It might seem to some ironic that I, a secular Jew, refer to traditional sources. This is, however, due to the misunderstanding of what it means to be a secular Jew. A secular Jew does not oppose religion nor is he/she necessarily atheistic (although some are). A secular Jew embraces the historical experience of our people as a whole, religious as well as non religious; it embraces Rashi and Maimonides, and the Baal Shem Tov and Freud, Hertzl and Alkalay, and so many more. Jewish identity is not the product of one particular strand, but of the tapestry they all together form.
Rabbi Kook, first Chief Rabbi of the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine, once pointed out that on Sukkot we do not bless each one of the four species separately, but we bless them together. The Etrog, the Lulav, the Adas and the Aravah represent in Jewish tradition four different kind of Jews; four ways to approach the Jewish experience – yet when we bless them, we hold them together as one – because our people is complete only when it contains diversity.
But that diversity also needs to contemplate unity...not uniformity, but unity. We can and should disagree to remain true to our convictions, but we also need to know how to function in cooperation with those who do not share out convictions; with those who might indeed hold convictions antithetical to ours. Our loyalty to Jewish identity is, in my opinion, defined by this ability to work together, this ability to respect those who follow a different path to our common heritage.
It also means to be mindful of the consequences of our actions and how they affect not only us and those with whom we share a path, but also those Jews who are part of our larger collective. Being divisive in a community is attacking the concept of the unity of the Jewish people. In Pirkey Avot, it is written “Me Hu Chacham? HaLomed Mikol Adam” - who is truly wise? The one who learns from all people. Sometimes it is better to give up a project which is dividing the community than trying to push it forward against the current – because thinking that only our own way is the true one is nothing but arrogance and the inability of learning from others.
We are like the four species of Sukkoth, all different but bound in a common blessing, in a common curse, in a common destiny. It was another of the great Rabbis, this one from the times of old, who spoke of community from a different perspective...Hillel.
“Im Ein Ani Li Mi Li”? (“If I am not for myself, who will be?”) talks about the need to look for our own needs first, and our families and our community. Only if we take care of ourselves and our own can we stand in front of the mirror and see not only ourselves, but all the generations past and all the generations to come. By taking care of our own, we take control of our collective destiny. But the saying goes on...
“Im Ein Achshav, Eimatai?” (“If not now, when?”). The need to take care of our own is not defined by our personal timetable, but by existing needs. When the needs are there, it is then that we need to step up to the plate. Delaying our help means delaying our duty to one another. And there is a part of this saying that is rarely mentioned...
“Abal im Ani rak L'Atzmi, Ma Ani?” (“But if I'm only for myself, what Am I?”). We do not live isolated but immerse in a society, and when anybody in that society is hurting, we all are. As Jews it is our obligation to not only look for our own people, but for all our neighbors. When Israel is sending aid to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti or the Typhoon in the Philippines or the Civil War in Syria, it is living up to this idea...that the true test of who we are is how we treat those around us.
The Jewish Federation strives to live up to the example of Israel and to the highest standards of Jewish Ethics. We look at the community as a rich interwoven tapestry of different ideas and people; we take care of our own here at home, in Israel and around the world; we do it timely because we believe it is the only way to do it; and we seek to embrace the values of our American society, with its freedoms, its opportunities, and also its needs.
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