Wake up and start dreaming

America was in crisis on the hot August day in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. took his place behind the microphone in front of 250,000 Americans in Washington, D.C. The Civil Rights Movement was battling for equality and justice in a society that was deeply in the throes of discrimination and racial violence. Andrew Young described our country at that time as in “more turmoil than it had been since the second world war.”  

The crowd was wilting in the heat, and King was the last speaker on the program. He dove into his meticulously prepared speech, chronicling the history of discrimination and injustices heaped upon Black Americans before his call for action to fight bigotry. That was it — those were his planned remarks. He was coming to the end of the address, which historians tell us was politely received up until that point, when the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, standing behind him, read the crowd and said, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” She had heard King talk about his dream at a recent event, but his advisers counseled him not to share that vision with this crowd on this day, so King continued on with his carefully crafted written words. 

Jackson shouted this time: “Tell ‘em about the dream!” And so, King  set aside his prepared speech and launched into one of the most eloquent prophetic visions of American society, one that awoke a nation on that day and whose stirring call to dream still rouses and motivates dreamers throughout America and the world more than half a century later.

Since Oct. 7, we have been embroiled in a historic, consequential struggle. Like the political climate at the time of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the Jewish community today is in more turmoil than it has been since World War II. For too many unsettling months, too many fretful days, and too many sleepless nights, our community, feeling a visceral, historic connection with our sisters and brothers in Israel, has been fighting on every front imaginable for Israel and against antisemitism. 

At the same time, we are bombarded, super-saturated, with thousands of calls to action, followed by thousands of reports of reaction to our actions, followed by thousands of opinions echoing what can only be described as a blend of courage and rage, laced with hope. There is literally no end to the messages from everywhere — social media, websites, direct mail, print media and everyday conversation — telling us what we should do and the dire, irreparable, catastrophic consequences if we do not do it. These directives flow from everywhere: Shabbat tables, rabbinic pulpits, federation boardrooms and organizational meetings. They keep coming. The scary scenarios play nonstop. 

At the same time — perhaps paradoxically, or maybe it makes complete sense — we hear about evidence of people who long ago seemed to have walked away from the Jewish community and are now coming back. They want to be more involved in local synagogue activities. They want to learn more about Israel and how they can advocate for her. They want to learn Torah. They want their young children to become more comfortable and excited by involvement with their peers in the Jewish community. 

I imagine that some who are welcoming people back into their organizations may feel a small sense of vindication. They may believe that they have provided what people needed all along. We should think more than twice before reinvesting large doses of hope and money, and trusting that the same programs, organizational structures and notions about “affiliation” and “membership” that characterized Jewish communal life for decades can capture and maintain the imaginations of people who are now emerging, seeking new or renewed engagement with the Jewish community, searching for meaningful, relevant personal and communal Jewish experiences. 

There are others in our Jewish community for whom Israel is not their center of gravity. They are not anti-Zionists. They love being Jewish. They enjoy good company around a Shabbat table. They are moved by Jewish literature. They appreciate Jewish arts. They are animated when grappling with text. Their Jewish identities and Jewish pride don’t shrink; they rise in reaction to the pressures of antisemitism that squeeze them. They seek to be valued in our Jewish community and wonder if their dispassion for Israel disqualifies them.

Of course, much of the work done by many Jewish organizations has been, and continues to be, exceptional. But if we wish to grow as a newly engaged and diverse community, to maximize this moment as an inflection point in American Jewish history, it is a moment not to scare people, but to inspire them. The time has come to shake off the cold grip of nightmares and to start dreaming. 

We are blessed with so many innovative, creative, caring, skillful, Jewishly knowledgeable professionals in our communities. We know who they are. They are colleagues and friends. They are professionals at every level of every organization who have been working around the clock for months with love and dedication. Like a supernova that blazes brilliantly before collapsing into itself, fizzling into blackness, they are at risk of burning out. We are at risk of drowning in anguish. They and we need to be freed from all-consuming, never-ending battles and empowered to dream. 

When God enlisted Abraham as the first Jew, God did not say, “Abraham, your mission is to defend Israel and fight antisemitism.” Ours is a mission to model a relationship of kedusha (holiness) with God and humankind, to bring Jewish joy and meaning to the world. It is precisely now when we need dreams to inspire us. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. called for dreams from the depths of that struggle. Just as Abraham Lincoln envisioned “a new birth of freedom” for America at Gettysburg, long before his victory in the Civil War could be envisioned. We need big, bold, risky, audacious, technicolor dreams because, as King Solomon observed, “Without vision, the people will perish” (Proverbs 29:18). An overused sermonic tidbit, true, but also true is its eternal wisdom.

We need visions that are out of reach today to strive towards. We have them, there’s no doubt that we do, but they are being suffocated by the recurring nightmares that we are compounding, one upon the other — which, to be honest, serve more to frighten than to enlighten us and are perhaps becoming counterproductive.

Assemble those who are the dreamers. Literally. Settle them in a DreamLab where they will have the data and the resources to experiment, and the permission to fail. Allow them to shed the armor of gloom. Enable them to wade into joy, to submit themselves to the pleasant imagination of a future that they envision and create for us and with us. 

Supporting the Jewish people and the Jewish state is important, historic and holy work. We are in a unique moment in history in that we have the political standing to defend our rights. We are in a unique moment in history in that we have the power and the privilege to defend Jerusalem. We ourselves are also unique in history, the generation with the greatest wealth, creativity, diversity and passion for Jewish purpose, standing upon the shoulders of the generations that brought us here. We are strong and brilliant enough to defend ourselves with one hand and to build with the other. Allow our professionals the freedom to unleash their power of prophecy to foresee our future as a diverse and vibrant Jewishly knowledgeable and engaged community. It is a power they cannot possibly summon in their current state, because “prophecy cannot rest on one who is sad and languid, but only on one who is joyous.”  (Mishnah Torah, Foundations of Torah, 7:4).

In the vast arc of Jewish history, there were times when victory eluded us, and we still bear the scars. In one such tragedy, the price we paid was steep in lives lost, our portal to heaven destroyed and our nation exiled. A transformational moment occurs as we sit on the floor early in the morning to recall and to reexperience that trauma. We utter a poetic refrain that expresses our despondency at our expulsion from Israel. We repeat a phrase over and over again, “When I left Jerusalem… When I left Jerusalem.” And then, in an instant, even with a full day of mourning ahead, that sensation is startlingly overturned. We are roused when the words suddenly read: “(I will feel) gladness and joy, while anguish and sighing will flee, when I return to Jerusalem.” That dramatic reversal of fortune, written about the 9th of Av, a story that ended horribly for us, is all the more poignant because it was a dream imagined and unrealized for hundreds of years after the poet scribed those words. That dream, conjured in the depth of darkness, still continues to carry us. 

Our power of prophecy can only thrive in joy. This is our tradition as dreamers. To be true to our legacy, we have no choice but to wake up and start dreaming.

Robert Lichtman lives in West Orange, N.J. and draws upon his long tenure of professional leadership to teach and write about strategic issues and opportunities impacting the Jewish community.