My son, Aaron, is a student at Machon Pardes (The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies), where he is spending a semester studying Jewish texts—a spiritual journey taking the place of the kind of post-army trek to southeast Asia typical of many young Israelis. For Aaron, who received a limited formal Jewish education growing up, the time at Pardes addresses a longstanding desire to know more about who he is and about the roots of our people. The study is intense: Five months. Often 12-hour days or more. Classes in Tanakh (Torah, Prophets, and Writings), Talmud, Mishneh Torah (the preeminent work of the RamBam, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides). Chevruta study (the classical approach to text study by pairs of students). It’s an immersion.
I drew him out about it over dinner earlier this week. I wanted to know what he’s learning and how he’s feeling about his progress. It is, after all, the most in-depth course of Jewish study anyone in my family has had for at least two generations. What he told me left me shocked, yet somehow not at all surprised: The great Jewish texts and sources are an enormous trove of knowledge, insights, traditions, and wisdom. His months at Pardes will barely scratch the surface and are tantamount to studying the initial pages of the first volume of a 32-volume encyclopedia—just enough to know that he’ll hardly know anything. But through these months, he will have evolved both respect and appreciation for the works’ scope and breadth.
Our conversation reminded me of my first weeks as CEO of JCC Association. Acutely aware of how limited my understanding of the JCC field was at that time, I was urged to visit two or three JCCs so I could “get the idea.” I learned a great deal through each visit, but it also was clear that what I’d gotten were insights into those specific places—along with a growing sense of the scope and breadth of the field in its entirety. I had a simple sketch of the field, but it would take time to color it in. More than four years later, that learning continues as I find my way to more and more JCC communities, building a better and richer understanding of the vast and varied landscape of our movement and the Jewish communities we serve.
My family and I are in Israel for Aaron’s wedding—something I have little doubt I’ll want to share more about in a future message. In so many ways, things are just about perfect: Everyone arrived safely, with third vaccines and negative COVID tests. The weather is ideal—blue skies and daytime temperatures in the 60s. We are warmly welcomed everywhere, as we’re among the first foreign tourists in Israel in some time. The new coalition government has passed the country’s first budget in more than three years, and there is a palpable optimism in the air. In a few short days we’ll stand under the chuppah with our son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Zoe. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Amidst the good times and tidings, however, another terrorist attack. A member of Hamas from East Jerusalem opened fire with a compact machine gun not far from the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount), murdering Eliyahu (Eli) Kay, z”l, a 26-year-old tour guide who came to Israel from South Africa in 2017 to become a lone soldier, serving with distinction in an IDF paratrooper unit. On that fateful morning he was walking to the Kotel to pray when his life was cut short in a hail of bullets. Three other people were wounded before the terrorist was neutralized.
Headlines describe another terror strike by an aggrieved Palestinian. Many will have their say on social media, bemoaning the endless conflict and the unwillingness of leaders to make sufficient compromises for peace. For the uninitiated and those with superficial knowledge and understanding, these kinds of reactions are akin to reading the first page of a random volume of a different compendium—one covering the history of the modern Zionist movement and the religious and geopolitical realities of today’s Middle East. With hubris, and based on no real knowledge, too many will claim to understand it and to know who’s to blame, without so much as a flicker of appreciation for the breadth and scope of the subject.
We can’t begin to know our place in the world or in the history of our people without making a commitment to pursue, at a minimum, a broad understanding of the vast contours of the subjects at hand. Until we can appreciate the scope—and create for ourselves even a simple intellectual sketch—it is nearly impossible to begin coloring in the picture. We can start by dedicating ourselves to learning more and to identifying sources and experts qualified to fill our minds with insights, with questions and with the knowledge we’ll need to pursue the answers. Our history as a people goes back 4,000 years. Herzl launched the modern Zionist movement in Basel in 1897. The Ottoman Empire fell during World War I. The British left what was then Palestine in 1948, making way for the declaration of Israel’s independence. A subject this vast can’t be understood through memes and tweets nor can it be explained effectively by talking heads spewing market-tested sound bites.
We needn’t achieve mastery of the subject. There are few who do. But we are stewards of a single link in the chain of our extraordinary history as a people, and the strength of every subsequent link depends on what we do with ours. We cannot be idle. We cannot be indifferent. Each of us must crack the cover of that first volume and begin a journey to greater insight and literacy.
This is what learning is about. It’s humbling—and that’s how it’s supposed to be. At a time when we all too routinely draw instant conclusions from comments no more than 280 characters long, our unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of our own education and our society’s increasing inclination to doubt the experts—specialists, scholars, and credible sources—leave us with neither humility nor understanding.
It’s Friday afternoon in Jerusalem and the late day sun seems to bathe the entire city in gold. Tonight, we’ll gather the family around the Shabbat table and tomorrow morning Aaron will be called to the Torah on his Shabbat Chatan | שבת חתן (bridegroom’s Shabbat). I’ll need to remind myself over and over again to savor each moment, knowing we will carry them with us for the rest of our lives. I’ll be thinking about the Kay family, too, for whom these days will also be long remembered—in heartbreak. That’s our story. Another chapter in the millennia-long saga of the Jewish people.
Wishing you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend—and a Chag Urim sameach | חג אורים שמח|Happy Hanukkah. Shabbat shalom.
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America