I realized that I wasn’t in the Kansas of the Jewish community anymore when there was a break at four o’clock in the afternoon and there wasn’t a morsel of food in sight. I was attending the Social Innovation Summit which brings together successful social entrepreneurs, funders, and corporations, to discuss how to translate the most innovative and effective practices from the private sector to the social sector. I trailed Nancy Lublin, CEO of dosomething.org and a self- described “loud Jew from New York” who was on the lookout for a cookie, but alas, everywhere, people stood, Perrier in hand, seemingly comfortable, talking animatedly about their work. I learned about a variety of inspiring programs, which included bringing clean water to rural villages, empowering individuals to help save the U.S public school system, and building libraries and literacy skills for children in developing countries.
As I stood in the middle of a room full of people making a positive, measurable impact on the world, I was forced to grapple with the relative importance of the Jewish community, and the amount of time and resources spent on nourishing Jewish life. Why not redirect all of the funds going into PJ library to Room to Read? Why not shut down all of our Jewish schools and focus on building better public schools in low-income U.S communities? Why not forget Birthright and instead send strong, capable Jewish youth to poverty-stricken countries around the world, to build hospitals and roads? Wouldn’t our energies be better spent focusing completely on major social issues, at home and abroad? What merit does an internal focus have in a world so replete with problems?
The most public of Jewish holidays is here, and it has some light to shed on this question. The obligation of lighting Chanukah candles is two-fold; the first is to light the Chanukah candles, and the second is to broadcast that lighting. The majority of Jewish holidays are celebrated in private, at home and in the synagogue; Chanukah is celebrated on the street and tweeted in cyberspace, loud and clear. Originally, Chanukah lamps were placed in people’s courtyards, outside. Today, after centuries of Jewish persecution and life in frigid climates, we compromise by placing them in our windowsills, but the purpose is the same – to make sure that everyone sees that light. If we don’t light the candles at home, in our own private spaces, there is nothing to share. But if we light the candles and draw the curtains, we have missed the point entirely.
Our job, then, is two-fold; we need to be connected to our stories, and ignite our own selves and our own community, and then we must shine forth, sharing what we have learned with others, and taking responsibility to go beyond our own selves and into the world. This holiday is a reminder that we must interact with the world at large, and take responsibility for its health and vitality. But if we focus solely on what is beyond us, we enter the dark in the dark, our own wicks ashen, preventing us from being effective.
Too many Jewish causes err in one direction or another, focusing either too much on drawing the curtains and igniting the private space, or too much on abandoning the home and marching into the streets. Too often, Jews who have the knowledge and commitment and values to share with the wider world focus their energies internally, and Jews who are outward focused do not access the Jewish teachings and values that might greatly enrich and inform their important universal work. Too many Jewish dollars go to secular causes, and too many educated and committed Jews spend their time and resources on perpetuating their own values and practices, instead of sharing their insights and taking responsibility to use their experience to act as powerful change-agents in the world.
We need to inspire Chanukah-like people and projects in our community. People and projects that are privately alight, dancing flames of connection to one another, to Jewish knowledge, who can feel nourished and challenged by a tradition that has been focused on creating ethical, action-oriented, committed individuals for thousands of years. And we should also inspire people and projects that don’t merely sit at home, but that spill into the streets, bright and strong, to bring more light and justice and peace and kindness to the world. We have a responsibility to each other, and we also have a responsibility to others. Chanukah impels us to shine. We must shine inwards and shine beyond. The two flames are intertwined.
Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco based nonprofit whose mission is to inspire and advance innovative ideas that contribute to the continued growth and vitality of Jewish life.