Rosh HaShana Summons American Jewry to Greatness
Special Tribute to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l, one the greatest Jewish thought leaders of our time, who passed away in 5781 wrote in his opening essay to the Koren Siddur: “On Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur … God summons us to greatness.” Much has been written on the meaning of this call for individuals through the process of cleansing our actions and focusing on the purpose of our lives. The question I ask myself today is what does ‘greatness’ mean for a community, and particularly for American Jewry at this time?
The mission of being a blessing for the families of the earth was endowed upon the Jewish People at its inception, when Abraham was summoned to leave his homeland and go to the Land of Israel. About a millennia later, shortly after the Exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews are tasked with being a holy people, goy kadosh. In this context, collective ‘holiness’, namely being a society of justice, was going to distinguish the Jewish People from other nations and to charge them with the mission of the betterment of humanity. Centuries later, Prophet Isaiah envisioned the Jewish People as a “Light Unto the Nations”.
That mission of the Jewish People mandates interaction with humanity but also remaining separate and distinct. Rabbi Sacks frames this duality as the condition of otherness. Indeed, according to the Torah, Avraham is called Hebrew, HaIvri, which emanates from the word ‘ever’ that refers to being ‘on the other side’, different, challenging prevailing norms and even contrarian to the leading ideologies of the world.
Hence the Jewish quest for a model society. The logic goes roughly along the following lines: God has no shape or form, but can be revealed through emulating divine attributes in oneself and one’s family, community and society. Since every single act counts, Jews have been obsessed with laws that delineate what is allowed and forbidden to reveal ‘Godliness’ – a concept I learnt from the great Edgar Bronfman z”l – in human society. That process is eternal not just because of inherent human imperfections but also because the world evolves and so do the questions we face and the answers we need.
These dynamics of justice-questing unfold for individuals but also for communities and societies. In other words, Jewish people have always asked themselves not just what is the most efficient way to organize ourselves but also what is the most just way to do so. This approach of Judaism places tremendous significance on the art of institution building and on societal innovation, namely on how we organize people to get things done. Such innovation is distinguished from technical innovation, which refers to improvements in usage of material such as the inventions of the wheel, the combustion engine, the microchip or an algorithm. From the Jewish perspective, how society organizes itself is more important to its morality, longevity, resilience and prosperity than its technological sophistication.
The first acts of societal innovation took place in the desert, where the first documented judiciary was shaped and the Tabernacle was built. Later, in the Land of Israel, additional innovations were introduced such as a Temple in Jerusalem that served as a central place of worship for One God. But the bulk of societal breakthroughs emerged during the periods of exile. In such conditions of limited self-government, the Jewish People ceaselessly developed its institutions to ensure survival and prosperity. In fact, many modern civic institutions can be traced through thousands of years of Jewish history. Those include various modes of governance such as democracy, constitutional monarchy, separation of powers or intellectual meritocracy; rule of law, independent judiciary and the role of dissenting views; minority rights, human rights, the sabbath and anti-slavery; regulation of markets, community funds, progressive taxation, debt alleviation, bankruptcy and second chances, charity and philanthropy; environmental laws and animal rights; universal education and welfare state. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks dedicated much of his life’s work to the challenge of morality in the public sphere and his legacy provides an endless source of insights about its requisites in our time.
This legacy must inspire American Jewry to ask: what are the emerging frontiers of Jewish contribution and greatness-through-service in the US? How does a small community serve a great nation in a distinct and significant way? Of course, similar questions should be asked by other Jewish communities around the world, but American Jews are by all measures the most significant Diaspora of our time. Clearly, yet again, the answer must emanate from our societal legacy and destiny and leverage our communal ‘superpowers’.
The polarization of American politics and society, Israel’s turning into a wedge issue in American politics, the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict with its outbursts of violence, new waves of anti-Semitism, and the economic challenges faced by dozens of Jewish institutions following the COVID pandemic make for dark clouds that are looming over the long term well-being and security of American Jewry and its place in American society. In such a reality, American Jewry may be inclined to lower its head and downsize its ambitions. But this would be the wrong thing to do. Because now is the moment to do the opposite: to be bold, to think big and to be strategic about how to punch above its weight to help American recovery.
