As a rabbi of an innovative global organization, it is important for me not just to be in my office but to also be on the road learning from others. That means I try to attend a handful of conferences each year—and today I’m a first-time attendee at the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly, known in shorthand as “the GA.” It’s a conference for volunteer and professional leaders of Jewish Federations and those with an interest in Jewish philanthropy.
At events like this, my hopes are that I will make connections to new friends and colleagues, that I will learn some new tools, that I will leave with just as many questions as answers, and that I will have a sense of optimism about what is possible in the Jewish community.
When I was flipping through the list of sessions, I realized there are two ways to view them, one more positive than the other.
There’s a long-standing tradition that Jewish telegrams were easy to recognize because they would say simply, “letter to follow. Begin worrying.” And, it is easy to read through a list of session topics at a conference like this, and to begin panicking: How will we fundraise? What will Israel’s future look like? How will we engage teens/young adults/aging adults/interfaith families/fill-in-the-blank? What will we do about rising anti-Semitism in Europe? How do we balance collectivism and individualism? Is Jewish education working or not?
Some people answer those questions with doom-and-gloom answers. But I don’t think that’s what this conference is about (otherwise I wouldn’t be here!). Conferences like this work when those in the room confront the realities of Jewish life and then figure out how to embrace opportunities for what could be rather than bemoan what is.
While there is some truth that worrying is part of the Jewish historical experience, it is also the case that celebration has long been an affirmation of a positive Jewish identity. We are a people of happiness and joy, laughter and humor. We are a people of hope.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a speaker at this conference, once said that “Judaism is humanity’s faith in the future tense; the Jewish voice is the voice of inextinguishable hope.”
Being at a conference with thousands of people who care about Jewish life and want to celebrate it – this gives me much hope. My telegram (now a tweet) from my time at the GA will say: email to follow, no need to worry—we are a people of hope.
To watch my Rosh Hashanah sermon on which this blog post is loosely based, please click here.
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Last summer when I made my first tentative foray into camping in the wilderness, I was shepherded by my three very able young adult children, who were more experienced, savvy and courageous than I had been. They’d done this before. Our four days of hiking together on a segment of the Appalachian Trail was very intimate — our mutual trust made our ability to help one another flow naturally. It was not only comfortable, but comforting, to share our two small tents, each only large enough for two people to lie down and stay still.
The tent is a place of safety and care. This reminds me of the Torah’s story of a welcoming tent, when three visitors came to Abraham and Sarah’s tent. Genesis 18:1 tells us how Abraham was sitting at the entrance of their tent on a hot day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. He ran to greet them and, bowing to the ground, begging them to stay to be refreshed. Abraham prepared a feast and water for his unexpected guests. He became our model for the value of hospitality. In Jewish imagination Abraham’s tent signifies graciousness and openness. In today’s modern ethos, we imagine this tent as a welcoming place for inclusive, pluralistic Jewish community.
Yet, it seems that our Jewish communal tent has shrunken in size, with its sides nearly closed, keeping out unwelcome conversation about uncomfortable topics. At the top of the list: Israel.
It has become impolitic, unwelcome, and sometimes relationship-altering to express opposing views when traveling between the camps of the right and the left. The JCPA’s “Civility” campaign was an attempt to turn down the temperature of the heated differences within our community. But beyond that there is a demonization that has become acceptable among many communal leaders, targeting those of “the other camp” as immoral, ignorant, naïve, and worse.
That was why I was so encouraged by the program at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America this past November. There were several sessions at the convention that addressed the environment of our “tent” – and how we can have a “big tent.” There was a concerted effort to re-expand the tent. I felt hopeful that this would re-humanize the conversation, returning the spirit of generosity and grace that we celebrated in the years when “We are One” was the motto of the organized Jewish community.
It was a good start, but we have a long way to go. In the three months since the GA, I have experienced and observed more painful demonization, labeling, name-calling and hostility relating to conversations or views about Israel.
Why do we need a big tent? For generations our ancestors shared a sense of mutual responsibility that was borne out of an understanding that they were one people, a kind of extended family. It was a key to our survival and our accomplishments as a people.
Today that feeling of familial mutual responsibility is fraying. Many Jewish leaders are worried about this. And here we are, tearing the fabric apart by defining who is”in” and who is “out”. It’s not good for the Jews.
I know that I have an overly romantic view of the unity of the Jewish people in the past. I like that aspiration. Aspirations are really important to what we choose to do with our resources, our words, our relationships and our efforts.
As my own children are leaving the “nest” of our home, I aspired to share something mature and real with them in our newly adult relationships. Hiking up the mountain, sleeping in those tiny tents, we could enjoy our relationships, trusting each other and the mutual love that sustains us. That was all that mattered.
The tent of the Jewish people should be a place of safety and refreshment, nourishing and cooling us when we come in from the harsh, dry air of the wilderness. To be a Jew is to be a descendant of Abraham and Sarah, open and welcoming, hospitable and generous. I dream of a big, open tent. It’s cozy inside the tent – come on in.