One of my childhood friends told me that he decided to go to a synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so that he could say prayers for my healing. Knowing that he is a non-believing, non-practicing Jewish person, I was very touched by his impulse.
But, I wanted to warn him against his plan. Instead, I let him find his own way.
Afterward, I called him to find out how it went.
He told me, “Honestly, this is why I never go to synagogue. I felt empty and lost and very lonely. I could not understand the prayers and they seemed to go on forever. I was to nervous to even say a prayer for you.”
I was not surprised. I told him, “It is not that synagogues are empty of spiritual space for prayer. As a novice, you just went on the wrong days.”
Trying to find a sense of peace, connection to God, and deep prayer experiences on the three most fearsome, awesome and busy days of the Jewish calendar is like trying to learn to speak French by sitting in on a college literature course taught entirely in French… or trying to learn to ice skate by gliding out onto the ice in the midst of a Stanley Cup playoff match.
And yet my old friend is not the only one who tries to pry open the treasure of Judaism once a year for three days. So many of us come to synagogue just for the High Holy Days, and as a rabbi, believe me, I am very glad to see you.
But every year, just five days after Yom Kippur, we enter the joyous festival of Sukkot and I wonder how to convince my fellow Jews to come on these days instead! We sing praises to God while shaking branches of the palm, myrtle, and willow together with an etrog (a lemon-like fruit). It’s inexplicably awesome! We line up with these agricultural treasures and parade around the synagogue singing to God, “Save us!” It’s crazy fun! Everyone is grinning because no one can exactly explain what we’re doing.
After these prayers, we go outside into a sukkah (a temporary booth) decorated with lights, flowers, fruit, paper chains and posters and partially open to the sky to study, eat and sing. We live in these booths for seven days.
At the end of this lovely festival of connecting to nature, community, and our best selves, we celebrate Simchat Torah (Monday evening 10/1 through Tuesday 10/2), rejoicing as we finish an annual cycle of reading the entire Torah and start again “In the Beginning”. We dance with the Torahs and ensure that everyone gets an honor to the Torah. It’s a raucous Jewish holiday of merriment and true joy.
Attending Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services is meaningful and important. I am not telling you not to do so. But only doing so means that you are missing out on some of the most spiritually connected moments in the Jewish calendar.
Think of it this way:
On Rosh Hashanah your Parent calls you into the study and says: “Let’s just take a look at how you’ve been behaving over the past year and make a plan for you to improve. Perhaps it will help us feel more connected.”
On Yom Kippur, your Parent calls you back into that study and says: “Okay, what have you done about showing some progress over the past 10 days?”
But on Sukkot, your Parent comes out to you in the backyard and says, “Let’s have a great celebration for a week. Let’s enjoy each other’s company and feel close to one another!”
Who would really want the disciplinarian Parent without the celebrating Parent as well?
I’ll take both! I hope you’ll join me.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
On Rosh Hashana at the Orangetown Jewish Center, I spoke about the worldwide refugee crisis. (Please contact me at Rabbi.Drill@theojc.org if you would like to see the full text of the sermon.) It was a difficult sermon to give because I did not have a decisive answer to offer to this overwhelming, multi-faceted issue. I spoke anyway because I believe that as a rabbi, I have a moral obligation to present the world as an integral part of Judaism. Judaism speaks to our lives, our beliefs, our decisions. I figured that if I am struggling with an issue, probably you are too.
The basic facts of the crisis: 21 million people in the world today have crossed international borders in search of refuge and more than 65 million have been displaced. Sixty five million means that 40,000 people are fleeing every day and 51% of them are children.
The despair that drives people to flee their homes is heartbreaking. Persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group, refugees survive terrible ordeals: torture, upheaval, perilous journeys, and tremendous loss.
The largest numbers of refugees are from Syria but crises exist as well for families threatened by civil war in Darfur, Myanmar Muslims in Burma, women and children in Central America fleeing gang violence and human trafficking, minorities in Sudan, Eretria and Afghanistan.
