Pushing ourselves to be the best we can be

Pushing ourselves to be the best we can be
Nigel Savage
Published in The New Jersey Jewish News' segment, The Next Big Think
March 16, 2006

I love the famous line from Robert F. Kennedy: “There are those who look at things the way they are and ask why? I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

It’s in that spirit that I want to address this topic. This is more about what might be than about what is. Here are three things that already exist within Jewish life — but which I’d like to see grow dramatically in the next five years.

Creating inclusive community

What common thread runs through B’nai Jeshurun, the popular independent synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the annual learning retreat known as Limmud New York, and Hazon’s New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride? Each goes a long way in seeking to create inclusive community. Each eschews the implication of questions like, Which person is the oldest or the youngest? The least religious or the most observant? Whose Hebrew isn’t so good? Who’s not Jewish, or not white, or not heterosexual?

“Inclusive community” is a contemporary phrase that encompasses the biblical “love the stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt.” The single most common phrase in the Torah, “love the stranger” has been a leitmotif throughout Jewish history. If you were to decide to conduct a decisive campaign over the next two years to make your school or synagogue or JCC a fully welcoming place in ways major and minor, to include anyone who might in any way feel left out — within five years your community would be transformed.

Push yourself a little The rhetoric of contemporary life is “go with the flow” — or as the pre-Kabala Madonna put it, “express yourself.” Jewish tradition dissents somewhat from this idea, inviting us to hold ourselves to high standards. At Hazon, for example, we encourage people to push themselves on multi-day fund-raising bicycle rides in New York and Israel. It’s both a physical and fiscal challenge: Last year’s riders, to their own astonishment, generated more than 3,000 individual donations for Hazon and its partners, including the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, the American Jewish World Service, and the Hudson Valley Sustainable Communities Network. We live in a Jewish metropolis that offers more opportunities to learn and grow than almost any in human history — but most of us don’t avail ourselves of them. Sign up for something new at your JCC. Learn with your rabbi. Take a class at the synagogue. Or join or form one of the New Jersey teams for our Israel and New York bike rides. (The Israel ride takes place May 9-16; the New York ride Sept. 1-4. Visit the Hazon web site for more information.)

Noninstrumental Judaism

Too much of organized Jewish life is about persuading someone else to be Jewish in a particular way. “You should be Orthodox. You should be a Reform Jew. You should be a Zionist.” Noninstrumental Judaism essentially says, “I think this is amazing (or rich or enjoyable or worthwhile), and I invite you to join with me in doing this.” That’s actually very different from “You should….” Telling someone else to be Orthodox or Zionist or anything else involves a considerable degree of presumption — that you know better than the person you’re talking to about how he or she should live.

If we focus less on persuading others to be “our kind” of Jew and more on pushing ourselves to be the best kind of Jew each of us can be, then we will transform ourselves and our families — and we may also find that we transform our communities and the world around us.

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