In Jewish tradition, Purim is considered one of our most joyous holidays. In the coming week, we will celebrate the perseverance of the Jewish community in ancient Persia over those who would see it destroyed, heralding the start of a long period of prosperity and growth. Yet prior to this triumph, the Jews were faced with a time of anxiety, strife, and trauma. Their future well-being, spiritual and otherwise, was in doubt.
As we know from Megillat Esther (the scroll we read on this holiday), we see the fickleness of the ruler at the time, discarding one queen, Vashti, and choosing another, Esther, based on looks alone. We see a rise in anti-Semitism, with Haman as ringleader, portraying the Jews as the “other” — dangers to society that needed to be wiped out. The Jews were a minority and no threat to anyone else; many were just trying to lead lives in accordance with their tradition, and others were just trying to fit in. The rest of society did not seem to care one way or another. And King Ahashverosh’s focus was elsewhere, on his pleasure and his accolades.
God is not mentioned directly in the Purim story; it is up to the Jewish people themselves to effect the course of events. Dealing with the crisis successfully required focused and principled leadership, as well as effective community organizing and strong ties to decision-makers. While individuals tended to be focused on their own safety and welfare, it was only through collective action and being responsible for one another that the Jews were able to overcome the challenges they faced and the animosity directed their way.
Of late, I have been struck by how much our times today resemble the situation described in the story of Purim. Anti-Semitism is resurgent. Enemies like ISIS and Al Qaida are growing and becoming more emboldened. We have fickle world leaders. People’s focus, including in our own community, is elsewhere; many just want to fit in and want to not confront challenging issues surrounding Israel or anti-Semitism.
Right now, our community needs leadership and effective organizing and action. There are problems that need to be addressed, burning and existential questions about the safety of Jews around the world and the future of Jewish identity and community. These are challenges that require collective action and enhanced recognition of how all members of a family should be responsible for one another.
The only organization that is in a position to address these overarching issues — issues that cut across individuals, types of Jews, particular Jewish organizations, and specific Jewish causes…is the Jewish Federation. An effective Jewish Federation is able to leverage resources, professionals, partnerships, and volunteers to help tackle these big-picture challenges.
To best deliver on this vision, two things need to happen. The first is that Federations need to focus on their unique role in the community – especially in the areas of leadership, community engagement and convening partners – and where they can bring leverage to deliver concrete results. Extraneous functions and efforts should be left to the side. The second is that our Jewish community, especially all the various organizations and ideologies which normally strive to stand apart, need to recognize that we are all family – and our family needs to come together at this point in time to ensure our collective survival. Together, we must all keep our eyes on the prize.
This is not the time for business as usual. This is a time to focus and marshal our resources to meet the challenges before us — helping those in the community who are most in need, raising awareness about threats to our values and the state of Israel, and helping build a vibrant Jewish future. Jewish Federations need to move beyond the successes of the past to best address the challenges of the present. Our focus needs to be on the best way to do the most good in the Jewish world today.
We have a lot of work to do to ensure that Jewish Federations are able to live up to this potential. And, just as we read in the Scroll of Esther, it is up to us to meet these challenges head on. As we celebrate Purim this year and recall what happened in those days long ago, may we also find a way to ensure our community’s health, well-being, and success long into the future.
Keith Krivitzky is CEO of The “new” Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.
Parts of this essay reprinted with permission of the New Jersey Jewish News (www.njjewishnews.com)