Popping our bubbles in these “interesting times”

By Executive Director Jeremy Burton

Heading into Rosh Hashana, and whatever the year ahead may bring, there are three recent moments that I haven’t been able to let go of.

First moment: The New York Times had a piece this past weekend about how Jewish communities will be observing the High Holidays during COVID. As others quickly noted, amidst their explorations of Zoom services and such, they did not talk to a single Orthodox rabbi or congregation, or to any of the nearly 1/3 of American Jews who are, through our understanding of Jewish practice, not using technology to pray together on sabbath.

As large parts of the Jewish community are preparing to have in-person services next week, with great struggle in figuring out how to pull that off, this was, as Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt tweeted, “a glaring erasure.” In a year when American Jewry will be experiencing a more profound internal chasm than ever before in how we will observe the practices of our High Holidays, this omission was a consequential one.

Second moment: Not for the first time, a particular debate of interest to JCRC members exploded onto Twitter last week for a few days. In this case it was regarding a process we’ll be navigating this Fall between different camps in our own community; stakeholders in JCRC who will be debating a specific decision but are really arguing about larger ideas concerning the values and direction of the Jewish community.

What was striking though, was a conversation I had with a member of our staff, whose perception was that only one camp was particularly engaged in this social media noise. What struck me as we unpacked that observation was that while Camp A had tagged JCRC in their comments and was therefore prevalent in our feed, Camp B – for whatever reason – had tagged my Twitter feed but not JCRC’s official one. Thus, we were experiencing completely different and highly imbalanced discussions of the same issue of interest to JCRC and our members.

Third moment: Last month I watched almost all of both the Democratic and Republican conventions. I could talk for hours about my impressions of each. But a moment I haven’t been able to stop thinking about came in the very first minutes of the first night of the Democrats’ broadcast: A video of images from our nation’s recent turmoils, covered by Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.”

Now, there’s a whole other post in me about that incredibly powerful song also being one of his most Christian in its imagery and lyrics, and what it feels like for me as a Jew to recognize that our “unifying” national culture is fundamentally one with which I don’t identify. But what struck me that night were the images. Swap out the music for another artist, and a large chunk of that video would have easily resonated if shown to the Republican convention audience as well. Images such as that of President Trump waving a bible in front of a church earlier this summer resonate with our two political camps in very different ways, and each views that image as an argument for its own case. It is not exactly a profound insight to observe that in this election cycle, we have two tribes having completely separate conversations about the very idea of American greatness.

My point is this, as I share my final blog post of this Jewish year: At every level –  organizational, communal, national – we are at a point of deep fracture. Our bubbles and pods and tribes lead us to interpret the world and events around us in profoundly different ways – and to understand all that we see and hear in ways that reinforce our preconceived notions. (Note: This is not suggest that all arguments and factions are equally rooted in “facts”). Our attachments to our self-isolating camps keep us from exercising our ability to have conversations about our disagreements, or to even have a shared understanding about the nature of those disagreements.

In these times of turmoil and fracture I’m reminded of a speech that Robert F. Kennedy gave in 1965 at the University of Capetown. He said:

“There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged - will ultimately judge himself - on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort."

My prayer, and my determined commitment this Rosh Hashana, is that this coming year be one in which we face the uncertainty of our times with expanded imagination and creativity. I pray that we embrace an open-heartedness that enables us to listen to voices that challenge us and to the perspectives of those with whom we disagree profoundly. I want to be judged not by whether we achieve agreement and uniformity in all things, but by whether we enhance understanding and, at the very least, create a shared language that will pave the way for spirited conversations and a better society for the next generation.

Shabbat Shalom, and an early Shanah Tovah,

Jeremy