This past Sunday night, our OJC community and friends celebrated our community. Yes, Rabbi Paula Drill was the honoree for the evening, but—sorry—the night was only in part about her. It was a love-fest that spanned the generations: a night of Jewish learning, music, food and appreciation of one another. The night was about our community: our heart, our simplicity, our humility, our relationships, our Torah, our mission and our vision.
In trying to summarize our community’s success, I realize that we have not relied upon any new strategies. We haven’t created any unique ways of doing business; nor have we abandoned our commitment to traditional models of Jewish life. It is the Jewish values exhibited in the building of the Mishkan (the Israelites’ portable sanctuary), described in this week’s Torah portion, that serve as the blueprint for our own community.
The very idea that the people can participate in a process that will invite God’s presence is enough to inspire participation. Perhaps there is an element of guilt or a desire for repentance in their motivation, but after the debacle of the Golden Calf, the Israelites have a chance to merit a legacy. And the project is as much about the process as it is about the ultimate edifice that is constructed. The freewill service to a higher calling adds meaning and the sense of God’s presence to a life that is otherwise enslaved to fear and uncertainty.
God instructs Moses to engage the community by inviting them to donate to the project whatever they are moved to share. Several opportunities are created for that giving by virtue of the many types of materials being collected and utilized in the project. Engagement is transformed into empowerment as each individual becomes a participant in the processes of manufacturing, design and construction.
The appointment of Betzalel as project manager, the inclusion of artisans, and the participation of the broader community creates a new dynamic for the Israelites’ engagement with the Divine One. Before this change, leadership was purely hierarchical, and the population was steps removed in relation to God. As a result of the new appointee, the community operates in partnership with its leadership. In partnerships, the success of one is the success of all. Relationships deepen between the volunteers who recognize that they are working together towards a shared vision; relationships also deepen between the volunteers and the leadership, who now recognize the value of the other’s contributions towards a shared goal.
Finally, there is the matter of expectations and of how we define our success. Success can’t be about the number of people who participate or about the amounts they contribute. Success is found in the knowledge that the process of building—serving, empowering, partnering and relating—is an ongoing effort.
On Sunday night, we celebrated a milestone for a community in process. God said, “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” As we continue the process of building a world deserving of God’s presence, may we continue to merit God’s presence among us.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
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
What is a group of women doing in someone’s living room one night each month, introducing themselves with their matriarchal line and passing a candle from one to the next? We are celebrating Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish new month, a time designated by the rabbis as a festival for women. Rosh Chodesh Celebrations began this year to bring together women who are raising children at home for evenings of study, sharing and celebrating.
Each month our gatherings have been uplifting and meaningful. Through tears and laughter these women have found support and understanding in a close circle of OJC congregants, luxuriating in the gift of time dedicated to self and community.
Last night was a special Rosh Chodesh celebration as the group of younger moms met together with Sisters in Spirit, a group of OJC women whose nests are empty facilitated each month by Sally Kagan and Miriam Suchoff.
Rosh Chodesh Tevet is unique as it falls in the middle of a holiday, on the seventh night of Chanukah each year. Among the Jewish communities of North Africa, this auspicious night was designated as the Festival of the Daughters — a time for the generations to celebrate together. And so that is what the two Rosh Chodesh groups of the Orangetown Jewish Center did last night: we brought the generations together to celebrate.
One of the Rosh Chodesh Celebrations participants wrote about how much she enjoyed the special evening, “I always look to learn from the older, wiser and more experienced women (and men) in the world and often say that those sage people (like my dad) are hard to find these days. Their simple advice is so enlightening and comforting.”
Together we lit the chanukiah and immediately felt the magic begin.
After our opening ritual, Sally told the story of brave and wise Judith who saved the Jews who were under siege by the evil Holofernes. Sally’s storytelling technique was engaging and fun; you’ll have to ask her for a synopsis, but be sure to ask what she pulled out of her basket at the end of the story!
We used the lighting of seven candles to open us to seven questions about women we admire, blessings we would bestow on daughters, our own gifts to family, and more.
There were tears and words of support and much laughter. We concluded the evening with each woman offering a blessing to the woman to her right.
Without a doubt, there is magic in a Rosh Chodesh group. A group of women empowers one another to reach inside and tap into a place we often ignore. The group energizes us so that people not only feel good about themselves, but about the women surrounding them! As Sally Kagan says, “This is the essence of women gathering for Rosh Chodesh: that we all have the ability within our souls to capture the roots of our faith, the belief that we can nurture and be nourished by one another, and to understand what those first women in the red tents knew: that through the camaraderie and learning we are stronger!”
If you are a woman of the Orangetown Jewish Center, we hope that you’ll join one of the Rosh Chodesh groups. Contact me at Rabbi.Drill@theojc.org for more information. If you are a blog reader who is not connected to the OJC, be in contact for information on how to create a group of your own. And if you are a man, be happy for the women in your life that there is a safe and nurturing place for us to grow in a Jewish context.
Enjoy this eighth night of Chanukah. I pray that the lights in the darkness bring optimism to your hearts.
Chag Chanukah Sameach and Chodesh Tov, Happy Chanukah and Happy New Month,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
At 6:00 this morning, I returned to the Orangetown Jewish Center after participating for five days on the Jewish Federation of Rockland County Lily Steuer ATID Leadership Mission. Atid means future and this mission fulfilled its call to set our sights on the future. As I write this, I am filled with tikvah (hope) that the future of Jewish Rockland and of Israel is bright.
I felt tikvah when we visited Susan’s House, an on-the-job training workshop for youth at risk in Jerusalem. Teens learn to make jewelry, glass plates, wooden objects and macramé as they learn life skills and self esteem. There I met a young woman named Aliana who slouched in her chair as the other teens brightly showed off the art that they were creating. When we started shopping, many of us chose beautiful wire jewelry, the work of Aliana, who joined us in the shop and proudly took pictures with each of us who were purchasing her creations. Aliana was standing up straight. I felt tikvah because I know that thanks to our Jewish Federation dollars, the vulnerable in Israel won’t be left behind.
I felt tikvah when we visited Har Hertzl, the national military cemetery of Israel. We stood, weeping, before a line of new graves from this past summer’s Protective Edge Operation. We stood before the grave of American lone soldier Max Steinberg. I felt tikvah because I know that Israel will defend our right to a Jewish home. Thanks to the support of Jews world wide, Israel will never stand alone.
I felt tikvah when we danced at the Sol and Bea Kramer Senior Center in Kiryat Ata. Elders enjoy support, socialization, hot meals and warmth thanks to Elana, the dedicated and passionate director, and thanks to Rockland Federation support from the Kramer family and from the Lily Steuer Fund. Languages from all over the world – Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Hungarian, Spanish – could be heard as Day Center participants sang and danced with us. I felt tikvah because I know that thanks to our Jewish Federation dollars, the mitzvah of honoring our elders will be fulfilled in Israel just as it is here in Rockland County.
I felt tikvah when we visited the Mevaseret Tzion Absorption Center to meet with new olim (immigrants to Israel) from Ethiopia. We experienced awe as we watched Mission Mentor and Federation Campaign Chair Bob Silverman meet family members with whom he flew from Ethiopia to Israel one and a half years ago. I felt tikvah because I know that we in Rockland County help to ensure that all Jews are responsible one for the other.
The experience of our trip was heightened for all of us (but for me most of all!) by the participation on the mission of my son Josh, a student in Mechinat Rabin (a preparation year for the Israel Defense Forces). Josh’s passion for Israel, his questions and many conversations with mission participants made me proud as a mom and made me feel tikvah for the future of the Jewish people.
I thank Diane Sloyer and the staff of Jewish Federation of Rockland County for educating us, lifting us and giving us hope.
