Jewish social action month, a new initiative advanced by the Kol Dor young leadership movement in conjunction with former deputy minister for social and diaspora affairs Rabbi Michael Melchior culminated on Wednesday.
The final event was a global video conference and Talmud study session originating from Jerusalem and incorporating participants in Cape Town, Berlin, Paris, San Francisco, Moscow, London and Melbourne.
Jewish social action month was initiated to foster awareness of the mutual responsibility that Jews have to and for each other and to humanity as a whole.
Launched in the Knesset at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, the concept, according to Melchior, took off like wildfire. It received attention and support in other parliaments around the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrated solidarity with the overriding principle that when someone is in need of help, someone else has to step in and provide it.
People from Jewish communities all over the world volunteered for projects, working within the Jewish community and beyond, said Melchior. Many volunteered to help victims of floods and earthquakes. In Jerusalem, a group of people spruced up the homes of the needy.
Melchior explained that the person-to-person approach is a test. "We will be tested not only on peace and war but how we relate to each other." He was happy to report that at the recent General Assembly of Jewish organizations all Jewish Federations in the United States undertook to work for Jewish social action month, as did all streams of Judaism.
It is often difficult to unite Orthodox and Reform, said Melchior, and although they have not exactly come together in working towards Jewish social action, each stream has adopted the month of Heshvan as social action month.
Heshvan comes after a series of joyful Jewish holidays. It is often prefixed with "Mar," which means bitter in Hebrew. "We want to turn it from a bitter month into a sweet month," said Melchior.
Acutely aware both as a spiritual and a political leader of the divisiveness among the Jewish people, Melchior sees Jewish social action month as a bridge or a common denominator.
While there is debate on whether the Shulchan Aruch - the Code of Jewish Law - is binding on the individual during every waking moment, he said there should be no debate on a communal Shulchan Aruch.
Melchior's suggestion with regard to the communal as distinct from the personal Shulchan Aruch was that people be judged according to a single paradigm: "How we relate to each other and help each other when one of us is in need."
Melchior was optimistic that Jewish social action month will become a permanent fixture in the Jewish calendar, thereby giving new status to Heshvan.
In commending the initiative, President Moshe Katsav, taking his cue from Melchior, said he hoped that it would lead to the removal of the Mar preface to the name of the month.
External forces were not able to destroy the Jewish people, said Katsav, citing Hanukka and Purim as festivals celebrating Jewish survival against all odds. Under foreign rulers, the ancestors of the Jewish people were sent into exile, yet despite their dispersion, he noted, they maintained contact for centuries "without phone or internet" by virtue of the Torah and common prayer.
Doing for others is both a Jewish and a universal value, Katsav said, adding that in the final analysis this type of mutual concern can only benefit the State of Israel, the diaspora and the world at large.
One amusing moment occurred just before Katsav entered the room when Melchior asked all present to rise. The diaspora participants automatically assumed that they were included in the request and duly stood. The standing groups were simultaneously depicted on-screen.