Going beyond the numbers
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Going beyond the numbers

Craig Scheff was raised in Rockland County; after practicing law in Boston for three years, he returned to New York to study for the rabbinate at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has been at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg since 1995. Rabbi Scheff has worked in various positions at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack for two decades and is an adjunct lecturer in professional skills at JTS.

Rabbi Craig Scheff with his grandmother, Sonja Gelerman Neiman.
Rabbi Craig Scheff with his grandmother, Sonja Gelerman Neiman.

1919 was the year my grandmother, née Sonja Gelerman, was born.

Lucky enough to be the daughter of a butcher, and blessed with strong and steady fingers that could thread the eye of a needle with the best of them, she’d never starve.

Well, there was that one stint in a Siberian labor camp in 1940 (when she needed to be eating for two) that tested her endurance. Otherwise, fighting a cold was about as sick as I can recall her ever being. Despite living during the darkest of decades and through the most uncertain of conditions, Sonia Neiman arose every day to make time matter.

Her age, the years of marriage, the number of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren … all make for a fascinating human interest story beyond the relatable experiences of most of us.

As she approaches her 100th birthday, however, it is remarkable that she has never been one to count.

My Baba is a superstitious person. And while there is a bias in the Jewish tradition against counting people (it invites the evil eye?), I don’t believe that is what has motivated her to ignore her numerical accomplishments.

The true achievement of my grandmother’s life has been arising to every day with a sense of purpose — a friend to call, a husband to clothe, a child to nurse, a meal to prepare, a kitchen to clean, a holiday gathering to relish, a simcha to celebrate — and investing all her emotional energy — her laughter, her tears, her disappointments — in her waking hours.

When I consider the greatest lessons my grandmother has taught me, the most important one of all will be to live beyond the numbers. One love, one friend, one conversation, one laugh, one cry, one opportunity to matter — any one of these is enough of a reason to live one more day.

As we approach the Jewish new year of 5780, I am wrestling with the awareness that my grandmother is no longer finding meaning in her daily life. She is no longer able to fulfill any of the roles from which she gained pleasure throughout her days. I know, however, that the best way I can honor her in the year ahead is to live best (and not just exist) by taking note of the one thing I do each day that makes my life worth living.

Craig Scheff has been rabbi at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg since 1995.

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