‘Achdut’: A Leadership Imperative

What is it about the Hebrew word “Achdut” that makes it so powerful, so charged, so hopeful and so promising……..and yet, so allusive and challenging to achieve?

The Hebrew term “Achdut” is one of the most written about, talked about, sought after and debated concepts  – –  representing unity, harmony or solidarity… It engenders a feeling of oneness; and, a feeling of community, communality and “peoplehood”. And, it is built upon a common destiny, trust and a shared vision.

Throughout Jewish History, we have grappled with the concept of Achdut. For some, it represents a path to understanding, mutual respect and tolerance; to others, it engenders a true willingness to join together for the common good and to coalesce around a single set of beliefs, standards and values. However, there is also a very complex and daunting side to Achdut which continuously challenges all of us as we struggle to set aside our differences and deep felt convictions and attitudes for the greater good

What is it about the soul, DNA and human condition of the Jewish community which makes it so challenging and difficult, if not at times almost impossible, for us to exhibit true Achdut publicly and privately? What is it about the condition of the Jewish people that prevents us from developing a sense of true unity while respecting the rich diversity of perspectives in our community?  And, what is it about leadership that makes the tasks of unifying communities so difficult and perplexing? These are questions which our sages, Rabbis and communal leaders have posited for centuries. To be sure, the responses to these questions are as complex and diverse as the questions themselves.

As we know, our communities on the local and global levels are very effective at promoting “Achdut” through creative and thoughtful taglines and marketing slogans such as ….. “We Are One” “We Stand Together”  “United We Stand” or “Together We Can Do It”. But beyond these meaningful and catchy slogans, (supported by amazing organizations and institutions ) once we peel the layers off the onion to reveal our true inner core, we must pose the question ….do we all actually stand together (in real time) and are we really and truly one unified community?

As a Jewish community, we are all bound and tied together by a common destiny . This common destiny is anchored in biblical texts, in our mesorah and in an everlasting  and eternal belief that we are guided by sacred Jewish values, laws and moral principles which date back to our ancestors. They are indeed timeless; and are deeply embedded in the concept of B’zelem Elokin (that we are all created in the “Image of GD”)

So why is it that besides for sporadic and time bound events in our history, is Achdut so difficult, distant and challenging to achieve. The gathering of thousands of Jews of all ideological commitments who attend the beautiful annual Siyum HaShas; the growing evolution and impact of Tomchei Shabbat and Bikkur Cholim projects, support for Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities during times of existential crises  and the impressive explosion of chesed initiatives in our communities, are just a few of the many powerful and inspiring examples of  true Achdut. But why do these successes not permeate other aspects of Jewish life and communal living?

What makes these events and activities so prevalent  and successful is that they are  all “siloed” – they can all happen successfully without impacting or encroaching  on religious values or principles; and they are all pareve enough, regardless of religious conviction or commitment. They are based on universal values. Nevertheless the challenge still remains, besides for these activities, why is there so much deep rooted fragmentation, polarization  and divisiveness within our community. As a colleague once quipped …”wouldn’t it be truly amazing and beautiful if every day we experienced the unity and achdut engendered by the galvanizing Siyum Hashas…..or by the multitudes of people who work tirelessly for the Bikur Cholim movement ? He was spot on! But the response to these questions are complex.

When a terrorist or a thug commits an act of antisemitism in our community does he really discriminate between religious and non-religious; when our relatives were sent to gas chambers did it make a difference how observant they were; when COVID-19 takes the lives of our community members does it discriminate between Jews who wear black hats, knitted kippot or the type of shul, yeshiva or school they attend?   And when ZAKA shows up following a fatal  accident (GD forbid) do they first determine how religious the victims are?   when Hatzhala rushes our brothers and sisters into the ER……do they first  ask for a “religious membership card”?  or when a chayal  (Israeli soldier) is kidnapped from the IDF, does our pain really depend upon religious he or she is? The answer is obvious. Why? Because we are all Jews– brothers and sisters from the same family  and we are all part of a common destiny anchored in ancestral history.  So that being the case why in GD’s name can we not act and behave in a civil manner towards each other ? What is it about our condition, and above all, what is it about our leadership who turn the other way not to publicly address the myriad of public events which foment hate, divisiveness and acrimony.

