Opening Plenary Breakfast Keynote
Sustaining the Vision of the Jewish Community: JFS’s Challenge to Bring Healing, Hope and Commitment
Rabbi Yehudah Fine
Growing up in the 1950’s, I never doubted how the world worked. My father, a physician, was a veteran of the Second World War and ardent Zionist. He fought his way up through the Pacific Theatre, through the Solomon Islands, Bismark Chain, Truk, Guadacanal, New Guinea, Borneo and a host of smaller islands. In my home the names of those Islands were as familiar to me as Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman and Ben Gurion. I grew up trout fishing after school and sitting in the old bing cherry orchard that sat in an abandoned small farm next to our house. High up in the trees on late summer nights, my friends and I talked in hushed tones about stars and galaxies and the 56 War in Israel. I dreamed of making aliyah and instead became a rabbi and family therapist.
What came out of my family was always a message of bright burning hope. Hope for humanity. Hope of Israel. Hope for the Jewish Community as it rose out of the ashes of the Holocaust. And even hope for my father’s many patients. I grew up even thinking I understood evil.
It wasn’t until I was 25 years old that I learned I did not understand evil. That was the first time a gangbanger tried to take me out. He brought pure evil and malice right into my life. Even after I took him down, it still did not contain his dark thoughts. He eventually went up river to do 10-15 years of hard time. Instead of taking my life, he took another.
30 years ago, I finally saw that the world contains pockets of evil that are as dark as the inside of big black leather bag. I’ve had evil touch me. The more out into the dark world I went, the more I was confronted with evil. I’ve had to more than once fight for my life. I’ve had really bad folks with evil intentions stalk me. And certainly had enough guns pulled on me so I could not ignore others dark and evil intentions toward me. It did something to me.
It made me burn with more hope. Risk more. Do more. It turned me into a family therapist and rabbi. It deepened my spirituality. It made me more of a Jew. It is also made me never to turn my eye from the evil of anti-semitism that still is strongly afoot today.
For over a decade I spent my nights on the streets of the dark nether world of New York City. Home of throwaway children who briefly lived and died -forgotten by the world in the side streets off Times Square. I vividly remember one lost kid who night after night, kept asking me question after question. Finally after about 3 weeks in the dark shadows of the street hustlers, he told me what he wanted from me. It was 2 AM.
Out of nowhere from inside an old plastic shopping bag he pulled out a pair of Tefillin and asked me, “Do you know what these are?”
“Of course,” I said. “Whose are they?”
He laughed and said, “You’ll never know.” But then swept his arm up towards a building across the street and said, “Look up in that window. See that shadow of a kid standing there? They’re his. He’s dying of AIDS and these Tefillin are the only thing left of his life that is not ruined. He wants you to have them so when he dies they won’t get thrown out in the garbage. Will you take them?”
I said, “Damn right I will take them. Now take me to him. I gotta talk to him now.”
The kid looked at me dumbfounded, “You got to be kidding. No way. He’s my friend and this is my favor to him. You take them as part of the favor, but that is as far as it goes. That’s all you get of him. You understand?”
He handed me the bag and left. Vanished into the fog of the night where hustlers dream of comfort and love and then die.
I realized as I watched him walk away and then looked up at the building as I saw the other kid’s shadow disappear from the old dirty blinds that hung in the window of the apartment across the street, that another two kids simply would haunt my dreams. Another kid was added to the body count. I thought, “This is gonna be another story that never was destined for a Hollywood ending.”
Six months later. 3 AM. I’m at home asleep. The phone rings. I catch it on the fourth ring. A voice whispers to me. “Yehudah. It’s me. The kid with the Tefillin. Will you come and visit me?” We talk a bit more and he tells me he will be hospitalized tomorrow. His T-cells are basically gone to hell. He’s real sick. His voice is soft on the phone. I get a name. David.
“Of course” then add, “Where and When.” I get the details.
Before hanging up he asks, “Yehudah, can you bring my Tefillin?”
