Our First Fruits

Today as Americans, we head into a long holiday weekend as we mark Memorial Day and honor all those who gave their lives in defense of our nation and our national values. As Jews, we also will celebrate Shavuot and the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. As Passover tells the story of our delivery from slavery, Shavuot reveals the meaning of our redemption, as we truly become a people by entering into a covenantal relationship with the Divine and each other. It is the day on which our ancestors committed themselves to a social contract that defined a society that could build upon their personal liberation seven week earlier in the Exodus.

While Shavuot is best known for the experience at Sinai, it is also infused with the agricultural practices that gave ethical and spiritual meaning to the ancient nation of Israel in their homeland. A primary mitzvah of Shavuot in the Temple Era was for the people to bring up to Jerusalem their Bikkurim, an offering of first fruits, as a gift to the priests and an acknowledgement of the Divine generosity that provides the bounty we enjoy. And we are taught to act with the same generosity in ensuring that the bounty of our resources is shared with all. In both the Torah portion and the Book of Ruth, which we read this weekend, we discover that our agricultural practices also provide for the poor by requiring us to leave a portion of our harvest to them. Jewish farmers were to leave the corners of their fields unharvested and to refrain from collecting fallen ears of grain. These mitzvot were not intended merely to feed the poor, but also to provide a Jewish ethical grounding to an agricultural society by establishing ongoing habits of empathy, kindness and generosity.

In a modern urban society like ours, what are our equivalent practices that develop habits of empathy and generosity? What actions can we take and commit to, that remind us of the need to share the abundance we enjoy? I believe that part of the answer lies in the practice of service with and to others, acts that address unmet needs with dignity and respect and teach us to acknowledge inequality and injustice. I’m proud that at JCRC we are committed to nurturing these habits by engaging participants in practices of service, through three programs, TELEM, the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL), and ReachOut!

I’m proud that we’ve nurtured the habits of teens like Devin Lightman, who will receive this year’s Fran Litner TELEM Service Award for his outstanding commitment to service. An active TELEM participant for the past five years, Devin will be entering college in the fall. His teachers recall that Devin was a rather challenging and rebellious young child who has matured into an active volunteer and mentor to the younger boys in the TELEM program. He has made lifelong bonds with the residents at the Simon C Fireman House, where he volunteered and has learned as much from the residents as they have from him. At the last TELEM session of the year, Devin asked, “When I come home from college, can I still volunteer with TELEM?”

I’m proud of the practices of GBJCL volunteers like Barry Sugarman, who is described by Sandy Mitchell-Woods, principal of the Nathan Hale School in Roxbury, as her “right hand.” Having begun as a tutor at the Hale over ten years ago, Barry is a cherished volunteer at the school – which has an ambitious vision but a small staff and limited resources. So Barry is on hand to help however he can; most recently by being the school photographer and starting the first ever school yearbook with students.

I’m proud of the commitment of our young adult ReachOut! volunteers who developed a new partnership this year with St. Stephens Youth Programs in Boston’s South End, which provides young people from some of Boston's most disadvantaged communities with year-round, out-of-school time academic enrichment. Curious about Jewish practice, many of the students recently surprised our volunteers by joining them for their Shabbat services and dinner, marking the end of the twelve week Spring Cycle. Two of the students, Esperanta and Myriam Iralien, reflected on the impact of their relationship with the ReachOut! volunteers. Having arrived from Haiti only two years ago and being the first in their family to attend college, their initial adjustment wasn’t easy. They explained that regular and reliable volunteer support was a key factor in their success in their first year at Bunker Hill Community College.

These are the Bikkurim, the first fruits we offer – the acts of service that help others access the bounty of our nation’s blessings. I look forward to working with you to expand our offerings in the years to come.

Wishing you all Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Shavuot Sameach,

Jeremy