This coming Wednesday, June 3, will mark the one year anniversary of the terrorist kidnapping and brutal murders of Eyal Ifrach, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel. It is painful to look back at that day, to recall the hope we had for their safe return, and our profound grief at their loss. How innocent we may now think we were to not have foreseen all the challenges of the year since – the violence last summer as Israel responded to attacks from Hamas in Gaza, the anti-Semitic targeting of Jewish communities across Europe, and yes, the moments of Jewish extremism that horrified us as well.
I look back with pride at how our community in Boston rallied to meet these challenges, coming together repeatedly – to pray, to mourn, to stand in solidarity with Israel and other Jewish communities and in celebration of our hopes for peace. We gathered in the heat of summer and throughout this winter after one of our own was viciously murdered in a Har Nof synagogue and again when French Jewry came under attack. We showed how we could define our own unity in times of crisis.
It is in this spirit that the mothers of those three martyred boys have called for this anniversary to be honored as a global Day of Jewish Unity to “consider the value of unity and how to work even harder to bridge the obvious divides that exist” among us.
Bridging those divides is no small challenge, not least because some among us work so deliberately to exacerbate them. I’ve commented before about our propensity to challenge other Jewish voices with language that goes well beyond curiosity about disagreements and veers into hostility and denial of others’ legitimacy. I’ve come to fear that some in our community would prefer a more ideologically cohesive, but also a smaller and frankly weaker Jewish collective. I’m also troubled by those who challenge our need for a strong collective voice, who argue that it is better to have a thousand diverse Judaisms without any unifying effort to offer some semblance of a powerful, coherent message.
Recently, a friend posed the question about how the Jewish people can address several common challenges that were of particular concern to him. I worry that too many of us no longer believe that we are, in fact, facing common challenges.
I'm of the mind that in many ways, Jewish communities both historically and today pattern themselves upon - or reflect - the surrounding cultures of which they are a part. American Jews today are American in ways that 15th century Spanish Jews were deeply Spanish in their culture and norms.
As American Jews, we live today in one of the most self-oriented individualistic cultures in history. Our politics, lifestyles and societies bend toward individualism. The notion of collectivism is becoming alien to us, and with it collective responsibility, including the idea that each of us, and each of our institutions, must set aside parts of our own agendas in service to a common good.
This, to my mind, is a tragic turn of events.
I once heard John Ruskay refer to Judaism’s gift to our society as our “radical counter-cultural argument for The Commons.” This idea, so deeply rooted in our tradition and culture, rejects the “me first” ethics so prevalent today and sees the world through the prism of shared responsibility for each other and for community. Yet while we draw on this concept to inform our vision for our nation, we seem to be forgetting how to apply it to our own Jewish community, to embrace a positive approach that says that we are bound to each other, have responsibilities to each other, and must work together.
We need to vigorously assert that at the heart of Judaism is a commitment to the collective.
To honor the memories of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, z”l, let us all challenge ourselves – as leaders and as stakeholders in our community – to do more in the coming year to reject the tide of corrosive discourse before we are irreparably torn apart. Together, let us confront those who would drive wedges amongst us. Let us commit ourselves to defining and driving a conversation that is rooted in a shared sense of The Commons that we all have a stake in and are a part of.
With a renewed sense of truly shared purpose that inspires and unifies all the members of our Jewish community, together we can successfully meet any challenges we face in the year ahead.