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.
Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin) was an American Jewish composer and songwriter who, like many other Jewish artists of his era, found an open door to the expression of his gifts in the music industry. He is considered among the greatest of American songwriters, and “White Christmas” was among his most famous contributions to American culture. The song may have been born out of his own personal experience of loss, it may have been intended as a tribute to what he loved about life in America. Though not religious, Berlin identified ethnically and culturally Jewish until his death in 1989 at the age of 101.
In the spirit of living Jewishly in America at this time of year, I offer the following rendition of Berlin’s timeless contributions. Note: Most people are unaware that the song’s original version has an introductory paragraph about living in Beverly Hills and yearning to be celebrating the holiday up north!
(Sung to the tune of “White Christmas”)
The sun is hiding, the sky is grey
The naked branches sway
It feels like every other day
In Rockland County, you say?
But it’s the 24th of December
And I am longing to be with our members….
I’m dreaming of a bright Shabbos
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the challahs glisten
And children listen
To hear Kiddush chanted slow
(But please, not too slow….)
I’m dreaming of a bright Shabbos
With every guest that I’d invite
May your soup be salted just right,
And may all your Shabboses be bright!
I’m dreaming of a bright Shabbos
But COVID’s got some other plans,
Will you all get tested?
Will germs be bested?
Of masks the guests are just not fans.
I’m dreaming of a bright Shabbos
Though all’s shut down and dark tonight.
May your hearts be open and light,
And may all your Shabboses be bright.
Shabbat shalom, and enjoy the spirit of others’ holidays as we wish others to enjoy ours! And to my friends celebrating Christmas in the northeast, so glad it snowed for you last night!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Dear OJC Family,
One year ago this coming Shabbat, we closed the doors of our synagogue building due to what we thought was an extreme abundance of caution. We had the sense that we would be back together again in a few months. Some of you predicted this “long haul,” but your clergy did not. We were optimistic and naïve.
The doors of our beloved building are still mostly closed. Yet our community has never been more resilient, ambitious, and connected. Dedication, congregational support, and deep resolve have brought us here.
We invite you to mark this anniversary by coming to the OJC on Sunday, March 14, between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 to greet your rabbis and our president, Michael Pucci, outside, and to mark the passage of time through ritual. We invite you to enter the sanctuary if you so choose, one pod at a time, to spend a short time before the ark to reconnect to the space we have all missed.
Perhaps it feels strange to consider marking such a moment in time. Your rabbis do not want to let this anniversary slip away. This year has been marked by many losses and deep sorrow: illness, death, isolation, unemployment, children’s struggles, and fear. Yet this year has also been filled with loving kindness, optimism, connection, faith, learning, and activism.
At the OJC, we have learned that Jewish tradition and peoplehood can overcome any adversity we face. We took stock, reimagined, and provided the essentials: prayer experience, learning for adults and children, justice work, and social programming. Your rabbis agree that we are a stronger community than we were a year ago.
We invite you to think about a moment of the past year with 2020 Hindsight, to remember and feel proud of an OJC moment. Please capture that moment in one or two sentences and send your memory to email@example.com with the Subject: 2020 Hindsight. We will gather all of our memories into an online Memory Book, an artifact of this challenging year.
With much gratitude to our Medical Task Force, we commit to continuing our Covid-19 safety protocols of distancing and mask-wearing, in an effort to care for the safety of all our community members.
We commit and call upon each other to reach out in support of those whose struggles are seen and unseen. We are not alone. As a wise congregant said to us: We have learned to live alone; now we must learn how to live together once again.
We are proof of the essential nature of community. May we continue our path forward as a sacred community anchored in Torah, Avodah (prayer) and Gemilut Hasadim (acts of loving kindness).
Rabbi Craig Scheff, Rabbi Ami Hersh, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
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.
“What are you going to do Friday night?”
I just heard it again! At first, I didn’t understand the question. My initial answer was, “What I always do on the first Friday of the month! I’m going to go to our OJC family service and and then home to have Shabbat dinner!” But by the third time I was asked the question over the last two days, I understood. One person went so far as to inquire whether I am among those who would leave a television on somewhere in the house in order to watch the baseball game. While I understand that it is the practice of some Sabbath-observant people to stay within the letter of the law in this fashion, I personally don’t believe that doing so would be in keeping with the spirit of the day.
Before 2004, watching the Red Sox (my favorite baseball team) play would instantly result in my blood pressure elevating to 170/110. Not a healthy experience. Since that miraculous fall of 2004, however, I am much less personally bound up with the Bosox (and the bp is normal). Even so, when it comes to playing the Yankees, old wounds resurface and scars are revealed. Honestly, it’s hard to enjoy the moment, and I often feel relieved just to have it behind me, win or lose (though the satisfaction of the win does linger a bit longer than the pain of defeat). Don’t get me wrong—I love the sport and will watch the Sox any time I am free to do so; I just won’t put them ahead of the other priorities in my life … like Shabbat.
