Once again I had the opportunity to contribute to the Rabbis Without Borders blog on the My Jewish Learning website. I wrote on raising up our voices, keeping the flames burning and drawing strength from one another. And specifically too an initiative at my congregation to engage more in political advocacy. You can read the original here.
A strange thing happened in the wake of the election, and is intensifying now that the inauguration is next week.
People want to be together in new and powerful ways.
For all of the talk of division and schism in this country, there also is a galvanizing and unifying force that is bringing people together to work for social change in a way that feels somewhat unprecedented. For the majority of Americans — and the majority of Jews — who did not vote for the president-elect, and who find his rhetoric and actions to be anathema, there is a renewed effort to come together to both react and act.
It reminds me of a Hasidic story quoted in several places, one version as retold by Rabbi Harvey Meirovich in the collection Yom Kippur Readings: Inspiration, Information, Contemplation edited by Dov Peretz Elkins and Arthur Green, about a disciple who goes to his master to talk about his feelings of sadness. As they talk in front of the fireplace, the fire begins to die out until the rabbi reaches over to stoke the coals.
“Do you see,” pointed out the rabbi, “what happened when I gathered the embers close together? They came back to life. When the coals were separated they generated little heat; but when they were close together they received warmth from each other and the fire was renewed.
“It is the same with people. When we are alone and separated our spirit is in danger of dying out. But when we stand close together we get warmth and comfort from one another, and hope is renewed.”
I see this in the community that I serve. Immediately following the election, there was a felt need for people to come together to share their feelings of hurt and pain at what felt to many like a national sanction of bigotry, a threat to gains in civil rights, a rollback in advances in combating climate change, a challenge to the safety net so carefully woven over many years. We gathered in our sacred space, we sang and we shared by filling out cards to express both our hopes and our fears which were then read aloud. Without any plan for next steps, people simply drew on the heat of one another to revive their spirits.
Over the next weeks, it seems that new groups were popping up left and right. In my town people are gathering in living rooms, in community centers and yes, in synagogues and other faith communities, to draw upon their collective energies and to strategize as to how to bring about change and to not let the agenda they championed go by the wayside. Connections were made over social media, articles shared, tactics proposed and debated. Again, people drew upon the heat of one another to see what they could make happen.
In my congregation, a new group emerged which took on the moniker, “Make Your Voice Heard.” Channeling the energy of frustration into creative action, a group decided to work together to research issues, develop talking points and ultimately plan letter writing campaigns to speak out on issues. After hosting an evening of “Civics 101,” in which we brought in speakers to teach us about the best way of communicating with our elected officials, we set out to work on advocacy. The group plans to meet weekly to learn, share, write and act.
The fact that this group emerged within our congregation and Jewish community was interesting. While there is overlap with other groups in our area doing similar work, members of the Jewish community felt compelled to do this work specifically as Jews. I believe this is because of (1) our general inclination towards community involvement and (2), the resurgence in anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery which we are experiencing in the wake of the election. And while right now the group is examining the pressing issues of political appointments and potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, we may take on issues specifically related to the Jewish community and Israel.
For me, it was important to see this step towards advocacy taking place in my congregation. If we really want to think about our contemporary understanding of the Jewish value of tikkun olam—“repair of the world”—then we need to think beyond just the charitable giving and direct service that we often do as Jews. We need to think about how we can make real social change in our world. And for us living in the United States in 2017, working for social change means organizing, being politically active, reaching out to our legislators, writing letters and expressing our opinions.
To renew hope, as the story goes, we need to draw close to one another, comfort one another and draw strength from one another. And to renew hope, we also need to remember that we have the ability and obligation to make our voices heard.