Let me cut to the end of this tale. It is a tale of a short life. Not without profound meaning, but certainly more than a cautionary tale. What happened to David? David’s AIDS arrived before the era of protease inhibitors. He didn’t make it. But he did find community before he died. Not his parents, not his brother or sister. Nor cousins or aunts and uncles. As with most street kids no family is ever looking for them. But he did find a new community that embraced him at his passing. An agency, a hospital, social workers, doctors, nurses, volunteers who attended to his Bikur Cholim (the Spiritual requirement for tending the sick) needs along with other patients who were dying with him. He was given a lot of comfort and love-something he never had his entire life until we met on the street and he ended up in the hospital.
One of the last things he ever said to me was, “Yehudah, you know what’s really weird? I had to become a street hustler, gets AIDs and die young to find community and love. I might wish for other things in my life, but I am grateful to have found the one thing I needed most in my life. People who love me. People who listen to me. People who care. The one thing I most wanted in my whole life.”
What does this tale say to us this morning?
The bridge to building hope and an ongoing commitment to others comes through agencies filled with people who create an atmosphere where tales such as this are part of the normal backdrop of the service each of you provide. The work is noble and yet simply part of what each of you do everyday. How does this happen? Is it just the magic of some individual or something else? Of course I think it is the ‘something else’. And that ‘something else’ is founded on the following 4 points or attitudes that do make the real difference in community. These 4 points are the reason you can and will continue to instant message the entire community about who you are and more important what you really do. This is the secret behind the Talmudic dictum that doing ‘one mitzvah pulls along the power of another good deed or mitzvah.’ Here are the 4 points.
- Expect remarkable things to happen because you are available enough for the remarkable to become the ordinary.
- Decide to be satisfied with the results your efforts may bring because you will always be there tomorrow for another effort.
- Accept life events. Life is about what is, not about what isn’t.
- Accept the true definition of spirit. Real spirituality is reality spirituality. It is not leaving Point A to go to Point B, but leaving Point A.
Let me jump back and rephrase my remarks this morning by stating, just how will your agencies after 9/11 and the ongoing trouble in Israel continue to sustain the vision of the Jewish community? Precisely, how will JFS continue to bring healing, hope, and commitment to those you serve. The stark reality is that surely as the sun rises communities will come to rely more and more on your services.
Let me blunt and get right to the point. I don’t believe in eating soup with a fork.
We live since 9/11 in clearly a different world. As a result, much of the road map of the Jewish community will lead directly through your agencies.
The road will go directly through your front door. You - first and foremost. Your success will be dependent not only on those of you who direct your agencies, but also those of you who volunteer countless hours of time and effort to secure the funding and jump start the ideas and content that make your programs serve those who come to you in need.
Are there key points that every agency needs to have on the radar screen to insure that faith, hope, and vision remain alive-active and present in the communities you serve? The answer of course is yes.
I believe there are 9 basic qualities that form the backdrop of leadership and sustain vision and hope -the life blood of every community. How you see your abilities and face challenges is the formula that unleashes hope and brings the needed ingredients for success. The 9 points are:
- Your talents. The talents you have are God’s gift to you; but what you do with those talents are your gift to God.
- Your ability to take risks. Ships are safe in the harbor, but ships are not built to stay in the harbor.
- Your ability to face adversity and stare it in the face. One door closes, another door opens, but it is hell in the hallway.
- Your can do attitude. If you don’t know it can’t be done, you can do it.
- Your ability to handle crisis. Things happen. It’s what you do when they happen that’s key.
- Your vision as you get inevitably knocked down in life. Difficulties are God’s errands.
- Your inspiration points to the power of giving. The barometer of where you are in life is not what you have, but what you can give.
- Your ability to not ignore plight, suffering and pain. Denial is not a river in Egypt.
- Your savvy and inspirational leadership. Call on God, but row away from the rocks.
I want you to come away this morning knowing not only these 9 points, but also that there are 4 additional crucial points about your unique service to community that do make all the difference.
- Each of you is special and unique. In fact what you are doing through your commitment to JFS is responding to the deepest calling in life. In Judaism, God is found not in concepts, but in your values, and how you make those values real.
- Your work of serving others means each of you has been called to respond to profound and deeply spiritual events that effect all our lives. The Jewish Community and the world is in fact counting on you.
- Each day you serve in your agency engenders communal hope. It is the essence of Jewish spirituality. It is defined in the Torah as compassion, graciousness, patience, kindness, truth, forgiveness, straightening error and correcting mistakes. Your giving is bound up in the 13 attributes of our faith. The work is noble, righteous and the true essence of responding to the needs of others.
