The Lead Story
Earlier this year, a chaver (friend) of our synagogue informed the rabbis that he was ending his official affiliation with our synagogue. The reason he offered was that, despite loving so many things about the synagogue and its clergy, he wanted a less “activist” (his word) synagogue for his family. I’ve always advocated that people should find houses of worship and communities where they would be motivated to connect, to attend, and to add meaning to their lives. I found it particularly sad that, especially in this day and age, one would seek a faith community that would not “actively” pursue its stated mission and the values of our tradition.
Our sage Hillel famously taught (about two thousand years ago and in the face of immense social and political upheaval): “If am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
As participants in Jewish community, we have all likely felt at one time or another that we must be our own best advocates, because others so rarely advocate for us. And, naturally, our own preservation and security must come first if we are to be any good to ourselves or anyone else.
Hillel’s teaching reflects his understanding that our values and way of life must also serve the betterment of our society in general and of all humanity. That is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic call that we must be a “light unto the nations.” That is our understanding of the responsibility that comes along with the “chosen-ness” to be a “kingdom of priests,” ministering to the needs of God and the rest of the world.
What has become equally apparent is that in our times there are fewer and fewer institutions that are willing to lead and leaders who are willing to recognize or accept the influence they may have beyond their own walls. Our communities are sorely lacking the leadership that models the values we espouse. As a faith-based institution with a sustained record of dedication to and service in the community, we are uniquely placed to lead. As leaders of a faith-based community with a sizeable constituency, a stable presence, a fair amount of goodwill with our neighbors, and a track record for partnering well with others, your rabbis see it as their duty to speak to those issues that affect the public welfare and to embrace the value that we must protect the image of God reflected in every individual. As leaders of a faith community, Rabbi Drill, Rabbi Hersh and I see it as our duty to actively pursue the values that our tradition dictates we prioritize.
This “activism” does not come at the expense of our responsibilities to offer personal connections to God, to our synagogue or to each other. Rather, it offers our community’s constituents the opportunity to “walk the talk,” to put into practice the potentially transformative effects of engaging in learning, prayer and community building.
We are called to battle antisemitism in the public arena. We are equally called to protect the vulnerable; to stand as partners with the leaders of the LGBTQ+ community; to advocate for women’s reproductive rights; to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and to welcome the stranger. And pikuach nefesh, saving lives, supersedes them all.
Last week, Rabbi Drill and I attended an interfaith conference sponsored by UJA Federation of New York and the JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council) of New York entitled “Facing the Gun Violence Epidemic: the Voices of Faith and Community.“ Reverend Charles Galbreath of Brooklyn urged us to heed the words of Zachariah, to imagine a world where children can play on city streets without fear and to work as faith leaders towards that vision. Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, urged us to see our responsibility as faith leaders as extending beyond our own churches and synagogues. Our esteemed panelists coming from a range of disciplines put before us the reality that the solution to ending gun violence lies beyond restricting access to automatic weapons. The solution lies in addressing many systemic issues ranging well beyond our mental health systems and the administration of law enforcement. The overriding message of the conference was that, beyond the politicization of these and other ills, each one of us has a role to play in ensuring the safety–the lives–of others. That role needs to be taught, informed and modeled by our houses of worship.
Where do we start? With ourselves and our priorities. Is that where it ends? No, we must extend our caring to addressing the needs of others. When do we start? If you are reading this, you already have.
Here is a link to the all resources that we received last week, including an action guide, should you want to take the next step. Lead on.
Rabbi Craig Scheff