I have been back at the OJC for two weeks and cannot count the number of times I have been lovingly asked, “So how was your sabbatical?!” I found myself answering the question with some version of: it was meaningful and valuable and I will tell you all about it soon.
Putting off the description for the future started feeling more and more troublesome until this past Friday. I experienced one of those sacred rabbinical days that make me feel grateful for my profession and also put into perspective the gift of the past three months.
I will start with a narrative of Friday and work backwards to the delayed description of my sabbatical. Early in the morning on Friday, Rabbi Scheff and I met our colleague Rabbi Mark Cooper and a wonderful young man with his family at the Temple Israel Center mikvah in White Plains. Jason* studied for two years in preparation for conversion and then found the conclusion of his journey delayed by Covid. He spoke with intelligence and thoughtfulness about becoming the Jew whom he has always felt himself to be. The privilege of sitting on his Beit Din (rabbinic tribunal) and granting a Hebrew name to a person of deep integrity lifted my soul.
Back in Rockland County, I visited the hospital room of Janice*, a congregant who had survived a life-threatening illness. When I walked into her hospital room, she wept tears that had been stored up for the past three weeks. She was surprised to find herself weeping, but I understood. I represented her community, her Jewish faith, and perhaps even God. We sat together, speaking quietly. Her heartfelt response to being granted a second chance opened my soul.
I drove to the home of Susan*, a congregant who has been isolated for the past two years due to Covid precautions. As we sat and talked about matters serious and not, I felt the importance of connection face-to-face. Her friendship and her optimism despite difficulty filled my soul.
Just before Shabbat, I welcomed into my office Harry*, a man who has been investigating Judaism. He described the study, prayer and experiences he has been seeking. Perhaps wanting to show how much he had learned so far, he offered to chant Shema for me. When I heard his beautiful voice, I closed my eyes and felt tears well. My soul was connected through his words of prayer to God.
As I led the Ma’ariv prayers for our in-person and virtual minyan, I reflected on the very full soul with which I was entering Shabbat. Throughout the day, my soul had been lifted, opened, filled and connected. Such intense interactions with people is a privilege and a gift. I am granted a window into their souls. Their thoughts, hopes and prayers pour in to me; and at the same time, my energy must pour out to them.
As I began to pray the Amida, I suddenly understood how to answer the question, “So how was your sabbatical?” My sabbatical lifted, opened, filled and connected my soul for three months without requiring me to give back anything. I was filled to the top so that I have plenty to give back now.
I studied virtually and privately. I traveled, hiked and practiced yoga. I did a great deal of writing, reading, and spending time with family, most preciously my grandboys. I was filled up.
Those of us who work have demanding jobs. Many of us who are retired have time-consuming volunteer positions and caregiving responsibilities to family members. Sabbatical is a great idea for all of us.
For clergy, three months without waiting for phone calls with someone else’s emergency is a respite that is more valuable than can be described. It is a complete rest of the soul.
I do not want the precious gift of sabbatical to be lost amidst the rush and intensity of work. I have dedicated myself to taking full advantage of the weekly opportunity for sabbatical that we Jewish people call Shabbat.
I encourage you to take the time to enter into Shabbat in the way that feels most reasonable for you. However you do it, practice self-compassion and care. Feel yourself lifted, opened, filled and connected. If you are not sure how to do this, ask Rabbi Scheff or me. We have lots of entry ways into Shabbat to suggest. I guarantee you will have more to give to others if you begin by taking care of your soul.
With a full soul, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
*All names and circumstances have been changed for this blog post.
The rain falls in sheets in Tel Aviv in January. The skies can be blue for hours so that the suddenness of the rain is as surprising as its force. Other times, the entire atmosphere, from the sky above to the ground under my feet seems to be rain-filled so that I am walking inside of clouds.
The sunshine in January here is equally curious. I leave the apartment, expecting to feel the warmth of the sun, and all I feel is bone-deep cold. The temperatures are certainly not at the freezing level of back home in New Jersey, and yet I feel the wind as a raw, biting thing. I am walking inside of a melting iceberg.
As my grandmother, and probably your grandmother, used to say: “There is no bad weather, only the wrong clothing”. And so I pile on layers, put on a hat, and even wear gloves when it appears that no one in Tel Aviv even owns them. I wear wool socks and carry an umbrella everywhere.