As we begin the Torah again this week, we read that God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it God desisted (“shavat”) from all God’s work. But to what end? For what purpose? Later we are told that we are to “keep” or “guard” the Sabbath as an eternal covenant for all generations, a remembrance that God created the world in six days, and that on the seventh God rested and recharged, or perhaps more literally “re-souled” (vayinafash).
Shabbat is a holy day because God said so, regardless of how we “keep” it. But its potential effect on us is only realized in how we spend it. If it is not qualitatively different than our other days off from work, we have not truly kept it. If “re-souling” is the goal, our time should be spent reflecting on, and deepening our appreciation of, the world we’ve played a role in creating. We should engage with people and matters that uplift us. We should feed our souls the things that nourish us spiritually; we are not meant to fill ourselves with more agitation and anxiety, or even with the short-lived pleasures with which we engage on any other day.
So why would I choose to ruin the most precious hours of my week over a game that has no bearing on my self-worth, but could only serve to further drain my battery and leave me exhausted, amped up and sleepless, win or lose? If the Sox lose, I’m glad I didn’t suffer; if they win, I’ll watch the highlights. And if they win in some miraculous fashion as if God had intervened (as God did, according to some, in 2004), then I’ll record the replay and save it for posterity.
Not that it really means anything to me. And not that God would punish me or my team if I did sneak a peek through the neighbors’ window . . . .
On the other hand, if it were Game 7 of the World Series, I might need to revisit the question . . . .
Oh boy, do I need to talk to my Rabbi. Or my therapist.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Friday morning in Jerusalem, our OJC track team greeted the day with a brisk 3-mile run (4 for Steve!) down and up a scenic trail through Jerusalem’s original train station and its surrounding neighborhoods. After morning tefillah and breakfast, we boarded the bus promptly (they are so good!) at 9am.
Pantry Packers, run by Colel Chabad, is a food distribution facility that packages and delivers food to the most needy citizens identified by their municipalities. Divided into 3 teams, we donned aprons and hairnets, and got to work. In an hour and a half we bagged, sealed, labeled, date-stamped and boxed 500 packages of grains for delivery to the needy. We had fun, even as we remained conscious of the sad reality that necessitates our efforts.
Our driver Nati delivered us next to the shuk in Machaneh Yehuda, where the bustling market place was teeming with shoppers prepping for Shabbat. We were individually assigned different categories of food to acquire and contribute to our Shabbat afternoon potluck lunch. Among the throngs of people, we still managed to bump into familiar faces!
After a brief afternoon breather back at the hotel, we rode to the Old City and arrived at Ezrat Yisrael, at the southern end of the Western Wall, to welcome Shabbat in song as a community. The sun dipped below the horizon behind us. While we appreciated the beauty and peace of the space we occupied, many of us felt the discomfort of being separated and hidden away from the thousands of Jews just north of us in the main plaza sharing the same words we sang. More about that on a different occasion.
The walk back to the hotel got us good and hungry! We made kiddush, attracting the warm and welcoming gestures of a group of Messianic Jews who wanted us to join them in Bim Bam and Am Yisrael Chai—interesting!!! We delighted in blessing the younger generation that had joined us for Shabbat. After dinner, our group sat in a private hall and shared highlights of the week.
Shabbat morning, we attended Moreshet Yisrael, the nearest Conservative Masorti congregation. Jeff Lance served as a greeter and gabbai, and we were warmly received with several honors to the Torah.
We sat on 7th floor terrace for hours, eating and laughing, enjoying the leisure of Shabbat, until darkness fell on Jerusalem and we recited Havdallah together. Warm goodbyes, expressions of appreciation and gratitude, and most of us were on the way to the airport.
As I descend into Newark, I already look forward to the next time in which we make the ascent together.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
One of my favorite Talmudic teachings asks what one should do if she is lost in the desert and does not know what day it is. How can she know when it is Shabbat? The rabbis answer that she should count six days from the time she remembers and the seventh day will be Shabbat. [Talmud Bavli Shabbat 69b] I love this response because it reminds me that Shabbat is not just a day on a calendar but a sacred time we can enter once a week… and a time that enters us. When Tradition tells us that we receive neshama yeteira (an additional soul) every Shabbat, I think it is talking about this mystical, tangible quality time takes on when it becomes holy.
I was thinking about this Talmudic source as we entered into Shabbat here in Tel Aviv. When I am away from Orangetown Jewish Center for Shabbat, I picture myself sitting in the sanctuary before our stained glass windows and colorful ark curtain as the room fills up with people I love. But of course, I also enter into Shabbat where I am.