It is easy to be a cynic. Things go wrong and one can say, “See, I told you so.” But it takes courage to be an optimist. We continue, against all odds, to find hope and possibility in our world. Our plans and dreams might fail and we are often disappointed, but still we get up the next day and start again. It takes courage to be an optimist.
The 2014 ATID Mission gave us all many reasons to be optimists.
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
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
Here I am, heading into the month of Heshvan this week, not a holiday in sight after four intense weeks… and there is only one question on my mind: How do we measure the success of celebrating Sukkot at the OJC?
I could try to count the hundreds of congregants and guests who spent time in our sukkah. I might count the number of times we gathered to pray together as a community, marching with lulav and etrog or dancing with the Torahs. I’d count the number of programs and classes in the sukkah that we all enjoyed (eight, by my count!).
I’d certainly count the number of young children and their grown-ups who attended one of Rabbi Hersh’s programs: EKS with spaghetti in the sukkah, grilled cheese supper before Simchat Torah eve and ice cream party on the day. I would add in the number of Religious School children who tried to keep up with Rabbi Scheff’s My Sukkah it has Three Walls routine.
I could absolutely count our success by these numbers.
And I would have it all wrong.
Success in a synagogue community is about holiness, moments of Godliness, and the joyful heights reached through ritual.
I cannot measure such success by counting to eight or one hundred and fifty students or three hundred.
I can only measure holy success with the number one.
I count one congregant who joyfully bentsched (said the blessings for shaking) lulav and etrog at a rehabilitation center. He told his rabbis that October 17 had been his goal for release after surgery because he didn’t want to miss Simchat Torah at the OJC. He could not make it this year, but promised himself and us that he’d be dancing with a Torah next year.
I count one congregant who came to celebrate the holidays with her family each holy day. She is mourning her mother, but rose to the joy of the days. Just as she was kept home from school to attend synagogue when she was a child, so she now keeps her children home from school.
I count one congregant who came into the sukkah after Shabbat evening services to make Kiddush with us and was so entranced by the little ones celebrating that he joined in for a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
I count one congregant who danced while holding onto her walker with a four year old who danced by jumping with both feet to the rhythm of the Orangetones at our annual Sukkot dinner.
I count one congregant who read Torah at Simchat Torah for the first time (and second, third and fourth) as everyone in the synagogue received an aliya.
I count one congregant who told me that he had never before celebrated the festival and was so excited by the energy and joy that he was going to plan now to take off these days from his busy medical practice next year to celebrate again.
I can only measure holy success with the number one:
One holy moment experienced by one cherished congregant.
One moment of eternity, one moment of Torah.
One community together celebrating joy as commanded by One God.
It is what we are all about at the Orangetown Jewish Center.
May this new year be one of holy moments for each and every one of us,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
At 6:00 am this morning, Ariella Rosen, our Rabbinic Intern, and I boarded a bus together with thirty interfaith clergy bound for Albany. The Rockland Clergy for Social Justice fulfilled our pledge to call on Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders to initiate immediate fiscal and administrative oversight in the East Ramapo Central School District and to revise the structure, governance and financing of that school district. On the two hour ride up the Thruway we were briefed about our mission and the many advocacy meetings that we would have. Just after a stop for coffee, I davenned the prayers of Rosh Hodesh, the New Month. When I reached Hallel, I sang softly to myself: Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek – Open for me the Gates of Justice. “How perfect,” I thought to myself, “the Jewish calendar can be so in sync with the world.
The day was a big success. I will be sharing information with everyone about the ways in which each one of us can become involved in this issue that is of concern to so many of our congregants in the days ahead. Today we met with Larry Schwartz, Secretary to Governor Cuomo, Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate leaders Dean Skelos, Jeffrey Klein and John Flanagan, and Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Throughout the day we were accompanied by Senator David Carlucci, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffe and Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski; all three are champions of our cause and deserve our thanks.