As the COVID-19  Pandemic rages on, we all witness and experience an impressive array of organised communal and private chesed projects – especially those that  impact the elderly, the poor, the impoverished and those who are unable to take care of themselves.This phenomenon takes place as select communities simultaneously sponsor and encourage large-scale gatherings and celebrations as they irresponsibly throw caution to the wind by disregarding  COVID-19 universal health and safety protocols and guidelines  (such as facial covering and social distancing). This reality has created a daunting schism and dangerous divide in the Jewish community which runs deep and which is now spilling over into the general public. It has created anger, disdain, frustration’ isolation and Hillul HaShem. Moreover, it is tearing our communities apart as it greatly diminishes the opportunity to pride ourselves in promoting, supporting and celebrating true Achdut 

Some say that our leaders are to blame for this deep divide; others opine that its the byproduct of misinformed communal naivety, yet others feel that it represents a level of selfish in-your-face arrogance,  and self-indulgence that is not being challenged publicly by communal and Rabbinic leadership.

I will not suggest why this is the case, nor whether the lack of leadership action is politically motivated or otherwise. It is not my place nor is it prudent to try to navigate this never-ending “rabbit hole”. At best, I would like to suggest that these unfortunate realities are the result of a significant leadership gap and vacuum in our communities which has become more prevalent over the years.

Irrespective of philosophy, ideology or value proposition, when  leaders lead, followers follow. But first and foremost, leaders must lead with conscious and conviction; and,  they must not hide behind the most popular trend or as the wind blows influences of society – whether they be political or cultural. It is up to communal leadership to help develop and define appropriate communal responses and encourage a mindset based on a set of  moral principles, standards and civility.

As I further reflect on this phenomenon, I am reminded how a segment of the B’nai Yisroel (Children of Israel) were portrayed as they impatiently waited for Moses  at the base of Mt. Sinai. They were viewed as “one people with one heart”. That should say it all.  One people meaning like minded and one heart meaning a true conviction and heartfelt connectedness …. and above all, they understood and respected the  consequences of their actions.

As we await the soon to be released COVID-19 vaccinations,  our communities are beginning to see and  feel the warm rays of positive sunlight through the dark clouds of uncertainty.  Maybe now is the time to step back and to begin to think more soulfully and reflectively about our attitudes, values and mindset. Maybe now is the time we must remind ourselves of the hundreds of kedoshim – family members, friends and religious leaders who tragically passed away  over the past 10 months due to the scourge of the pandemic; as well as all of the tragic events which have historically befallen our Jewish community…. even prior to the pandemic  And, maybe now is the time for our community to take a long hard introspective  look at itself in  the mirror and ask ourselves are we truly a “light onto the nations” and if we indeed are, how has this understanding manifested itself in our actions ? What are the lessons learned resulting from the ravages of the pandemic. What have we learned about our Jewish communities, their leadership and our leadership bandwidth?  What have we learned about what we truly value and how does it manifest itself in our communal psyche and action? And finally,  how has the community responded  publicly to the Pandemic at the risk of creating a Hillul HaShem?

It would be unrealistic and  foolish, if not naive and arrogant for me to suggest that we must all agree with every single point of view, standard or position expressed by all members of our Jewish community. It’s just not feasible or realistic. At best, we must learn how to position ourselves as mature, thoughtful, decent citizens of our community. We must place honor, respect and civility as top communal priorities. And above all, we must continue to remind ourselves that our actions and quest for civility are only as important and meaningful as we chose them to be. Our actions must be anchored in acts civility, respect and decency. We must seek out leadership who respect this level of achdut and civility. And we must marginalize at best those who claim to lead but not in words or action.

Now more than ever is the time to unify  our community;  now is the time for Achdut; and, now is the time for leadership to step up and take a public stand. We must live up to the standards of leadership and we must abide by the values of our Torah …..the ultimate “strategic plan” for  Klal Yisrael.  In so doing, we will create harmony, communal Shalom Bayit and a Kiddush HaShem for others to emulate.

A tall order?  Absolutely.  But who ever said that leadership was an easy task.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is currently Principal of the Hebrew Academy Community Day School in Margate FL and Executive Coach and Consultant. He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011