Rabbi Scheff and I arrived in Boston on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2019 for the USCJ/RA (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Rabbinical Assembly) conference and planned to have our first dinner together with OJC leaders Sharon Aach, Michael Pucci and Hara Hartman. What an additional pleasure to be joined by Michael and Hara’s two daughters, Greta and Sophia, who are both students in Boston. Sophia is a freshman at Northeastern University, and Greta is studying optometry at New England College of Optometry. As Greta filled me in on what it is like to be studying optometry, I reflected on how perfectly apt was the name of this year‘s conference: 20/20 Judaism.
As we are on the cusp of entering a new decade, Conservative Judaism’s leaders, professionals, clergy, and educators need to see clearly. With our vision corrected for 20/20, we will be able to make sense of today’s great challenges.
At this tumultuous time of change, threat, and discord the conference provided an optimistic space for sacred dialogue, for harnessing our collective wisdom and strength.
While there are many who claim that the Conservative Movement is broken, I see us instead in a period of transition. We are the Ramah Camping Movement, United Synagogue Youth, Day Schools, Nativ Year Course, seminaries and graduate schools, synagogues and their supplemental schools. We are powerful communities, institutions, and places of higher education bound together by a collective belief in the covenant we hold with God. Within our movement, there are many ways to understand this covenant, but we are all bound by it.
It seems to me that the unique task of Conservative Judaism among the many rich streams of Judaism is to hold the center. Tradition and change, practicality and spirituality, prayer and action, halakha (law) and autonomy… in each pair of values held in tension, we strive to be balanced.
It is not easy to hold the center. It is not as seductive as claiming one side or the other. But after spending days praying, learning, debating, and singing with the people of my particular brand of Judaism, I believe that it is the essential way to live Judaism today.
If the meaning of community has changed, still the need for meaning is stronger than ever. We must go deep and we must be real.
If Judaism is the creative application of Torah across the generations, then Abraham Joshua Heschel was correct: It is not required of us to take a leap of faith but rather a leap of action.
B’yedidut, With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
As a rabbi, one of my favorite things is when our youth lead Shabbat services. The high school leaders take ownership of the evening; they daven with authority, encourage our religious school kids to participate, and always create and perform an engaging parasha play.
This past Friday, April 12, was all of that and more. In fact, it was a great deal more. Not only was it Youth Shabbat at OJC, but it was also the Day of Silence nationally, and our youth wove these two experiences into one very special evening.
Begun in 1996 at the University of Virginia, the Day of Silence is now observed at colleges and high schools across America to spread awareness about bullying and harassment of people in the LGBTQ community. Students and teachers vow to be silent for the day, showing solidarity for LGBTQ students who are too often silenced.
At services, our OJC kids gave out rainbow stickers, read poems and quotations to educate our congregation, and taught sign language for Sh’ma. One teen read a poem she wrote; in part it follows:
One day a year my silence speaks more than I ever could out loud.
My silence speaks for those who stop talking,
those who are forced to stop talking by a world that can’t accept them
for who they are or who they love.
After services, the brother of one of our congregants shared with me that he had never felt so accepted as a gay man and a religious Jew. He was overwhelmed by the feeling of welcome and comfort that he experienced. This man has been looking for a spiritual home for years. I thank our kids for leading the way in establishing OJC as safe space.
We grownups are doing our part as well. OJC is one of sixteen Conservative Jewish congregations across America in the third cohort being trained by United Synagogue and Keshet to be an inclusive, safe space for people who identify as LGBTQ. During Pride month (June), we are planning a Pride Shabbat (May 31 and June 1) and an inclusion and advocacy training with our Board of Trustees, Pride Committee, and professional staff.
Four of our Pride Committee members are teenagers. They lead the way for all of us, teaching us about what they accept as a natural part of their lives: God created all of us in God’s image. Some of us have brown hair, some are blonde. Some of us have blue eyes and some have green. Some of us are straight and some of us are gay. All of us deserve a seat in a sanctuary. That’s why it’s called a sanctuary.
Please let us know if you are interested in participating in OJC Pride. Contact our chairs, Sabina Tyler and Doug Stone at email@example.com.
And if you have questions about the LGBTQ community, ask a young person. They will be our teachers!
Foresight. Vision. Strategy. Whatever led to the decision, it was nothing short of brilliant. It will pay dividends in the short run by providing benefits to consumers, and it will bring a return on investment in the long run by developing a broader base of financial supporters and leadership. Brilliant.
This past Sunday night, Jawonio (Rockland’s premiere provider of lifespan services for those with developmental disabilities) held its annual gala at the Paramount Country Club in New City, New York. This relatively pricey, black-tie optional, politician-studded fundraising event has been held for decades and has catered traditionally to a pretty high-end crowd to benefit the organization.
This year, Jawonio got creative. The organization chose to honor the Orangetown Jewish Center Youth. 25 of our finest kids got dressed up, purchased tickets at a reduced price of $36, rubbed elbows with the big shots, and danced the night away like few at this event had ever seen. Oh yeah, Rabbi Drill, our youth director Sharon Rappaport, our youth chair Mitch Brill, our USY division director Bruce Varon and I were there to make sure the kids behaved, to share a few words, to shep a bit of naches, and to shed a few tears as well!
Over the years our youth group has studied the Jewish value that every person is created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. Their learning has led to their communal commitment to serve those of varying abilities by visiting group homes, running carnivals, holding bowl-a-thons and hosting social gatherings. Their actions have helped them individually conquer fears, break down barriers, increase sensitivity, and generate love for all of God’s creations.
Jawonio’s leaders took a risk. By subsidizing the attendance of these youth, and by choosing to honor a group that doesn’t make a large financial commitment to its bottom line, Jawonio chose to inspire. Jawonio inspired our kids by helping them see themselves as valued and contributing members of society who can make a difference; Jawonio inspired its own supporters by showing how its mission is changing the world for the better, both for its consumers and for the larger community; Jawonio reminded us all that our children are our future, deserving of recognition for their contributions and investment in their leadership development. That’s what I call vision!
Mazal tov to our community, to our Naaseh/USY program for empowering our youth to make a difference, to our kids who choose to be a part of holy work, and to Jawonio for helping us see the image of God in every person.
Rabbi Craig Scheff