For tonight, I would like to share with you the words that I spoke at the Prayer Vigil/Press Conference, to give you a sense of the impact felt in Albany when a unified band of rabbis, ministers, pastors and imams raised our voices together for justice.
I am proud to stand before you this afternoon representing the Orangetown Jewish Center, a congregation of more than 500 families who are concerned about the issue of fair and meaningful access to education for all young people in our county.
On the Jewish calendar, today is Rosh Hodesh, the first day of a new month. It is appropriate to be here today because Rosh Hodesh is a day of introspection and renewal. It is a day of optimism. Interestingly, it is also a day set apart for women and today as the sole woman clergy in attendance, I raise my voice for all of the mothers who send their children to school in the East Ramapo Central School District and for the teachers in that school district, the vast majority of whom are women.
Rosh Hodesh is a day of witnessing. In history, a new month was not declared until witnesses saw a new moon in the sky. Now this witnessing was by necessity subtle because what was being seen in the sky was actually the absence of the moon. Today, we stand before you as witnesses to important things that are absent from the lives of the families in the East Ramapo Central School District. Absent is protection for the children. Absent is fair governance of their schools. Absent is the education that is the Constitutional right of every child in the State of New York.
I stand today as a witness.
Consider the student in Spring Valley High School who has no Child Psychology and Day Care class to take because it was eliminated from the budget. Her dream to begin a career in Day Care will not be fulfilled. I am a witness to her dream.
Consider the student in Ramapo High School whose dream of a college scholarship in swimming or wrestling or tennis is crushed because those teams were eliminated from the budget. I am a witness to his dream.
Consider the mother sending her children to school each day who has sidelined her dreams of their succeeding in a competitive world thanks to education. Now she is more concerned that they return from school safely each day. Security guards were eliminated form the budget. I am a witness to her dreams for her children.
Consider the father who is a mathematician or a musician or … fill in the blank. Like any father, he had dreams of his children’s following in his footsteps. But there are no math electives, not even Advanced Algebra. There are no music programs at all in the Elementary Schools and the award winning marching band no longer exists. All were cut from the budget. I am a witness to his dreams.
Consider the guidance counselor in the high school or the sports coaches in the middle schools or the kindergarten teaching assistant. They were committed to careers in education but their jobs were eliminated. I am a witness to their dreams.
All that I witness leads me to the only possible response: a cry for justice. Here in Albany, I pray that you hear the same call. We clergy of every faith have gathered together as witnesses. We represent our congregations who stand as witnesses. We cannot and will not look away. You are our elected officials. We pray that you join us as witnesses so that we can take action together.
At a recent meeting with the volunteers of our Chesed Committee, I suggested that one goal of the committee was to need such a committee no longer. Won’t it be great when we are a Chesed Community, and everyone’s needs are taken care of by each one of us doing our part. Until that day arrives, however, we still have a lot of work to do.
One fact that makes me proud and yet also stymies me is why we have fifty volunteers on the Chesed Committee. Fifty is a great number of committed people who make meals anonymously, drive people to appointments, call on the phone and visit shut-ins. Those fifty, however, are not available for every need that arises. In a community of more than 500 families, how do we ensure that the number grows?
Another fact that has surprised me over time is how many people hesitate to ask for help. Many congregants have a broad and steady support network of family and friends and so do not need the support offered by the OJC Chesed Committee. But I have found that many people simply do not want to ask for help. A willingness to ask for help completes the circle of Chesed (loving kindness): today I need your help but tomorrow I’ll be able to offer mine. The work of loving kindness completed by the Chesed Committee is done so discreetly and compassionately. Performing a mitzvah quietly gives a unique feeling of pride. This kindness that I do — I do simply to bring an uplift to someone else.
