It is a unique command of Judaism that we not only remember but must experience history as if we were a part of it. The Passover seder instructs us about the Exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. Soon at Shavuot, we will once again stand at the foot of Sinai to receive Torah. At each moment in our Jewish lives, ritual bypasses our intellect and goes directly to our hearts, requiring us to remember and re-experience. We fulfill this mitzvah of remembering well, we Jews.
But then Yom Hashoah arrives each year. The command to remember becomes so painful that it takes our breath away. We weep for what we never knew, or as Sister Maureen of the Dominican Ministry said today as we gathered to dedicate our Shoah Memorial, we feel physically ill. With regard to the Shoah, the command to remember requires opening our hearts only to have them broken.
When Rabbi Scheff began teaching his sixth graders about the Holocaust this year, he brought them to the front door of the synagogue and asked how we remember things that we never experienced. He showed his class our memorial, then under construction, and asked them how we should remember.
Today, one hundred and fifty of us dedicated our memorial, thanking Dr. Larry Suchoff and the Holocaust Remembrance Committee for their perseverance and passion to see the project to fruition. Survivors, children of survivors, guests, nuns from the Dominican Sisters, congregants old and young, all gathered to hear shofar blasts and to dedicate ourselves to ensuring that we remember as a community. “Never again” is a goal toward which we will continually strive.
Today, Rabbi Scheff’s sixth graders showed how well they had learned the lessons he taught them. Students read short biographies they had written about survivors who are or were members of the OJC. Each student ended his or her brief statement with: “It is an honor to know you.” Spouses and children accepted the simple statements of these eleven-year old children as gifts. I watched the faces of Frieda and Marie as they listened to their stories being told, and I saw fresh grief, but also validation and hope.
From today forward, we will sit on the benches, reminiscent of train tracks. And we will look at the mosaic which depicts either six candles or six chimneys, depending on your understanding. We will teach and meditate and rest in the sunshine. And we will cherish the wall art chosen for the memorial where under the wingspan of the flying bird, our OJC logo, we read: tachat kanfei haShechina, under the protective wings of God’s Presence. And then, we will enter into our sanctified home knowing that we must act in every moment with remembrance in our hearts.
Through the night and all through tomorrow, we will pass by the memorial and quietly enter the sanctuary where six memorial candles burn as we fulfill our ritual of Keepers of the Flame.
For how long do we need to read and teach about the Shoah? Until the end of days. Until then, we will follow the command to remember m’dor l’dor, from generation to generation. Today’s sixth graders will one day teach their own children.
May Yom HaShoah call us to actions of love and understanding and the overcoming of hate and fear. As Frieda Seidner said, as quoted by her biographers today, “The key is to love all people, but love our people most of all.”
May the memory of six million be sanctified and remembered. Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Read more and watch the video on LoHud News: http://www.lohud.com/story/news/2017/04/23/orangetown-center-dedicates-holocaust-memorial/100695178/
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.
Growing up on the mean streets of New City, New York, I learned the hard way what it meant to be Jewish, short, skinny and unable to jump higher than 8 inches off the ground. In other words … wait for it . . . “scrappy” was my game. The experience hardened me to the outside world’s cold reality. A jaded, chip-on-my-shoulder, eat-or-be-eaten attitude pervaded everything I set out to accomplish. I learned to control most of my impulses, assuming a mild-mannered, soft-spoken persona everywhere I went. Everywhere, that is, except on the basketball court. Between the lines, I could be myself, let go of my inhibitions, run wild, heatedly pursue, charge at the hoop, display my bumps and bruises as badges of honor. Ironically, all that pent up anger, frustration and aggression that found its expression in my game was lauded as something good, something to be admired and copied.
Those of you who have seen me play over the years (with the 9- and 10-year-olds at recess, especially) have called me competitive, like a Mr. Hyde to Rabbi Jekyll. What you see is nothing, however, compared to the dark madness that once lurked in the soles of my high-top Converse sneakers (the white canvas ones). That’s just me having good, clean fun. Once I retired from competitive hoops at the age of 28 (the year I started rabbinical school), the cloud that once enveloped my heart lifted, and the beast was gone forever. Until . . . .
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, whose thirteen years with the OJC we are celebrating this Purim, began her professional relationship with me at Camp Ramah in Nyack some 15 years ago. She was Program Director as I was Assistant Director, and Assistant Director (a position now full-time held by our own Rabbi Ami Hersh, the topic of another Purim spoof one day soon) as I was Camp Rabbi. We always had a great, easygoing, complementary style of working together. From Day One, people referred to us as the “Craig and Paula Show.” That relationship carried over into her internship here at the OJC, where I functioned formally as her mentor for the Seminary. The day she was ordained was a great day. I should have known something wasn’t quite right, however, when she informed me that her JTS GPA was .0185 higher than mine.
That single fact was the beginning of a disturbing pattern. Two-letter words like “XQ” were suddenly making their way into our Shabbat Scrabble games on triple word scores. She would casually mention to each congregant we met that she was older than me, taller than me (she took up heels), and could stand on her head longer than me. She would give her students colorful stickers and point out that I offered them nothing for their efforts. At the end of a day’s work she would ask me how many hours I had billed, as she filled my e-mail inbox with cc’s of every e-mail she sent out. I lashed back by working later, sleeping less, and leading more trips to Israel. I could feel the old Craig emerging, and it wasn’t pretty.
Rabbi Drill’s popularity has grown over the past 13 years. As has my therapy bill. But I have learned how to control the beast. Looking in the mirror each morning, I remind myself that I am good enough, that I am smart enough, and doggone it, people like me. Then I steel myself for the day ahead, trying to appreciate how good each day can be with Rabbi Drill at my side.
