There are days that offer us lessons we never forget, as long as we are paying attention. One long, overfilled day several years ago was such a day. I paid a shiva call to a community member whose six-year old child had died. As I sat next to him in a rare moment of quiet during that excruciating week, he told me that a visitor earlier in the day had told him that she had also lost a child. She shared that life was never the same, but that he could look at her and know that life would go on. As he shared the story with me, I saw that he was incredibly angry and hurt. When I asked him to explain his response, he did not try to contain his outrage, “How dare she tell me that my life will not be the same? And how dare she tell me that life will go on? What does she know about me and my loss? She barely knows me.”
That same day, I called my cousin whose child had died earlier in the year after a long bout with cancer. When I asked my cousin how she was doing in this moment, she told me she was feeling quite good. She had gone to the grocery store, no small feat in those difficult days, and had bumped into another mother from her children’s school. This parent shared that she had also lost a child. According to my cousin, the mom told her that life was never the same but here she was, still living, taking care of her family, and even finding moments of joy. My cousin told me that this short conversation had opened her heart to a feeling of hope she had not experienced in all the months since Sami had died. “Can you imagine that?” she wondered aloud. “And this woman barely knows me.”
There are days that teach us necessary lessons if we are paying attention. It was a hard day, that confusing and painful day of reaching out to others with the worst kind of traumatic loss. But I was paying attention.
Here is what I know for sure.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how we bring comfort to people who are grieving.
I read well-intentioned advice about how to speak with people who have experienced traumatic loss, and I think back to that day. Two people in similar circumstances experienced similar condolences in completely opposite ways. Why? Because we are all different and so we experience loss differently.
People do not suddenly become the same because they have gone through similar losses – death of a child or divorce or chronic illness. To assume that we can offer support in the same way to all people leads to the kind of hurt I heard about from the man in whose shiva house I sat.
But it also just might lead to the kind of elevation and hope that I heard about from my cousin.
My advice regarding offering condolence or support is that there is no advice. What not to do is straightforward. Don’t preach; don’t share your own sorrows as if that is helpful; don’t tell people what they need to do. Don’t tell stories in a loud voice; don’t do business with other visitors. Don’t stay too long; don’t put yourself into the middle of conversations as an expert. Don’t come to a shiva house for lunch.
But what to do? This question is much more nuanced. We who seek to offer loving kindness must depend upon empathy, humility, and deep listening. Jewish tradition has it right when it teaches us to enter a shiva house and be quiet. We are meant to wait for the mourner to speak first and follow their lead. We must listen before we speak and never assume that what we offer is what the person before us needs.
And we must try. Just because it is hard, we must not give up. Long after shiva, after thirty days, after the unveiling, after years, grief continues. We must continue to be present to people in our lives. If we make a false start, we back up and try again. We say that we are sorry that what we tried seems to have been the wrong thing. As a rabbi, I speak with family members and friends who worry because nothing they offer seems to help. In fact, often what they offer seems to infuriate or hurt their loved one. My advice is consistent: This is not about you. The grieving person is the only one who matters in this configuration.
There is no deadline for grief to be complete. People trying to be supportive say, “But he is still so depressed.” or “She isn’t moving forward.” They may be correct; the person might be depressed or stuck. But it is not our job to “fix” something. There will be a moment when someone will offer with an open-handed wisdom that the mourner might find support in therapy or prayer or travel or exercise. But that wisdom will not be motivated by the supportive person’s own discomfort. This is not about us.
Now we are at the beginning of a brand new year. We love the promise of a fresh start. We want to kindle hope in others and believe that good things will happen because of our desire to help. This year, I have been excited about my own fresh start. I am grateful, prayerful and inspired to do good. But I am also thinking about all the people whose current circumstances cheat them out of the gift of beginning anew. I hope that you will join me in thinking about people in the throes of chronic situations that steal away any promise of a good night of sleep, people whose loss is still so raw that tomorrow will bring no relief, people who struggle with depression that scoffs in the face of hope. I hope that I will be able to sit with their pain, sustain their sorrow and be supportive in a way that may help.
This week, as I open my heart to a glorious new year, I pledge to offer support, condolence and hope in small, humble ways. I will not always get it right. There is no ready answer. There is simply listening well, deeply, as carefully as I can and offering in small gifts and gestures what each person needs.
It is hard work to stay steady, to open our hearts to grief.
