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WHAT IS COMMUNITY TODAY?
AN OPTIMIST’S TAKE
Your spring issue addressing community today (“What Is Community Today?” Spring 2021) could not have arrived at a timelier moment. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has been on a quest for the past year and a half to answer similar questions: “How do we accelerate strengthening Jewish life and community in Greater Washington? What does it mean to create a community of belonging?” These queries were made even more urgent by the vulnerabilities and inequities laid bare by the pandemic.
Our journey thus far has in many ways been as important as the destination. In our shared pursuit of a vibrant Jewish future, we continue to forge deep interpersonal and inter-organizational connections. We are reconciling the tension between forging a shared sense of purpose and honoring and celebrating the diversity of needs, opinions, identities and aspirations that define the Jewish people.
The shift in how we work—away from silos and divisions and toward trusting partnerships—has been palpable. Volunteers, professionals and leaders have looked beyond their own agendas, put faith in one another, and taken risks to better serve our community. And still today, as we move off of our screens, people are actively working to reach beyond their traditional separations and form meaningful, productive relationships. Witnessing this leaves me optimistic about the future we now have the opportunity to co-create.
Gil Preuss, CEO
The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington
I enjoyed reading the community issue. I appreciated what Patrick Deneen said about how part of the appeal or nostalgia for college is living in a bona fide community. I agree 100 percent. While you could not pay me to be 18-21 again, I miss how easy it was to meet people and find shared interests.
I also appreciated Lonnie Bunch and Susan Neiman for talking about how universal values and community can go together to find unity and purpose—without resorting to tribalism. How does a person go from not being part of a group to being part of it? We have to be willing to go through the challenging process of going from stranger to acquaintance/ally to friend/comrade, confronting our fears, stereotypes and ideas of self as we transition.
Finding community is a trial-and-error process in life. America is a lonely place for all of us—this is an individualist culture more than a communal culture, and we all have our scars of loneliness to prove it. Later in life, I have been asking these questions more and am now more interested in joining with others—it’s one of the reasons I’m working on converting to Judaism.
I would like to see a follow-up issue where you talk to community leaders who have succeeded in creating and building community. We need to learn from everyone, not just published authors and famous thought leaders, but people from all over—from rural areas, from people without college degrees, from all corners and walks of life who still have a sense of belonging.
THE BIRTH OF A POEM
I am a relatively new subscriber to Moment and am delighted with the depth and breadth of the thoughtful writing you publish. Reading your most recent issue that focused on community, I got a special bonus: inspiration for a poem. Every year in late spring, I gather up notes that I’ve written throughout the year in preparation for reading a new poem I’ve written at the conclusion of our small conservative synagogue Congregation Shaarey Tikvah’s annual meeting. This year’s poem, “They Carry the Fire with Them,” inspired by the thoughtful words in Moment, took me to a different place. I thought not only of fire but also of “water returning / fathoming the cost…of what was lost, / then forging a new memory / of lives entwined / once again.” As I write this letter of thanks to Moment, I am looking forward to attending my first (still masked and socially distanced) in-person service. How good to have community!
Shaker Heights, OH
I was glued to the array of responses. I might suggest two missing themes. First, since social grouping has an evolutionary basis to enhance personal and species survival, the groups that are formed are ethically neutral but share the same foundation. A street gang and a hospital are both communities, one for the benefit of members and one for the benefit of others by the participants.
Second, kehillah [“congregation”] has lost ground. Synagogues cannot run as Ponzi schemes that rely on new members replacing those who drop out. The commentators did not acknowledge attrition very well.
COMMUNITY AS AN IDEAL
I think of community as a value we hold in high regard and have yet to see realized. What we do know are the many ways it can be subverted and betrayed. We know its pitfalls and roadblocks. At times like now, we see its difficulties more clearly. But how to realize it remains a mystery. Community is a promise, like love, that draws us to its fulfillment despite the difficulties. When people have found themselves in community, and then lost it somehow, that loss, like grief, can persist and curtail subsequent efforts. Still, loss alone cannot defeat the ideal of community that we, as a human and spiritual species, will always carry with us.
COMMUNITY IS CONNECTION
Community is a connection between people. It could be your family and friends, or the people you connect with through work or play. If you are lucky, the contact can be in person. These people matter to you, and you want to stay connected. We find community through our interests, passions and activities. We get involved with new people by working together toward a common goal. Some acquaintances evolve into lasting friendships, and as we age, we keep in touch with the people with whom we continue to have shared values and goals and with whom we enjoy having contact.
