On Witnessing History—And Where We Go From Here

By Zach Briton

Liberal democracy is at risk in Britain, Europe, and the United States. So is everything that these democracies represent in terms of freedom, dignity, compassion, and rights. The most technologically advanced societies the world has ever known have forgotten just this; we are not machines, we are people and people survive by caring for one another, not only by competing with one another.” – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, in Morality

I came to Washington, DC in the early 2000’s, drawn – like so many – to the majesty of this city. As a bright-eyed college student, I saw Washington as a place where I could make a difference. I am truly a DC poster child. My early career days roaming the halls of Congress not only solidified my passion for my adopted hometown but instilled in me a sense of awe for this special, complex, and sometimes challenging experiment called American democracy that has stayed with me to this day.  

Nearly 20 years later, I’ve never stopped being a tourist. My children ride bikes around the reflecting pool and climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The backdrop of their childhood is marked by some of the most visible symbols of our democracy, with the National Mall at its core.

The Mall is the stage for some of the most promising and unifying moments in both American and American Jewish history, from marches and rallies for peace, inclusion, and equality to presidential inaugurations and peaceful transitions of power, holiday celebrations, and so much more.

And then came the events of January 6, 2021.

Our local institutions and security experts anticipated unrest. On January 5th, the Edlavitch JCC of Washington DC, located just blocks from the White House, announced their closure for the 6th and 7th. Jewish preschools in the district followed suit. Ours was a community on edge – and yet – we couldn’t truly imagine what was about to take place in our own backyard.

On January 6th, I watched the startling and, yet perhaps unsurprising events of the day from a front-row seat. I watched rioters desecrate a building that represents hope, inspiration, and freedom for so many. And I watched as they spewed racist and anti-Semitic vitriol across my hometown. We all saw their images on TV, but here, they infiltrated the community 300,000 Jews call home.

In the days to follow, Jewish institutions across the region reported a number of incidents to our Federation security team where these unwelcome visitors to our community intimidated staff and put community members on edge. Once again, I wondered: is this what our world – our country – has come to?

But of course, we didn’t need an insurrection to tell us that that we are living in perhaps the most polarizing times that has faced our nation. And though we were unable to stop the unsettling events of January 6th, our community in Greater Washington is resolved to move forward as one of the largest and rapidly growing Jewish communities in the country.

Our professional team, lay leadership, and community members of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington believe that what happens in Washington, DC matters. What happens here, in our city and in our Jewish community, is of consequence to every one of our community members and to all of global Jewry. We have a responsibility to lead with our values – always pursuing justice as we strive to build an open, connected, and vibrant Jewish community in our nation’s capital.

At Federation, we convene big conversations and make it known that leadership matters. Through our partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, we have convened several bi-partisan groups of lawmakers and policy influencers who use Jewish text as a guide to fixing our broken society.

One question these leaders have raised stands front and center on my mind today: are we living in a unique moment in Jewish history, or is this one part of a long history where things aren’t so different than they were in every other country we have passed through? Have the interwoven stories of American exceptionalism and American Jewish history begun to unravel, or can we lead our way through these unsettling times and come out stronger on the other side?

Today, there are more troops in Washington, DC than in Afghanistan. Our streets are shut down and buildings fortified in ways I have never seen before. And I am worried in a way I haven’t felt before; unsure about what the coming days will bring for my family, the institutions where we spend our days living and working and learning, and for our community – because this is not just the nation’s capital – it’s also our home.

I hope and pray that the Jewish community and the leadership we bring and inspire can serve as a beacon not only for ourselves but for those around us. Though we absolutely have plenty of repair to do from within, we also have before us an opportunity to form new coalitions of leadership to address the incredible challenges we face as a country.

Our elected leaders talk at length about how ours is a nation of laws and that those laws must be obeyed. But as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote, “Mishpat (laws) alone cannot create a good society. To it must be added tzedakah, distributive justice.”

As leaders of the Jewish community, we must continue our work in pursuit of distributive justice. What can we do – each one of us, and each of our communities – to help repair and rebuild our nation into one that would be recognized as a good society? Our future depends on the work we do now to find that answer.

Zach Briton is the Chief Development Officer of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and a Cohort II Fellow in the Mandel Executive Leadership Program.