When we ask, “How are you?” we hope desperately to hear, “Great” or “Much better” or “I’m getting there.” Two years later or ten years later, we don’t want to hear how deep the pain still goes. But that is what grief does. It does not let go.
The point is, those in pain do not have access to a fresh start. If we are the blessed ones who look forward to the new year with joy, then we must carry them too in our hearts. The new year is not about my teshuva alone. Jewish repentance is about the entire community; we all stand before God: the whole, the broken, the lost and the found. I pray you stand with us this year, bringing whatever is in your heart with you.
With prayers for a new year of peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
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
There’s nothing like a fresh pair of eyes, or four pairs, to get a new perspective on the things you take for granted.
Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting one of my Israeli sisters, along with her husband and two sons, for a few days of New York-style fun.
On Tuesday morning, we toured the USS Intrepid Museum. I’d been there just last year, but seeing the exhibits through the eyes of the Israelis, I was struck with a new sense of pride. We marveled at the stories of courage, ingenuity and sacrifices of the many Americans who have served our country in air, at sea, and in space.
From the pier we walked west on Fulton Street. As we headed towards the Freedom Tower and the 9/11 memorial, I couldn’t shake the memories in my head, images of ash-covered people walking the streets like zombies on a Tuesday morning 17 years ago.
The Twin Towers once stood like a gateway to our land, much like the two mountains between which the Israelites marched as they entered the Promised Land, with blessings pronounced to them from one and curses from the other. They too represented an idea; to me, they represented the indomitable spirit of America. That same undying spirit is represented today in the energy of the descending memorial pools and in the tower that now skyrockets to the heavens to accompany the souls of all those lost on that tragic day.
For the past 15 years, I have stood with fellow local clergy and Tappan’s first responders in remembrance on the mornings of 9/11. This year, I pray they will forgive my absence from the public ceremony, and I hope our non-Jewish neighbors will be reminded that the Jewish community means no disrespect by its absence, as it will be busy celebrating its holy day of Rosh Hashanah.
That being said, I hope you will join us this second day of Rosh Hashanah during our service to give honor to the memory of those who died, to pay tribute to those who secure our safety and our freedom, and to express our gratitude for the blessings we share as Jews in America. Sometimes we take for granted the lives we have in this country, as Americans and as Jews. Sometimes, in the thick of the public debates and political rancor, we forget the good that is all around us.
If you plan to be with our community on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, please consider arriving early, even if it means you’ll leave earlier than usual. We will be interrupting our regular service to make space for communal and individual remembrance with silence, song and shofar. Be on time (8:30am) to honor the day and to participate in our commemoration and prayer.
May our Rosh Hashanah usher in a year that brings us healing, wholeness, peace, and an appreciation of all our blessings.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Every year, by the time I finish reading the name of the book by Rabbi Alan Lew z”l, I wonder if I actually need to open the cover. The title says it all: This is real and you are completely unprepared. I read Rabbi Lew’s book about the Days of Awe as spiritual transformation every August.
I dedicate myself to preparation for Rosh Hashanah during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the new year. (By preparation, I do not actually mean rabbinic preparation though I must, of course, do that too: writing sermons, finding new inspirations for the service, figuring out how to welcome all the people who come to the doors of the synagogue for services and programs.)
When I write “preparation for the New Year,” I mean Cheshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of my soul.
I take the work seriously every year.
This year, I take it even more seriously.
“In the visible world, we live out our routine and sometimes messy lives. We have jobs, families, and houses. Our lives seem quite ordinary and undramatic. It is only beneath the surface of this world that the real and unseen drama of our lives is unfolding… only there that the horn sounds 100 times, that the gate between heaven and earth opens and the great books of life and death open as well. It is there that the court is convened, that we rehearse our own death, that the gate closes again, and that we finally come home…”
How do I prepare? How do I go below the surface of my ordinary life to do the work that Rabbi Lew so eloquently describes? I pray. I make lists of what I am proud of and what I need to improve. I apologize with full heart to anyone I might have harmed.
Most of all, I get very quiet. Only by turning off the noise of the world can I go below the surface.
This year, because of my cancer diagnosis and my chemotherapy regimen, I have less energy for this work. Yet the work that I am able to do feels more poignant and so much more real.
I am more capable of focusing on what is important. I am kinder to myself, recognizing moments where I push myself beyond reasonable effort and calling a halt to such perfectionism. Because I am tired more often, I am quiet more often. It is amazing what my soul has to say when I stop and listen.