West Bloomfield, MI
COMMUNITY MEANS HELPING
Community is a fundamental concept in Judaism that I feel is being lost today. For me, it means going the extra mile for those who need it without being asked by other members of the community—whether it is going to a shiva service or bringing food to a deceased person’s family, or volunteering to help a member in need who has returned from the hospital or driving someone to shul who otherwise couldn’t attend. There are a thousand ways to express community—it’s caring for others in their time of need and helping the synagogue or community function. People today have been too busy. When you have to start calling people to help, it becomes a chore. Maybe the gradual return to engaging with others will allow people to understand the need to do for others in need.
Rabbi Michal Mendelsohn
A CONFEDERATION FOR ISRAEL?
Confederation cannot work as long as the Palestinian leadership and radical factions want the destruction of Israel (“A ‘Confederation’ for Israel?” Spring 2021). It took two generations of wandering in the desert before the Jews were allowed to populate the land of Israel. It took that long for the physical memory of slavery and a repressive life in Egypt to be erased from practice. Similarly, it will take the equivalent of two generations once the Palestinians accept that Israel will not go away. No amount of liberal wishful thinking will change reality. It is indeed unfortunate that the Palestinian leadership has rejected the opportunity to have a country of their own so many times.
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
WHAT ABOUT JORDAN?
There are too many difficulties for a confederation between Israel and the Palestinian entity to be successful. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia all point to the impossibility of confederations working when people with different traditions and social status try to unite. But all the arguments that Letty Cottin Pogrebin makes for a confederation between Israel and the Palestinians apply to a greater extent to a confederation between Jordan and the Palestinians. The negatives for an Israeli-Palestinian confederation include a huge economic difference between the two entities. They aren’t equal economic entities, so it would be inevitable that they wouldn’t be equal political entities. A two-state solution seems the best option. The relationship between Israel and the newly established Palestinian state can be as close as the one between Canada and the United States or as cold as the one between North and South Korea. It will be up to the Palestinians to decide what type of relationship they want.
DIALOGUE AND ATONEMENT
Lilly Gelman demonstrates that Jewish history offers valuable tools with which to navigate the complexities surrounding cancel culture today (“What Is Cancel Culture—and What Does Judaism Say About It?” Spring 2021). The need to distinguish between matters one deems abhorrent and those one finds merely erroneous is nicely reflected in the idea of herem (“excommunication”) on the one hand and the inclusive nature of Talmudic debate on the other.
A sophisticated Jewish approach to troubling acts and rhetoric is crucial today as we craft an effective response to anti-Semitism. Jew hatred that stems from deep and intentional malice and acts of violence must be met with harsh sanction. However, when anti-Semitism stems from disinformation, misinformation or ignorance, the most effective response is outreach, education and dialogue.
Even in the case of odious acts or rhetoric against our community, the concept of kapara (“atonement”)—deeply rooted in Jewish thought and practice—is instructive. When a desire to learn is demonstrated, accompanied by sincere regret and tangible measures to repair past harm, we ought not lock the gates of repentance.
Ari M. Gordon
THE HORSERADISH CHRONICLES
The only way my Brooklyn grandfather conducted a seder was in Hebrew, from start to finish (“The Horseradish Chronicles,” Spring 2021). It didn’t matter that his family didn’t understand what he was saying or what it signified. This custom could prove deadly when the seder included bored little children and nonbeliever adults, but one of my grandfather’s seders set in motion a family tradition that continues today. The evening perked up when the eating began. When the horseradish maror was passed, my uncle and my father let out whoops.“Hoohah!” they said, and everyone laughed. “Hoohah! Hoohah!” the kids repeated. From that moment forward, the condiment was known in our household as “hoohah horseradish.”
Today at our family seders, a fair amount is in English, everyone takes part, and “hoohah horseradish” plays a prominent role. Over the years, a macho ritual has grown whereby some of the males try to see who can tolerate the greatest amount of horseradish for their bite of maror. They turn red, cough, cry and eventually, when they can breathe again, voice something akin to “Hoohah!”
Susan Naidoff Holliday
Takoma Park, MD
TEARS IN MY EYES
Thanks so much for your most enjoyable article about horseradish. It brought tears to my eyes. My husband, Paul z”l, and his brother, Joe z”l, loved their horseradish all year but especially on Passover. One year, Paul decided that he wanted to see what it would be like to make his own horseradish. He got a large root and proceeded to grate it. As he did so, his eyes cried, and his nose ran. No one could come near that horseradish. When he finished, he said, “That’s the last time I’m making horseradish.” Paul and Joe had the horseradish on the Hillel sandwich and, as if that wasn’t enough, with the gefilte fish, and they both cried.
Tinton Falls, NJ