The first 2017 issue of Jmore arrives in the afterglow of the menorah’s full brilliance. New Year’s Eve this year was also the eighth night of Chanukah!
The word Chanukah means “rededication.” On the precipice of a new year and the new presidential administration, our country is in need of a chanukat habayit, a reintegration of our “house-divided.” Lincoln borrowed this New Testament phrase to describe America of the late 1850s, a country so shaken by racial and ideological disunity it soon devolved into civil war. How America of 2017 will withstand the deep devisions running through it remains to be seen. 2016 laid bare troubling signs of widespread misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, general xenophobia and anti-Semitism the Anti-Defamation League says rival the 1930s.
The wisdom of our rabbinic sages has always been to help us see the hugeness and seeming intractability of society’s problems through the lens of achievable goodness. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” says Rabbi Akiva, is a klal gadol, a foundational principle of Torah. If we can focus first on the internal and interpersonal, perhaps we can make progress toward broader communal and societal healing.
In that sense, it’s been a good year here in the “New Jewish Neighborhood.” Last January, we hosted 450 people for an extraordinary concert by Shades of Yale, an a Capella group featuring music of “The African Diaspora and the African American experience.” The Yale University outfit arrived days prior to do several workshops in local schools. In February, we celebrated transformational leadership with Marin Alsop, Ron Shapiro and a performance by the OrchKids (plus a successful musical instrument drive). In fall, we engaged neighbors through the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council’s annual “Greens and Kugel Cook-Off,” and on Election Day with IFO volunteers serving food and giving tours of our historic sanctuary.
All of these events can serve as positive examples of effective community engagement work, but such programs need not be limited to our neighborhood nor to Baltimore. It’s all about a willingness to encounter the other, to see synagogue or Jewish institutional walls as membranes, permeable and fluid. Several other Jewish organizations, including synagogues here and around the country, are doing the work of culture-sharing and boundary-crossing, all of which should be celebrated.
But it’s not enough to lift up discretely positive examples. Achieving a more just society means thinking strategically. So I want to offer a possible frame for our thinking over the coming four years. The next presidential election will occur just eight days before the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower Compact. This legal instrument, singular in import, was also quite narrow in scope. Written by Puritan Separatists on Nov. 11, 1620, as their ship entered Cape Cod, the Compact focused exclusively on the needs of the 102 souls who made that arduous transatlantic voyage. The group pledged to “… Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic … to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices … for the general good of the Colony….”
The values of the document form the bedrock of American society – collective responsibility, democracy, the rule of law, submission to a higher authority, be it God or the will of the people. Absent, however, is concern for non-Christians, Native Americans and people of Color (just to name a few).
My questions are these: What Mayflower Compact must we write? To what collective aims must we strive? How can we engage more people of differing perspectives in identifying those aims? The seduction of populism notwithstanding, we cannot start over; we must reorder society by doing the hard work of affirming priorities and working together toward constructive goals. That’s the spirit with which the Pilgrims rededicated themselves in first setting foot on this land. How might the spirit of Chanukah illuminate our path toward a house-united in 2020?
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg is spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill where he lives with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, and their children, Eliyah and Shamir. This column and others can also be found at TheUrbanRabbi.org . Each month in JMore, Rabbi Burg explores a different facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood, a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values re-imagined in Baltimore.
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