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What Is Our Global Jewish Responsibility?

December 3, 2012

Rabbi’s Remarks Delivered at the JDC Ambassadors Global Symposium Plenary

It is a tremendous honor to be with you this morning and a special joy to personally salute you who are involved in and support the JDC. In my mind, you are responsible for and further the work of one of the great heroic organizations of Jewish life. To say this is not hyperbole because I have seen your work in action around much of this world.

Perhaps the most personally stunning and surprising experience I had with JDC was when, in the late 1990s, I travelled with a small group of Jewish leaders to visit an Albanian refugee camp during the height of the Kosovo conflict and then to take some of those refugees with us to Israel. In those days, brutalized refugees were flowing across the border seeking food and water and shelter and refuge.

I’m not sure what I expected when I arrived in Albania, but a tent with a JDC sign outside was nowhere on my screen of possibilities. It was there and then that I came to understand the expansive theater of JDC operations, which combat the results of human warfare and misery and are on the ground in the face of the most horrendous natural disasters as in Haiti after the earthquake. I comprehend the exquisite purity of an organization that has as its focus saving people in extremis no matter what their national origin, race, religion, or gender. For that, I salute and thank you.

The topic you have asked me to address is,  “What is our global Jewish responsibility?” In forming this question, I suspect the planners of this symposium were purposeful in framing the question with inherent ambiguity, for in fact this topic properly raises two very separate issues.

The first: What is our universalistic responsibility as Jews on a global level to communities who are not of our faith or background, such as Haitians after an earthquake, or Kosovo refugees, or in India or Japan after a tsunami? Why should Jews who globally number only 0.2 percent, or one out of every five hundred people in the world, use their resources, as limited as they are, and why should we believe we are responsible to ameliorate the extraordinary, terrifying, horrific results of human misery?

The second framing of the question is about our more particularistic responsibility as Jews to other Jews around the world. Why should we care about and care for Jews in small communities in faraway places, and what is our responsibility to them? After all, we could argue, many of these people were given the chance to move to Israel, and if they didn’t take that opportunity, then didn’t they also choose to forfeit Jewish communal support? Some of them allowed their connection to Jewish life to lapse or even repudiated their faith to better their circumstances. So why do we care about these widespread Jewish communities, and what is our responsibility to them?

In its basic and most naked form, the question with which we really begin might seem so simplistic and fundamental that, unless compelled, we might not honor it with our attention. But we need to ask it. Why do we care at all about Jewish survival and Jewish life, whether for ourselves or our offspring or for far flung Jewish communities around the world? And why should we care one iota about others who are not Jewish and, if the tables were turned, probably would have no concern for us? In its most fundamental form the question is: what is our mission and what is the purpose of our Jewish existence?

Until we unlock an answer to those questions, we will not frame the driving core purpose of this organization and in fact we will not be able to express why being Jewish means something to us personally or why our survival as a Jewish people matters in this creation.

I confess to you that the answers to why Jewish existence matters are complicated and difficult and as individual as all of us are. I remember when my then ten-year-old son asked me about God because he figured his dad, a rabbi, should be expert in such matters. After significant hesitation my brilliant response was,  “Go ask your mother.”

Rather than deflecting the question as I did with my son, let me in good faith begin personally. For me, I care about Jewish continuity and survival partially from tribal instinct. I do not want to be responsible for the end of Jewish life in my family and I certainly don’t want to see us perish from this creation. I do not want to be responsible for cutting the thread and dishonoring the memory and the sacrifices of my forebears who sometimes passed on Jewish life at the risk of life itself.

But there is another reason I care about the survival of Judaism. I believe we Jews are a unique people with an extraordinary history. I believe we’ve been given an unparalleled mission and the world needs us. I have faith that God wants us to be here and we the Jewish people matter as a result.

