On a regular basis, I find myself in the fortunate position of hearing Mitzvah stories – stories of how members of our congregation give of themselves to improve the world. Members of our kehillah (community) make an impact locally, nationally and internationally in both specifically Jewish and more universal arenas. This includes, of course, our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students who typically include a “Mitzvah project” as part of their coming-of-age experience. People contribute both time and resources in ways that speak to their diverse interests.
Some of us – and I include myself here – struggle with identifying the appropriate avenues for our acts of “Gemilut Chasadim” (often translated as “deeds of lovingkindness”). How do we prioritize amongst competing needs? What is worthy and what is… even more worthy? We know that Jewish causes will primarily see support from Jews. So how do we decide to split our support (time and money) between exclusively Jewish and more universal causes? And, what about “hybrid” causes – Jewish organizations that help in the wider world? How do we rank our involvement with universities and cultural causes versus health-related volunteerism or tzedakah? How does supporting Israel-related causes measure up against meeting Jewish needs locally, across the United States or elsewhere around the world?
Throughout our, now, sixty-year history as a congregation, we (as a community and as individuals) have filled vital roles in a multitude of ways. I am proud that our community, in recent years, has taken on additional projects through the auspices of the synagogue. Our increasing involvement with the Harrison Food Pantry pictured here is one such example. One often finds a full collection bin for one type of item or another at the synagogue entrances. You may recall that a small group of JCCH members traveled to Houston, Texas last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey to provide some manual labor assistance and express our solidarity. And, of course, many of us feel great pride in how we have adopted a family of refugees, the Ahmadi family (formerly of Afghanistan) and assisted in their resettlement here in America.
A fair question to ask about all of these efforts: Must they take place through the framework of a synagogue? Indeed, this is an appropriate question as all of the efforts described above can take place independently, without any coordination through the shul. So, if that is the case, why are we focusing our efforts in this way?
I suggest two reasons. First, as I alluded to above, all of us struggle to find accessible ways to make a difference. With the synagogue organizational infrastructure doing the initial coordinating, we can spend less time planning and more time doing. It is simply more efficient this way. Second, and perhaps more crucially, making these efforts through the auspices of the synagogue helps strengthen our own community. A wonderful friendship network developed, for example, among those involved in resettling the Ahmadi family. Many of us – all synagogue members – had not previously met. So, too, those volunteering each week at the Harrison Food Pantry; we are reaching diverse (and previously under-engaged) groups within the community. We all know that our synagogue’s religious, educational, social and other offerings speak to some of us; efforts in this arena broaden the range of synagogue members who regularly engage with the congregation, in some way.
In a commentary on the Book of Numbers, the Torah is famously compared to wine. Wine – in ancient times and today – is of great value because of the major investment required in its production – cultivating the vineyard, harvesting, turning the grape juice into wine (a multi-year process), etc. The numerical value of the Hebrew letters for the word for wine, Yud-Yud-Nun, (10+10+50) equal seventy. And, therefore, like wine, Torah is described as having seventy ways to expound its meanings, seventy “Panim” (faces) of the Torah. There are seventy different doorways into the Torah, our tradition teaches us.
In some ways, our synagogue can be analogous to Torah. Perhaps there are “seventy” (e.g. a large number) ways into communal involvement and connection. Whatever your preferred entryway, pathway in the door, I ask you to rededicated yourself in this new Jewish of 5779 to finding your particular route into the regular activities of the congregation. And, if that requires you to chart your own path, we would be delighted to partner with you in whatever way speaks to you.
Let us continue to strengthen one another as we begin a new season, a new chapter, a new blessed Jewish Year of 5779 here at the Jewish Community Center of Harrison. Amen and Shana Tova to one and all.