The roaring twenties are back. Consumer confidence and the stock market are at all-time highs, unemployment is at a record low. 2017 has been a year of success with plenty of ways to prove it. We live in a society that glorifies success and consumption, and feeds instant gratification and entitlement. Ask not what your community can do for you, ask what you can do for your community.
We are proudly consuming, but are we proudly giving?
Our parents and grandparents expended tremendous resources, time and sweat equity to build venerable institutions from which we benefit on a daily basis. Enrollment and participation in Jewish day schools and synagogues are at all-time highs. Frankly, we take our institutions for granted and no one wants to talk about it. The most fervent voices express the greatest sense of entitlement, are the biggest beneficiaries, and create noise that results in others being dissuaded from getting involved in the institution. It is easy to complain but difficult to express thanks and positive feedback. Do we thank the rabbis and educators who provide guidance, teach and instill us and our children with Torah values? Do we thank the volunteers and lay leaders for sustaining our local shuls and schools?
Over the past few years of traveling across the country and meeting with Orthodox Union-affiliated synagogue and community leaders, one common thread sticks out in my mind: volunteerism and tzedaka (charity) is generally composed of the same ten percent of the people doing 90% of the work. Ask a typical person on the street and they will give one of three reasons – being too busy, feeling that giving back lacks impact and, lastly, the institution doesn’t resonate with me. Excuses are easy to make and I am the last person to lecture anyone on this topic. All it takes is one person to make a difference. Impact happens when people stand up.
One of the greatest impediments to expressing thanks and giving back to community is the focus on divisiveness and identity (shul/community) politics. An Orthodox elected official once told me, “I will never run for shul president because the politics are too personal.”
Dale Carnagie, in his famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, wrote, “Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.” True “Thanksgiving” can be expressed in myriad ways, showing appreciation to those who impact you in daily life, learning Torah to teach others, giving tzedaka and volunteering.
Thanksgiving is a key tenet of Judaism. Hakarat hatov is not meant for one day, rather it must be expressed every day. In our tefillot, we thank God three times a day for providing us with sustenance. We must internalize the words and turn them into action. The mitzvot provide us with incredible opportunities and the tremendous responsibility of giving back and caring for others. Being part of a community means participating and performing actions greater than oneself. The continuity of the community relies on these basic tenets.
In September, hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastated many communities and we saw the incredible outpouring of support from across the country. The countless acts of chesed and unsung heroes should be applauded and celebrated. We must continue to help Houston during this long road of rebuilding. While we rise up during the darkest times, it is important to carry that strength forward throughout the year.
It is time to change the communal conversation at our table. As we enjoy a festive Thanksgiving meal, we need to tip the scales. A brutally honest question must be asked: “Am I just consuming or am I balancing consumption with my giving to make community stronger?”