For his part, Carmel seems oblivious to the weather that concerns his Bubbe. He kicks off the blanket I tuck in all around his legs, toddles around the playground in just his tread-bottomed socks, and sits behind the rain protector over his stroller like a king.
The weather, like life itself, is all about one’s perspective. When I called my cousin to see if she expected me at the Hertzliya Train Station at 12 or 12:30 to meet for our lunch, she told me she thought I was calling to cancel because it was raining. I laughed.
I am so deeply grateful to have been able to fly to Israel during my sabbatical, nothing will keep me inside. Except when I want to stay inside!
Both the pandemic and this sabbatical have taught me not to feel pressure to achieve some maximum amount in a given timeframe. I am relishing the freedom of focusing on one thing at a time. I pray quietly and with intense intentions. I practice yoga on my own, on a mat rolled out in Sarah and Sagi‘s living room, taking whatever shapes come into my mind. I take classes virtually, write in my journal, and take long walks through my beloved Tel Aviv. And I pick up Carmel from gan (childcare) every day at 4:00 and have wonderful adventures with him until we return home for dinner, bath, and bed.
I have always thought of time as a container to fill to the top with meaningful activity and accomplishment. Filling that container each day has kept me motivated, passionate, and fulfilled. It has also, however, kept me stressed, on edge, running from one thing to the next. My next appointment would begin before my last even finished. I never felt my To Do list was done.
I am finally learning that time is something that simply unfolds, much like the weather, and my task is to move along with it. I cannot control it. Why not just live inside of it?
So most days, I button up and go out into the world of Tel Aviv, to walk along Dizengoff Street or to stop at one of the outdoor cafés for a latte. Neither the weather nor the time of day matters. But on other days, like today, I just stay indoors, start the cooking for Shabbat, and write a blog post to let you all know that I am thinking of you.
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro watches his son-in-law Moshe exhaust himself by counseling and judging the Israelites from morning to night all alone. He offers Moshe a reframe: “What you are doing is not good. You need to delegate responsibilities. You need to take a break.”
Rabbi Scheff and I were blessed many years ago with a loving relationship with Bernie Schiffmiller z”l, a congregant and Yitro of our own, who used to say to us, “You’ll be no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourselves.”
And today, we have all of you, our OJC family, who grant your rabbis sabbaticals with the same loving generosity.
As for me, I am learning about the weather and about time. And this week, I am getting ready to receive Torah once again.
May your days all be sunny or rainy and may you relish whichever they are!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Note: Both Rabbi Drill and Rabbi Scheff tested positive for Covid, one week apart, during this uptick due to the Omicron variant. Thankfully, both rabbis had fairly mild symptoms. Rabbi Drill shares her thoughts on the experience of having the virus as she comes out of isolation at the end of today. Rabbi Scheff will share his thoughts in Part Two next week.
I could tell you my story like this: You all could not feel as bad for me as I feel for myself. I finally began my long awaited and much-needed three-month sabbatical and after only three days, I tested positive for Covid. After almost two years of precaution and careful rule following, I have the virus. Not only is my trip to Israel canceled due to the travel ban, but the trip to New England and the yoga retreat I had planned to replace my time in Israel are now canceled as well. Instead of new sights and experiences, I am sitting in my eldest son‘s old bedroom (surrounded by sports pennants and his high school fantasy literature collection) for the next ten days.
I would rather tell you my story like this: You do not need to feel so bad for me. It is true that the beginning of my sabbatical is not what I expected, but how blessed am I to have a sabbatical in the first place? It is true that I got Covid, but I got it at a time when I was boosted, the symptoms were mild, and I have a safe place to isolate. Three meals a day are delivered outside my door, my laptop provides daily virtual yoga and an online sacred chant course. I have my journals and books borrowed from the library. I could call it ten days of isolation, but I choose to call it a ten-day silent retreat.
Our reality is shaped by the narrative we tell ourselves about it. My experience is shaped by my story. I choose to feel blessed and grateful. And so I am. Blessed. And so grateful.
I catch up on magazines I have not had time for since the summer and found many articles to inspire me. I pull out my library of books about the craft of writing and feel more creative than I have in a long time. I keep a daily gratitude journal and take notes of all the learning I am doing in another journal. And of course, I have a journal to … journal! I have time for daily prayer at my own pace. I join OJC for Zoom webinar Shabbat services and feel connected to my unseen community and to God.
