Chai on OJC
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Chai on OJC

Congregation honors rabbi for 18 years of service

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

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Rabbi Craig Scheff enjoys his one-on-one teaching, working on Torah trop with soon-to-become a bar mitzvah Justin Schaumberger.

The only person whom Craig Scheff seems to have surprised by becoming a rabbi is himself.
“There was always a part of me that kept my foot in the Jewish world,” said Scheff, who began his professional life as an attorney. “It is possible I was simply in denial.”

Scheff was a successful litigator when he decided to attend the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. For a man whose nickname in high school was “Rabs,” however, and who as a teen was known for donning his tefillin and davening before playing basketball for New City Jewish Center, the decision seemed obvious and even overdue to everyone else.

“When Craig decided to go to the seminary, Nancy [his wife] asked us, six of his close friends, if we were surprised,” said New City resident Mitch Brill, who has known Scheff since fifth grade, and fondly recalls playing football on the lawn of Scheff’s parent’s home.

“We were surprised when he went to law school, not surprised by his going to the seminary. He was born to be a rabbi.”

The career switch, and the placement at OJC, seem to have been natural and seamless. Scheff has built the congregation, which was older and “somewhat set in its ways,” he said, into a dynamic, growing synagogue. Membership, which stood at 230 families when he arrived, has more than doubled under his leadership. It now numbers 510 families today, who come from around Rockland County and across the border in northern New Jersey.

The congregation will honor Scheff for his rabbinic leadership and to mark his 18th year with OJC. The celebration begins at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9, at the Rockleigh, which is located at 26 Paris Ave., Rockleigh, N.J.

When Scheff came to the synagogue, he was its tenth rabbi in 40 years. Of the families who were members, 180 of them had been at the congregation for 25 years or more. Some of the younger leaders, however, felt that the right rabbi could provide the stability and leadership needed to turn things around.

A native of Boston, Scheff’s family moved to New City when he was nine, and he grew up attending New City Jewish Center, where his father served for a time as president.

Scheff was ready to take on the OJC challenge. Of his 18 years there, he notes with pride the addition of a nursery school, an expanded religious school and the addition of an award-winning United Synagogue Youth chapter.

“Our core of committed volunteers has grown,” said Scheff, as he rattled off ways the congregation changed over the years. “Our youth community is light years ahead of where it was….We developed a hybrid high school youth group program.”

One big change was the addition of a second rabbi, Paula Mack Drill, who works well with Scheff. During services, the two have an easy, balanced rapport, and Drill brings a focus to social issues that has “opened up more doorways, portals and windows that people could connect to community,” Scheff said.

Drill knew Scheff before she came to OJC, when the two worked together at Camp Ramah in Nyack. The ease and playfulness they have on the bima stems from that more informal setting, Drill said.

Drill came to OJC in 2002 as a rabbinic intern, and said there is no question that Scheff, although younger, was her mentor.

“I have a home rabbi, and he’s wonderful,” said Drill. “But this was a working relationship. A lot of what I know was learned at the seat of the master.”

Scheff’s love of teaching and his desire to “be a guide for the Jewish people,” according to Drill, are what make him stand out. His leadership in organizations such as AIPAC and State of Israel Bonds, where he serves as chair of the organization’s national rabbinic cabinet, derive from his reach in the community, as someone who knows it intimately from growing up within it.

“I think it adds to his reputation,” said Drill. “A lot of people love the fact that they knew him when he was a boy.”

One person who has seen him grow up and into his own is Rabbi Henry Sosland, New City Jewish Center’s rabbi emeritus. Sosland knew Scheff as a boy and as a young man who was very capable and well versed in synagogue and ritual. Whether serving as a second cantor during High Holy Days services, sounding the shofar, leading services, or reading Torah on a regular basis, Scheff “set a high standard of kiddush hashem,” said Sosland.

“He was very bright, very helpful, and devoted to Jewish life in so many ways,” said Sosland. “He was a model for younger students.”

That modeling is something that continues to this day, as he mentors students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins, Pearl Resnick dean of the Rabbinical School and dean of the Division of Religious Leadership. He has a way of enabling others to confront their own challenges that is “kind and supportive,” Nevins wrote in an e-mail.

“I know that a strong student will become stronger with his guidance, and that a weaker student can address his or her challenges, and grow into a fine professional,” wrote Nevins, who knew Scheff when they were both students at JTS in the early 1990s, and got to know him better when members of his family joined OJC.

Allen Levinson and his wife Leslie met Scheff when they attended a Shabbaton with their children’s school, the now-closed Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School. Scheff was the rabbi on the board of directors at the time, and he inspired the New Jersey couple to begin attending his synagogue. They also liked how he worked within the school, very hands-on with “no officiousness and [with] open arms,” said Levinson, whose daughter was captivated by this “pied piper” of a rabbi, he said.

“Even though my kids were going to a day school, their interest in all things Judaic went through the roof,” under Scheff’s influence, he said. Soon the Upper Saddle River family left a local synagogue to attend Shabbat services at the Orangeburg congregation, where about one-third of the members come from New Jersey towns.

Levinson appreciates Scheff’s willingness to lead by example, once vowing during Israel’s 2006 war with the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon, to go to the bomb-ravaged city of Kiryat Shimona and “use my own hands to rebuild the city.”

“I was stunned; it was a mitzvah mission,” said Levinson. “It took me about 20 minutes after shul to tell Leslie and the rabbi that I was going to Kiryat Shimona, too.”

A large part of Scheff’s success is bound up in how much his own family is part of the OJC family; his wife Nancy, and their four sons – Matt, 22, Scott, 20, Jason, 14, and Jared, 12 – have always been prominent fixtures there.

Nancy, in particular, is a key ingredient to his success, say those who know the couple. Although she also is a Rockland County native, and grew up at OJC, the couple did not meet until a mutual friend introduced them during their second semester as freshmen at Harvard.

Although Scheff never looked back from when he jumped off the lawyer track to take a gamble on the rabbinate, there are moments when one can see how the two professions held a similar appeal for him. He has an attorney’s love of logical argument and building a case one piece at a time, which also describes a talmudist. Scheff’s sermons can be a persuasive layering of logic in order to “develop a sense of educating, not telling, people what their priorities should be,” he said.

As well as mentoring and educating others, Scheff enjoys writing. He contributed a chapter on synagogue life to the weighty “The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews.” Although it was eight years ago that he wrote the first draft of his chapter – which lays out the halachah, or Jewish law, that governs synagogue life in a comprehensive and straightforward manner – the book was not published until this year. An avid sports enthusiast, who cheers vocally for the Boston Red Sox, the New England Patriots and the Celtics, Scheff is a hands-on teacher, whether coaching his sons’ sports teams, or teaching Torah trop to b’nei mitzvah students.

Scheff sees Judaism as a moderating, balancing force in the world, and Conservative Judaism, in particular, as an example of that. The movement, he said, allows its practitioners to weigh options and encourages a struggle for meaning.

“It’s always been Judaism’s role to hold to the center,” he said. “That’s what we represent in the world: Standing for something but being flexible enough.”

Although he says that congregants often do not understand exactly what it is that rabbis do, or how they spend their days, he has never felt underappreciated by members of his synagogue.

“Nancy and I used to ask ourselves how long the honeymoon will last,” Scheff said. “I honestly can’t say that it’s ended, that’s the remarkable thing.”

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