Monday, September 5, 2011

Some Elul-appropriate thoughts from Bruce Plotkin

A couple of weeks ago, one of our members, Bruce Plotkin, was honored by the Allied Jewish Federation of Denver for his leadership.  He sent me a copy of his remarks.  After I read them, I asked Bruce if he wouldn’t mind if I shared them on my blog.  I think they are especially fitting during this time of Elul.
Yasher Koach and thank you Bruce for these meaningful words – and, once again, Mazal Tov on your richly deserved tribute.

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Taken from Bruce Plotkin’s response to his being awarded for his leadership by the Allied Jewish Federation of Denver. 

August 29, 2011

In 1945, as the Allied advance pushed ever further into Germany, a young Jewish chaplain was walking the streets of a heavily war damaged German city. Amidst the rubble, he stopped before crossing a street. Suddenly, a man walked up next to him. He leaned in close to the chaplain’s ear and whispered. “Amchu?” The chaplain realized the man was speaking Polish-Yiddish but did not understand. He answered briefly in  American Yiddish. The man became ecstatic, “Boruch HaShem, ir zeit a Yid!”

It took the chaplain some time working in various Displaced Persons camps to learn the significance of what the man had asked. Throughout the war, Jews, facing threats at every turn needed some brief but meaningful way to identify each other. “Amchu” became a popular and, an appropriate choice.

Amchu, or Amcha, is shorthand for Amcha bet Yisrael. Your people, the house of Israel. They did not ask if someone was a Jew. They did not use a coded word for a religious item only a Jew would know. The answer to the question, Amcha, told the questioner exactly what they needed to know. Not just are you Jewish. But, as a Jew, are you a part of our people, the house of Israel? Why is that so important? Because someone who is Amcha, understands two critical components of Judaism: “Kol Yisrael arevim ze ba’zeh” All Jews are responsible for one another and tikkun olam, the Jewish vision to move, to change, to repair the world.

How would you answer, if you were asked, Amcha? Do you feel responsible for other Jews? More importantly, do you take responsibility for other Jews? Do you do your part to repair the world? How do you do that? When you look deep within yourself, what is your answer? Throughout our history, Jews have shown us the way to answer yes, Amcha.

Money: From the first century, every Jewish community had a network of tax supported social agencies including medical care (or what passed for it at the time), dowries for poor brides, burial for the poor, pidyon shivuyim for the redemption of those who were captured by pirates, and other social services. Citizens committees supplemented these funds. Such fundraising wasn’t considered a “Jewish tax” because there really was a Jewish tax. The fundraising was intended to fulfill unmet needs after the publicly provided services.

Acts of loving kindness: We are commanded to visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger among other things. Acts of Tzedakah/of Tikkun Olam: Throughout our history, our people have volunteered to provide services to others, from burial societies to what we now call food pantries. We have worked to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, Jews and non-Jews alike. We marched and were imprisoned for promoting the rights of blacks during the civil rights era. We have worked to protect the basic rights of a worker, to keep our country a welcoming place for immigrants like our ancestors, and for government to respect the practices of all religions.

None of this is easy. There isn’t enough money or time, the challenges are too great, our individual effort seems futile, and other priorities command our attention. Of course, none of this is really new. Though our ancestors did not have smartphones, they had work, they had children, they friends and relations and enemies, and they had peer pressure and organizational strife. In Pirkei Avot, a source of wisdom gleaned from the sages who lived from the third century BCE through the second century CE, the Rabbis observed that, among other things, the inclination towards evil, the hatred of people, jealousy and the search for glory remove a person from the world (and, therefore, from our people).

Let’s examine our lives. What holds us back from being truly Amcha? Is our failure to get involved, our reluctance to make a donation, our criticism of an agency or a person really driven by our responsibility for other Jews and our vision to repair the world? Or is it driven by other factors that remove us from our people? We let work consume our day. We are driven to push our children towards ever greater heights of athletic or social achievement. We pursue comforts and trappings for ourselves and our children. Work, achievement and comforts are not bad. But are they the ultimate priority for us, our families and our community?

When disaster strikes, we see the victims of tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes andother disasters interviewed. What do they take from their home when evacuating? Their work, their social status, their Wii? Perhaps, but most commonly noted are family photo albums and other pictures. Why? Pictures help us connect with time spent with those who are dear to us and with meaningful moments in our lives. These victims also explain to us that they have come to appreciate what is truly important in their lives.

What do you think they learned? In a similar circumstance, what would you appreciate? Are they the same things that constitute your current priorities? Bruce, you think, that is all well and good but I don’t see you living an ascetic lifestyle, devoid of comforts and the Red Carpet Club. Fortunately, Judaism does not require us to live a life devoid of extras. But it does require us to act, and to be able to act requires us to align our priorities so that we may act. What else holds us back from being Amcha? We are put off by people with whom we do not agree, we are critical of organizations because they have offended us or ill-served us in some way, we leave the work to institutions because we lack the time but then we criticize those institutions for not coming through for us. But who loses out? If we withdraw from participating, do not offer our skills or withhold our money, have we really achieved the “justice” we seek against the person or organization that has wronged us? Or is it the recipient of our lost time, of our withheld dollars who suffers? Although I do not claim to be learned in all of the great sources of wisdom of Judaism, I have yet to come across a passage or teaching that says all Jews are responsible for one another and we must repair the world, except however, in the instance where the aforementioned another and world are represented by or are assisted by a person who is a jerk or a climber or seemingly self-absorbed or an organization that is too bureaucratic or doesn’t support my organization to my satisfaction or has committed some other crime against humanity in our estimation.

If you are Amcha, you are the community and, therefore, you are responsible for the individuals and organizations within that community. If you have an issue with an organization or the individuals within that organization, then step up and become a part
of the solution. The person or organization that troubles you does not fear and will not be threatened by your withdrawal from involvement or your kvetching to your friend or neighbor. But if you step up, along with like-minded people, it is remarkable what change you can bring. We look at Congress these past few months and we are incredulous how our leaders can place petty bickering and posturing above the critical needs of the nation. But what of us? Is the woman in the fifth floor walk-up who has no family and no income responsible for our failure to be seated in the VIP section? Is the boy who cannot afford a Jewish summer camp where he might have received the inspiration for a life-long connection to Judaism responsible for the fact that the person you perceive as phony or a jerk or a loudmouth or even a gossip sits on an organizational committee or board out of recognition of their volunteer commitment? Would you fail to provide a meal to a family that has suffered a loss because the person who asked you to assist is insufferable?

When the prophet Isaiah was called upon by G-d to serve, he was reluctant, to say the least. When he realized he had no choice and G-d asked “Who will go for me?” he responded in a way familiar to many: “Hineni” “I am here.” Less well known is his next word: “Sh’lacheni” – “send me.” Hineni is a state of being, I am here, I am a Jew.