Wherever I go and whatever is happening around me, Shabbat enters me and I enter Shabbat… even in Tel Aviv, the City that Never Sleeps. (Ask any Israeli and they will tell you that New York comes in second to Tel Aviv.) On Friday afternoon, as we made our last minute purchases of challah and fruit in the shuk (market) and I dashed back to Sarah and Sagi’s apartment to check on the chicken soup,
young people in Tel Aviv were settling into pubs and cafes for the beginning of their weekend.
We ate Shabbat dinner on the roof of Sarah and Sagi’s apartment and Ben’s voice reciting motzi mixed with the sounds of a band playing at a bar just outside the Kerem haTemanim neighborhood. In the quiet peace of our Shabbat, I blessed my children and we ate our meal.
On Shabbat morning, we walked to a Masorti synagogue, Kehillat Sinai, where we were warmly greeted and where I was asked to help out as a gabbai. The chanting was different, the faces were new, but the atmosphere was friendly and open. It reminded me of the OJC in its lively community feel.
We spent Shabbat afternoon on the Tel Aviv beach, admittedly one cannot do that in Orangeburg! But while I was here in Israel for Shabbat, I was also in New York for Shabbat, and this is where the teaching from Shabbat 69b comes in handy. When I entered Shabbat, my community was in the midst of busy Friday afternoons back home. When I was hearing the Torah reading of Behar, everyone in New York was sound asleep. When I was relaxing on the beach, the congregation was hearing our intern Paula Rose give her sermon. And when Shabbat went out and I counted the twenty-ninth day of the Omer, my friends at the OJC were beginning their Shabbat naps! How could I be two places at once?
Shabbat enters me and I enter Shabbat. It’s not just time on the clock or a day on the calendar. Shabbat is far more than that. Shabbat is a place I go once a week to replenish my soul. Whether here or there, whether surrounded by people keeping Shabbat or having Saturday morning eggs at a café on Dizengoff, it’s all Shabbat. What more do I need?
See you all next Shabbat at the OJC! Blessings from Israel,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Our sages tell us that we are meant to live as if there is an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and a book that keeps track of all we do. You might think this is enough to drive us to paranoia! In fact, living one’s life as if someone is always watching even our most secretive acts can lead to a more conscious, more intentional existence.
Case in point: a few weeks ago I attended a Saturday night community jazz concert. Shabbat had been a busy one, including a Friday night program, a Shabbat morning bar mitzvah, a lecture after lunch, and a Shabbat afternoon bat mitzvah. Needless to say, I had no Shabbat nap. I settled into the comfortable auditorium seat, the lights were dimmed, and the mellow saxophone began to sing. You can guess what happened next.
That’s right, I fell asleep.
A week later, I had a meeting at our community campus. A colleague said to me, “I heard you are not much of a jazz fan.” “What do you mean?” “I heard you fell asleep!” Ouch. A few days later, while shopping at Fairway, I saw someone from the community I hadn’t seen in a while. “When was the last time we saw each other?” “Actually,” he answered, “I saw you at the jazz concert. You must have been pretty tired.” Double ouch! I actually enjoy jazz; if I ever need some help falling asleep, it’s the Carpenters, John Denver or jazz that does the trick. But one short shloof, induced by exhaustion, mood lighting and music, and I am the talk of the town!
Okay, so I exaggerate a bit to make my point. I understand that I live in a fishbowl, as do many public figures and leaders. The point our sages make, however, is that we should all feel that we are living in a fishbowl, and guard our words and deeds accordingly. Every action, reaction or inaction can be understood as intentional, so we must live intentionally. Every action, reaction or inaction can be understood as a conscious choice, so we must live consciously. In doing so, perhaps we save ourselves a bit of shame, a bit of guilt, a bit of regret, and a bit of being a topic of other people’s conversations!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
This past Shabbat, we shared a kavannah (intention) for the people of the Philippines.
How often we read the words of liturgy or psalms and let them roll over us rather than move through us. This week, when we read from psalms, we read the verses with a different consciousness and a more attentive heart.
We read in Psalm 107: By his word God raised a storm wind that made the waves surge. Mounting up to the heaven, plunging down to the depths, disgorging in their misery, they reeled and staggered.
What did King David see or know to give rise to such words? From the anguish of his outpouring, we understand something about the tragic results of a terrifying and powerful storm in the Philippines this past week. Let us not consider Typhoon Haiyan as one more news item that moves quickly from the front page and from our attention. Let us stay vigilant to the tragedy of the moment for the people of the Philippines, survivors there and worried family members here and around the world.
Let us turn our prayers to all those affected by the devestation. We pray for their courage, resilience and optimism. We pray for those bringing aid: food and shelter and kind words. We pray for the wisdom of world wide leaders as funds raised for this island find their way to those in need.
We pray for our own broken hearts to remain open to the needs of those around us whether far or near. We remember that all people are created in God’s image. May the holy spark within each person give light to all those in need.
Together we say: Amen.