What do we do with overwhelming issues too big for any person or group of people? We take one action. We fix one piece of the problem. In the words of Ruth Messinger, “We do not indulge in the luxury of being overwhelmed.”
In my sermon, I pledged to continue learning and talking about refugees. Happily, many congregants have been in touch to say that they would like to take one action, to set aside the politics and help just one person or one family. Many have asked for specific ways to help.
Tzedaka: Give to http://www.hias.org/ or to http://www.womenforwomen.org. If you find compelling organizations doing resettlement work, please be in touch so that I can continue building a list of places to contribute.
Establish a working committee at the OJC: Engage a friend and offer to co-chair a Synagogue Welcome Campaign through HIAS, educating our community and establishing social justice work on behalf of refugees. More than 200 congregations already participate.
Get involved with individuals. Fill out the form at http://www.hias.org/volunteer and receive information about how you can help in one of these ways:
- Serving as an English language conversation partner with newly resettled refugees and asylum seekers (2-3 hours per week for a year)
- Participating in a letter writing program to asylum seekers in detention (once a month)
- Providing pro bono legal assistance to HIAS clients pursuing asylum or other humanitarian protection in the United States (commitment ranges from 25-150 hours, depending on case type)
- Providing volunteer translation or interpretation for HIAS legal cases (short term opportunities available)
Participate in resettling a family. Call HIAS in New York City: 212-967-4100.
Support a Jewish Yemenite refugee family here in Rockland County. Volunteer to drive to appointments, tutor for the Citizenship test, or help children with school work. Contact Leslie Goldress at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to help with rent, tuition and buying clothing for the holidays; make checks payable to “Kahal Adat Teiman” and send to my attention at the OJC.
Organize a visit to MOMA to learn more. An exhibit called “Insecurities” is now showing through January 22, Insecurities Exhibit at MOMA addressing contemporary notions of shelter and calling into question what “safety” means.
Today, I spoke with our Religious School children about Sukkot as a time when we welcome guests into our sukkah. The refugee question seemed quite clear to them. One fifth grader said, “We have homes, they don’t. We have food, they don’t.” A third grader suggested inviting a refugee child into our sukkah. Our impermanent sukkah with a roof through which we see the sky offers more protection than many of the shelters in refugee camps.
The tagline of HIAS calls to us as individuals: Once, we helped refugees because they were Jewish. Today we help refugees because we are Jewish.
There is plenty to do if we set aside the larger critical issue and consider the number – 21 million – as 21 million individual people. We can ask ourselves, what could we do for just one person?
With blessings for a meaningful start to the year 5777,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
When every prior effort has failed, what is required to continue trying? Where does one find the energy to believe that change for good is possible despite a history of dashed hopes? How is it possible for people of shared good intentions to sit together at a table and dream of a different kind of reality for Rockland County? The answer is: strong minded optimism.
Yesterday I attended a meeting called by Dr. Penny Jennings, Commissioner of the Rockland County Human Rights Commission. She believes that government’s job is not to make change but to support change efforts. New to her post, Dr. Jennings hopes that by bringing together a group of interfaith leaders, she can kick-start efforts to unify our community.
When I received the invitation, I could have said: been there, done that. Instead, I found myself moved by Dr. Jennings’ dedication to change. From the moment Rabbi Scheff and I met her last month at the rally against hate on the New City Courthouse steps, we saw that Dr. Jennings is a catalyst for action, a skilled listener and empathic thinker. I knew that I wanted to be on her team.
Once again I found myself in a board room surrounded by people of good intentions brainstorming ways to heal the divisiveness, insularity, and prejudice that mar our home in Rockland County.
Once again I found myself in discussions about brokenness, distrust and fear without the presence of the people whose voices are required in the room. We need leadership of the Chasidic communities at the table in order to have robust, honest conversation, in order for real change to happen. We must find a way to change hearts and minds enough to successfully bring into the room people who do not want to be there.