- Serving others is in fact in Judaism the highest path of spiritual growth. It arises from the Talmudic concept of ‘betoch sheh-lo lishmah bo lishmah.’ Meaning- even if you do not consistently strive to do your work out of a sense of pure altruism, the very fact that you still literally come in and do the work, eventually drives you towards the highest spiritual service to others. In other words, doing and serving by its own nature, pulls you and those you serve towards a bigger vision, hope and profound caring. To the holy.
In the wake of 9/11, the worldwide re-emergence of anti-semitism and the ongoing trauma and violence in Israel, by all measurements makes you the communities thin red line. JFS is now the line in the sand where people turn for help. Your are the nexus point where hope is translated into action. Your are the location where needs are translated into action. In a word, in this new world, you are the service providers that serve to the guts and heart of your community when the cry for help goes out.
I truly believe that everything we’ve since 9/11 is a mere prelude. Even more powerful changes are coming that will in fact seem beyond what we have imagined. Your turn has come. And with that turn, you will have to start thinking about your response to new events even a decade ahead. The real problems you face ahead will not only be disaster response, but your ability to bring in new creative imagination to deal with crisis and disaster.
As the new world emerges, you must become a new breed of warriors. Warriors whose creed is filled with compassion, help, service, hope and healing.
The truth is that the buck now does stop with you. It is now your agencies that will be called upon to respond. The truth is out. You are in fact the centers where front-line servants are charged with bringing healing, empowerment and hope.
We do live in a world where clearly it is more than possible that a fanatic halfway around the world or some deranged hacker in any city in the US or elsewhere can cause immense damage to the entire social fabric of society. Experts have clearly said that tomorrow’s terrorist may be able to do more damage with a keyboard than with a bomb. We are racing ahead into a strange and novel time of history. Your job is to see the hidden connections and traumas that populate your community. The weather report ahead is a forecast of turbulence and danger. Your job is to do things not done before and to respond with a profound message of hope and caring.
We are living in a fantastic time of history. Each of you is aware that you cannot ignore the problem issues of community. You cannot ignore drugs, domestic violence, the secret lives of families, grieving, family systems breakdowns, poverty, job loss, and a myriad of what you know to be the ‘everyday issues’ that families and individuals face. At the same time, you are also called to respond to trauma unleashed by terror and be ready to undertake the task of dealing with the real possibility of massive trauma.
By default that puts you and your agency on the front line.
What is the attitude you must bring to every crisis? Let me say it in one sentence. Giving is nice, but giving what you never got yourself is even better.
It is true, the more effectively you respond and give, the stronger you will become and the more people will turn directly to you in times of trouble and need. And on top of that, the more faith will be engendered. You are the custodians of what I call the new ‘reality spirituality.’
The ground zero of your hope and faith flows directly from the power of your agencies chesed or ability to translate loving kindness into action. Your unconditional love and caring is what will make the difference in making hope float, and touch the lives of the many in need. True service through chesed means being the address and agency that serves people throughout all of life. It means being strongly there for those in need even at the end of life. A full service agency means full service on every level. Do that and your community knows that your are the agency for them.
What are then the keys that not only restore hope, but bring commitment, faith and healing to any community? Let me ask you 4 quick questions that will get us all on the same page. Raise your hand if the answer is ‘yes.’
- How many of you know someone in your Agency who has the capability to respond and go immediately into crisis mode if faced with an emergency the size of 9/11?
- How many of you know someone in your Agency who cares for anyone they can help?
- How many of you know someone in your Agency who is not afraid to face and deal with immense suffering and grief?
- How many of you know someone in your Agency who does their work because they truly sense this is their spiritual calling?
Now, why did I ask these question? Simple. To point out that your Agencies are filled with individuals who live by the credo of caring. After all, I knew all of you would raise your hands and answer ‘yes’. You are, as you all have now just seen, dedicated to bringing healing and hope to those you serve and are and have the commitment to helping others find ways to heal the needs of fractured lives.
The truth is you can handle and do handle just about anything. I suspect you already know this, but I am here to remind you and to underline what you already know to be true. So be it.
And since 9/11 the truth is you are going to be called upon increasingly to keep hope afloat as the world fragments. The simple fact is that JFS increasingly will not only be the address where problems are met head on for families and individuals, but also the address where the multitude of problems are not ignored.
