The Francis Effect – An Opportunity for a Powerful Jewish Response

By Abe Wasserberger

Watching Pope Francis deliver his midrash before Congress today, reminded me of a day 54 years ago, when President John F. Kennedy addressed a world wide TV audience during his inauguration with the resounding words; “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” It was January 20, 1961 as we watched the spectacle unfold on our black and white TV. I was nine years old. I felt inspired to do something. But what? I turned to my parents (Holocaust Survivors) and asked them what should I do. “Call the Rabbi, do something Jewish,” they said.

I immediately called my Rabbi (Rabbi Stanley Kazan), and asked for a meeting. The conversation probably went something like this, ‘what do you want to talk about,’ he asked. “Rabbi, our synagogue (Rodeph Shalom, Tampa, Florida) has USY for older kids but nothing similar for my age group. Can you guide me and support me in finding something for us to do for the shul and community?” Within a few months we had a committee of parents that agreed to work with us. Our group wanted to have field trips, overnight parties in shul and find meaningful projects in our neighborhood. We felt that even at our young age, we could do something important. We wanted to embody President Kennedy’s words by starting our own little Jewish Peace Corp. Our first big test of faith was to find funds for this little “start-up.” The synagogue budget was stretched to its limits. They declined our request but offered to help us figure out a fundraising strategy.

Membership; didn’t want to alienate anyone who could not afford to join. Direct solicitation; synagogue leadership did not want us to invade the field given an impending capital campaign under consideration. We tossed around ideas until one stuck. “Let’s sell stuff to our parents and the profit from the sale will fund our group, I suggested.” “What should we sell,” they answered. “Krispy Kreme doughnuts, we all love them and they offer special rates just for fundraising projects,” someone said. Let’s talk to the Rabbi.

Rabbi Kazan ruled that “we could take pre-orders with the intent to deliver doughnuts directly from the bakery to each home, on a given Sunday morning, before Sunday School starts… and don’t be late.” Our little group held successful Sunday morning doughnut runs every quarter. We made enough money to fund the groups programs. We had exceeded our expectations. Other groups from other synagogues in the community soon heard about our activities. Instead of competing, we invited them to join our group. Better together we thought. This way, we would meet others that we would ordinarily not have an opportunity to connect with. Our little group grew as we intertwined in the work of doing social good while having fun. The entire process bound us together, strengthening our connection to core Jewish values and community – during a time of social and civil unrest in Tampa and throughout the country. We even had enough money left over at the end of the year to make a donation to the shul. Three years later, United Synagogue of America founded Kadima (a pre-USY group for 6-8 grade youth), based in part, on our little experiment.

Is it possible that the Pope Francis effect[1], like the JFK effect, could resonate, stimulate, inspire and challenge many viewers to seek opportunity for engagement? What impact will The Pope Francis effect have on inspiring the unaffiliated into action? His holy presence suggesting that the Church is more in touch with the needs of today alone does not create a shift in the dynamics of membership, attendance or affiliation, nor did it come with an action statement. That, the Church left up to its system to implement.

Is this moment an opportunity for a powerful Jewish response? Today, fifty-three years later, having served the Jewish community in a professional capacity for decades, I wonder how will we respond to our children tonight, when and if they ask us what they can do to make the world a better place? This is not 1961. Then, the Jewish communal system of JCC’s, UJA/Federation, synagogue and infrastructure capital and member growth was starting to shift into high gear. Israel was central to our core feeling of security and Israel was dependent upon the diaspora for philanthropic investment and guidance. Today, we face a growing crisis of identity; the increasing out-migration of young Jews who no longer feel they need to connect with Israel compounded with an equal estrangement from Judaism, alarmingly high rates of disaffiliation causing foundational shifts in the fabric of Jewish life.

However we view Pope Francis et. al., it is his message of Tikkun Olam that is most noteworthy for us to consider. Tikkun Olam:

Certainly, the Pope made no reference to Jewish values or the teachings of our sage Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now when?” Pope Francis did say, “What is their problem is our problem.” His words are exactly the same, but not far from the universal message embedded in Jewish values, principles and our tradition of Tzedakah.

Today, I wondered, what might it look like tonight, if an affiliated/unaffiliated Jewish son or daughter asked their multi-diverse affiliated/unaffiliated 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation American Jewish parents, “hey … I really feel inspired to do something meaningful and good after listening to Pope Francis today. What should I do?”

I have faith that our people will continue to give more in order to do more good (as a percentage of our population in comparison to other groups) in multiple venues than any other group on earth because “What is their problem is our problem,” is embedded in our DNA.

[1] Infused with humanistic guide points that align with the Church

Abe Wasserberger is Vice President, Israel and Global Philanthropy at The Jewish Agency for Israel.