On the eve of a new year, I offer this prayer on behalf of my colleagues and religious leaders of every faith, who are striving to connect people in community in new and creative ways while maintain an authentic sense of tradition. And I offer this prayer in thanksgiving for a community who has told its faith leaders in a myriad of ways that they trust us, despite our flaws. The Hineni prayer (“Here I am”) is the prayer leader’s plea that God look past the shortcomings of the one appointed to pray on the community’s behalf. What follows is my interpretation of the original text.
Perhaps they don’t see that I am
to confront current circumstance,
Shaken and uncertain
In the face of forces that threaten to overwhelm me.
Yet I must present myself to be heard
on behalf of a community that has entrusted me to represent.
I don’t claim to be worthy or sufficiently informed.
So I seek balance in the Source
of my ancestors’ resilience
In the breath between
Adonai and Adonai,
Compassion and Grace,
Tradition and Self-Sufficiency,
Reverence and Awe.
Carve me a path to success
As I seek the welfare
Of all those who have sent me.
Hold blameless those who trust me despite my shortcomings now exposed.
Guide me to speak with wisdom,
sensitive in tone,
considerate of all needs.
And may the love in my heart make up for the flaws in my actions.
May acknowledging the mistakes of our past transform our futures into joy and celebration,
life and wholeness,
with truth and peace as our guides.
Don’t let me falter on this path.
May it be Your will—
God of Israel and Sonia
God of Stan and Hannah
El, Unfathomable, Powerful,
Source of my resilience
Yet to be known—
That my words will resonate
Until they are understood
For their sincerity
And their intentions
And their justice
And their humanity
And for the way they honor Your Name,
Unfathomable and Beyond Understanding.
Attend to my prayer for compassion.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
This tumultuous year is far from over, though so many of us sadly are wishing it away. Hurricane Isaias was just the latest in what feels like a growing list of events that have drawn down our reservoir of resilience. As we find ourselves in the weeks leading to the Jewish community’s season of reflection and joy, it is an appropriate time to look back at 2020 with clearer vision and sharper focus. Seeing these past months through a Jewish perspective on time, specifically in the framework of transitioning from the years 5780 to 5781, might allow us a way to reframe our view of the first 8 months of the calendar year vis a vis the 4 months remaining.
The Jewish process of teshuva—reflection, atonement, return— reminds us that we have a choice. We can allow the challenging moments of our lives to deplete us, to shorten our tempers, to consume our patience, to sap our energy. Or we can recognize these natural consequences of stress and, instead, build on the unexpected yet fortifying outgrowths of our circumstances.
As we prepare for a “hybrid“ approach to our holiday celebrations—combining communal in-person and at-home opportunities to experience the essential and intended messages that present the opportunity for personal transformation—the liturgy of the holidays can offer a useful vehicle for navigating these days with direction and meaning. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the pages of the mahzor present a progression of themes that we expand upon in the hours of structured prayer. Whether we are in the sanctuary or in the privacy of our homes, we can rely upon these themes as a personal “seder” (order) that will help us in creating our own unique ritual for this holiday season and provide a much-needed perspective for this unusual time in our world.
For Rosh Hashanah, we may reflect on:
Sovereignty (Malkhuyot) – In the last months, what has ruled my priorities? How has the hierarchy of my priorities changed? In the months to come, will I live my days passively, or will I rule my choices?
Remembrance (Zichronot) – In the last months, what have been my losses? How have I grieved? In the months to come, how will I honor and celebrate the people and events that transform my life?
Wake-up calls (Shofarot) – In the last months, what have I discovered as our “silver linings”? Where have I found meaning and hope? In the months to come, what are the things that will refill my reservoir of resilience?
For Yom Kippur, we may reflect on:
Confession (Teshuva) – In the last months, where have I willingly fallen short of the mark as a friend or family member? How have I unintentionally contributed to another’s suffering? In the months to come, what can I do to relieve my burden and those of others?
Connection (Tefilla) – In the last months, what connections have made me feel relevant? What connections have been my support? In the months to come, what connections will I pursue that I have yet to explore?
Community (Tzedaka) – In the last months, from whose kindnesses have I benefited? Have I given of my blessings to assist others? In the months to come, what will I do to sustain the communities that have been there for me when I have needed them?
Some of us may be wondering and worrying how we will make meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without sitting in synagogue this year. The Jewish New Year’s arrival, this year in particular, may help us look back with 2020 hindsight, and may help us envision the final third of 2020 with a greater sense of gratitude, purpose and optimism.
Join your community in the weeks ahead as we prepare for the arrival of 5781 by cultivating a new outlook on the last months of 2020.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
What if you knew for sure that you would see or hear something unusual? What if you knew for certain that you would experience something extraordinary? Would you miss it?
Oh, I know that Saturday mornings are just right for getting errands done, picking up the dry cleaning or purchasing a new shower curtain. Saturdays are perfect for boot camp workouts, kids’ soccer tournaments, or – on crisp sunny days – hiking in Harriman State Park. On Saturday mornings, you can meet your cousin for coffee or visit your niece after surgery. I know… on Saturdays you can even just sleep in after an over-scheduled week.
But what if being in Shabbat on a Saturday morning promised something that transcends all of that? Would you just skip it?
If you come to synagogue on Saturday morning instead of everything else you do…
Perhaps the davenner* will chant El Adon in a different tune, not the expected tune, but in the one that was sung in your childhood when you sat next to your grandfather in shul.*
Perhaps you’ll watch as five-year-old twins run purposefully down the aisle and onto the bima* at the start of the Torah service to be handed silver Torah crowns which they hold up proudly as if they are the whole point of the service. You definitely find yourself grinning as you watch them walk solemnly behind the adult holding the Torah.
Perhaps you’ll see a proud nonagenarian ascend the bima, slow but sure-footed, to accept an aliyah* and receive a blessing for the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah.
Perhaps you’ll see a seven-month-old baby girl receive her Hebrew name on the bima and lean forward to send a big, sloppy toothless grin in the direction of her great- grandmother for whose husband she has just been named.
Perhaps you will rise when the Prayer for Healing is chanted and you will have a clear picture in your mind of your friend who is recuperating from surgery. You will sense that your prayer can reach him in his Boston hospital.
Perhaps you’ll be invited to open the ark when the Torah is placed back there after the recessional and when you look at the colorfully decorated Torahs, the congregation sings Hashivenu, “Return us to the days of old.” And you aren’t sure why, but you feel something in your heart unlock.
Perhaps you’ll see a man chant the haftara* to honor his brother’s yahrzeit* and as you follow in the English, you realize that this story of Jonathan and David from the Book of Samuel was your haftara when you became bat mitzvah. As you pay closer attention, you remember all the words.
Perhaps you’ll sit down next to a woman you don’t know well, but has always reminded you from a distance of your mother. And as you silently tear up, missing your mother so much even after 24 years, this fellow congregant hands you a tissue. And you feel your mother’s soul closer than you have in years.
Perhaps the words of the Dvar Torah* will strike a chord deep within you, answering a question that has been lurking in your mind, an important question not yet articulated.
If any one of these transcendent moments were likely to happen on a Saturday morning, would you just miss it?
Holiness does not arrive with trumpets and drums but with quietly perceived moments.
All of these moments do happen. Will you be there with me to experience them? Life holds the promise of being so much more than our own routine.
A community of holiness awaits you every Saturday at nine. I’ll see you there.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
*Translations so we’re all on the same page:
Davenner – one who is praying, in this case, the one who is leading the prayers.
Shul – a cozy Yiddish word meaning synagogue.
Bima – platform at the front of a synagogue where the Torah service takes place.
Aliyah – the honor of reciting blessings before and after a portion of the Torah (also called an aliyah) is chanted.
Haftara – a section from the Book of Prophets chanted on Shabbat and holiday mornings.
Yahrzeit – the anniversary of the death of a person according to the Jewish calendar.
Dvar Torah – literally, words of Torah, designates a sermon or a teaching given by a rabbi or a knowledgeable person at Shabbat services.
From experience, she anticipated the tears. She knew that the moment the cloth was torn, the crying would commence. So she looked at Nancy, and before taking the scissors to the material she paused and asked, “Are you ready?”
Nancy took a deep breath and nodded in assent. Only then did Amy begin cutting the lace away from the satin. What was once Nancy’s bridal gown more than three decades earlier now looked like a tablecloth. And Nancy cried.
Amy the counselor comforted her. She assured Nancy that her reaction was normal, and that only a happy marriage could yield these tears. As she spoke her words of consolation, Amy the designer seamlessly moved the lace to a long narrow table and held it in place with a six-foot ruler. She noted how remarkably pristine and strong the lace was, and how much of it was salvageable. Just a few seconds and several snips later, what lay before us had been transformed from a mere remnant to a magnificent wrap.
Amy the teacher’s questions now came fast, teasing out Nancy’s reactions, drawing out her emotional connections to the significance of tallit, to the ritual of prayer, to family, to life cycle and to legacy.Amy the artist held Nancy’s responses and guided her through the creative process. After considering several connections to the number four, Nancy decided that the four corners of the garment would bear the names of our four sons. When Nancy shared that she had designed graphics for each of our son’s bnei mitzvah depicting the season of their celebrations, Amy suggested that we incorporate the graphic into each satin corner along with their names. The occasion on which they each first wore tallitot as adults would thus become a part of Nancy’s ritual every Shabbat and holiday.
The garment is not actually a tallit until its fringes are affixed. Within a matter of a couple of days of our meeting with Amy in Needham, Massachusetts, we received word that the project was on its way to our home, with two fringes yet to be tied. Perhaps the two sons “tying the knot” in the months ahead, along with their fiancées, will each have a hand in tying the remaining knots of the tzitzit to render the tallit “kosher.”
Some people grab a prayer shawl off a rack and toss it around their neck as a matter of custom. Some people choose a tallit for the way it hangs on their shoulders. Amy Lassman is a guide, teacher and artist who connects a potentially perfunctory ritual with time, emotion, memory and dreams. Amy, you are Bezalel, a visionary who thinks deep thoughts, who gives birth to holy moments and holy creations, who constructs sacred spaces under the wings of the Divine Presence. You have given my family a new pathway into our tradition. You have reshaped my family’s story, possibly for generations to come. And though you may not have earned a formal degree towards that end, you are my rabbi.
Thank you. I hope you don’t mind if I share your Torah with the world.
Check out Amy Rosenstein Lassman’s work at adardesigns.com.
It’s a cold Sunday morning in February, the time is 8:55am. Sitting by the window in our Daily Chapel, I have a good view of the synagogue driveway.
Unfortunately, there are no cars entering. From my spot, I can actually see two blocks down the main street that approaches the driveway. Not a car in sight.
And we have 8 people in the room.
And 2 of the 8 are saying Kaddish.
Just up from shiva for their loved ones, they have come to the synagogue on this morning to find solace in community, and I am afraid we are about to fail them.
I pick up my phone, open my texts, and call up my chat group “Local Jews.” These are the families with younger children who have moved into our synagogue neighborhood over the last few years. They walk to synagogue on Shabbat. They tailgate with Rabbi Hersh and his wife Loni in the parking lot after services when the weather is nice. Their children wait around for me to change my clothes and bring out the boxes of Good Humor eclairs. They share coupons to the food store in our text group, and debate whether hot dogs are sandwiches. They wish each other a Shabbat shalom.
I’ve never used this particular forum to seek support for the synagogue, so I hesitate. I don’t want my neighbors to feel that I don’t respect the boundaries between the social neighborly connection we share and the synagogue connection we have in common. I don’t want them to feel any sense of guilt if they must turn down a rabbi’s request.
But time is growing short. And the window of opportunity is closing. So I text:
“Good morning! Don’t usually (ever) do this, but there are a couple of people saying Kaddish this morning and we are 2 short of a minyan. Can anyone drop by for 15 minutes?”
I hold my breath.
Seconds later my phone buzzes: “Gives us a few minutes. Dragging kids from beds.”
Ten minutes later, mom and her two young teens walk into the room, smiles on their faces, siddurim in hand. Imagine that, I think to myself. Teenagers who have just rolled out of bed, leaning into and giggling at their mother’s side. On a Sunday morning at 9am.
The sight takes me back to my own youth, to the many Sunday mornings I spent sitting under my father‘s right arm, surrounded by people a generation (or two) ahead of me. I recall how they greeted me with warm smiles and expressions of appreciation for my presence. They made me feel seen. They made me feel important. They made me feel connected.
My guilt over crossing some imaginary boundary dissipates, as I remember why this family moved into the neighborhood in the first place, around the corner from the OJC. They chose to make the synagogue and its community a focal point of their lives. For their own benefit and for the benefit of others.
Do I wish that people would want to come to services on Sunday morning for a half hour without prompting? Of course I do. But I’ll take neighbors who eagerly answer the call when they are needed any day of the week. And I’ll always cherish that moment when a teen sees the look on the face of an adult, telling them they’ve made a difference in someone’s life.
Local Jews, I promise not to abuse the privilege of having you as neighbors. Unless you give me permission to do so!
Rayna and Zev, I see you. You are more important to us than you know. And while you may not be able to name the feeling now, I hope that someday you will look back and recognize the way connection to community was cultivated in your lives. Mom, great job.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
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.
Tonight, however, this open heart is a curse. Because I feel the suffering of my sisters and brothers. And I absorb the taunts of those who wish my children harm. And I shudder at the sounds of laughter and rejoicing over spilled blood. And I don’t see in the face of my neighbor another who is content with being my neighbor. And the voices of reason that provided me with hope just hours ago have been drowned out by the crowd applauding the gun shots in the theater of the absurd.
So in this moment I find myself closing my open heart to protect myself from the pain of all that suffering. And as the heart closes, I feel it hardening in anger and despair.
Please, God, slow my racing heart and grant me a few hours’ rest. And in my sleep, soften my heart again. Because I need to love. And I can’t truly love–even my own children–so long as this hardened heart beats within me. And once I can feel again, let the blessing-curse of my empathy move me to heal the sick, to comfort the mourner, and to set out rebuilding a shattered world.
In the words of Jeremiah from this past week’s haftarah, “Heal me, Adonai, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved.” Give me reason to praise You.
That’s right, you read the title correctly. I am inviting you to not pray. Come to synagogue tomorrow morning, sit for an hour, or two, or three, and don’t pray. I am allowed to say that because, frankly, I have no idea what the English words “to pray” mean. The meaning of the words, I believe, will necessarily change depending on what is our definition of God. Implicit in the word “prayer” is some recognition that we are engaging in an effort to connect to something beyond ourselves, whether that something is above us, beyond us or within us. Are we asking for something, actually expecting a response? Are we seeking the granting of a wish? Are we hoping to gain a perspective that puts our lives into a context of something greater, thereby either maximizing or minimizing our significance, our achievements, or even our wrongdoings? Prayer is not necessarily an act of petition, supplication or thanksgiving. It may be all these things, it may be none of these things.
In our Siddur Lev Shalem, the new prayerbook published by the Rabbinical Assembly which we introduced to the congregation two weeks ago, the phrase Barukh Atah Adonai, commonly translated as “Praised are You, Lord,” is intentionally left untranslated. In the English text, the phrase appears simply as Barukh Atah Adonai. I love the affirmation of the idea that the words cannot be translated easily, if at all. How do we approach sacred purpose? How do we express shared values and shared search for meaning? How do we establish a space for safe vulnerability? How do we sing in gratitude for our freedom and in lament of those things that still enslave us? How do we find inspiration and comfort in the company of others who are as imperfect and broken as we are? That which we can’t translate into words is left to the service of the heart.
The beauty of our new siddur is found in its acknowledgment that there is no single way to pray. The book is an invitation to a dialogue with God, certainly, but it is also an invitation to meditation, to study, to quiet contemplation, to communal song. It is as modern, creative, and untraditional as we need our expression of faith to be. It is as ancient, as set and as traditional as we need our expression of faith to be. It is an invitation to explore our desire to connect emotionally, intellectually and socially to purpose, values, tradition, shared history and shared mission.
Jewish tefillah–self-examination–is time set aside from the mundane distractions in our lives. The siddur serves as the open doorway to that time–time for perspective, time for growth. Join us tomorrow morning for an hour or two or three. Join us for you. Join us to learn more about this new magnificent resource and our own personal searches for meaning. Join us to sing, learn, connect, and be. Join us, you know, to pray.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
In an extraordinary display of unity, a broad cross-section of American Jewish organizations have joined to declare this coming Shabbat, beginning the evening of Friday, June 26 and ending the evening of June 27, to be a “Shabbat of solidarity with the African-American community.” In light of the horrific act of violence in Charleston, South Carolina, leaders across the North American Jewish community are asking their members to participate in this Sabbath of solidarity.
Among the suggested actions for rabbis, congregations and organizations, are to speak out in synagogues this coming Shabbat on the issue of racism in society and to express rejection of hateful extremism. All rabbis and congregations are encouraged to reach out to AME churches in their communities with expressions and demonstrations of support.
So would it surprise you to learn that our synagogue is not participating?
Solidarity is defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.” It would indeed be important for our own synagogue community to come together in a feeling of unity about our rejection of hateful extremism. And it certainly is nice that a large cross-section of the Jewish community is showing displaying unity about something! The solidarity we sorely need, however (and especially here in Rockland County), is the solidarity between our communities. This solidarity can only happen beyond the walls of our synagogue – not on a Sabbath, when we are far less likely to extend an open invitation to our brothers and sisters from across the spectrum of religions to a 2- or 3-hour service. It must happen during the week, in the synagogues, churches, mosques and streets. It must happen in places where we can all speak the languages of our own prayers at the same time, wear our particularity, share our melodies, join hands in a unified chorus, be identified clearly for who we are, and be seen just as clearly for what we advocate.
On Sunday night, at the First Baptist Church of Spring Valley, nearly a quarter of the crowd of 200 who came together to pray for the victims and their families was Jewish. We stood, we held hands, we watched people sway and cry out in devotion, and we cried ourselves (okay, at least Nancy and I did) at the sight of gratitude trumping hatred and God’s love overcoming retribution. The four rabbis sitting in the congregation were asked to rise, be acknowledged and join the ministers and choir on the stage. And the largely African-American crowd cheered when Rabbi Ariel Russo was invited as a female rabbi – something many of the Spring Valley residents had never seen – to offer words of blessing. I was grateful that my sons experienced something so transformative in their teens; it was so apparent how moved they were. They learned the true meaning of solidarity, and I believe they will never be the same for the experience.
On Monday night, at Spring Valley’s Memorial Park, hundreds gathered to demand a vote on legislation that would bring state oversight to the embattled school district of East Ramapo. One of our congregants consciously chose to wear his kippah. He wanted to be certain he would be identified in the crowd as a Jew standing for the values we cherish as Jews. We marched through the streets of Spring Valley – young and old, black and white, Christian and Jewish. It was so apparent how moved his thirteen year-old son was to be a part of the experience, and to be acknowledged by so many for being a Jewish person willing to step up for a cause.
Whether our prayer vigil effected change or our legislative efforts in the short run are successful, I believe we have established a new framework for future community relations. We have expressed our shared values in more than words. We have stood together for consideration, deliberation, transparency, education and tolerance. We have stood together against discrimination, extremism, and political favoritism. And at least in the minds of some, we have shattered stereotypes that have supported ignorance, suspicion and hatred.
Solidarity Shabbat? I say Solidarity Sunday to Friday. And on Shabbat, all will be One.
Rabbi Craig Scheff