How do we get back to “we”?

We who work in community relations tend to spend an unhealthy amount of time imagining how things could go badly, and planning for the worst-case scenarios. If you look at the nomenclature of Jewish communal systems, JCRCs are literally called “defense” agencies. We think about how our communities should respond to attacks, to wars, to stuff going sideways.

This isn’t a particularly new line of thinking for me. If I’m being candid, our deputy director, Nahma Nadich, likes to tease me that my propensity for reading post-apocalyptic novels makes me well-suited for this life.

But in the past few weeks, it feels like I’ve attended a bit too many of these kinds of meetings. With our election season (not a day anymore) reaching the pivot point between casting ballots and counting votes, there have been endless meetings – Jewish and interfaith, local and national, with our partners and with government officials – all planning for the many ways that this season could play out. Will there be disruptions to the democratic process? Will there be violence and if so, from what corner and in what form?

While these conversations are critical, as is all the obsessive planning, they can be more than a little dark at times.

Which is why, right now, I want to be practicing hopefulness regarding this season of elections.

Before you jump on me, let me be clear that this is not an expression of hope regarding a particular outcome. As I was sitting at our Council meeting the other night, I was mindful that any and every outcome will disappoint at least some people in our community; and most of us have fears about the results that we are not hoping for. Do not mistake my hopefulness for naivete. I’m under no illusion that any outcome will result in rainbows and unicorns and kumbaya at noon on January 20th. The fractures that plague our society have been building for decades and won’t heal overnight.

There’s been much discussion in recent months about what is broken in our society. I thought this recent Atlantic piece by Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute was helpful in making sense of the “brokenness of the American condition.” Writing about recent protests in New York City he says:

“the idea of obligation as a key element of citizenship—a burden that citizens take on themselves, and that is also expected of them by their leaders—is embattled… Americans are being told that rules requiring personal sacrifice to advance the public good are a violation of their civil liberties, rather than the foundation on which those liberties stand, and that government is at odds with religion. There is enormous irony in the conjunction of these two beliefs, of course; religious communities are deeply committed to the very idea of mutual obligation these protesters are attacking.”

I was struck by his focus on the tearing of the fabric of civic obligation, by partisans of various flavors, in recent decades. What was once John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you…” call to mutual obligation has now become “what’s in it for me?” Kurtzer writes:

“The coronavirus is ours to defeat, if we are prepared to ask what we can do for our fellow Americans. To be American is to be obligated. People of faith should be the first to understand that, lining up—six feet apart—to restore public health, and rebuild American democracy.”

As Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garret observe in their new book “The Upswing”:

“The story of the American experiment in the twentieth century is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism. From ‘I’ to ‘we’ and back again to ‘I’.”

So how do we do reclaim our sense of obligation to one another? How do we rebuild our social contract? How do we get back to “we”?

Tackling that question is what makes me hopeful, even amidst all the current rancor and divisiveness. The very act of voting represents the potential to restore the “we” back into our democracy. My vote is my act of stewardship, my inserting myself in the tide of history that connects our past and our future; and with all the drops joining that river, I get to impact the downstream flow of what we will bequeath to the next generation.

In this moment, we are all called upon to weave, to bring together people with differing views and aspirations for the outcome of this election, and to engage united in the building of civic space. Community relations need not and should never be just about imagining the worst outcomes. Our goal is to connect across differences of communities to identify and build on our shared hopes.

Though that connection has been harder during COVID, I remain hopeful. We have still managed it despite the challenges.

One last image: Lately I’ve had the 1989 AIDS film Longtime Companion stuck in my head, specifically the final scene, in which survivors imagine a day, after the cure, when they will gather again in celebration – on a beach – without fear.

I too have been imagining the day, soon I hope, when once again we will gather in community and across communities, as we have so many times, to face our shared challenges together. I’m dreaming of and hoping for the day when thousands of us gather once again to sing, and hug, and to build our collective strength and solidarity in service to a shared dream of what America can be.

I look forward to seeing you there when that day comes.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy