speaks on Friday evening at 7:00 services. His topic is “Ask Me: the Challenges of Inclusion.” On Shabbat morning, Rabbi Scheff’s sermon will be dedicated to the topic of awareness and inclusion. After kiddush, I will be facilitating a text study tracing Jewish attitudes toward people who are Deaf or hearing impaired from the Torah through Rabbinic texts, leading up to the 2011 watershed Responsa of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards which grants full obligation and rights to Deaf people and which affirms that ASL is a language by which people can fulfill mitzvot.
At the OJC, we have much of which we can be proud. The month of February and #JDAIM, however, will only prove its lasting value if we reflect carefully on what we have learned and continue to strive toward being an ever more inclusive community.
I offer here the lessons that I have learned and look forward to your adding more to my list:
1. “Persons with a Disability” is not a useful catch-all phrase. People are first and foremost people. To paraphrase a powerful idea of the autism advocacy movement, if you know one person who has a disability . . . you know one person who has a disability. We cannot unilaterally provide services “to the disabled” as there is simply no such thing.
2. Along the spectrum of people and their families whose lives are affected by disability, there are those at one end who never identify themselves or their loved ones according to disability. They go about their lives without regard to hearing loss or the inability to walk. At the other end of the spectrum are those whose identity or whose family is subsumed by the insurmountable challenges of disability. I often think of one congregant who said to me, “We can never see a flier of an OJC activity and make plans to go and enjoy. We always must ask ourselves first, ‘What about our child? Will she be able to handle the program? And our answer is usually no. So then we ask ourselves which one of the parents will stay home.'”
3. We owe gratitude to the congregants who opened up their lives to us through their beautiful words in our spotlights. Sharing vulnerability requires courage and strength. (If you would like to write next year, let Rabbi Scheff or me know. If you do not receive emails from the OJC, you can find all of the spotlights on our Facebook page, Orangetown Jewish Center.)
4. Creating circles of inclusion is hard work. It requires the very best of ourselves. It requires us to take risks and step out of our own circles of comfort. But one thing is certain after a month of awareness: We have created a community of safety and thoughtfulness where anything is possible!
Here’s to making February all year long! B’yedidut,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
We introduced nine newcomers to Ahava this morning, including 4 Israelis. Yoav, our good friend and executive director, proudly led the group around the grounds of this residence for at-risk children. The group met one of the foster families that cares for thirteen children between the ages of 6 and 17, and was warmly welcomed by a group of Israeli lone soldiers who have come to live at Ahava for life-skill counselling. They somberly walked through the rooms of the emergency shelter, where fifteen children are given intensive therapy to address their traumas. They met one girl who only weeks ago witnessed her mother’s murder at the hands of her father. These are the harsh realities, they learned, that serve as the motivation for the loving and supportive framework that Ahava attempts to provide. Finally, they saw the many projects of OJC’s past mission participants and financial supporters.
Meanwhile, the rest of our group was getting started on the projects that would occupy us today and tomorrow. In addition to painting the playroom and stairwells of the emergency shelter, we created “Rob’s Corner,” an outdoor meeting and relaxation area to be dedicated in memory of Rob Katz, z”l. Using large tires covered in a metal netting, we poured and plastered cement around the tires to create a seating area. We fashioned tile mosaics that will be set into the cement structures tomorrow.
In the evening, the children’s band and choir entertained us in song and dance, and board members and staff expressed their appreciation for our ten years of service. In truth, we owe them so much more for the opportunity to give a bit of ourselves to their herculean–make that Godly–effort. It is so humbling to be in the presence of these teachers, counselors and civil servants who are saving lives and repairing damaged psyches.
Tomorrow, we finish our tasks, and we are off to Jerusalem. May we leave a little more peace in our wake, and may we arrive in peace to our destination.
Rabbi Craig Scheff