2020 A Year of Miracles – If We Put Our Foot in The Water

By Rabbi Nico Socolovsky

Despite Hanukkah Songs, in our tradition miracles aren’t an act of cosmic magic they rather describe faithful, courageous and wise actions in very difficult circumstances.

The miracle of the red sea would not have materialized if it wasn’t for Nachshon Ben Aminadav … A human who was willing to take a risk, someone who understood that in order to see you first need to believe, someone who despite his fear was willing to make a first step, to put his foot in the water …

You could dismiss the importance of his first step by evoking the imminent risk behind the Israelites’ back, after all, the Egyptians were there to kill them. However, they could just as well have convinced themselves that a slow death or the continuity of a life of slavery was better than the uncertainty of the sea.

Think about our world nine months ago, when we were first introduced to COVID-19. Think about the levels of uncertainty. Think about the devastating magnitude of loss that we have experienced. Think about the forecast of years that were going to look like this… And sure it was possible to wait to naturally get herd immunity, but at what cost? And then, a few weeks ago, a phenomenal human effort and collaborative wisdom brought “The Vaccine,” and so now Rabbis are writing blessings to recite when you are being vaccinated, it is happening!

A beloved teacher used to tell the story of the pious jew who would pray every night for God to help him win the lottery. After a few years of repeating his prayer he addressed God: Why don’t you help me? Isn’t this pious Jew good enough that his one and only request can not be fulfilled? And so the “Bat Kol” screamed from heaven (in a very frustrated tone): Buy a ticket you idiot!

When we think about ourselves, American Jews, and our prayers over this last year, we can’t ignore that the pandemic has taken and will take a toll on us. But defining it as our most imminent existential threat is intellectually dishonest. The synagogue model in the US had been in crisis long before the pandemic.

We have a list of solutions that, while don’t seem to work we keep repeating more loudly so they sound truer:

We need to find the Jews in our town. Of course the Jews in that town don’t have Google, otherwise they would attend Kabbalat Shabbat every Friday!!

We just need to get them through the door. Because – what? Once they walk in they will get it?

It is now the next generation’s turn. We need to meet them where they are… and then?

We truly care. We care for our community, we care for our organizations, and so we pray for continuity. But for many of us those prayers don’t seem to be answered. And so we should ask… Are our actions in sync with those prayers? We pray for a miracle, but have we bought a ticket!? Just like waiting for herd immunity as a solution to COVID would take an unimaginable price, waiting for some natural development to save us is something that we can’t afford. Only when we face our circumstances with wisdom, faith, courage and determination vaccines can happen, we literally can work miracles.

What is holding us back?

Our great care for our organizations is an essential starting point, however it can also form part of our problem due to two predominant reasons; First by confusing our goals with our mission, and second by leading us to a wrong ranking of our assets.

Goal vs. Mission

Because we are so fearful for the future of our organizations we tend to confuse their continuity with a core value. Led by our existential fear, we either swing in our practices or remain paralyzed; in both cases what we do becomes a reflection of our fear rather than an active pursuit of a vision that is inspired by our core values. Is it really our purpose to find the other Jews in our town, get them through the door, meet them where they are or ask them to take responsibility for something that they don’t really feel a sense of ownership to? I am not sure… I’d like to think that we are here for things like:

Growth, Community, Tradition, Spirituality, Peoplehood, Wisdom, Tikkun Olam

The survival of our organization might be a very important goal, its transformation could be too, however they are not core values. Jewish continuity is a core value.

Wrong ranking of our assets

The same existential concern that we have for our organizations leads us to act as if they are the foundation of our Jewish identity and to wrongly believe that they are our most important assets.

Some time ago I heard a leader of a congregation saying that considering that “x” congregation is closing and another is handling a difficult transition we are waiting to see how many congregants we will inherit… I heard another leader saying that “the market will define what congregation remains standing at the end.” These statements were made in public, in large meetings, because these are the rules of the game… but I wonder if these rules serve our long-term game?

Our congregations are what we do but they are not why we do it. We are here for the long game, Jewish continuity, remember? In that game when a congregation closes or dies, we all lose because it disenfranchises many Jews; In the end less Jews go to shul. While it may temporarily increase the numbers in another synagogue or two, in the long run our team (the Jewish people) gets weaker, it harms us all.

We understand that the paradigm of Jewish life has shifted but we keep investing most of our efforts in sustaining our old battleship, we make cosmetic fixes, but we probably need more than that in order to remain relevant. Think about what portion of our financial, professional and emotional attention is dedicated just to sustaining the structure. Imagine if instead of using our secondary assets in order to promise their own existence, we would channel them for the purpose of fostering growth in the Jewish Community.

Time to work a miracle

Was 2020 a difficult year? Absolutely! COVID-19 took a horrific toll on our society. We all hope to soon return to safety and have the freedom to choose where and how to gather, to embrace beloved people or just to walk in the streets without needing to overthink it.

I guess that as soon as possible we will try to bounce back and bring things as close as possible to where we left them in March 2020. Yet for the Jewish community to run back to “normality” without taking in the wisdom that we have gained throughout this experience would signify throwing into the trash of History the opportunity to work a miracle. The very difficult circumstances that 2020 presented before us helped us re-align with our core, led us to more clarity in our decision making and prompted a space for development and growth.

Five of the most fundamental 2020 teachings:

  1. Our communities are not our buildings.
  2. We are flexible
  3. There are two fundamental components that keep us together:
    1. The Jewish Calendar, Shabbat happens every week.
    2. Engaging in building Community, the experience of seeing and being seen.
  4. We are a part of something bigger. Peoplehood matters.
  5. We don’t need to have all the resources in-house.

So, what are we going to do with this wisdom? What would our miracle look like? The miracle would be if we shift from each of us engaging in sustaining our own battleships and what we do, toward all of us, or larger groups of us, increasing our relational bandwidth, collaborating and defining together what we will become in order to keep serving the purpose of Jewish growth and continuity. While we love our institutions and they are truly important to our identities they are not who we are, they are what we do and how we do it. Thus leading them into conscient and courageous transformation, as opposed to gradual disappearance, is like putting our foot in the water – not because we are reckless but rather because we couldn’t care more.

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l explained that “…Faith is the defeat of probability by the power of possibility …”

It is time for us to work miracles, we just need to first believe in order to see!

Nico Socolovsky is the senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton CA- He proudly serves the boards of JFOC and Hillel OC.