On the first night of Chanukah…. On the second night of Chanukah….
Like a bad horror movie, the reports of violent attacks on Jews reached us day by day. With each candle, our anxieties increased. The seventh attack struck our Rockland community in Monsey with 5 people stabbed as they celebrated the holiday together. Lighting candles on the eighth night, we were as aware as we have ever been of the meaning of this holiday, determined to fight back the darkness, dedicated to brazenly defying the temptation to retreat into hiding.
In the light of the eighth day, we are left trying to make sense of it all. Officials and lawmakers step forward to proclaim their indignation and resolve, a reassuring fact that distinguishes our home from 1939 Germany. Reporters ask us to assess the damage, to identify the causes, and to suggest countermeasures.
Jewish resilience — founded in our peoplehood, a sense of shared destiny, a belief in the power of goodness, and faith in God — will sustain us, just as it has through the centuries. Just as it did the Maccabees. But neither Jewish might, nor Jewish power, nor even Jewish spirit will cure the societal illness we call anti-Semitism.
Over the past twenty centuries and more, this illness has presented in different ways. Depending on whether the form taken was political, social or religious, the symptoms differed in the kinds of stereotypes the illness relied upon to spread. From the Greco-Roman empires to the Golden Age of Islam, from the Medieval Ages to the Enlightenment, from socialists to capitalists, from Ukrainian pogroms to Nazi death camps, “the Jew” has been an object of hatred and marginalization, characterized according to the needs of the hater, colored to be the cause of their ailments.
Today, however, the illness is different. The world is, as we know, a much smaller place. Social media has given hate an unparalleled platform. Anti-Semitism shape-shifts by the day. Its spread is not bound to any particular ideology or political party, and its expression has taken violent form in an age when speech is unbounded, inflammatory, and empowering.
But let’s not fool ourselves. Regulating speech, punishing terrorists and pushing hatred into hiding won’t defeat anti-Semitism. There may be places in the world where anti-Semitic incidents don’t occur, but that doesn’t mean that anti-Semitism doesn’t live in the hearts of inhabitants. In fact, sadly, it most likely means that Jews don’t live there.
Anti-Semitism lives in our neighbors’ hearts and homes, in the mouths of parents and the ears of their children. And the only way for “us” to defeat it is to confront it where it lives.
A solidarity rally may comfort us, provide a forum to air our sadness and fear, help us know we are not alone. But anti-Semitism will only be defeated when our non-Jewish neighbors want to fight it. When they are willing to examine and discuss their beliefs; when schools can require and facilitate meaningful conversations among students and parents; when churches, mosques, and synagogues come together in common cause—only then will we as a society have a fighting chance to win this battle.
On the eve of 2020, may we resolve to stand against hatred; to know our neighbors and to help them know us; to build alliances outside our Jewish community with those who will advocate for the conversations and education necessary to bring days of appreciation, understanding, and light.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Earlier this evening, more than two hundred people gathered at the Allison-Parris County Office Building in New City to speak out against the rise in hateful action and rhetoric. After the terror of Neo-Nazi white supremacists spewing anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic speech in Charlottesville, VA, Rockland Pride Center joined forces with the Jewish and African American communities to stand up for acceptance and understanding. You can read more on Facebook and watch a video of the rally at Unite the Fight, #UnitethefightRockland.
I share with you here, in part, my words in the hope that it will motivate all of us to take action in some large or small way, every day.
When I was a kid of twelve or thirteen, some of my friends got into a big fight, choosing up sides and being mean to each other. I remember growing so tired of the whole situation and complaining to my dad, “I just don’t want to deal with it anymore!”
My dad answered, “Tough. You have to deal with it… because they are your friends and they matter.”
I’ve gotten a little bit older since then, and my circle of concern has gotten a bit broader. Today, not just my friends and family matter. All people, because we are all created in God’s image, matter. But some days, I really want to say, “I just don’t want to deal with it anymore!”
That’s when I hear my dad’s voice reminding me: You have to deal with it, because people matter.
We have gathered on an auspicious day, the first day of the new month of Elul, when Jewish people look forward to the New Year and attempt to return to our best selves in a process called teshuva, repentance. We cannot do it all at once. But each of us can effect change one degree at a time.
This hopeful thought can allow us to say, “If we are able to change ourselves by one degree, then all of us together can change the direction of our country with that same one degree of change.
Consider the fact that we all showed up here in New City today. Instead of turning on our neighbors, instead of finding differences, we are committed to identifying all that brings us together.
We have gathered for freedom, democracy, and our trust in justice. This week in the Torah portion we read: צדק צדק תרדוף
Justice, justice you shall pursue. The way that we pursue justice now is by rallying together and uniting the fight.