Perhaps you say that you’d love to help but cannot because you have a full time job and a long commute. Perhaps you say that in a few years you’ll help when the kids are older. Maybe you think that you have too many hard issues of your own. To each of you, I say: your life will be enriched by the good that you will do. There are volunteer positions that range from ten minute phone calls once a week to preparing a meal for one or two – once every six weeks or so. Some families complete their friendly visiting with kids in tow; the children learning from their parents’ modeling how to be a true mentsch. And if you yourself are struggling, helping another is a powerful prescription for healing.
Please consider finding out how you could become a part of the dream of the OJC as a Community of Chesed … by becoming a part of the Chesed Committee. Get in touch with our Chesed chairs, Adele Garber (Ahg19@optonline.net) or Maddy Roimisher (845-359-4846), before you close this blog! You’ll be part of a circle of loving kindness, and who couldn’t use that in our lives?
Kol tuv, All the best, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Truth is, on a daily basis, there is no where I would rather be than at the Orangetown Jewish Center. My creative energy runs high at the shul, interactions feel profound, learning feels new, and God feels close. My rabbinate makes sense when I am with you in the classroom, my office or the sanctuary.
It is necessary, however, to throw open the windows of our synagogue and look around at the world we inhabit. And it is important to go out into that world to learn about what is going on. If you are with us on Shabbat or in a class, you know that one of the values of the OJC is that our Torah moves from the text to the lives we lead. The lives we lead are fulfilling when we are having an impact on the world: improving families, communities, Jewish organizations and secular institutions. You hear it in our teaching and in our sermons. Find a passion and pursue it! We begin in Torah, but we use Torah to move to issues about Israel, the Jewish world, Conservative Judaism, and social justice.
This past week, I spent time in the wide world beyond Independence Avenue in Orangeburg, New York. I returned today renewed, re-energized and ready to bring all that I learned back to the synagogue. I spent three days with twenty four OJC congregants and 14,000 of our pro-Israel allies at the AIPAC Policy Conference.
At AIPAC, many of the messages resonated with all that I have experienced and learned over eight years of participation in Israel advocacy through AIPAC. Our elected officials on both sides of the aisle unambiguously support Israel as a valued friend. Israeli leadership is grateful to feel the power of our support. People of color and leaders of many faith movements join with us every year to add their voices with ours as important allies in support of Israel. 2300 college leaders, Jewish and not Jewish, join us to state clearly that young people are learning how to advocate for Israel.
The rabbinic leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox streams stood together on the dais and proclaimed, “Jewish life is not about singing in unison but rather in harmony.” Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism stated, “We are not asserting the perfect nature of Israel. There is no perfect country. But we are here to protect the precious relationship between Israel and America.” The ideal of shared values and creating relationships rings true to all of us who have heard Israel sermons in our sanctuary or traveled to Israel on an OJC trip.
Something new was ringing loud and clear throughout the Policy Conference. We have heard the message before at AIPAC, but now it feels like a central theme ino all that we are doing: Despite being in the middle of seemingly intractable conflicts, Israel is a dynamic country filled with innovators who are improving life around the world. We heard from Israeli scientists, technology gurus, and medical researchers breaking through to new frontiers in medicine, security, communication and economic cooperation. There is another story of Israel being played out and we had an opportunity to feel its power. The Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. had a clear answer to the magnificent success of Israeli progress. Ron Prosor said that the secret is The Jewish Mother who believes that her child is a genius and the world just does not yet know it. So if that child takes a risk and fails, the Mother says, “Just go and try again.” And thus we have the Start-Up Nation! It’s a brilliant theory, no?
There was optimism in the air despite the heaviness of world realities right now. John Kerry said, “When Bibi looks me in the eyes and says, ‘We cannot accept a treaty that does not make Israel safer than she is right now,’ he and I agree 100%.” On Monday morning, Netanyahu was downright buoyant (honestly!). He claimed that Israel must be strong to make peace, but peace will make us stronger.
World events change on the hour and I am no prophet. Three days of learning and advocacy, however, allows me to believe that our Torah will lead us eventually to a stable Israel. As Rev. Dr. DeeDee Coleman shouted to an AIPAC crowd that loves her dearly, “Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!”
