The blessing of renewed beginnings

In Short

We thought we could do our jobs on Zoom and teams and send a gift box with a customized water bottle and brownie brittle, and it would feel like a conference. But not until we entered this room, did we truly understand the loss, the grief, the disappointments of not being together. 

I just returned from JPro Going Places Together, in partnership with The Jewish Federations of North America, May 2-4 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio, restored and in a state of deep gratitude to Ilana Aisen, Shira Hutt, Eric Fingerhut and all the other organizers for bringing 1,200 Jewish communal professional together and offering our treasured field an in-person growth opportunity again. In that spirit, I humbly share my keynote address as a plea that we lead now more than ever.

What a blessing it is to see all of you – a blessing that itself necessitates a blessing. And Judaism, being what it is, has a blessing for that. True friendship is a work of art, a thing of holiness. Its absence creates a void. Its renewed presence is worthy of prayer. This moment, being here with you, is worthy of that prayer. So I have a short one for you. Only three words long. It’s sourced in the Talmud:

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his friend after thirty days have passed recites: Blessed . . . Who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time. One who sees his friend after twelve months recites: Blessed . . . Who revives the dead.” (BT Brakhot 58b)

Two thousand years ago, if you didn’t see someone for a whole year without a means of communication, the chance of seeing them ever again was grim. Seeing a treasured companion alive and well is an emotional resurrection of the dead; someone who became dead to you through absence suddenly comes alive again. Rav, a third-century Babylonian scholar, uses a prooftext for this practice from Psalms: “I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind; I am like a lost vessel” (Psalms 31:13). Just as it’s unlikely that a lost object will be found after a year, a friend may also become lost to us. 

We, too, may feel lost or untethered. There are feelings that have remained dormant within us that need revitalization. They need to come to life again. We thought we could do our jobs on Zoom and Teams and send a gift box with a customized water bottle and brownie brittle, and it would feel like a conference. But not until we entered this room, did we truly understand the loss, the grief, the disappointments of not being together. 

So the Shecheyanu is not today’s blessing. We reserve that for people, sights and tastes we haven’t had for 30 days. Today we make the blessing “Barukh meyahe ha-matim.” Please turn to someone next to you, look in their eyes and recite with me, these three words: “Barukh meyahe ha-matim.”

One medieval commentator writes that you should only recite this blessing on “a friend who is beloved.” Another adds that the friend should be one who provides pleasure. This is because a blessing expresses our enduring astonishment. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in And From There You Shall Seek, observes that “The benediction always signifies a moment of grace, a great, sublime moment of the utterer of the benediction, in which…[to]…attain a deep vision and acute look though the miraculous portal, torn open by a hidden hand to reveal a world that is entirely good and pleasant, and entirely miraculous.” 

The reunion of friends, of colleagues, is a sublime moment of grace. These days it can feel like a miracle. 

I asked myself, “Who would be the first person I’d say this blessing over and hug when COVID was over?” I obsessed about this question – I perseverated not so much about the identity of the person but what I’d feel in the physical presence of that person after such a prolonged separation. It did not disappoint. It was pure was joy: a tearful, divine, radiant happiness that renewed me, renewed us. And that feeling is one I experienced, in part, this morning in a state of anticipation of seeing all of you – such wonderful friends and devoted colleagues – here in one room. We, who entered this field because we love people and love spaces of meaning and growth are here to celebrate that love and to create – in the spirit of collaboration – a space of meaning and growth together. 

To that end, I want to share a teaching of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, a mentor and teacher who died during COVID. Those of us who watched his funeral online saw only a small gathering of family in a cemetery under the grey, English sky of November. COVID robbed us of a dignified farewell in the presence of the thousands of people he influenced. He deserved that and so much more. Many of us here have been profoundly inspired by his teachings. Some are even here because of his teachings. I cite him now, not only for the substance of what he wrote but also as a way to mourn his loss together, in-person, for the very first time as a collective of individuals committed to many of the same dreams. 

In Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas, a book published three months before he died, Rabbi Sacks wrote:

“Judaism has foundational beliefs, to be sure, but it is fundamentally about something else altogether. For us, faith is the redemption of solitude. It is about relationships – between us and God, us and our family, us and our neighbours, us and our people, us and humankind. Judaism is not about the lonely soul. It is about the bonds that bind us to one another and to the Author of all. It is, in the highest sense, about friendship.”

Some professional friendships and relationships grew stronger over COVID. But some of these bonds languished in loneliness. We may have done little to relieve them. Some of our colleagues let us down. The boundaries of work and home life blurred. The pressures of illness and childcare for many created room for little else other than our job responsibilities. Many of us withdrew from our normal work routines and behaviors. We all have regrets to share and apologies to make. 

Some professional friendships disappeared for a while. Some of us will approach each other sheepishly for not being better colleagues. But we’re here now. Finally. So let us seek the happiness of reunions instead of reminders of where we have fallen down. It’s been so hard. Let’s not use this time to judge because we have a big job ahead. 

The job involves not only friends but strangers who we hope will become friends. How do we reconstitute our organizations and bring people back and new people in? Malcolm Gladwell, in his new book, Talking to Strangers writes that, “Because we do not know how to talk to strangers, what do we do when things go awry with strangers? We blame the stranger.” And this coarsening of our social fabric, aided by the pandemic and political turmoil, offers us a giant, new job, in addition to the giant jobs we already have. We need to rebuild trust, almost as if each of our business cards reads “trust-builder” in addition to our job titles. Gladwell reminds us that, “If you don’t begin in a state of trust, you can’t have meaningful social encounters.” 

We have a trust deficit right now that has only been made harder through isolation. In my leadership work over the past two years with rabbis, heads of schools, CEOs, executive directors and boards, I’ve heard one refrain more than any other, “I didn’t sign up for this.” 

“I didn’t sign up for a job where my judgments are not trusted, a job that created endless decision fatigue, where I got texts from anxious congregants, parents, volunteers or donors all night long about everything we’re doing wrong. All of the time. I am not a virologist. I just want to do the job I trained for. Therefore, I am thinking of quitting. I am retiring. I am leaving the field.”

So I say to you, with every ounce of love I can muster, if you’re a leader, this is what you signed up for because true leadership is always about negotiating uncertainty for yourself and for others. It’s about traveling in the wilderness for a really, really long time before you get to the Promised Land. Please don’t leave us when we need you the most. You inspire others. They are looking to you. When you give up, they want to give up. When you stay, they stay. And when you lean in, they will also lean in. 

So it is with special gratitude that I thank everyone JPRO and JFNA for their leadership in putting together this conference. The intentionality and thought that went into every detail is evident. 

You brought us here to create a space of meaning and growth together. You brought us here to bless each other, to rekindle friendship, to rebuild trust, to meet new friends. And more than anything else, you brought us here so we could remind ourselves why we love this work and why it is a sacred privilege to be a Jewish communal professional, especially now, when we’re needed more than ever.

Thank you for who you are, for what you do, and thank you all for being a blessing in my life. 

Erica Brown is the vice provost for values and leadership at Yeshiva University and director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center.