The truth is, my goals for the sabbatical can be met regardless of where I am. My goals are about my inner life: presence, curiosity, gratitude and grace. My sabbatical is about shaping myself from the inside out, not the other way around.
This past week, we entered into the book of Sh’mot. This book contains so many big Jewish ideas. It is a book about leaving slavery for freedom, exiting a narrow place for the broad expanses, learning in the wilderness, becoming a people, and receiving God’s Torah. During my isolation, I started considering that the biggest idea of all in the Book of Sh’mot might be something else all together. Perhaps the point of the book is the creation of the Mishkan (the portable, holy tabernacle).
I need to heal; our community must heal; the whole world needs healing of the body and the spirit. This difficult work of leaving behind fear, anxiety and vulnerability requires a sturdy container to hold it all. The Mishkan takes up about one third of the Book of Sh’mot. Minute details of the materials, design and preparation are repeated over and over. Rather than think about the building of the Mishkan as a part of the Torah to merely tolerate, Rabbi Shefa Gold suggests that it is the whole point of the Book. The Mishkan is that place where the finite (we humans) meets the Infinite. God says, “Build for Me a holy place and I will dwell within.”
Perhaps my ten days of isolation have been about building a Mikdash me’at (a small replica of the Holy of Holies) within myself. God dwells within me: in my heart, in my soul, and in my body. I thought that I needed to travel far from home in order to open myself to God. I thought I needed new vistas for my eyes and new experiences for my soul. The truth is, forced into isolation, all I had was myself. And I learned that by opening myself during these days of isolation, there is a place within for God to dwell.
Be safe and well, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I care. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been in this line of work for the last 25 years. I care about teaching a Torah that is alive, relevant and instructive; about creating moments of meaningful connection for people with their Jewish identities; about our shared past and our shared future; about empowering people to use Judaism as a perspective by which they can view, understand and influence the world around them.
I care about raising people up in their moments of joy, and about being present to those who are brought low by life’s circumstances.
I care about challenging people’s assumptions and about shaking people from their complacency, and about exposing biases and calling out intellectual laziness. I care about their ability to communicate what they believe and why.
I care about an organization, its financial health, its administration and operations and about the people who staff and volunteer their time to make it successful. I care about its reputation, its ability to welcome and meet diverse personalities, needs and challenges. I care about its mission and goals, and about the processes and procedures it follows to achieve them. I care about policies and consistency, and about the flexibility to allow for exceptions and individual needs.
I care about a building, its sanctuary and its learning spaces, its social spaces, its sound systems, WiFi, heat and air conditioning. I care about its security.
Living on the synagogue grounds for the past 25 years, I’ve been able to look out my bedroom window every morning and every night to see the parking lot and who is in it, the synagogue front door, my office window. When someone has left a light on in the building, I know it.
And I can’t imagine living my rabbinate any other way.
Of course, I also care about my family. And I care about myself and my ability to keep doing what I love. And I am so grateful that my synagogue community cares about its clergy as well.
As an adjunct faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary teaching the senior class of the Rabbinical School for the past 15 years, I advise the future rabbis and cantors who want to work in pulpits that while a synagogue may commit itself initially to a clergy-person for a two- or three-year term, the clergy-person will be at their best if they approach their commitment to the community from the outset as a lifelong commitment. Once that commitment is recognized and appreciated, the congregation will want to honor, nurture and reward that commitment. I believe that if clergy care, congregations care.
In the world of academia, the sabbatical is a time for a scholar to pursue intellectual and personal growth. In the world of clergy, the sabbatical is an opportunity to regenerate. Just as God rested (or refrained) from the work of creating (shavat) and recharged (vayinafash), a clergy-person’s sabbatical is ideally spent re-energizing for the future. Just as the Shabbat allows us to cease from “doing” and provides the time just to “be” in order to renew our creative energy for the week ahead, the sabbatical offers clergy the opportunity to process what has been and reimagine what can be. If a community cares about its long term well-being, it will care for the long term well-being of its clergy as well.
I am grateful for the gift of a 3-month sabbatical every four years, and for the community’s care and commitment this opportunity reflects. My absence doesn’t reflect in any way a lack of care. If anything, it should tell you that I’m already preparing for the next chapter with you, excited to greet the next set of opportunities and challenges refreshed and renewed.
I already look forward to catching up with you again in March. And if you happen to see me around before then, please don’t be afraid to say hello!
Rabbi Craig Scheff