Holidays require a lot of letting go and a lot of holding tight. We let go of the daily routine to make room for the day, and then hold tight to traditions that make the holiday real— prayer, or special foods, or certain people that give color and meaning to the holiday every time it comes around.
The period of the Jewish High Holidays, beginning this past Monday and Tuesday with Rosh Hashanah and continuing through Sukkot, hangs in tension between opposite poles of holding on and letting go.
On Rosh Hashanah we let go of transgressions harbored in the heart, symbolically casting them as crumbs of bread to the water during tashlikh, while at the same time clinging ferociously to the divine in the supplications of Yom Kippur. Sukkot calls for sitting in temporary dwellings that literally remove the security of the roof over our heads, while our hands grasp the lulav and etrog— a bundle of palm, myrtle, willow and citron—ancient symbols of bounty we shake at the sky.
Thanks to his song “Who by Fire”—a contemporary riff on the liturgy of Netanah Tokef, a central prayer of the High Holidays— Leonard Cohen has garnered more liturgical real estate in the neighborhoods of Jewish prayer than any of the singers on the Sounding Board team. But another of his songs merits a place in the Jewish spiritual imagination, especially when it comes to the role of Jewish Community Centers.
“If it be your will,” Cohen sings in the song that takes its title from this line,
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will
“If It Be Your Will” wrestles with dilemmas of silence and singing, belief and the lack thereof, a sense of calling and a sense of no calling at all. Cohen accepts that without a divine urge for him to speak, there may be no purpose to his voice, so he waits for a sign. But he also knows that if there is a will for his role in the world, rivers will fill and hills will rejoice with divine mercy and human purpose in an instant.
JCCs are not religious institutions. We are houses of Jewish culture, not Jewish worship. We are open to all and offer countless ways for friends and neighbors to learn, play, connect, and celebrate without either the burden or the gift of religious tradition. And yet—especially in an age of growing diversity among the people who identify as Jews, with broader gaps between religious and cultural worldviews, and a pace of information, social change, and world events that leave many of us questioning the point of the race of life— JCCs serve as crossroads in journeys towards Jewish meaning now more than ever.
In this New Year, we are launching work exploring our will as JCCs to renew our sense of Israel and Jewish life in Innovation Lab: Jerusalem, to build sustainable communities through the JOFEE Fellowship, and to expand and enrich the core programs and initiatives that make JCC Association a thought leader in the Jewish communal landscape defined by its passion and know-how for strengthening JCCs.
We live and work in an age where only we can determine our will to help sustain Jewish futures for the millions of people served by the 350 sites in our network. Sometimes we will need to let go of the way we did our work previously—because even with all of the good that our work has done, the needs we are meant to serve have changed. Sometimes we will need to hold on even tighter to long-held principles, programs and dreams. As the vista of a new year unfolds before us, strengthened by a sense of our past and emboldened by the opportunities of the future—if it be our will—this is just the right place to be.