This Rosh Hashanah: Paving the Entryways to Judaism and Israel

By Michael Lawrence

I was born and bred in perhaps the most geographically isolated Jewish community in the world. But we the Jews of Wellington, New Zealand were never overwhelmed by distance nor the shift of many to larger Jewish communities in Australia, Israel and beyond.

Challenges to maintain Jewish life and meaning were only that – challenges. Heavyweight challenges for heavyweight boxers and dotted throughout my formative years were New Zealanders Jewish leaders who boxed their way out of corners to maintain and enhance Jewish communal life.

In the shadow of these giants in a small Jewish community, my generation was able to learn, grow and thrive.

My parents and grandparents were Jewish patriots, proudly serving the capital city of New Zealand and volunteering their days and nights to Jewish community affairs. For them too Israel was not a distant location a full three flights and thirty hours away, but a warm light and a pillar in their own and then in our identities as proud New Zealanders and proud Jews.

Jewish community and support for Israel were part and parcel of being a Jew – we were part of a collective and every one of us was a critical puzzle piece in that story.

A binding contract across generations.

“Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this imprecation, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before Hashem, our God, and with whoever is not here with us today.” (Deuteronomy 29:13)

We arrive at this week’s (double) Torah portion – Nitzavim-Vayeilich – and find ourselves on the very last day in the life of Moses. We are launched into a renewal of the covenant with God – “standing today, all of you” – men, women, children, proselytes, “from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water”.(29:10)

Everyone is responsible for one another. No one is excluded from the covenant – including “whoever is not here with us today.” Perhaps those who have passed before us, but surely those who have not yet been born. We today set the example and ensure conditions are ripe for our children and our children’s children and beyond.

What a mammoth responsibility.

Comes the Torah portions this week and perhaps they refine the task in front of us and identify priorities for us to pursue and advance.

As he sets to depart this world, Moses lays down the challenge and it has stuck with us for generations since.

When it comes to Torah, Jewish learning, Jewish connection, Moses declares “it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in the heaven, for you to say, ‘Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?’ Nor is it across the sea, for you to say, ‘Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?’ Rather the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform it.”

When it comes to connecting ourselves and young people to Jewish experience, to wholesome, innovative Jewish journeys, it is within our reach.

Indeed pioneers in Jewish education, philanthropy and leadership have built remarkable institutions and networks for Jewish learning and exploration – a barely believable success just 70 years after the vile attack on our people.

And yet, the numbers of those who have not or can not find a comfortable, safe, affordable, viable entryway to their own Jewish journey bring us back down to earth with a thump. For many indeed Jewish exploration does indeed feel, in the Torah portions words, as far away as heaven, a stretch too far across oceans.

Across those oceans too we have the State of Israel, still inaccessible to too many, so deeply misunderstood regularly and unfairly judged within a narrative that can blur the lines of decent, fair debate.

The challenges are greater now perhaps than for decades as the coronavirus cuts off cherished interactions and leaves millions of Jews and non-Jews unable to visit other Jewish communities, family, friends and Israel.

It probably comes as no surprise of course, that this very last Torah portion of the year, as a most unusual remote Rosh Hashanah beckons for many, comes with a new burst of encouragement and final words of support from Moses as he departs the scene.

On the cusp of the Promised Land, once to the whole nation and then to Joshua, Moses twice declares “be strong and courageous.” There in direct relation to conquering and inheriting the land but in my mind equally empowering words for the challenge we face today – pre-corona and thereafter – to keep Judaism and Israel in the hearts and minds of our compatriots and the generations to come.

To all the people then and perhaps today to us: “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid and do not be broken before them… God will not release you nor will He forsake you.” (31:6)

And to Joshua, the new leader then, and to our leaders today and those who would be our leaders of tomorrow: “Be strong and courageous… God will be with you; He will not release you nor will he forsake you; do not be afraid and do not be dismayed” (31:7)

The weight on the shoulders of leaders is heavy in each and every generation. No less so then after forty years wandering in the desert and facing military battles.

No less so than in my parents’ generations, the generations of the Holocaust and immediately after, who against all odds built Jewish lives, families, communities and a renewed Jewish homeland.

Today too. Challenges abound, among them the responsibility to one another and the imperative for richer Jewish experience, access to Jewish education and for us all to stay connected to one another and to Israel.

A multitude of impressive organizations and visionary innovators, families and funders have not been perturbed by this challenge.

There is more to do. Let us be energized by this work and stirred by the words and deeds of those leaders who came before us and who walk before us today.

Michael Lawrence has been Financial Resource Development Unit Head and Chief Development Officer at The Jewish Agency for Israel since 2016. He is a qualified lawyer in Israel and in his native New Zealand and has lived in Israel since 2000.

He is the author of “Nonprofit Parasha” a weekly look at Philanthropy, Leadership and Community in the Torah portion.