When Brooke Malloy, Executive Director of the Rockland Pride Center, asked me to speak tonight, she suggested that I share how the Jewish community is feeling now after the events of Charlottesville a week and a half ago. I can’t speak for the Jewish community as a whole, but I can tell you how I am feeling. My response is encapsulated in the story of the president of the Charlottesville synagogue who stood on the front porch with two hired guards while white supremacists and neo-Nazis walked by shouting, “There’s the synagogue. Let’s burn it down!” and “Jews will not replace us!” As a congregational rabbi, nothing steals my breath as much as the fact that fifty people inside, finishing their Shabbat morning prayers, were told to sneak out the back door of their synagogue for their safety. In the United States of America.
As I thought about what Brooke asked me to do here, however, I realized that sharing my story is only the beginning. My work against hate must continue by asking questions instead of telling. What does this violence and hatred mean to you as a gay person? As an African-American? an Hispanic or Asian or a person who came from Haiti or Dominican Republic?
Our task is to prove that love truly is stronger than hatred despite the evidence of the past weeks. Love arises from knowing the other. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written: “The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing God to remake me in His.”
Let me return to the idea of one degree of change. As Rabbi Scheff taught in his sermon this past Shabbat, we could create change if all of us dedicate ourselves to get to know one new person every day, a person we do not know, a person who might look different from us. Try looking someone in the eyes who is in your office or in your class or at the store where you shop… someone you have never spoken with before. Say hello. Tell them who you are. Ask them who they are. And let us change the world together one degree at a time.
Because love is stronger than hate.
With prayers for peace, 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
His seat was directly across the table from me. He called me Rabbi Drill, but he did not look directly at me. I know that calling me “Rabbi” was a concession he made for me and he knew that my understanding of his lack of eye contact was a compromise I accepted from him. Rabbi Mayer Schiller represented the Skver community in the Village of New Square and I represented a very different religious world. We were two of twelve religious leaders from Rockland County and New York City who gathered at the invitation of Rockland County Executive, Ed Day. Everyone around the table accommodated each other so that we could meet in the middle, in a place where we could listen to each other and truly feel heard.
When I was invited to the two hour summit that took place at Rockland Community College President’s Office yesterday, the meeting was described as an opportunity to sit down to open lines of communication between various religious groups of Rockland County. I accepted with the hope that a process of healing and reconciliation could begin.
But I arrived with low expectations. I knew that leaders of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, of NAACP and of parent groups in East Ramapo have tried to meet with members of the Ultra-Orthodox community for open dialogue. I knew that these attempts had not been successful. I wondered what could possibly be different.
And here is what was different: Mr. Day invited religious leaders from Spring Valley and Suffern churches, the Islamic Center of Rockland, the Board of Rabbis (Conservative and Reform colleagues) and the Orthodox Jewish and Chassidic communities. Mr. Day told us that he is working to make Rockland County a place where we can live next to each other with respect and cooperation, with fair treatment for all and special privilege for none. He asked us to speak our truth and established an atmosphere of safety. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, was invited as our facilitator. He established the tenor of the meeting when he said that it is better to discuss without resolution rather than resolve without discussion.
Two powerful pictures of broken community emerged from our conversation that struck powerful chords with me. First, Rockland County was compared to a ride on a New York City subway. We get on and get off at different stations, and while we share the space, no one makes eye contact or greets the other. We are as close as can be, but we pretend that the others are not there at all, sharing a bench or even hanging onto the same subway strap. Such travel through our days may be adaptive for New York City’s underground (though I would disagree) but it is not the way to be a cohesive county where all citizens have a profound sense of belonging.
The second description was shared by Reverend Raymond C. Caliman of the Fairmont Baptist Church in Haverstraw. He described a visit to Walmart in Suffern. People pass each other as they shop, but no one looks at the other. Instead, they look away. He said that the turning away speaks volumes about distrust and a refusal to know the “other”.
We spoke honestly and with open hearts from the anchor of our various religious traditions. Reverend Dr. Weldon McWilliams Jr. of the First Baptist Church of Spring Valley reminded us that we are all God’s children. Rabbi Schiller acknowledged that members of the Chassidic community must be taught that all people are created in God’s image. We talked about the need for a balance of power and empathy.
We explored next steps which include Rabbi Greenwald and Rabbi Schiller bringing members of their communities to the table, a statement of principles to which religious leaders can sign on, and a confederation of religious leaders who can stand together to condemn actions of bias against any group in the county as well as to celebrate positive steps forward.
It was only a beginning. But I feel optimistic. I felt heard. And Rabbi Schiller called me Rabbi.
With optimism and friendship, 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
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