And then I pray . . . for the moment I will get her on the basketball court.
Happy Purim to all, and I hope you will join our community in celebrating Rabbi Drill’s 13 years with the OJC and the many ways in which she has enriched each of us and our community!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
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
The 2013 Pew Research Center’s recent survey of the American Jewish community reported that, among those people who identify themselves as Jewish, a whopping 73 percent say that remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. That element of Jewish identity received the highest response rate, outpacing other suggested elements such as leading an ethical life (69 percent), caring about Israel (43 percent) and being part of a Jewish community (28 percent). Why does this element of Jewish identity receive such prominence? Is it the guilt that would accompany not remembering, the notion that we might afford Hitler (may his name be blotted out) a posthumous victory if we forget? Is it the particularistic notion that we must remain vigilant against our enemies who are constantly seeking to eliminate us? Is it the universal lesson that makes us better human beings because we will not idly stand by the persecution of any group?
This past Sunday night we commemorated Kristalnacht, the 76th anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass, the event that many say was the official starting point of the Holocaust. German Jewish shops were destroyed, men were beaten, detained and killed, synagogues burned. And rescue workers stood by to make sure that the fires didn’t spread to the neighboring non-Jewish homes and businesses.
The Rockland community observed the commemoration ceremony this year at the OJC. Over 200 people gathered to see the presentation of colors by the Jewish War Veterans, to hear the words of County Legislator Harriett Cornell and the personal testimony of survivor Paul Galan, and to stand in solemn solidarity with the 30 teens holding candles as the words of El Maleh Rachamim, the Jewish memorial prayer, filled the sanctuary.
As I think about the surprising Pew survey statistics, I can understand the relatively high importance we place on remembering the Holocaust in light of what I witnessed Sunday night. I felt our children’s hearts swell with pride as they watched our Jewish veterans salute the American flag, pledge allegiance and sing Hatikvah.
I felt our children’s souls ignited by the memorial candles they held. I felt our children’s minds understand at a level beyond words what it means to remember. Our children recognized that Jewish remembering is not passive. Our remembering is an obligation we fulfill that shapes our Judaism, our identity as Americans, and our humanity. For our children, the lessons of the Holocaust also inform their obligation to defend the values for which they stand, and shape their responses to social issues they confront on a regular basis, like bullying and intolerance. The Holocaust is six million individual Jewish stories of vulnerability, fear, insecurity, cruelty, powerlessness, hope, courage, faith, redemption and love. It is the story of our people as much as the exodus from Egypt, and it is a part of our narrative that must be told.
How will you remember? Participate in our Kaddish project. Match yourself with an individual who died in the Holocaust with no one left to observe their yahrzeit. Learn their story. Say Kaddish for them. Contact Larry Suchoff, our Holocaust Remembrance Committee chairperson, or just walk into the OJC office, to adopt a story. Perhaps remembering the Holocaust will become an essential part of what being Jewish means to you.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
This day brought the OJC’s 2014 March of the Living to a close, and our experience came full circle. The Sefer Torah that was completed in Auschwitz-Birkenau was accompanied by loving arms and dancing feet into the Kotel plaza. All religious politics aside for a moment, it was symbolically important and powerful to be surrounded by thousands who had marched with us in Poland and who now sang Hatikvah at our side. The Torah had arrived home, until its next March of the Living, when it will travel back to Poland to accompany the next round of marchers.
We were all a bit depleted upon awakening this morning; the celebration last night took a bit out of us! Nevertheless, we pushed ahead and hiked up to Castel, the strategic vantage point that overlooks the main road to Jerusalem, and that was captured by Yitzhak Rabin and the Harel Brigade on the eve of the 1948 War of Independence.
Our bus carefully wound its way through the hills and valleys outside Jerusalem to the 9/11 memorial, the only memorial to this date that exists outside of the United States. We paid homage to the names of the victims, and sang “America the Beautiful” and “Hatikvah” as we reflected on the nature of Israel’s independence and her special relationship with America.
From the depths of the valley we ascended to Ammunition Hill, site of another famous battle of the 1967 Six Day War, the place many consider to be the turning point that led to Israel reclaiming the Old City. Today, the IDF was exhibiting its latest technology to the general public. Barbecues abounded, as is traditional on this day, as children played atop military vehicles. How ironic that just yesterday we mourned the price of war, and today we celebrated our ability to engage–and be victorious–in war. I can’t deny the pride I experienced and the security I felt surrounded by these young, smart and devoted guardians of Israel. I just wonder what is the toll on the psyche of the developing mind and personality in particular, and on the society in general.
All this before noon! Our next stop was the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and the Cardo for–you guessed it–food and shopping! We walked down to the Kotel plaza, where we joined our fellow marchers to bring this year’s March to a close. From there, we walked (Oy, enough with the walking already!) to Notre Dame, home of the Pontifical Institute and guesthouse. We met Father Eamon Kelly, Vice Charge of the center, who took us to the rooftop to give us a 3-minute overview of the Bible using the majestic views to tell the story. His teaching was a universal message of coexistence, tikkun olam, and a shared responsibility to build upon our shared mission.
A leisurely dinner provided the opportunity and the venue to share our reflections, highlights, and appreciation for having shared this experience. I hope we can bring it home to you in a way that inspires you to be among the next to carry our love to, and for, Israel.
With God’s help, we will see each other soon. May it be only for days of celebration such as this one.
Rabbi Craig Scheff