By Rabbi Joshua Mikutis
In the midst of major societal reckonings – punctuated most prominently by the ongoing pandemic and a mass movement to end endemic racism – we have been challenged to reevaluate how we think about our impact on the world and how we effectively transmit our values to shape the world we want to see.
Despite the seemingly unprecedented nature of this environment, we can find a script to follow in Jewish tradition to achieve those goals. Indeed, Judaism has always understood the need to forge such bonds and outcomes across space and time. Our texts – from prayer and psalms to Talmudic debates – remind us we are not alone now, nor have we ever been.
We find ultimate expression of this in the tenant of l’dor va’dor which teaches us the critical importance of passing on spiritual knowledge and cultural traditions from generation to generation. Just as we inherit the words and work of those who came before us, so too are we meant to pass on the values, ideals, and actions that Judaism rests on. This creates an everlasting cycle of goodness.
This cyclical model informs my work at Entwine, the young adult platform of JDC, the global humanitarian organization, where our team – having sent 5,000 young Jewish adults to volunteer globally – has shifted to craft virtual programs. Our task is not simple at a time of continued social distancing and limits on travel. We must find ways to effectively transmute the complex, beautiful, multi-dimensional Jewish world to people who cannot go farther than their couches.
We also work to give them platforms for making a positive impact on that broader world. Ultimately, we are seeking to motivate them to inspire such passion among those around them. And not just in this moment, but also the future. To do this, we must help them understand that our actions will have ramifications beyond the walls of our homes, the four corners of our device screens, and our little part of the world.
I take a lesson from Rabbi Moshe Menachem Mendel Spivak. His name may not mean much to many of us. But his impact is deep as it is wide, spanning decades and touching millions of lives.
In 1920, he proposed a novel solution to increasing Jewish study, and his colleague Rabbi Meir Shapiro promoted it as a powerful tool to unify our people. It was called daf yomi, where each day Jews around the world would study the same page of Talmud. Spivak originally suggested this just for students in Poland, but the idea caught like wildfire.
Today, we find ourselves in the 14th cycle of this global Jewish book club. Every morning, after turning on the teakettle, I open up Shabbat, the tractate of Talmud we are currently on, and study. By engaging in this, I find myself connected to those throughout Jewish history who have clung to these transformative pages and those who read together today.
What’s more, Talmudic ideas and stories inform conversations with my colleagues and friends. Whether we’re talking about our programmatic content, underscoring the importance of acts of global service and volunteerism to Jewish tradition, or examining the history of kashrut, it flows forth.
L’dor vador also manifests itself in material terms. In Sarajevo, for example, young Jewish community leaders and alumni of JDC programming were recently distributing food to homebound elderly as part of a pandemic response. During one stop, an older woman burst into tears.
She explained that during the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990’s, she too had volunteered to deliver food to those unable to leave their homes. Just as she came to the aid of others, now the rising generation comes to her. The acts of loving-kindness she manifested in the world almost 30 years ago have been replicated today.
And we can do the same because this moment in history calls on us to act.
For some, like Russian-speaking Entwine alumni, it is taking part in a “Babushka Hotline” where they are paired with an isolated senior in JDC’s care in the former Soviet Union to help battle loneliness. For others it will be sharing a teaching with friends about justice and improving our society. And for others still, it will be carrying forward the battle for inclusivity, equality, and diversity.
We take action now not just because today calls for it, but because tomorrow demands it. Future generations are looking to us to illuminate the path, set the example, and clear the way for a future they will build and for the new generations they will inspire.
Rabbi Joshua Mikutis is JDC Entwine’s Jewish Learning Designer.