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
I was one of sixty women, all members of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism, who gathered at the Jewish Theological Seminary on Monday and Tuesday, December 9 and 10 to connect, learn and replenish our minds and souls. The title of the conference was “Leaning In, Leaning Out, Learning from Each Other.” The learning, prayer, and opportunity to connect were all valuable.
But that is not what is on my mind as I think about the conference in the days since it ended. I am thinking about what it means to be present, completely and wholly present. In her opening talk, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first ordained woman of the Conservative Movement of Judaism, explained to us that her work has been about cultivating compassion. That work, she asserted, can only happen through true listening, through being present to another and thereby to God. She reminded us that careers in the rabbinate are guided by what we believe God wants of us more than by ambition.
I spent the rest of the day asking myself how I could ever know what God wants of me. As I listened to fellow rabbis, talked in small groups, and took notes, I asked myself the question about what God wants. And then the answer came to me as I pictured myself in our sanctuary at the OJC. Above the ark, the words are carved: “Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid.” I place God before me always.
I can know what God wants of me by being quiet enough, in the sanctuary of my soul, to listen. And to do that? I must be present. I must be in the moment with each of you, with the children of the Religious School, with the youngest children and their grown-ups at Early Kabbalat Shabbat. I must be fully present in your loved one’s hospital room, at your kitchen table or across the table from you at Starbucks. I must be present in the moments we share on the telephone.
And then, at the end of our moment, I must listen to my soul deeply enough to reassure myself that I am doing what God wants of me. Did I listen to you? Was I fully present to you?
It is not easy to be fully present in the year 2013. As we rabbis sat in a room, sharing our dreams, our insecurities, our prayers, many of us focused on the faces of whoever was speaking. If I place God before me always, then I must look for God in the faces of my fellows.
But a great number of us were typing away on i-pads, laptops, phones. Several in the room were tweeting. A difficult conversation erupted about this fact when confidentiality was breached with tweets that quoted what specific women were saying. Those who were tweeting defended their actions by stating the importance of sharing what was happening in the room with the public. I wonder how we can be in this moment, however, when we are already shaping it to share it with a nameless public. I understand that tweeting is meant to connect us, but doesn’t it distance us instead?
One rabbi said that she is more focused when she is tweeting than when she is just listening. There is a difference, however, between being focused and being present. Rabbi Eilberg had just told us that we must remember to be present to others. The result of the conversation was to shut down the tweeters. Sometimes it is valuable and important to get the word out. I understand the value of social media; after all, here I am blogging to you all! But sometimes it is much more important to get the word in. Lean in, lean out. Utimately, we chose to lean in, to lean within, to be present to each other and to ourselves — with the hope and prayer of being present to God.
Like you, I cannot count the number of emails and posts I have received regarding the confluence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah this year. Before I delete them all from my in-box or my attention, I want to consider the importance of this week for us as Jews, Americans, and members (or friends) of an amazing synagogue in Rockland County, New York.
GRATITUDE: Two holidays falling together on one day helped me ponder the gratitude I feel about being an American who is free to be an observant Jew. In our family, we take turns around a table filled with three generations, sharing what we are thankful for. This year, we then turned to a chanukiyah sculpted by my father-in-law and chanted the blessings of the holiday. We had too much to eat, laughed at family stories told year after year and held quiet conversations to catch up with family members who live far away. We are blessed and recognized it with thankfulness.
LIGHT: The rabbis taught that the soul is God’s candle. When we kindle the lights with the shamash each night, it is clear to see the wisdom in this teaching. The flame is not diminished in the least as it touches the wicks of each night’s candle, causing each one to light. So too with us. When we share the light of our unique souls, we are not diminished in the least. Rather, we spread light to others.
MIRACLES: This past Shabbat, Rabbi Scheff spoke about the requirement of human initiative to bring about miracles large and small in our day. Consider the fact that Mitzvah Day has turned into Mitzvah-Week-and-a-Half and we can see how many congregants have taken the steps to bring about moments that should not be taken for granted.
Mitzvah-Week-and-a-Half began on Sunday, November 17 when a dozen congregants joined Rabbi Scheff in Israel for the annual Orangetown Jewish Center Mitzvah Mission. Members of the group carried with them cozy hats knit by our congregants for children in Kfar Ahava, our beloved residential program for children who must be removed from abusive or neglectful homes. Watches were wrapped with gift cards created by our sixth grade Religious School students as b’nai mitzvah gifts for the children. Teenager Tamar Weinger (traveling with her dad) brought rainbow looms with her and taught the children how to make the bracelets that are all the rage. Members of the Mission spent important time at the residence, renewing bonds, assisting children in a mitzvah project of their own, and celebrating the milestones of Kfar Ahava. They also volunteered with Leket Yisrael and toured a handicap-accessible nature path in the north. I hope that you read all about the adventures and miracles created by our fellow congregants in Rabbi Scheff’s daily letters from Israel.
Like all important Jewish days, Mitzvah Day began at sundown of the day before. Young children and their grownups gathered with Rabbi Ami and Loni Hersh and their boys for Havdalah and a movie. While the kids were engrossed in the movie, the adults created blankets for hospitals and nursing homes.
At the same time, our Ruach group (grades four and five) led by April Kupferman met to bake for the homeless.
Mitzvah Day, November 24, was an example of the OJC at its very best. A dozen congregants were trained in CPR at the Orangetown Ambulance Corps while one hundred congregants donated blood.
After a breakfast and presentation about Leket Yisrael, congregants participated in a variety of activities in the synagogue as well as at a local nursing home, the Hi Tor Animal Shelter and the Salmon House, one of the Jawonio Group Homes for adults with disabilities. In each gesture and interaction, our congregants were empowered to know that they can change the world. We can argue over the definition of “miracle” — but to me, the day was miraculous.
Kol hakavod to Lorraine Brown and Carolyn Wodar and their amazing team of volunteers for creating a meaningful, successful day.
We didn’t stop there! Tuesday evening, November 26 was the OJC’s first hosting for Helping Hands of this new season. For eight years, we have participated in this important interfaith Rockland County initiative that provides warm, dry places to sleep and hot meals to people who are homeless in our neighborhood. OJC takes it to a different level under the enthusiastic guidance of Gabi Lewy, Geof Cantor, Jack Teadore, Susan Edelstein and Bruce Machlis who gather a large crew of volunteers to shop, set up, cook, greet and stay overnight (thank you Bruce and Liza Machlis!). Helping Hands guests at the OJC experience gourmet meals, donated warm clothing, and the respectful friendship of a crew of teens who participate year after year.
Opportunities for your own miracle making abound at the OJC! Contact Adele Garber or Maddy Roimisher to find out how you can give your time and energy to the Chesed Committee. Maybe next year, when Thanksgiving and Chanukah no longer coincide, I’ll be writing about Mitzvah Year instead of Mitzvah-Week-and-a-Half!
Join us on Tuesday, December 3 from 6:30 to 7:30 pm as we light Chanukah candles together as our amazing OJC community celebrates our countless miracles!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill