Nothing Virtual About Our Jewish Community

[The following is adapted from remarks by Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s outgoing President, Jerry Ribnick, at Federation’s Annual Meeting.]

by Jerry Ribnick

It has really been an honor to serve this community for these last two years as President of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. Like any undertaking, some things happened according to plan – and others came as surprises, challenges, and ultimately, opportunities. But that is what life is like in a real live community of caring and concerned individuals.

We hear so much these days about virtual communities, those that exist in cyberspace, where it is all about the speed of Internet connectivity, anonymity and with “no strings attached.” Sometimes we get so caught up online that we forget about the importance of virtuous communities, those that live and breathe in sacred spaces and are nurtured by the depth of interactions and the meaningfulness of connections.

Virtual communities are created by people who have a shared interest for a moment in time, usually for their personal benefit. They are fluid, and, by definition, temporary. Locally, our virtuous community is built on a solid foundation, with shared values and institutions, like the JCC which was established by its founders to be the physical center of Jewish life in Minneapolis for decades or maybe even centuries. We have institutions like the Jewish Family and Children’s Service founded to provide for those that are least able to take care of themselves. We built schools to educate our youth and instill in them the values of our virtuous community. And we created the Jewish Historical society to remember our past, the JCRC to protect the present and we send children to Jewish camps to ensure our future. We don’t do these things virtually. We do them actually!

Our virtuous community in Minneapolis sends almost $3.5 million overseas to support our brothers and sisters who live in communities that are not as prosperous as our own. We don’t do this because we saw it online and it became a “cause celebre.” We do this because it is in-line with our core values as Jews to care for the vulnerable. That is why during the course of this year the Minneapolis Jewish Federation is sponsoring missions to Morocco, Cuba, Kiev and Israel. We step up and say henneni, here I am, ready to support someone else in need regardless of where they live in our extended virtuous community.

Why am I sharing this thought with you just days after the conclusion of my Presidency of the Federation? It is because I believe so strongly that our job is to continue to build this virtuous community. We will of course use virtual tools, but the end goal is human interaction, human connection and people to people services. A virtuous community requires buildings and organizations that are anything but virtual. It takes every member of our community to make a commitment, financial of course, but equally important, time, passion and creativity.

Don’t opt out when the going gets tough; don’t assume that there will be another anonymous person stepping up to take your place. This is real life, the real world and these are really important values that guide us and inspire us. I am proud that our community raised nearly $18 million this year in annual and planned gifts to help make our community more virtuous.

Teach this to your children. They may have 1000 friends on Facebook, but the handful of friends they have in flesh and blood is more important. It is great to log on, but it is infinitely more meaningful to have a relationship where there are individuals who depend upon you and you are committed to them. This may be why our tradition teaches that after G-d created the first five days, G-d said each day things were good, but after G-d created humankind, G-d said things were very good.

Intelligent life still does exist outside of a smartphone.

When you leave a virtual community, your absence is not felt. But, when someone leaves a virtuous community everyone in that community shares in the loss. I experienced this first hand a few weeks ago when my mother passed away. The outpouring of support, not just virtual, but physical was incredibly nurturing. You can’t get that online. It made me realize what a wonderful feeling it is to belong this amazing community.

I’ll leave you with this final thought as I turn the Federation Presidency over to Michael Barry. This is your virtuous community. Choose to be a part of it and help secure its future.