When I greet my community this year at services for Rosh Hashanah, I intend to be shining.
I am so grateful for the strength and health that I do have.
I am blessed by wise and compassionate physicians and nurses.
I am held by family, friends and community.
I have so many plans for the future, and this forward focus fuels my healing. I am filled with creativity and spiritual energy, almost as if God is saying to me, “Have no fear. I have many more plans for you.”
For the first time in my life during the month of Elul, I am indeed not entirely unprepared.
I encourage all of you not to wait for a crisis to find yourself able to truly prepare for a new year. Feel the urgency as this year comes to a close and a bright new year awaits you.
L’Shana Tova Tikateivu. May you be written for a good new year.
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
As far as I am concerned, reading a sermon in print—especially a high holiday sermon—is nowhere near as effective as hearing a message in a room filled with community brothers and sisters. That being said, I am told that people often want to hear the crux of the messages if they could not be present for whatever reason. So hear is the crux, and just the crux (minus the lead in, the joke, and the sources in support thereof, available upon request)!
I’ll get right to it:
WE HAVE BECOME FAR TOO COMFORTABLE, BORDERING ON APATHETIC, AS FAR AS OUR JEWISH IDENTITIES ARE CONCERNED!
In May, the mayor of Rehovot cancels a bar mitzvah celebration for children with disabilities because it is scheduled to take place in a Masorti (Israeli Conservative) synagogue. After Israeli President Rivlin reschedules the service to take place in his own residence, he cancels the service.
On Shavuot, the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah, Tzohar (an Israeli organization of supposedly more open-minded Orthodox rabbis) cancels its invitation to Masorti and Reform rabbis to participate in the holiday’s all-night study session. The rabbis are subsequently re-invited, but are placed in a separate space from the rest of the program.
In June, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel tries to force the retirement of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat. The reason given is his age, but his willingness to train women to be Jewish legal experts and his willingness to engage in interfaith dialogue were the more plausible motivating factors.
In July, I am invited to participate in my cousin’s wedding ceremony (in my sister’s back yard), to be conducted by a Tzohar rabbi. Originally I was to be the officiant, but my cousin’s bride’s family pressured the couple to use an Orthodox rabbi whose wedding could be registered with the state as a religious wedding. The officiant calls me to the huppah as “Mister” Craig Scheff. I feel the sting on my cheek as if someone publicly slapped me. In that moment, I want to disappear. I am not a rabbi, and as far as I am concerned, in the eyes of the State of Israel, I am not a Jew.
Israel is my story. I was a slave. I came out of Egypt. I stood at Sinai. And so did you! We were all there! But someone, in the unlikeliest of places and with disproportionate power and influence, is attacking our identities, telling us were not there!
Ironically, the land of Israel was never guaranteed as a possession to our ancestors. It was part of a promise, conditioned upon our community’s behavior. We need to merit being in the land as a community of Jews. Somehow, the average Israeli has forgotten this message, and the ruling religious factions are happy to keep them in the dark. Israel’s survival depends upon more than secure borders and a strong defense. The larger community of Israel is being torn apart by a failure in shared ethics, by a disunity that is sweeping the Jewish community, and by a breach in our rich tradition of embracing diversity and pluralism of Jewish practice. The divide can be seen in our political arenas; it can be seen in the gaps between the generations and between the American and Israeli Jewish communities.
Israeli Jewish identity is shaped, by and large, by a sense of belonging to the land. There are no “religious” choices that need to be made. There is no soccer on Shabbat; school is closed for the holidays; and everywhere you go you are reminded of your rich, deep rootedness in the land as a Jew. American Jewish identity is shaped by religious values that have to be exercised and chosen from among a long list of competing social values, Israel being only one of them.
And there lies the disconnect. Jewish identity is controlled in Israel by those who deny us our Judaism, our very identity. We proudly send our children to serve in the IDF, only to discover that they have to fight a battle to preserve their Jewish identities, the ones we gave them. And we can’t afford the apathy, either here or in Israel, being created as a result of this disconnect.
Israel, the seat of our ideals, has lost sight of and must reclaim its mission as the destination, the intention, the hope of all Jewish people. And we as American Jews must awaken to the issue, engage in the cause and assist in bolstering the “secular Israeli” Jewish community’s efforts to reclaim its historic Jewish identity. We can no longer tolerate a Jewish Agency–an Israeli establishment–that will send emissaries to teach us about Israel without knowing who we are as Jews, without learning from us and carrying our message back to Israel. For Israel to be the home of all Jewish people, all Jewish people need to feel at home in Israel.
