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One dreamer, 2-thousand souls in Paris

In the wake of terror, a free concert offered a way to celebrate the power of humanity, goodness and community

The times are too angry. We are too afraid, too bombarded with tragic events or fears for our safety. We trust our neighbors less. All of this separates us, sends us to the safety of our aloneness and our loneliness. Trust is a great casualty. We are about ourselves only, a cruel reality that breeds incivility. And, of course, it prevents us from making a real difference.

Sometimes, but not always.

I write this while on an airplane returning from one of those moments of light, nobility, and difference. I feel elevated and united with my people. And I didn’t initially think I would.

Late last week, Nachum Segal, the legendary voice of Jewish radio, an event impresario, and an alumnus of Yeshiva University, became a true hero. As the Jewish community felt battered by disasters, both natural and man-inflicted, Nachum had an idea: a free concert in Paris to show global support and unity following the recent savage and stunning attacks on all the people of Paris, as well as mark the anniversary of the Hyper Cacher Market murders just one year ago.

And so he organized a visit to Paris; worked with the Consistoire, the French Jewish communal leadership body, and the historic and magnificent Grande Synagogue de la Victoire to plan the concert; assembled donors, staff and volunteers to transform the synagogue into a magnificent, holy concert venue; and brought musicians and singers from Israel, France and the United States together for the historic event.

On the night of the concert, more than two-thousand Jewish Parisians filled every space in the sanctuary, and for nearly three hours we celebrated. We kindled Hanukkah lights and celebrated because we could, because the human spirit wants to spread light.

It was a very moving concert. Dignitaries spoke, but briefly. The orchestra was magnificent, the setting spectacular. But it was the two-thousand souls celebrating as one that was truly remarkable.

We sang together. We thanked each other. Tweets were shared during the simulcast worldwide. The simple, all too rare feeling that the Jewish family, the human family, can come together as one, to proclaim that we are not alone, to know there’s light in the darkness and even after the darkness, and that a small band of intrepid people can make it better, even for a single evening, filled me with hope and renewed resolve.

At my school, a fine, faith-based institution, we engage in many acts of caring. We support those in need, our students engage in every conceivable form of activism, and we delve into our sacred texts, based on values and justice. And yet, we still live in the contemporary envelope of cynicism, assumptions, and a fear of civility.

But it needn’t be the case. Simple kindness trumps complex anger. Action defeats sad inaction. Witnessing unity, relationships, and voices raised together, reminded me of who we are and who we can be, at least sometimes. And when, down in the belly of the beast, at the sight of unspeakable evil, when hatred seemingly surrounds us, the light can shine. And it did, so brightly.

It took one dreamer, acting on a sad opportunity, joined by teams of caring and creative people to showcase the humanity that we used to display all the time. And we didn’t fix the world. But for a few hours, as our candles of dedication burned, we publicized the power of humanity, goodness, and community.

For one evening, all of the social media channels that too often divide and tear down, were used to focus on the good, to publicize our own miracle. And for a while, more than two-thousand people walked away civilly, happily, unified, not even speaking the same language, but closer than we ever thought possible.

It is true that we are at war. But let us not embrace the enemy: fear, incivility, cynicism, and inaction. The small, intrepid group of citizens who produced this remarkable event proved that we can win, and that we can do it all the time.

Hanukkah is about light and commitment, and standing up to a culture that can destroy us. This Hanukkah, we won.

At the very beginning of the Torah, the first words spoken by G-d, before the creation of man, is “Let there be light.” The mandate to civilizations yet unborn is to bring light out of the darkness, and order out of the chaos. We always have the power to do just this, if only we embrace the opportunities.

About the Author
Richard M. Joel is the President of Yeshiva University and the Bravmann Family University Professor.
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