10 Days of Teshuva, Four Jewish Values
[Editor’s note: this was written and shared with eJP before Yom Kippur.]
By Jordan Daniels
We’re in the middle of the 10 Days of Teshuva, a period of reflection, repentance, and renewal as we prepare for Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) and hope each of our names is inscribed in the book of life for the year 5781. This period is filled with sounds of the shofar, services, meditations, prayer recitals, and personal reflection.
I’m reflecting a lot on Jewish values during this time, both in the Leichtag Foundation and outside of it. What lessons are we pulling into this new year, and what are we leaving behind?
Below are some values I’ve identified with, and I think we can all envision putting them into practice in 5781:
Tzedakah is a value central to our work at the Foundation. Tzedakah is also known as “charitable giving,” which inspires our focus of philanthropy. Tzedakah stems from the word “Tzedek,” which means “justice.” At the intersection of these words is action. Charitable giving is also a giving of self to a cause. When George Floyd’s murder occurred, we realized that while racial justice and equity may not be a funding priority, it can be an organizational one.
Here are some ideas for looking at your organization through a racial equity lens:
- For Jewish organizations: Identify how many Jews of Color your organization does or does not have, and interrogate why. With 12-15% of our Jewish community being Jews of color, roughly 1 in 7 employees can be Jews of Color. If that isn’t reflected, take account of what the barriers might be.
- For all nonprofits and foundations: In the application process, it’s common to name that your organization is an “equal opportunity employer,” but imagine how transformative to use language like “We strongly encourage people of color, queer and trans people, people with different abilities, etc. to apply.” This simple change could significantly diversify the applicant pool.
This value was recently introduced to me, and I find a strong attachment to the act of “accounting for the soul.” This is a practice within teshuva (repentance) that allows us to take stock of moments we may have missed the mark and become more aware of these actions to create a better future. We began this process with our Commitment to Building an Anti-Racist Community statement. We missed the mark with leaving the work at empathy. We then committed to deepening our understanding of our roles in this work and leveraging our power, wealth, and privilege to demonstrate allyship. The work has only begun. Here are some ways you might be able to practice Cheshbon Hanefesh:
- Personally: Currently, a lot of our biases are coming to light in unexpected ways. We’re learning more about ourselves and our conditioning. Take stock of the biases and prejudices you were taught and interrogate whether you believe it’s true today. Challenge the preconceptions you were raised on and allow yourself to unlearn them if they’re making you miss the mark.
- Professionally: Think about opportunities your organization might have missed to diversify its staff or create more equitable programs. I also encourage you to challenge your organization’s hiring practices if there’s a lack of diversity. Does your org publish jobs widely or internally? Do they hire from word-of-mouth, or do applicants really have an equal chance of getting their foot in the door?
Perhaps one of the most regarded Jewish values, Pikuach Nefesh, or “saving a life,” tells us that most Jewish law can, and should, be set aside to save someone’s life. I’m seeing this value demonstrated by many people involved in racial justice protests and organizations fighting for policy change. Our Foundation has an immense privilege in wielding wealth as a means for action and supporting organizations that do this work every day. I look forward to being more intentional about using our position to facilitate discourse around justice, bridge access for people wanting to change policy, and empower our community to support the lives who continually face danger in our world.
Here are some ways you can put this into action:
- If your organization is arts-based and your work supports local artists in North County, how many of those artists are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, LGBTQ-identifying, etc.? What would it look like to host a virtual series of what art looks like in different cultures? The simple act of creating representation is life-saving to many.
- Shift your organizational language! In his book, Decolonizing Wealth, Edgar Villanueva shares the impact of using language like “vulnerable” or “needy” when discussing impact. These words add to the victimization of the communities you’re supporting and can make them feel more othered. Even words like “empowering” make people hyperaware that they don’t have power. What would it look like to reframe our vernacular to save lives by affirming their humanity and power?
The idea of “repentance” is triggering for me, especially as a Queer-identifying person. Repentance and “sin” are words often wielded against the LGBTQ+ community to harm and other us. But the idea of teshuva, especially with the root word shuva meaning “return,” offers a compelling reframe as it speaks to returning to righteousness or goodness. One can practice teshuva at any time, but doing it during the High Holiday season adds a layer of intentionality. The process of teshuva laid out by Maimonides looks simple in theory. Here are some ideas of what it can look like in practice:
- Confession: Similar to the process of cheshbon hanefesh, confession can work like accounting for missing the mark and then holding accountability for it. If you’re missing the mark on an important cause, owning up to it in transparency is a decisive step to return. When I miss the mark on my work, I’m intentional about demonstrating what it looks like for me to own the mistake, then listen and learn.
- Regret: I personally have a hard time with the idea of regret, as I feel that it can lead to shame. However, a reframing by Brené Brown helps me understand the versatility of regret when it’s experienced as guilt. Like guilt, regret can be about holding something we’ve missed the mark on against our values and discomfort. We learn from regret by holding space for the discomfort and then expressing it.
- Commitment: My favorite aspect of this process is the vow or commitment we make to not repeat the misdeed. I’m often thinking of the words Maya Angelou left with Oprah, “when you know better, you do better.” The practice of teshuva gives us insight into knowing better so that we can do better.
When we wrote our anti-racist commitment, we confessed that we weren’t doing enough. We shared our guilt of not doing enough. We then committed to doing more and sharing out. At that moment, we did teshuva.
As Yom Kippur nears and we reflect on the year behind us, let’s put action toward our futures. These past six months have given us more time than ever to reflect. We’ve been in our collective chrysalis, and now we have the opportunity to emerge as more whole people with stronger standpoints on justice and healing in our world. May we all find ourselves moving with intentional action in 5781. May all of us have our names inscribed in the Book of Life!
Jordan Daniels is a Communications Associate at Leichtag Foundation.