When our ancestors gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, our tradition says we were all there. Against the backdrop of a barren mountain, still exhausted from the cauldrons of Egyptian slavery, we heard the words that once and for all time launched us into history and gave us our purpose. Upon the mountain, God said to Moses,  “Tell the people ‘v’atem tihyu li mamlechet cohanim v’goi Kadosh’—‘And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ (Ex. 19:6)…You shall uphold the sacred and live it in your history. As I bore you on eagles’ wings to keep you alive, so shall you carry aloft the banner of your mission.” And our people’s response to that Divine commission at Sinai was simply “na-aseh”—All that God has asked of us, we will do!” (Ex. 19:8).

For me, the single most powerful proof for the existence of God is that we Jews are still here. Without God’s existence, our survival is inexplicable. With God, our survival is miraculous. And our survival provides our mission: to care for ourselves when no one else does, and to care for others when no one else will.

We were born into history to do good works, to be a holy nation not only for ourselves but for all nations. Though we have suffered every manifestation of human evil from the tortures of the inquisition to the massacres of the crusades, from the humiliation of the pogroms to the crematoria of the Holocaust, we are still here. And our mission is to do our best that no other people has to live through what we have suffered. We recount every Pesach and remember that we were slaves in order to be sensitive and to do our best that no one else is enslaved.

We are and have always been few in number, but our will remains strong, our faith intact, and our people still lives. And our instinct to care for those who are hurting and in need, Jewish or not, still abides within us.

We Jews don’t count the house. The population of a struggling Jewish community is not significant in determining our allegiance to them. That they exist is the miracle, and our mission.

It’s extraordinary, isn’t it?

In response to our global responsibility, one of our congregation’s priorities is to visit Jewish communities around the world, in our own way to bear witness and to engage in projects in the communities we visit, hopefully in some small way providing for the survival of Jewish life. But our travels are not altogether altruistic. By visiting other communities we learn about Jewish existence by looking beyond ourselves.

We travel to Cuba because being with a community that has hung to life by its fingernails teaches us about tenacity and commitment. And we are awed by the JDC’s teams leading that community in fulfillment of our people’s mission, one of your core missions: to revitalize Jewish life. In fact, during our most recent visit, I was so taken by the JDC team there I offered them jobs.

We travelled to South America to be with communities that worship differently but are very much a part of our Jewish family. We were in Argentina after the collapse of that country’s economy when the middle class evaporated, when former Jewish bankers and manufacturers became the “sudden poor,” when at least 25 percent of the nearly two hundred thousand Argentinean Jews were in need of emergency assistance to survive.

And at that time, we learned from them what it means for the Jewish family to take care of each other through the vicissitudes of communal life, especially when part of our family is hurting. And we found you, the JDC, there, fulfilling our people’s mission, another of your core missions: to support and save the world’s poorest Jews. Since our visit, we’ve supported the Jewish day school in Mendoza.

And we traveled to Germany and Spain and the Former Soviet Union supporting projects in these countries and especially developing a unique relationship with the Jewish community of Minsk. With that Belarusian Jewish community, we celebrate the b’nei mitzvah of each other’s children. We support their camps and send our teachers and post-confirmation students to be counselors at those camps. Why do we do it? Because except for the incongruous decisions of my grandparents from the shtedl of Ivinetz outside Minsk to come to this country, I and my family could be those Jews in Belarus and they could be us.

You the JDC are devoted to developing tomorrow’s Jewish leaders throughout the world and for the same reason, we especially support the youth programs and summer and winter camps in Minsk.

And we travel to Israel regularly. My congregation will have groups there three times this year because we should always be engaged with Israel, hopefully love Israel.

They are our people. That is our nation. They are our family and family should be with family, not only in good times, but especially perhaps even more so in times of struggle. Without my telling you what any of you should do, I believe our presence in Israel is most significant when missiles are disrupting life and innocent people are bombed on buses and when the nation is on the edge of war, on the edge of fear.

Whenever possible, we should be in Israel, joining them in re-embracing the incredible miracle, spirit, hope, and dedication of Israelis when times are tough. The poignant recent image of Israeli troops called up for reserve on the borders of Gaza joining in song and dancing the hora and giving the power of their own spirit to their colleagues-at-arms is a remarkable metaphor for who we are as a people: strong and tenacious, unwilling to submit to murderous forces of injustice and oppression.