Against the backdrop of daunting challenges, a clear and evident opportunity for ‘greatness’ is staring American Jewry in the eyes. It emanates from the unprecedented opportunity that now faces the Jewish People to make a ‘quantitative’ contribution to humanity by improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Namely, for the first time in Jewish history, our contribution is not just ‘qualitative’ through the examples of our ideas, laws and institutions.
This opportunity for a quantitative contribution to humanity emanates from a confluence of four powerful forces and realities: first, the mission of being a blessing for the families of the earth continues to inspire many thousands of Jews to dedicate themselves and their resources to the betterment of society. In other words, we have an army of do-gooders that can be deployed. Second, the advent of technology now allows addressing mass-problems with solutions that can be disseminated to many millions of people. That is a universal truth, but Jews and Israelis are particularly prominent at the frontiers of many of these technologies. Third, Israel serves as a huge playground for new ideas that can have a global application in a variety of fields including healthcare, water, energy, life in arid areas, medicine or dealing with needs of people living with disabilities. Finally, a worldwide web of Jewish communities serves as a most effective and efficient distribution mechanism. This new potential for changing the lives of millions of people is nothing less than a new and exciting phase in Jewish history.
How can such a bold vision be realized? The answer begins with the understanding that the ecosystem of Tikkun Olam should comprise not just of a myriad of small-scale initiatives, but also of large-scale institutional interventions. It requires shifting from providing many specific solutions to specific problems to creating a few systemic solutions to systemic problems that can help millions of Americans on the federal, state and local levels in urban and rural areas who are living with disabilities, elderly or poor. Such an answer must emanate from an outlook and approach that are global and national yet local, ambitious yet methodic, entrepreneurial yet institutional.
Furthermore, any ‘big idea’ must leverage the superpowers of American Jewry, which are its dense web of institutions e.g. federations, schools and campus presence; its connection to Israel; and its collective philanthropic and political abilities. In other words, while the place of American Jewry in American society is challenged, a historical opportunity emerges to enshrine Jewish leadership in America for decades.
Investing in such game-changing efforts will have many collateral benefits. It will strengthen ‘community relations’ of American Jewry across American society with non-Jewish groups, as well as with government, corporates and other nonprofits. It can be a platform for a new generation of leaders and societal entrepreneurs; and it can even allow access to vast matching resources. No doubt that American Jewry faces many clear, ongoing and immediate needs such as better physical security, rising antisemitism and struggling institutions. But addressing these problems will not be game-changing because they emanate from current conditions. In parallel, there is a need for reverse engineering from a bold vision.
Jewish history teaches us that many breakthrough initiatives came from people who had no formal authority on the challenge they were tackling. In fact, in most cases, it was a partnership between bold entrepreneurs and philanthropists who had the appetite for transformative interventions. The Zionist movement was initiated by Herzl and financed by millions of large and small donations and Birthright was initiated by an Israeli politician and kicked into orbit by a handful of philanthropists. Now too we need the magic dust of entrepreneurship and venture philanthropy.
In Lessons in Leadership, Rabbi Sack’s comments on Vayakhel. After the disastrous idolatrous event of the Golden Calf, Moses suddenly asks the Israelites to build the holy of holies, the Tabernacle. His request is met with tremendous enthusiasm. From that story, Rabbi Sacks teaches: “You can turn even hostile factions into a single cohesive group so long as they are faced with a shared challenge that all can overcome together but no one can do alone … if you seek to create a community out of strongly individualistic people, you have to turn them into builders…” In many ways, that is what American Jewry must do: create the opportunity for American Jews and non-Jewish Americans to collaborate in making building the next great chapter of their country.
Gidi Grinstein is Founder and President of Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) an Israeli-turned-global humanitarian project with the goal of helping 250 million people. Gidi is the Founder of Reut Group and author of Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability. Gidi created the group that designed Birthright Israel.