Two rabbis, two equals, one synagogue

Two rabbis, two equals, one synagogue

Orangetown Jewish Center’s Rabbis Craig Scheff and Paula Mack Drill talk about how they work and their families play together

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill and Rabbi Craig Scheff
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill and Rabbi Craig Scheff

There’s usually a hierarchy in shuls.

If a synagogue is big enough to have more than one clergyperson, there’s generally a senior rabbi, maybe an associate rabbi, and an assistant rabbi. Really big ones tend to have many rabbis on staff; some head education departments or work with young families. Interns are dispatched from rabbinical schools to learn as they work.

And of course that’s based on a traditional model, where the rebbe’s word is beyond challenge; in the United States, it’s been leavened by our American understanding of a synagogue as a more democratic institution, governed by its dues-paying members.

That’s not the model that the Orangetown Jewish Center uses.

Instead, its two rabbis are equals; that position has evolved over the 17 years since not-yet-Rabbi Paula Mack Drill came to work with fairly new Rabbi Craig Scheff, but it’s been in place for well over a decade now, and the shul, in Orangeburg, is flourishing.

And there’s more.

Rabbi Drill lives in Caldwell. That’s in Essex County, New Jersey. She’s a Conservative rabbi, so she does not drive on Shabbat, and it would take a days-long trek to walk to shul. But no problem! She drives up to Rockland during the week; for Shabbat, she, her husband, Jonathan, and, until they grew up, their four children as well, stay with Craig and Nancy Scheff and their four children. (Usually they all stay in the Scheffs’ house, unless there’s a huge celebration that brings in hordes of out-of-town guests. Then they stay somewhere else close by.)

They basically are a tribe; their working and personal and familial relationships all come together to form a model of relationships for the shul. And in the end it’s all about relationships, they say.

The Drill and Scheff families gathered to celebrate the marriage of Noah and Rochelle Drill.

Both Rabbi Drill and Rabbi Scheff came to the rabbinate as a second career, although he realized very early in his first career, as a lawyer, that he’d made the wrong choice.

Craig Scheff grew up in New City, and he was preternaturally gifted with synagogue skills. It probably helped that his father was the synagogue’s president; he also lived in Israel for three years. By his late teens, Rabbi Scheff was the president of the USY chapter at the New City Jewish Center, and soon he became the shul’s chazzan sheni for the High Holidays, and the summer Torah reader. He “went to college in Boston” — further probing disclosed that the college, which actually is in Cambridge, is Harvard — and then to law school at Boston University. “I practiced commercial litigation in Boston for three years, and I really hated it,” he said. “So I started rabbinical school” — at the Jewish Theological Seminary — “after that.”

Because both he and his wife are from Rockland County, it made sense that his rabbinical school job was in the county; he was the cantor at the Sons of Israel in Nyack. “And then I was offered the job here,” at Orangetown, “as cantor. They had a house; that really helped make ends meet. And then they made me a student rabbi. This was 1996. I was the official student rabbi, cantor, bar mitzvah teacher, kol bo.” In other words, he did everything. “In 1998, I was ordained, and they hired a cantor, and I had a partner on the bimah.

“Paula came in 2002, and we realized then that we had something special.”

Rabbi Drill’s path to the rabbinate took a bit longer, although it led through other jobs she also loved. She’s from Portland, Maine. “I grew up at a Conservative synagogue there,” she said. “I was very connected. Three of my four grandparents all were born there, in the late 1880s. They all came from huge families, so I was related to the whole Jewish community there.”

“Two of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and only one was born here,” Rabbi Scheff said. The two rabbis complement each other in many ways, they both added; the differences in their backgrounds add to the richness of experience upon which they can draw in their work.

Scheffs and Drills make pizza.

Rabbi Drill went to Swarthmore College, and then became a social worker at a joint program that Columbia and JTS ran together; at the same time, she earned a master’s degree in Jewish studies from JTS. “It was 1986, and the first woman, Amy Eilberg, was ordained in 1985,” she said. Rabbinical school hadn’t been much of an option for her until then — “when I was a kid I couldn’t imagine it,” she said — but Rabbi Gordon Tucker, who retired from Temple Israel Center in White Plains last year but was dean of the rabbinical school then, “planted the idea in my mind. He told me that he was waiting for my application.”

“He said the same thing to me!” Rabbi Scheff said. “Gordon Tucker is indirectly responsible for both of us becoming rabbis.”

After she graduated, Rabbi Drill “worked in Jewish communal service,” she said. “She worked at the Daughters of Israel,” the nursing home in West Orange, “and then as a social worker at the Solomon Schechter school,” where her children were in school, and which later was renamed the Golda Och Academy. “I finally kicked into gear to go to rabbinical school for two reasons,” she said. “I was very involved in our community” — she and her family belonged (and still belong) to Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell — “and because I went to JTS, people saw me as a teacher, and they would ask me questions. I always felt like I was skating on thin ice. I felt like an imposter, and the antidote to that was learning.

“My other reason was my mother’s death. She lived for years with cancer, and I moved to Maine with my youngest child to take care of her for the last six weeks. I came out of that fire shaped by the fire. I did it for my mother. I started rabbinical school the next semester.”

Rabbi Drill had planned to go back to the Schechter school when she was ordained, but before that could happen she had to have an internship. She’d already worked in a nursing home and in a school, but an official job in a congregation would be a new experience.

“I thought that it would be something that I’d never get to do otherwise,” she said.

The Drills and the Scheffs are good friends. Here, on Broadway together, from left, are Jonathan Drill, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, Nancy Scheff, and Rabbi Craig Scheff.

Working with Rabbi Scheff made sense to her. The two were friends from Camp Ramah, the day camp in Nyack where he’d been assistant director and she’d been program director, and then later he took a more part-time role as camp rabbi and she assumed his old job. They enjoyed being silly together; acting in skits where everyone laughed and they laughed at least as much as everyone else. They still do those skits together.

“We both bought into the idea of experiential education that you get at camp,” Rabbi Scheff said. “And the idea that relationships have to be at the heart of inspiration. And into the idea of the importance of creativity. Of joy. I certainly want those things in the synagogue. And when I was searching for a professional partner, it was easy to see that her approach was in line with mine.”

At left, the Craig and Paula Show, in 2005; right, at Purim, the rabbis become the Invincibles.

“Camp relationships are different,” Rabbi Drill said. “Because of their intensity, and because of their playfulness.”

So it was logical that Rabbi Drill’s internship should be at Rabbi Scheff’s shul.

She loved it, with an intensity of feeling that took her by surprise.

“By two weeks into my internship, I knew that this is what I wanted to do,” Rabbi Drill said. It was 2002. “I didn’t know what my rabbinate would look like, but I knew that I wanted to build relationships, to counsel people, to be there for people, and to teach.” Only a pulpit rabbinate offered all those things, she realized.

In 2004, Rabbi Drill was ordained, and she went to work full time at Orangetown. She did not move up there because her family was deeply involved in Caldwell; it made more sense for her — in fact for all of them — to grow another set of deep roots in a second community than to uproot themselves from one of them.

The Orangetown Jewish Center sends a group of volunteers to work in Israel every year.

Since then, the relationship defined itself. At first, Rabbi Scheff was the senior rabbi. “But title is not as important as skill set,” he said. “What matters to a community are the skills that enable people to connect to you personally, and to the larger community. In Paula, I saw a skill set that was going to help me and help the community, and anything that benefited the community also was going to help me.”

Over time, he managed to have their titles changed, so the two are now formally equal.

“Craig and the president of the shul at the time and I created this position,” Rabbi Drill said. “And then we explained to the community why they needed me. I don’t think anyone remembers any more that it was a created position.”

What about Rabbi Scheff’s ego? His sense of himself as always in charge? Did he not have that?

“When Paula was hired, it was as the associate rabbi, and I consciously decided that we needed to rename it,” he answered. “I didn’t want to be her senior rabbi, and I didn’t want her to be my junior rabbi. We consciously chose that.

“Even when she first came in, I consciously chose associate, not assistant. She was coming in as a professional. As an adult.

“Part of where clergy sometimes get stuck is that they feel that if they are not doing something themselves, that will detract from their own success,” he added. “My first step was my recognition that I was going to be more successful by virtue of her success, and that meant not pigeonholing her into a small set of tasks but empowering her.”

Below, rabbis Scheff and Drill with a baby; above, the same rabbis with the same congregant as she become bat mitzvah.

How much does gender fit into their relationship with the congregation? Do people look up to the bimah to see mommy and daddy there? Yes, there is some of that, but there are other gender stereotypes that were more potent, and less healthy. “It took some work for people not to see men as the boss and women as the second in line,” Rabbi Drill said.

“That’s when the joke came about, when someone said that I was the senior rabbi,” Rabbi Scheff said. “I’d say no, she’s five years older than me.

“But I am very sensitive to the gender issue, because I’m constantly exposed to 20- and 30-somethings who are exploring these questions firsthand within their demographic. And we do sometimes react to things differently, and there are times when being a good, unified mom and dad, good functional parents on the bimah, is a good thing.”