I am grateful to have gone out to learn. I am grateful to return home and share it with all of you.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I dedicate my writing this week to the memory of Abraham Mordecai Akselrad, z”l
It is fair to say that I attend more funerals than the average person. I am usually in the room with the family tearing the black ribbon, standing behind the lectern, driving the first car behind the hearse in the processional. The honor of performing the mitzvah of kavod la-met (honor to the dead) or of nichum avelim (comfort to the mourners) is very great but it is also very difficult. As rabbi, I gain strength knowing that I can truly help in many ways: standing steady for a family when the world is tilting, explaining a ritual with compassion, educating a community about how to pay a shiva call, or calling a grieving daughter a month after shiva has ended.
This past week, I remembered with full force what it means to perform these mitzvot, but without the designation of “Rabbi” as I did so. I realized with humility how performing kavod la-met or nichum avelim as a rabbi provides a layer of protection to me as a person in such sad times.
Just before Shabbat last week, Jonathan and I lost a dear friend of thirty years after a heroic battle with cancer. Abe Akselrad loved life completely and fought for every day and every hour he could spend with his wife Claire, his four children, son-in-law, and two grandchildren. The entire community of our synagogue in Caldwell attended Abe’s funeral this past Sunday, and he was buried in a downpour.
As friend in the pews rather than rabbi at the podium, I learned many lessons that I want to share with you. I believe that in the OJC community, we are supportive, appropriate and understanding of the laws of mourning and comfort. But we can also improve and grow. In that spirit, I share my learning of this past week.
One of my friends called me on Friday midday and asked how she could help the family who were overwhelmed by people stopping by with their sorrow, their condolences and their fruit platters. I suggested that they hang a sign on the door: “According to Jewish custom, it is not traditional to visit a family until after the funeral has taken place.” When Jon and I entered the funeral chapel, we saw long lines waiting to enter the room where the family sat before the service. We chose to enter the chapel directly instead and sit quietly. After the service, I saw friends clinging to Claire, crying with her, when I thought that she probably wanted to just get into the limousine and prepare herself for the cemetery. I thought about the way all of us have a need to ensure that the bereaved know we are there for them. Sometimes our need to be known outweighs common sense about what true comfort means. Claire and her family would never complain. I know that they have felt the love of family and friends. My first lesson is that all of us need to check our motivation in comforting very carefully: are we acting out of our own need or what we believe to be the needs of the bereaved?
As Jonathan and I sat in a row waiting for the service to begin, we were joined by friends from the Caldwell synagogue. At the end of my row was our friend Rabbi Michael Jay. Both of us have been well-schooled by Rabbi Scheff to sit silently in the presence of the dead. As rows all around us filled with chatting people, our row, anchored by Michael’s and my respectful silence, remained relatively quiet. The second lesson is that we can carry our learning wherever we go and model behavior that shows compassionate understanding of mourning ritual.
Presiding at the funeral was Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel, the Drill family’s rabbi for more than thirty years. He spoke about Abe as a congregant and as a cherished friend; he presided at the baby namings and bris and b’nai mitzvah of all four Akselrads, and at the oldest, Aviva’s wedding. His words brought comfort and an uplift of the heart not just because they were beautiful, heartfelt words, but because Rabbi Silverstein was speaking from a true relationship with the family. The third lesson I share today is that I came away from the funeral affirmed in the rabbinate that Rabbi Scheff and I have created at the Orangetown Jewish Center. We know you. We know your passions and your sorrows, your celebrations and your questions. “Relationship” is the mantra of our rabbinates. . . and for good reason. Truly knowing you allows us to be there with our full selves, as rabbi and as person, in your greatest joys and times of need. If we don’t yet “truly know” you, call one of us for a cup of coffee or a meeting at the shul. We do not want to wait for a time of loss to establish our relationship with you. Visit with us to make a meaningful relationship so that we can continue to build our community together.
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill