The Meaning of Jewish Community: Our Experiment With A Community Ethical Will

By Howard Sovronsky and Michael Johnston

Community: A social, religious, occupational, or other group
sharing common characteristics or interests
and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect
from the larger society within which it exists.

All of our work as Jewish communal leaders is about strengthening this thing we call Jewish community. Too often, we have come to equate success in building community with how much money we raise. But if there is one thing we know for certain, it is that community is not about money. It’s about connections and values and faith.

Therefore, in the midst of a historic 28 institution joint endowment raising campaign – a campaign to build and sustain our Jewish community in perpetuity – we knew that our message had to embrace not only the dollars raised, but the real purpose behind our fundraising effort.

Our real purpose was to secure the future and sustain the values that we as a community hold dear- the common thread that connects us all as Jews. We do not know what the Jewish Community of Greater Hartford will look like in 50 years, but we know that like the Jewish community of today, it will hold certain universal values close to its heart.

As we talked about the idea of sustaining our values we noticed a striking parallel with the ancient Jewish tradition of ethical wills. Ethical wills are non-binding letters or documents created for the purpose of passing on values, wisdom, or advice to future generations – typically from parents to children.

As Susan Turnbull says it, if “your legal will addresses ‘what do I want my loved ones to have?’ your ethical will addresses ‘what do I want them to know?’” It occurred to us that as part of a campaign to endow the future, we were also trying in some way to also pass along our own values as a community to future generations.

What if we wrote an ethical will for our community? A statement of Jewish community values as part of our recognition that this is truly the centerpiece of our work. With this idea in mind, we approached the Rabbinic Association of Greater Hartford and asked them if they would collectively undertake the responsibility of writing such a document.

What they returned with was moving, powerful and brief – an astonishing recognition of our true purpose and values. Just as importantly, the concept struck a deep chord with people looking both for a meaningful connection to the idea of Jewish community and a way to express what their Jewish identity meant to them.

As far as we know, no other community in North America has written such a document but we encourage others to do so as a tool for embracing unifying values and underscoring what the true purpose of our Jewish communal work is all about. Below is the complete text of the Greater Hartford community ethical will:

As the Rabbis of the Greater Hartford area, we see ourselves and our congregations as stewards of the generosity of those who came before us. We found orchards of learning, bushes burning unconsumed and our air filled with compassion.

We affirm the centrality of Torah, Chesed, Tikkun Olam, Tzedakah, and Achrayut, of learning, compassion, justice and communal responsibility. We have committed our rabbinate to the belief that our tradition and connection with our Creator brings meaning to our lives as individuals and as a community. We recognize that from our creation we were not meant to be alone, and that we need each other. Our enduring legacy is to exhibit generosity of resources, faith, wisdom and kindness that others might be as fortunate as we are.  We affirm that we bear responsibility to each other and that our own spiritual journey is part of a larger covenantal framework which guides our lives.

The challenges of today and tomorrow present both manifold needs and opportunities to assist in continuing the chain of tradition that is our inheritance. We affirm the inspiration and truth of the essential teaching of our tradition: ‘You are not obligated to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it.’ ( Pirke Avot 2:21)

Howard Sovronsky is President & CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. Michael Johnston is President & CEO of Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford.