Soon I’ll be in my backyard, building my rickety old sukkah, laying palm fronds on its roof, trying not to kill myself with a falling beam, cursing out my clumsiness and the thorns or splinters that come my way. My sukkah-building has been the butt of family jokes for decades. But no one complains as they dine among the decorations on a beautiful autumn evening. I love Sukkot’s earthiness, the glow of Hanukkah’s candles piercing winter’s darkness, and singing until our voices give out at our Passover Seder. Each festival brings unbridled joy, celebrated in the warm company of family, friends, and community.
The High Holy Days, on the other hand, have often left me cold. Unlike the intimacy of my sukkah or my Seder table, on these days my whole community congregates. Surrounded by a thousand souls, I feel alone. The liturgy feels overwrought. “Who by fire, who by water”? Really? In these ten days, our fates will be sealed?
Last year, the themes of these holidays became more real for me. The liturgy focuses our attention on life and death, to shake us and wake us out of our spiritual stupor, to look inward, hard. I have found the medieval language of many of the prayers alienating. However, when the words in the prayer book fail us, we have the liturgy of our own lives.
No prayer speaks ultimacy and finitude quite like a stage four cancer diagnosis.
I don’t know how others experience such moments, I can only speak for me. My mind turned at once to both the profound and the practical.
The practical – what steps must I take? How do I fit this new reality with my work, with my life as I know it? And, most urgently, how do I share this with my loved ones, with my parents, with my children?
And the profound – what is the meaning of my life? How do I best spend the time I have? What impact do I wish to make and how can I best make it?
Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind.
Even with an encouraging prognosis, by the time the shofar sounded last year, I realized I’d faced my own “days of awe” months before in my oncologist’s office. Encountering another New Year, I appreciated something I had not fully understood. These days are intended to manufacture a similar state of mind and provoke similar questions as did my cancer diagnosis: what is the meaning of my life? What impact do I wish to make and how can I best make it? With whom must I make amends, and how? How can I be the best me?
These holidays force us to confront what we know but bury deep down – all of this will end; we just don’t know when. The deadline approaches, the liturgy tells us; focus on what is important.
The shofar reminds us that our lives are worthy of examination. Shabbat and the festivals remind us our lives are worthy of celebration.
Our power to control the conditions of our existence is limited. These days of awe reveal, as Viktor Frankl observed even in Auschwitz, how we respond to those conditions is in our power.
The great promise of Jewish learning is that it offers us a lens through which to interpret those conditions and the tools with which to respond effectively.
We live in times that call for the most effective response we can muster. Here are a few ways we are applying that promise of Jewish learning this year:
Jewish LearningWorks is building the knowledge and skills of Bay Area Teen Educators, focusing this year on teen mental health and well-being. How can our Youth Professionals help teens navigate the difficulties of adolescence? How can Jewish learning help our teens feel whole? How can we help them internalize the most profound truth that Judaism offers: that their lives matter? We are grateful for the support of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative for making this life-saving work possible.
Our society is not a level playing field, neither outside nor inside our Jewish community. Voices for Good offers leadership development by and for women. It helps Jewish women amplify their voices and abilities to lead, and it strengthens our community by providing leadership training, support and community to a demographic which represents 50% of our community who have been underserved, overlooked and often under-appreciated.
Our Jewish Community Library’s One Bay One Book gathers readers across the Bay Area to discuss one book together. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America depicts an America in which xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism are on the rise, and democratic norms are in jeopardy – it paints a picture eerily similar to trends that alarm many in our community today. With this selection, the Library provides a safe platform for our community to share a diverse set of perspectives to wrestle with challenging issues and to consider what it means to be a citizen today.
We are grateful to our donors, library patrons, educators and parents who partner with us. Your support enables learning that enriches lives and helps our community thrive.
May this year bring all of us health, joy, and wholeness.
Chief Executive Officer