Dr. Jennings, however, pointed out that we have to begin somewhere. “Someone has to extend the olive branch and I don’t mind being the one to do it.” Evan Bernstein, Regional Director, and Etzion Neuer, Deputy Regional Director of the New York office of the Anti-Defamation League, brought their wisdom and experience to the table.
But most of all, Dr. Jennings listened to the community and religious leaders gathered at her table. She engaged us in an honest conversation about the most pressing issues of human rights and social justice in our county.
We talked about paths to change and barriers as well.
We all agreed on our destination: a hospitable environment where bad behavior will not be tolerated. Rockland County will be a place where we are gracious to our neighbors. We will have mutual respect. We will have a knowledge of each other’s values and concerns.
Government cannot legislate loving one’s neighbor, but it can legislate against acts of hatred. Attitude shifts can happen in a multitude of small steps. Doing nothing except giving in to frustration and anger cannot be the most reasonable response. The issues in Rockland County are not going away, and neither are we. Rockland County is our home.
After a discussion about the many difficulties in reaching our goals, Dr. Jennings offered the most profound statement of the day: “Oy vey!”
As a rabbi in this county, I am committed to working toward change. As a rabbi of the Orangetown Jewish Center, I am proud to represent our congregation in its desire to be a part of the work that is required.
In these weeks before the High Holy Days, it seems to me that nothing could be more important. In a world where the tone of discourse has become ugly, it is required of us to remember the power of respectful communication. It is essential to defy hatred and refuse to be part of intolerant behavior.
Is being optimistic naïve? I believe that optimism is a courageous choice. Join me in optimism. The alternative, helplessness and hopelessness, is not a real choice.
L’shana tova, a good year for all, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
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.
When this past Saturday turned into Sunday, it was the first day of the holiday of Shavuot. We had finished counting 49 days since Passover. It was time to receive Torah. Together with about eighty congregants, I was cozy in the synagogue, studying words of Torah in groups of four, eating coffee ice cream with chocolate sprinkles.
When the sun rose on a new day, I was sleeping for a few hours before holiday services began again at 9:00 a.m. I was a bit groggy as I began chanting the blessings of the morning, but I felt happy and fulfilled in one of my favorite holidays, when we would be celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. I was blissfully unaware of the outside world.
When this past Saturday turned into Sunday in Orlando, Florida, a mad man whose soul was poisoned with hatred and a fanatical view of life was holding more than 100 people hostage in a nightclub intended as a gathering place for celebration. While I was studying words of Torah, he was shooting 49 people dead and wounding 53 others. In the morning, the world that was attached to media started reeling from the news of yet another mass murder, another act of terrorism, a horrifying targeting of the LGBTQ community, an attempt to bring down the joy of Pride Month.
As Saturday turned to Sunday, I was discussing the meaning of: “You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy.” In my havruta (study group), we thought that if we could possibly agree on a definition of holiness, we would know exactly what God expects of humanity and particularly of Jews. We would have the key to making our world a better place. At 1:30 in the morning on Sunday, it all felt so simple and uplifting. And all the while, a terrorist was shooting people dead.
How can there possibly be any sense in the world? How can God possibly expect us to be holy?
Since Sunday, people I have spoken with want to know how goodness can possibly matter in the face of evil. My stubborn answer is that goodness is the only thing that does matter.
Every act of kindness takes away the power of hatred and cruelty. I refuse to become a nihilist or a pessimist. Being an optimist is not frivolous or naïve or weak. Being an optimist in days like these requires immense courage.
Author Rebecca Solnit says: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it is going to take everything you have to steer the world away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and from the grinding down of the poor and marginal.”
This past Sunday, the Jewish people celebrated Shavuot, the Festival of Revelation. In our all night study at the OJC, Rabbi Scheff taught that creation and revelation lead us toward redemption. Redemption will not fall out of the heavens above. The promise of redemption is in our hands, and it is what keeps us moving forward with optimism and hope, believing against all odds that we can repair the world. Join me please. Act by act, moment by moment, we can bring redemption to a world desperately in need of repair.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
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
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