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.
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.
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
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