While currently, you are centers that face issues of abuse, family system breakdowns, depression, drug and alcohol addiction, divorce, rehab, life skills, relationships, grief, stress and even spiritual issues. Whew what a list! And that is the short list. However since 9/11, it is clear that with the specter of terror haunting the land, you will also be the agencies that become the first, second, third, fourth and fifth responders. I trust you get my point. You are called. You must be geared up to respond quickly and stick with it through the long haul to any act of terror, catastrophe or crisis.
What does Judaism have to say at a core level to all of this? What kind of reinvigorated reality spirituality is going to enable you to face the core issues with hope and not wilt? What is the one thing beyond all the programs, ideas, institutional rules, etc…the one message that cuts through everything and will make the real difference for your community to know your JFS is the address for hope, healing, and commitment to others in need?
Prior 9/11 I would be hard pressed to say this to many people, but now I can. The one message that must go out and can go out to the community is that the JFS is the address that is not afraid to deal directly with real fear and suffering. Why specifically suffering?
Because suffering is truly at the core of everything…of every problem…of every response. It is at the core of ‘reality spirituality’-the ability to face tough things in life and respond.
Think about it for a moment. Pick any problem in your mind. Any difficulty. Any crisis. What causes people to come in from the cold and seek help? To seek remedy? What propels people and motivates people to come through your doors?
True on a higher level, underneath the response to pain and suffering is the hope and the faith that something can be done or at the very least someone will simply hear and listen. But underneath, what is the motivator?
Suffering. Suffering and pain moves people to seek help. Suffering drives people into the arms of hope. It is the gasoline that gets people moving in crisis to seek aid. And in crisis where can people turn? They turn to the people who are there to help and are organized to help. People turn to people who are trained, available and willing to put themselves on the line for others. In today’s new emerging world, I truly believe that the main address for service will become the JFS’s of North America.
The unvarnished truth is that in crisis people turn to
- Those who are trained.
- Agencies who are not afraid to aggressively respond.
- Agencies not shut down by fear.
- Agencies that transmit hope, not by words, but by deeds.
- Agencies whose actions also unleash hope because they are ground in reality-’reality spiritually.’
Pain is after all the touchstone of all growth. In a world of fragmented families and people with credible and incredible needs, your biggest teletype is that you care. Caring is infectious. It spreads by word of mouth quickly through communities and faster now in the electronic information age we live. The medium is the message and ultimately your message at JFS is that you are the business end of service. Your words are attached to your deeds. You serve others relentlessly.
If I could place at every JFS entryway 2 big banners this is what people would see. This is what would grab everyone’s attention as they walked through your doors.
- BE AWARE! FEAR means----Face Everything and Recover
- Fear means-----False Evidence Appearing Real
WE WELCOME YOU WITH OPEN HEARTS! Everyone as we know deserves a second chance. 9/11 gave America its second chance. Now JFS has to take advantage of those second chances.
Research shows that the best way to help families and individuals who suffer recover is to have agencies, that at their core, have multi levels of professionals and volunteers who are on the job and do not burn out.
The ongoing charge to every JFS is to continue to communicate 2 important messages.
- Communicate to your community that in spite of any imperfections in your agency, you are not afraid to let the wounded and suffering through your doors. 2)You are not afraid to face evil and respond to it. After all evil is ‘live’ spelled backwards.
I think we all know in our line of work that we respond because we must. And we respond because we can. We know both are true.
What are the teachings from our wisdom tradition of Judaism that allow us to respond to trauma and suffering? Let me share with you a few nuggets from the immense well of teaching passed down to us for thousands of years. Today, as in yesteryear, they speak directly to the importance of opening our lives to others in time of need, of staying the course and tending to others no matter what the circumstance.
I think these 11 points are the underpinnings of JFS’s ‘reality spirituality.’
