Rising to the moment: Andrés Spokoiny’s address to JFN 2024

Why do we have a moment of silence? Probably because there’s a level of grief that words cannot describe. 

The Bible, for example, had to invent a special word to talk about the unbearable pain of losing a child: shchol. But even that word can’t describe the abyss of pain, the promises that will never be fulfilled, the hopes that will never be realized, the memories that will never be created, the emptiness of what could have been and never will be. And using silence is better than using the English phrase: “May they rest in peace”, which is absurd. 

You see, the average age of the people murdered on Oct. 7 was 30; the majority were between 18 and 25. They were full of life, full of plans, full of future, full of love. They were restless, and the last thing they wanted was to rest. 

Our Israel director nephew, Iftach Yabetz, was 23; he fell defending Nahal Oz, saving it from an even bigger tragedy. He was about to finish the army and tour the world; he was a tennis player and a writer. The last thing he wanted was to rest. 

Danielle Waldman had spent the night dancing and singing at Nova; she was 24, and she was about to get married. She did not want to rest. 

Jamal Abbas was 23, an Arab serving in the IDF and the pride of his family. Beloved by his unit, and an example to all. He didn’t want to rest. 

And our friend Vivian Silver was 74, but she didn’t want to rest either, because she tirelessly fought for peace. 

No. “Rest in peace” is not adequate. And that’s why Jews rarely use it. 

In Judaism, when a person dies, we say tehe neshmato tzrora betzror hachaim, “may their souls be bound-up in the eternal bond of life.” And that is both a plea to God and an obligation for the living. 

It falls on us to not let the dead rest. It behooves us to keep them bound-up to the bond of life. And that is how Judaism always responded to tragedy: by affirming life. 

And how do we do that? How do we consecrate life amid so much death? 

We do it the Jewish way, the Zionist way: by coming out of tragedy stronger, better, and more alive than ever. 

Israel is a country that, after every tragedy fulfilled the mitzvah ubacharta bachaim, “to choose life.” Zionism is about choosing life, but it’s also about something else: transforming Jews from victims to victors. Not victors only in the military sense, but in the existential sense. Keeping our spirit, our values, our love of life. This is what this country is: victims to victors. From people to whom history happens to people who make their own destiny, from casualties of fate to masters of our story. 

Victims to victors. 

Nowadays we live in a global competition of victimhood. But Zionism understood that victimhood is corrupting, and it is a denial of humanity. A victim is an object, not a subject; a done-to, not a doer. The victim culture perpetuates the condition of victimhood. And that’s why we’ve always rejected it. 

We cannot always choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how to react. We are never defined by events. To allow ourselves to be so defined is to hand sovereignty over our own lives to others. 

In Jewish history, every generation has had a moment in which it had to decide between victims or victors, a challenge that defined them and determined how history judged them. Two generations ago, it was the creation of Israel; for the previous generation, it was the Six-Day and Yom Kippur War. For us, this is it — this is our 1948 moment. 

And it is like 1948 in many ways. On the one hand, it is an existential challenge like the one we had back then, but on the other, it’s a foundational moment; a moment from which we must not only bounce back but to re-found Israel. 

Jews have survived catastrophe after catastrophe, in a way unparalleled by any other culture. In each case, we did more than survive. Way more. Every tragedy in Jewish history was followed by a new wave of creativity. And this is what is needed now. 

It is no secret that Israel was on a path that could have led to internal dissolution before Oct. 7. That’s why the unity, the unwavering patriotism and the solidarity we saw surprised us. It shouldn’t have. Crises don’t change people, they reveal who we really are. Our natural inclination is not to become mean and selfish in a crisis. It is to trust our neighbors, to love them, to think less in terms of “me” and more in terms of “we.” 

In a catastrophe, we revert to our natural state, and our natural state, under the layers of the selfish conditioning that we’ve undergone, is one of cooperation, trust and solidarity. Our role is to hold on to that feeling of having discovered our true nature as a people; to abhor what happened to us but relish who we have become – which is who we always were. Our task is to capture what emerged from the emergency. In the emergency, the best of us rose from the depths, and we must hold on to that as we rebuild.  

This crisis is a terrible time, but it’s also an unfrozen time. One in which the impossible becomes realistic; an invitation to transcend limitations, think big, and create something better. Only that will honor the memory of those we lost and keep them “bound in the bond of life.” 

This doesn’t mean that we are naively optimistic. But we must be hopeful.

Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that things will be OK; hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. One needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope. “It is not that Jews kept hope alive, but hope kept the Jewish people alive.”

And to have hope one needs a vision — to cross the desert, one needs a picture of the Promised Land. We need to be bold and have daring dreams of what we can achieve together. 

In Hebrew, the word for “dream,” chalom, has the same root as the word lehachlim, “to heal.” To heal, as individuals and as a people, we need to continue dreaming, to develop a positive vision of what we want to be. As Victor Frankl said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how’.” In some ways, suffering stops being suffering when it finds a meaning and a purpose. To develop a vision is our task, too. 

During the next three days, we’ll be talking a lot about the sacrifice of regular, everyday Israelis, but we will be also asking how can we, as funders, rise to the moment. What is our role in the unprecedented crisis that we are confronting? We’ll be talking a lot about specific issues and things to fund, but in these few minutes I want to go a bit higher and suggest now five general attitudes that funders need to adopt.

1.) Now is the time to give boldly.

Unprecedented times require unprecedented generosity. This is the rainy day we’ve been saving for. Yes, we have more needs — the needs in Israel are enormous, the resources that we need to fight antisemitism are huge, and we need to keep investing in Jewish education and identity, because if we don’t we are doing the antisemites work for them. We can’t cannibalize our existing grantees to fund new ones, we need to give above and beyond.

But in 1948, the Jewish world was poorer and smaller than today, and yet, we found the resources to build Israel, take care of hundreds of thousands of survivors, while also creating a network of world-class Jewish institutions around the world. If it could be done then, it can be done now.

2.) Focus inwards.

We Jews, rightfully, pride ourselves in being universalists. We are concerned with all humanity. But during this crisis, we saw that, when push comes to shove, we are alone. I’m not dismissing the historic support that the U.S. and the U.K. have been giving Israel since Oct. 7 — every Jew in the world should be eternally grateful for that — but I’m talking about the organizations that we funded, the universities we help build, the people we supported, the museums we built. Most of them left us out to dry, or worse.

Eighty percent of Jewish giving still goes to secular causes, and that’s great. But let’s not forget that there are only 15 million Jews among the world’s 8 billion people — and nobody who isn’t Jewish, with very few exceptions, is rushing to donate to Jews or Israel.

I’m a strong believer in building bridges, especially now, but solidarity works in concentric circles or not at all. Without caring for your own, you can’t care for others. In this crisis, we discovered that, even for our allies, even for the people we supported above our own, Jews are eternally “on probation,” subjected to a never-ending stream of litmus tests to prove that we belong. And that is painful, but, in a way, salutary. The Band-Aid was pulled off brutally, but now we know where we stand.

So, now is the time to live by the first part of Hillel’s dictum, “If I’m not for myself, who will be?” And to be clear, every citizen of Israel, Arab or Jew, is part of us.

3.) Dream big.

We said that dreaming is healing, so funders need to dream — and most importantly, help others dream big. Now is the time to have bold philanthropic visions, to imagine the impossible. Unprecedented crisis, unprecedented responses. Let’s not talk only about small, incremental changes; let’s imagine completely new realities, let’s be idealistic and utopian, because there’s no limit to what we can achieve. And don’t be cowed by the enormity of the challenges we face, because we have always been the people for whom only the impossible is worth doing.

4.) Collaborate.

I know I say this all this time, but today, I really mean it. Nobody among us alone has the power, the resources or the intelligence to solve the intractable problems we are facing. We need to pool resources, but we also need to pool our brainpower and our ingenuity. Our diversity is our asset because it allows us to consider problems from different perspectives, it makes us more creative, less dogmatic, more daring. If there was a time to put our ego aside, it’s today. We need intellectual humility to admit what we don’t know and work towards finding solutions together: “Humility is not thinking you are small. It is thinking that other people have greatness within them.”

Collaboration implies also funding what works, without ideological dogmatism. During this crisis, many right-wing funders collaborated with organizations from the left, like Achim Laneshek, simply because what they were doing worked. And many on the left funded programs with Haredim, or religious Zionist groups, because they were doing amazing work. We need more of that, we need to be open to changing lanes, to fund new stuff, to realize that funding is not about making a point, but about making a difference!

5.) Now is the time to lead.

It’s no secret that there’s now a crisis of leadership. In Israel and around the world. So we can complain and lament or we can just take leadership ourselves.

The transformational moment in Moses’ life was when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. The Torah tells us that he looked around “vayar ki ein ish” (“and he saw there was nobody”), so he stepped in and saved his fellow Jew.

For us, like for Moses, the lack of leadership can’t be an excuse; it needs to be an invitation to step in and lead. This is what regular Israelis did when the government failed them. They took leadership. In times of petty politicking and irresponsible leaders, philanthropists can be the adults in the room, in a time of polarization and acrimony, funders can be the voice of reason and moderation, in a time of division, funders can take the lead in creating a new social contract based on equality, respect and mutual enrichment.

My friends, it’s been said a lot that now is the time for unity, to feel that we are bound together, the living and the dead, by unconditional love. We will still fight a lot, because that’s who we are, and because unity doesn’t mean uniformity. We need to remember that unconditional love is not uncritical, but it is unbreakable.

Since Avraham Avinu defied the world with his new beliefs, being Jewish has been, and will always be, an act of defiance. A rebellion against the inhumanity and the cruelty of the world.

When Moses complained about us in the desert, saying that we were stubborn and stiff-necked people, he didn’t realize he was giving us the secret of our survival. They try to destroy us time and again, they demonize us, they do everything they can to make us despair, but we are stubborn and stiff-necked people who will never, ever give up.

To our enemies, we say: We will not only defeat you, we will transcend you. Here, in this tiny piece of land that we call our own, in this small country sanctified by the dreams and hopes of a thousand generations, in this land made holy by the blood of our brethren who died to give us life, in this soil irrigated by tears of sorrow and joy, in this land of beginnings that never end, we say a single phrase, that sanctifies life, that is an affirmation and a prayer. Here, with the voice of millions across time and space, with those who preceded us and those who will follow. Here, we will stand tall and proud, and we shout with our entire being:

Am Yisrael chai!

Andres Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.