Massage the Message

by Mitchell Shames

Last Wednesday night my wife and I attended the annual fundraising dinner for Boston’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Although somewhat formulaic, as these evenings tend to be, we nonetheless had a wonderful time catching up with longstanding friends and reconnecting with a vitally important agency within our community.

The evening included a sweeping review of the agency’s 150 year history, comments by extraordinary teenagers whose disintegrating family (due to death and illness) was saved in large part through the efforts of JF&CS, and lastly, a compelling pitch, steeped in Torah, for JF&CS’s new fund-raising campaign to alleviate poverty.

With over 25 years of active involvement in the organized Jewish community, I couldn’t help but think that this work represents the Jewish community at its best.

And yet, I was somewhat unsettled. Something didn’t feel right.

While the tone and message of the evening no doubt resonated with the hundreds of attendees, the crowd was very much a crowd of “insiders”; the core part of the organized Jewish community who regularly flock to these events.

Over my 3 year tenure as President of the Jewish Outreach Institute, however, I have learned that the “core” of the Jewish community represents a smaller and smaller constituency within the larger community. Therefore, in order for agencies and institutions of all stripes to thrive, they need to make sure that their messages reach way beyond this Core.

My unsettledness was related to whether the messaging, and the values underlying the messaging would appeal beyond the “core’”.

In one form or another, the overwhelming message of the evening was; “Jews help Jews.” While the Jewish community has experienced unprecedented affluence there remain significant pockets of poverty and families in crisis all within the Jewish community. Therefore, “Jews must help Jews”.

My heart swelled with pride, but my brain cringed at the language. “Jews help Jews”. In 2014, this feels uncomfortable.

I wondered; “how many non-Jewish spouses are sitting in the audience?” “What do they Hear when words such as these are spoken?” “How do they feel when they hear this message?” “Does it spur further involvement and commitment on their part to the Jewish community, or, does it create yet another hurdle?”

I also thought about my kids, ages 19 and 22. Their millennial experiences and world-views are very different than my baby boomer mindset. “How would this sound to them?” (I suspect my younger son would have bolted for the door, literally and figuratively.)

Immediately, I was taken back to a question my wife posed to me many, many years ago as my involvement with the Jewish community was increasing; “This is all well and good, but if something happened to you, would the Jewish community be there for me? What about my parents, is the communal tent large enough to include them?”

My response was immediate, impassioned and definitive. “Of course, if something happened to me, everyone would rally around you for support. As for your parents … well, we know who to call and we’ll make sure they receive the very best of services.”

Last night, however, I re-visited my response. With a few more grey hairs, and a slight dose of middle-aged wisdom, I realized that the original question was not about services or support.

Instead, the question was way more personal, existential, even. The question was “Where I do fit in?” “What is my role or place within a community that values ‘Jews help Jews’?” “Can I ever feel a true part of this community?”

As the demographics and complexion of our community changes … in statistically powerful patterns … we must address these and similar questions. Simply put, these questions are real, they are not unreasonable, and, as I said, they are deeply personal.
We must remember, that the people asking these questions are the very same people whom we want to fill our pews, contribute to our agencies and congregations, and support Israel. And, let me not skip the most critical….. we desperately want them to allow their children to be raised as Jews. Don’t we owe them answers? Or, if not answers, let’s acknowledge their concerns as real and invite them into a process in which answers can be mutually explored.

While I have highlighted a challenge and a concern, I would also like to offer an initial, possible solution.

Let’s replace “Jews help Jews” with, something such as: “Jews Helping Community” or “Jews Care About Community”.

This is not intended as a simple task of wordsmithing, nor is it kowtowing to political correct sentiments or even watering down a message for mass consumption. Instead, I offer it as a deeply ethical and theological statement reflecting the values of our community and consistent with Torah.

As I mentioned above, the JF&CS event included a heavy dose of Torah along with the persuasive appeal to our emotions. We were reminded that Torah commands us to take care of the needy. However, while I am hardly a Torah scholar, I’m aware that even the most cursory reading of Torah reflects a community and collective which is demographically complex.

On the morning of Yom Kippur we read a compelling text:

“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all of the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger with your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer – to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God ….” (Deut 29:9)

References throughout Torah to our ethical obligations towards the stranger are numerous. Just recently we read the Holiness Code which provides, in part:

“The stranger that sojourns with you shall be unto you as the home-borne among you shall love him as thyself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:34)

In effect, our Torah envisions a world and society vastly more intricate than “Jews help Jews” would allow for. “Jews help Jews” evokes an appeal to a parochialism understandably born out of ghettos, shtetls, the Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust.
That part of our history is ingrained in our collective psyche and must be honored and respected. Truly, we must never forget. But, the world of our grandparents and parents is not our world, nor the world of our children. And most certainly it is not part of the narratives of non-Jews who marry into our community. Frankly, we are blessed by this reality.

By massaging a few words, “Jews Help Community”, our message and values are transformed. As Jews, we are accustomed to the ebb and flow between the particular and the universal. This version of a message allows us to shed the compulsions of parochialism. Instead we extend an open ended invitation to participate in the great gift of our tradition – Repair of the World – which allows anyone to define “community” in a way that gives their actions meaning and purpose. We transcend the restrictions implied by background or demographic cohort.

In other words, Torah need not be sacrificed in order to pursue the goals of outreach and inclusion. Torah and outreach are NOT mutually exclusive. To the contrary, there is congruence.

Let’s guard against the xenophobia of “Jews help Jews”. It is the right thing to do as we embrace the wonderful people who continuously come into contact with our community. Torah commands no less.

Hats off to JF&CS for a wonderful evening! And many thanks to the friends who hosted our table and brought us back to JF&CS for the night. I look forward to many more years of social action. Newton, Boston, Massachusetts, the United States, and the world, are desperately in need of repair.

Mitchell Shames is Chairman, Jewish Outreach Institute.