- On accepting suffering
“Be prepared to accept suffering. It connects you to yourself and therefore to others. One of the major difficulties in accepting misfortunes is that a person does not expect them and is surprised when they occur. But the reality of the world is that difficult situations are very common and it wise to expect them.” (Daas Chochmah uMuser)
- Misfortune is opportunity
“What to others may seem misfortunes, you ought to see as opportunities for growth.” (Ohr Hanefesh vol.1)
- To give means to accept risk
“A person who gathers honey will not escape being stung by bees. A person who gathers roses will not escape being scratched by them.” (Kesser Chochmah)
- Both the good and the bad have blessings
“Just as we have a blessing for good tidings, so too do we have a blessings for bad tidings, suffering and misfortune.” (Talmud)
- Accepting the good and the bad
Suffering and misfortune also must be seen as ‘gam zu l’tovah, meaning ‘this too is also good.’ (Talmud) What this implies is working like hell to make things better. But underneath when things turn bad being geared up to accept it. Acceptance imparts strength and prevents resignation.
- Difficulties are tests and challenges
“When you find yourself in a difficult situation, the first thought you should focus on is that this situation is a test and a challenge.” (Chochmah UMussar)
- Find the humor in tough spots.
“It is okay to find something positive or even humorous in suffering.” (Chochmah UMussar)
- Suffering is a teacher.
“Suffering is a great teacher. Suffering teaches us the limitations of our power. It reminds us of our frailty and the instability of our possessions. Suffering humbles us and teaches us modesty.” (Horeb)
“Suffering is meant to be a teacher to anyone who sees it or hears about it. The suffering of anyone in the world can through our actions elevate others.” (Toras Avraham)
- Suffering spurs us on.
“Suffering ought to arose in each of us to improve.” (Toras Avraham)
- Suffering contains prophecy
“Suffering is a substitute for prophecy. It is an agent to enlighten our path through life.” (Talmud)
- Suffering opens your heart to caring
“When you see someone suffering, you should have a heavy heart. Even if you cannot solve the problem. It is still incumbent upon you to speak to the person and try to make them feel better.” (Chofetz Chayyim)
What then is the essence of hope and commitment that restores faith to a community?
Simply put, making certain everyone in your agency never gives up hope. And making certain your agency be the place that never gives up hope. The truth is every JFS is grounded in a unique talmudic principle or formula that allows you to serve others, face the toughest of the tough tasks and never give up hope.
The formula for focusing and galvanizing community is really very straightforward and yet incredibly profound. For starters, it is the capacity to see every situation as unique and precious. The Talmudic formula is that the big picture must always look to the little picture and the little picture must look back always to the big picture. Do that and everything stays connected and focused. It is called in Hebrew, Klal viPrat---Prat viKlal. Meaning the general always relates to the specific and the specific to the general.
Here is an example of how this works. The Talmud states that if the owner of a lost object has given up hope of every finding it, the finder has permission to keep it. However, the real spiritual deed is to go beyond the letter of the law, and return it anyway.
How does this apply to individuals? Everyday people walk through your doors who despair of ever finding or healing from the losses in their life. They walk in feeling as if they want to give up or in many cases feel they have given up. But in truth can anyone ever loose their soul?
You, on the other hand, are there to reconnect them through their loss and bring them back to themselves. You are more than the finder of lost souls. Your agencies have the ability to give back to people the identity of their lost soul. You can return life back to the lost. JFS stands in the breach where lives look broken and turns people back from the brink of despair.
Behind every door at your agency sit people who tell those who they serve that their life matters. Your credo is that doing what you can, does make a difference in the world.
As I prepared to come to San Antonio, I vividly remembered my first conversation with Bert and Ann at AJFCA after Steve Solomon had called and told me, “Yehudah, go see them and come to our conference.” I remember as I got in my car to go see them, saying to myself. “What can I share about the basic fundamentals in life that allow hope to burn on and not go out?
To conclude, let me share with you what I popped into my mind at that moment. Yes another short list. Three basic aphorisms that I think keeps hope floating on in our lives.
- Never ask yourself “Why me?” Always ask “Why Not Me?”
- Never ask yourself, “Why is this happening to me?” Always ask, “Why is this happening for me?”
- Never ask yourself, “What do I want out of life?” Always ask, “What does life want from me?”
Finally let me add a few more nuggets. It is not the size of the step we take that matters, but that we take it. Experience is what we get when we are expecting something else. And yes experience is something we don’t get until after we need it.
And last but truly not least, at every JFS you do sustain the effort, after all those who laugh…last.
God bless you.
You are the center of community for those who need you. The center of those things called caring. And the center where the candle of hope never goes out.