For centuries, our disunity has consistently led to expulsion, exile, and persecution. These events have almost always followed on the heels of schisms in our community that were the direct results of intolerance, a lack of empathy, one side’s claim of authority. For centuries, our unity has been based upon a multiplicity of approaches to Torah and to learning from others. Our rich tradition of arguing for the sake of heaven has helped us remain dynamic, adaptable, modern—a true light unto the nations. Torah has remained relevant because it has 70 faces.
In the year ahead, we plan to deepen our connection to Israel: through our partnership with Masorti and with the Masorti community of Zichron Yakov; by participation in Rav Siach (“Multiple Conversations”), the first partnership between the Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and the Masorti Movement in Israel designed to enhance the exchange of ideas; by hosting guest speakers who will educate on the topic of religious pluralism; and by supporting the Masorti movement in our missions and family trips to Israel. In so doing, perhaps “Israel” will come to a broader acceptance and embrace of the Jewish identity, of the role we play in ensuring the continuation of our rich history, and of the great empathy we are meant to carry as Jews who came out of Egypt together.
Pass it on with love.
Gemar chatimah tovah,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Over the past few days, I have been approached by several individuals who have expressed appreciation for my Rosh Hashanah message, sharing with me how the words I shared have taken hold in the rhythm of their daily lives. While I don’t have a full written text of my sermon, I do have some quotes that I can share. Leaving out the jokes and the stories, I offer you the essence of the message. I hope you will pass it along, and perhaps we can truly shape the world for the better in the year ahead.
From the movie 500 Days of Summer: “Most days of the year are unremarkable. They begin and they end with no lasting memory made in between. Most days have no impact on the course of a life.” What a sad and cynical way to approach a new day. What if we could make every day remarkable? What if each day had one lasting memory, one moment in which we affected someone else for the better? How would the course of our lives be changed?
Our patriarch Abraham committed a single act of kindness, welcoming three strangers into his tent, and in so doing he set a series of events into motion, changing the course of history. His ideology, built upon the performance of deeds that move the world deeper into relationship with the Creator of us all, is still the best ideology to bring about a victory of good over evil. The good deed changes the world; it latches onto our soul. Our acts of goodness reverberate through our souls for eternity.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action, rather than a leap of thought.” Indeed, our prayers are empty if they are not accompanied by action. And those actions need not be super-human, heroic or even self-sacrificing. They just need to be offered with the proper intention, and with the courage and pride to be performed as a Jew performing a mitzvah in the world. We wear the garb of our favorite sports heroes and teams (and I tip my hat to Derek Jeter), associating ourselves with others and with a cause. How much more so must we be prepared to identify ourselves and our mitzvahs as Jewish? Not that we must wear kippot in public as I do, but we must find the hat, the jewelry or the bumper magnet that will let people know whom we are and for what we stand.
Seventy-five years ago, our enemies labeled us with stars and the word “Jew” on our sleeves; the symbols identified us as vermin, disease, and the source of all of society’s ills. There are those who still attempt to cast the Jew in the same light, out of ignorance, fear and hatred. The battles against terror and evil around the world today will be fought with bombs and bullets, but the war is ultimately one of competing ideologies. And if we are to win this war, we must carry our Jewish identity with pride. We must let our deeds define us, as Jews and as human beings who seek the triumph of good.
Two weeks ago, we invited our synagogue’s neighborhood to join us in the building for some long-overdue introductions, refreshments and a tour. Our neighbors finally got to meet the people and see the space on the other side of the stained-glass wall that faces the street. It was an evening of breaking the ice, of tearing down barriers, of creating new relationships, of fighting back against the darkness. And it was a night that changed our small corner of the world. Call me an idealist, call me naïve; but I saw the world change before my eyes, and I felt it as I walked the streets of my neighborhood the next day. My world has been changed forever.
Especially in light of–and in spite of–the spread of anti-Semitism around the world and the ignorance that persists in our own back yards, we must wear our Jewish stars on our sleeves more visibly than ever. We must allow our deeds to define us as Jews more visibly than ever. We must, in this new year of 5775, fight back against the darkness with the light of our shining individual deeds that can transform our days, our lives and the world around us.
Shanah tovah and g’mar chatimah tovah,
Rabbi Craig Scheff