This Sunday evening, Jews around the world will begin the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Throughout the holiday, Jews of every conceivable background and belief – social, demographic, religious, ethnic and cultural – will hear the loud, piercing blast of the shofar. The job of the shofar is to wake us from our spiritual slumber, to make us fully alert.
Immediately after the shofar blasts, we say Hayom harat olam, hayom ya’amid bamishpat – “Today is the birthday of the world, today the world stands in judgment.” What a powerful set of images. On one hand, it is the world’s birthday and we are free to start again with a clean slate. On the other hand, we stand in judgment for our actions.
As we reflect on the year 5779, we note with gratitude the many ways that our Jewish communities in North America, the State of Israel and around the world have been blessed with good fortune and with warmth and support from our neighbors. But we also note that this year saw the worst anti-semitic attack in the history of the United States, terrible mass murders in the US and around the world, and much suffering from war and natural disasters.
Compounding these tragedies has been a growing effort to divide our community along political and religious lines. Headlines and book titles proclaim that as a people we are experiencing a parting of ways, a rupture, even a schism. American and Israeli Jews, we are told, are moving toward different and disconnected futures.
Of course, there have been missteps and unhelpful statements on both sides of our religious and political divides, and on both sides of the ocean. But overall these headlines are deeply misleading, reflecting both the sensationalism and the political polarization that have infected our news feeds. They obscure the enduring, underlying unity of our people, even with our many disagreements.
Recent surveys of American and Israeli Jews show that despite differences of opinion on political and policy issues, overwhelming majorities in both communities believe that a thriving Diaspora and a thriving State of Israel are vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people. The figures point to symbiosis, not schism.
We are united by a common history and culture. Our values are based on our Torah and its immutable principle that all people are created in the Divine image. This is the force behind our shared commitment to making the world a better place for all. It is why American Jews have always been at the forefront of the major issues in our national life promoting freedom and liberty. It is why Israelis are feeding the hungry and healing the sick across the globe.
It is also why we make extraordinary efforts to stay connected to each other. Around half of American Jews have visited Israel, an all-time high, and more than 40% of Israeli Jews have visited the United States. Thanks in part to programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel and Masa, more young American Jews are visiting Israel each year. And Israelis are coming to America and meeting our communities, both as official emissaries to Federations, campuses, camps and more, but also as business leaders, teachers and artists.
None of this is to say that we don’t have our differences. America and Israel are both dynamic societies, growing and changing all the time. We face different challenges, and our democracies are built on different political systems and traditions. Like any family, we will have disagreements. If we don’t talk and listen to each other constantly, these disagreements can fester.
Disagreements on questions of politics and policy can be particularly bitter, and none of us has a monopoly on wisdom. We are all imperfect. But we know that what binds us is far stronger than what divides us. We know that disagreement is not dissolution. On the contrary, our openness to a diversity of opinions, in pursuit of truth and our common goals, has been both a sign of, and a source of, strength for the Jewish people for thousands of years.
Today, American Jews, Israeli Jews and our brothers and sisters around the world must use that strength, even as we continue to renew its source. We need it in our shared fight against anti-semitism and our commitment to protect our community from violence, and to continue our eternal quest to repair the world.
To ensure our common future, we must invest greater resources and efforts in learning our shared tradition. We must continue to invest in getting to know each other, doing everything we can to understand our respective needs, fears and hopes.
We must assure each other that even when we disagree, we remain unflinchingly determined to make each other stronger, healthier and better.
This week, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin took time from his central role in resolving Israel’s political impasse to speak with the leaders of the Jewish Federations from across North America. These leaders, representing 146 Federations and 300 smaller, networked communities, raise and distribute nearly $3 billion per year for Jewish education and engagement, social services and welfare, and support for Israel and Jews around the world. Our vast system touches millions of lives every day. In his remarks, President Rivlin warmly and beautifully reminded us that we are one people, with a common destiny and a common responsibility to support the flourishing of the Jewish people and to build a better world. President Rivlin has been like a shofar, calling us to be a unified, not a uniform, people. We take his call to heart. Hayom harat olam. On this birthday of the world – in Jewish tradition 5780 – we pray for the strength to build, lead and support a unified Jewish community.
Hayom ya’amid bamishpat. On this principle, and on the work we do together for our people and for all people, will we be judged. May the New Year bring unity for our people and health and happiness for everyone. We wish you all a Shanah Tovah.
Mark Wilf is Chair of the Board of Trustees of JFNA and Eric D. Fingerhut is President & CEO. This op-ed was published in The Jerusalem Post.