They both cry on the bimah at times, they both said, but he’s more likely to tear up than she is. It’s a low bar, they agreed.

They’re both sensitive to LGBT issues; Rabbi Drill is on the board of the Rockland County Pride Center, and Rabbi Scheff works with the center as well.

“A seminal moment for me was when a congregant called me to do a baby naming,” Rabbi Drill said. “They called directly for me. And Craig was so happy to hear it, he danced around the office. ‘It’s working,’ he said. ‘It’s starting.’”

The one way in which their relationship is not equal is that Rabbi Scheff, who was there first, is the community’s mara d’atra, the authority who decides halachic questions. By definition, there can be only one of those. But whenever there’s a hard decision to be made, they discuss and decide together; when he’s away, she takes the title.

Their relationship allows them to be open with each other, and to let their vulnerabilities show, both rabbis said. That’s often a difficult thing for a rabbi to do. “It definitely requires trust,” Rabbi Scheff said. “If I didn’t trust her, how could I let this fly?”

“The reason it worked from the beginning was Craig’s relationship with the community, from before I got there,” Rabbi Drill said. “People talk about a honeymoon stage with a community — for us, that stage never ended. We love our congregation, and they give us a lot of space for risk-taking that isn’t always present in other communities.”

How does that happen?

“Our community’s unusual in part because it’s not local or convenient for everybody to go to,” Rabbi Scheff said. “People who come here make the effort to be here. They pass other synagogues to be here.

“We’re regional,” Rabbi Drill said. “People come here because we are meaningful to them. And as a result, the number of people who are really vested in it is higher than it is in places where people go just because it’s convenient.”

Some history here — the community dates back to 1959, and when the shul was built in 1963, it was in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood. But demographics change. The shul did well, and then it didn’t. “When I came here in 1995, I was the 10th rabbi in 40 years,” Rabbi Scheff said. “There were 230 families, and 180 of them had been here for 25 years or more. They were all local. They all lived right here. And then the demographics changed.” The Jews moved out; the shul’s membership grew younger, but they lived farther away.”

In fact, about 30 percent of the shul’s membership comes from Bergen County, Rabbi Drill said.

The Conservative movement does allow its members to drive on Shabbat or holidays, but only to the closest shul at which they’d be comfortable. Neither Rabbi Scheff nor Rabbi Drill drives — nor does the shul’s third rabbi, Ami Hersh. (Both Rabbi Scheff and Rabbi Drill adore Rabbi Hersh, they make clear; he’s not in this story because his job is entirely different. He is the Orangetown Jewish Center’s family life coordinator, and he, his wife, and their four children — because, as both Rabbi Schiff and Rabbi Drill say, a prerequisite for working as a rabbi at Orangetown is having four children — live in a house the shul owns, right across its parking lot, but his day job is at Ramah; he’s the director of the camp at Nyack and the program director of the National Ramah Commission.) But the realities of Jewish life in the suburbs dictate that most of the congregation has to drive to shul, and Rabbis Scheff and Drill are thrilled to have them.

The Orangetown Jewish Center’s rabbis sit in front of their spouses; from left, Craig and Nancy Scheff, Paula and Jonathan Drill, and Ami and Loni Hersh.

“I do wrestle with the question of driving,” Rabbi Scheff said. “We do try to build a culture of walking.”

Their partnership could not have worked if their families did not get along, both rabbis said. But not only do they get along, they are as close as if they had been related by blood. “Nancy and Jonathan are great friends,” Rabbi Scheff said. “It’s like a brother and sister relationship. And it had to be, for us to be together literally almost every weekend for the past 15 years.”

Much of their professional relationship is replicable, the two said, even though the family part might not be. “Paula and I have talked about it and presented about it at rabbinical school,” Rabbi Scheff said. “We have reflected on the fact that there are many facets to this relationship, some professional, some personal. We try to model the aspects of it that are replicable. We believe that the partnership model is extremely important. We believe that Judaism teaches us the way we are supposed to be with each other.

“Every Hillel needs her Shammai, and every Shammai needs her Hillel.”

“It’s not unusual for there to be two rabbis in one place,” Rabbi Drill said. “Or a rabbi and a cantor, or a rabbi and an educational director.” They could work in partnership rather than in less emotionally and spiritually productive ways. Rabbis also could form partnerships with peers in other shuls not too far away, “in recognition of each other’s strengths, and in recognition of their shared desire to make Jewish life more vibrant.”

And that’s what the two of them have done at the Orangetown Jewish Center. Jewish life is visibly vibrant there.

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