Belong anywhere

In the quiet dignity of these grieving parents, we have been given the gift of reinforcing our core value as a Jewish community.

Area religious leaders light ‘Candles of Hope’ during a memorial service at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park, Kansas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Area religious leaders light ‘Candles of Hope’ during a memorial service at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park, Kansas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I was standing with Bat Galim and Ofir Shaer by the grave of their only son, Gil-Ad. The next day would be the end of shloshim – the first 30 days of the mourning process.
As a parent, I couldn’t even begin to imagine their trauma.
Yet, in the midst of their agonizing pain, they didn’t speak of anger or vengeance. They turned to me and said: “The way the whole Jewish world has responded to the deaths of our boys– with kindness and deep personal concern – has been a great comfort to us. But the way it has brought Jews together – from all walks of life – is a call to action. This precious sense of unity must be sustained. That has to be their legacy to us, and we have to help make that happen.”
In the quiet dignity of these grieving parents, we have been given the gift of reinforcing our core value as a Jewish community: kol yisrael arevim ze ba’ze – all of Israel is responsible for one another.
This is a statement about who we are. It’s our communal hineni – here I am. I am here for you.
I spent most of Operation Protective Edge in Israel with many of you.
And if you weren’t there physically on a solidarity mission, you were there in spirit, raising $55 million and coordinating more than 90 rallies.
From “Bring back our boys” onward, we were joined in fundraising by the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, as well as our historic partners: JDC, the Jewish Agency, ORT and the Israel Trauma Coalition.
Ever present – ever working to bring help and coordinate efforts for those in need, The Jewish Federations of North America are always there when they are needed the most. The world, for Federation, is truly our backyard.
And there is trouble in our backyard.
The geopolitical threats we face – as in a nuclear Iran and unrest around the world – are cause for our concern and attention.
Look at this past year: the crises in Israel and Ukraine, BDS on campus and in our hometowns, the shootings in Kansas City, floods in Detroit and Colorado. It did not matter if it was halfway around the world or around the corner; Federation was able to act on a moment’s notice.
Think about how Federation raised and put to work tens of millions of dollars to help the residents of Southern Israel and those most vulnerable, whether it was medicine & food, counseling services, or help for the elderly.
Think about the many campuses on which Federations and JCPA’s Israel Action Network supported the great work of Hillel, Israel On Campus Coalition, and others, to help students combat the evils of anti-Israel rhetoric and BDS.
Think about Kansas City. When a deranged anti-Semite terrorized the community and claimed three innocent lives, the Kansas City Federation and JCC were there to immediately address the situation, along with SCN – the Federations’ Secure Community Network.
Yes, in a crisis, we are there.
But what about when there isn’t a crisis? What about the day-to-day? How do we – the Jewish Federation system, which touches more Jewish lives than anyone else on the planet – become so effective and collaborative that we are propelled into a richer, more vibrant future? It is here where the experiences of this General Assembly really resonate the loudest for me, and I hope for you, as well.
Yesterday, Rachel Botsman spoke about Airbnb, and I think their tagline says it best: “belong anywhere.”
And I challenge us to ensure that “belong anywhere” remains the Jewish community’s tagline, as well.
That’s what we do when we work to ensure there is a place for every Jew at the Kotel.
That’s what we do when we support engaging programs for young adults in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Birmingham, Las Vegas, Washington, DC, and many other cities around the continent.
That’s what we do when we help ensure seamless equality for people with special needs in all Federation programs and services. But we must do much more.
Michael spoke yesterday about how Federation invests in innovation. We are a movement of action and ideas, and we have ideas worth sharing.
You see, Federation is uniquely positioned to be a sharing ecosystem. We spent the last several hours in sessions where 50 of our system’s best ideas were shared and discussed.
These presentations – and many others during this GA – were taped and will be curated to enable them to be shared system-wide – building that Wikipedia of Jewish communal knowledge we talked about last year.
But Rachel and Michael challenge us to take the concept of sharing to the next level. We can go beyond exchanging ideas to actually exchanging services. JFNA expanded the resources of our consulting and community development department, but what if we also leverage and share the resident expertise in this room and across our federations? For example, Michael Sonduck, the San Diego federation executive, visited our offices. He shared that one of his staff had mastered the application of Blackbaud to prospect fundraising.
He said he would be willing to “share” this professional for three weeks a year with other Federations if they had a skill set for which he could trade.
Taking it to the next level also means anticipating the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, and addressing them now.
When we develop leadership pipelines for our system, we facilitate the onboarding of outstanding lay and professional leaders.
When we work with SCN to develop plans and readiness guidelines for our communities, we are recognizing and anticipating the security needs for tomorrow.
So, this is what we are speaking of when we ask how we can be as effective as we are in a crisis, in our day-to-day work. We are speaking of my community sharing with your community, and thinking of them all as our communities. This is especially critical where the next generation is concerned. Young people in your community today are likely to live elsewhere tomorrow.
We must treat our system as a unified continental entity. We are organized geographically, but that’s not how the world functions anymore. It doesn’t matter if a Holocaust survivor is in New York or Nebraska. They are our collective responsibility.
It does not matter if a great idea comes from Denver or Delaware; if it works well and is adaptable, everyone should benefit.
I want to end where I began: with the yearning of parents for a meaningful legacy for their son. In the private memorial prayers for a loved one, we say – hineni noder tzedakah – we actually pledge tzedakah in someone’s memory. The rabbis teach that tzedakah does not mean charity, but rather, the obligation of Jews to behave righteously.
And unlike private acts of charity, tzedakah is meant to be a communal pursuit – done with others – so that its effect is leveraged and made stronger by the community.
When this becomes our communal construct, it not only enables us to touch more Jewish lives than anyone else on the planet, it makes that work sacred.
And like any sacred trust, we can never desist from it.
And we never will.
Thank you.
The author president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America.