Jewish Life Kolot

Kolot: To be a Jew is to be an optimist

Sydney Perry

By Sydney Perry ~ 

I’ll bet you are familiar with the old joke about the classic Jewish telegram: “Start worrying, details to follow”. While the telegram has gone the way of the phonograph, the typewriter and the rotary dial telephone, the sentiment remains true in this era of Blackberrys, email and ipads.
And we have much to worry about these days, even if we don’t know all the details.
The unforgiving global recession; the dissension in Congress; rising poverty,high unemployment. The Arab spring gives way to fading hope for democratic reform as the autumnal equinox begins today. Assad assaults his people. Turkey and Egypt and Jordan have broken relations with Israel. Ahmadinejad spews yet more vile slurs against the West and abhorrent anti-Semitic remarks at the UN; and today’s speech by Prime Minister Netanyahu is also the day on which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will submit his bid for statehood at the United Nations.
Who says it’s easy to be an optimist?
After the curses of last week’s Torah reading, perhaps we can take hope in the way this parsha Nitzavim-Vayelech begins.  “Behold you are standing here this day, all of you before the Lord your God; your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers, all the people of Israel; your little ones, your wives, and the stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of wood unto the drawer of your water.”
Wait a minute.  This day?  One moment in time we stand together, all of us?  No, the Rabbis tell us it’s not just for that moment(miyad) but for all generations to come(dorot). “Not just with you alone do I make this covenant; rather, I make this covenant with those who are here today before Hashem, our God, AND with those who are not here today with us.”
I find some strength from the words of our great teacher Rashi who brings us a midrash, after hearing the 98 curses which will befall us, who wouldn’t be depressed?  It is then that Moshe explains : You are standing here today together, despite all.
Every now and then – especially now – it is well to remember that we are standing- anachnu nitzavim. But Rashi doesn’t stop there. He says that the curses and the pains of our history give us the very ability to stand together as a people. In reading the curses, in worrying for our people, we stand and we persevere.
This past week, the Jewish Foundation voted to establish a fund for Birthright Israel, expanding our ability to send more young adults to Israel on free, transformative experiences.In the last ten years, almost 300,000 young adults have taken advantage of this three way partnership between private funders, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the Federation system.  Last summer, more than half those who applied had to be wait-listed. By increasing our dollars to Birthright Israel, we increase the numbers of young people 18 through 26 who will develop life-long attachments to Israel, the land, the people and her history.
Last Shabbat we read that “the Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other,and there you shall serve other gods”. By the time we read the haftorah of consolation from Isaiah,with its stirring promise of return to Zion, I was quite literally wiping tears from my eyes.

“For the Lord shall be a light to you forever
And your days of mourning shall be ended
And your people, all of them righteous
Shall possess the land for all time…
The smallest shall become a clan
The least, a might nation.”

I see some very troubling days and weeks ahead. While 30 delegations left the hall when Ahmadinejad spoke and several never showed up at all, it is likely that if there is a vote more than 130 nations will endorse Palestinian statehood. I do not fear a Palestinian state. Indeed, I would welcome it if it is negotiated. What I fear is the rising expectations that could so easily spill over into violence; what I profoundly regret is that diplomacy and courage did not happen months and months ago so that we wouldn’t be faced with a show-down in the place where Israel was reborn as a nation-state. Isolated and vulnerable, Israel stands almost alone. The United States stands with her.
The world has but one Jewish state; its future is not guaranteed. We stand today, all of us together –  despite differing political views.
A few years ago. I was in the living room of Helaine and Marvin Lender, who were hosting Shimon Peres. The same Peres who is now President of Israel and has been traveling back and forth to talks with Abbas in order to forestall the unilateral declaration of independence. Peres was then, as now, an optimist. When I asked him from where he drew his irrational positivism about a Middle East at peace, he responded without missing a beat: “To be a Jew”, he said, “is to be quintessentially optimistic”.
May He who makes peace in the high places, make peace for us and for all Israel.

Sydney Perry is executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven.
KOLOT is a feature of the Jewish Ledger in which readers are invited to submit original work on a topic of their choosing.  Inquiries and/or submissions should be sent to

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