That is our mission, it is your mission: to empower Israeli’s future, to be with them in the midst of their celebrations and to be with them to share their heartache, to care for their immigrant and other children and youth at risk, and as you say “to develop visionary solutions to meet the needs of all disadvantaged in Israeli society.”

But here’s the rub. When Israel is in need of our support—and there are few, if any others, beyond the Jewish community who will rise to stand by Israel—can we muster the will and resources to both stand with Israel and to continue our commitments to helping suffering non-Jewish populations throughout the world? Can we expect of ourselves that our global Jewish responsibility applies both to Jews who are particularly in extremis and to non-Jews often living in territories and nations that refuse to support Israel’s wellbeing?

Can we do always do both? I’m sure that within this hall, there are those who would argue that there are times when we need to take care of our own because no one else will and let the others take care of themselves. On the other hand, there are those who will argue that we are never without the resources to both care for our own and care for others at the same time.

Personally, I believe our global Jewish responsibility is to do what is right not only when it is convenient, because to live out our Jewish mission is not always easy. To be honest, I wrestle with myself. I was brought up as Jew in the Bronx. When someone hurts me or my people, the Bronx in me seeks payback and revenge, or at least prompts me to walk away and tell the rest of them to “Go to hell!” But the Jew in me swallows hard and drives me back to take control of my brutal instincts and instead to fulfill the mission of being a light to the nations, to be a goy kadosh, a holy people.

Therein lies the inexorable eternal dilemma of Jewish responsibility.

Despite the innumerable horrific tragedies that have beset us, and perhaps because of them, we remain a people endowed with sacred purpose. That is how our parents raised us and why we care.

We tell ourselves and our children that our existence is to be a beacon, a light to the nations. To be a Jew means to not turn away from the pain of others even when we hurt.

When someone is in pain, we Jews provide for their comfort. When there is need to stand strong for principles of decency, we stand taller. We envision a better world, and then work for it even harder. We tell the truth when it is difficult and support the weak when it is uncomfortable. We are witness to God’s existence in our improbable, indefinable, wondrous journey. And that is our mission, and you are part of it all.

Above all, we stand by our own people in their best and worst times because that is what family does. Like fragile shoots flowering after the passing of winter, Jewish communal life has again emerged in central and eastern Europe.

Jewish communities have returned with vigor and purpose, with resilience and longing, in search and in need in places like Minsk and Saint Petersburg and Odessa, Prague and Budapest, Berlin and Warsaw, Kiev and Vienna, and they are our responsibility, and you are part of it all.

And in Israel—our homeland, our birthright, our soul-place—we help by supporting Jewish life, ensuring their future, providing our strength, and making it clear that the finest expression of Jewish life and mission is embedded in the life pulse of that wondrous state, and we need to be part of it.

Emma Lazarus suggested in her poem “Gifts” that while great nations have fallen by the wayside of history, we Jews yet endure. The Roman and Greek empires that conquered us have disappeared from the landscape. The pharaohs of Egypt that enslaved us are gone. The inquisitors who tortured us have been damned. The power of the Cossacks…gone! Hitler…gone! Stalin…gone! And we the Jewish people glorified in her words,  “Seek…[us] today, and find [us] in every land” We survive! We live! We endure!

To paraphrase Emma Lazarus, our proclamation is:  “No fire consumes us, neither floods devour us. Immortal we are with the lamp in our hand.”

The answer to the question “what is our global Jewish responsibility?” is we know it when we see it and hopefully when we fulfill it.

You the JDC have a pure ineffable but powerful message to take to Jews throughout this world: to fulfill our wondrous destiny, for “immortal we are with the lamp in our hand.” May we passionately recommit ourselves to the ongoing and miraculous venture of Jewish life. Launched as we were into human history, we have a mission and a purpose, so with passion, courage, and especially with the incredible energy that is the hallmark of this organization, may you continue to lead us forward.

It’s amazing work you do, so keep on with it because it is the mission for which God commissioned us and for which we were brought into existence. For our existence and our mission, for it all, we should be enormously grateful.

Thank you.

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