Making the New Holy

Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, was a rigorous defender of traditional Judaism, yet broke with his contemporaries and engaged the secular chalutzim—the pioneers settling the land of Israel. He saw in them not a break in the chain but the dawn of redemption. Stories are told of the rabbi in a long black coat and fur hat, beard and tzitzit flying, dancing the hora with the young kibbutzniks in their shorts, sandals and open, short-sleeved shirts.

Rav Kook explained his approach to building the Jewish future in a famous dictum—“What is old, make new; what is new, make holy.”

At this pivotal moment in history, The Jewish Federations of North America embrace this idea wholeheartedly. We are committed to preserving what is essential from our past while renewing our thinking and fostering innovation, all while bringing the holiness of our tradition into our work.

This is the attitude that 900 volunteer and professional leaders from 100 Federations across North America—and nearly 100 partner organizations—brought to our first-ever FedLab, held just last week in Washington, D.C. We came together to explore new ways to address the greatest opportunities and most pressing challenges facing our Jewish communities, including how to make our communities more secure and push back the rise of anti-Semitism, how to engage our entire, diverse community in Jewish life, how to care for those in need and how to address poverty in our midst.

The goal of FedLab was clear: to appreciate the great contributions that Federations are making every day—and to acknowledge forthrightly that new ideas, strategies and partnerships are needed to build the flourishing Jewish communities of the future.

Because we do the hard work of organizing, planning and soliciting funds, Federations are truly the essential, indispensable partners in Jewish life in North America. We are the largest single financial supporters of JCCs, day schools, Jewish camps, Hillels, Israel engagement and Jewish social services.

We are also essential and indispensable partners to Jewish communities around the globe. We are proud of the many projects that Federations sponsor overseas and in Israel, and of our consistent support for The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), JDC, World ORT and many others. In fact, directly following FedLab, we attended JAFI’s Shlichim conference and met with the Israeli emissaries who bring Israel and insight to the everyday work of our communities. It was an exquisite example of how we all do better when we operate as a unified people. Our Jewish peoplehood is a driving force to success.

And we are the essential, indispensable partners to government officials in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa, in state and provincial capitals across the continent, and in our local city halls, chambers of commerce, labor unions and inter-faith organizations. We represent the Jewish community on issues from security to health care to poverty to anti-Semitism to disability inclusion to caring for Holocaust survivors and other critical issues and causes.

Together, we are raising and investing more than $3 billion per year in Jewish life in our communities and around the world. There is no other philanthropic organization that comes close to this effort, year in and year out.

And yet, our leaders came together to spend hours in study and conversation, asking themselves and each other how the changes in our society have affected our work and how we can carry our mission and values forward with fresh energy and vision. We talked about how much more we can do to use today’s networking tools to connect more people, serve more people and enrich more lives with Jewish learning. We talked about how we can make all Jews safe from ongoing threats of violence without closing off our institutions or withdrawing behind barriers. And we opened our eyes to the needs of the most diverse Jewish community in history.

We couldn’t be prouder of this openness to change and growth; nor could we be more confident of the future of our Federation system.

The week of FedLab, Jews around the world read the story of Abraham and Sarah greeting three strangers who approached their tent. As soon as he saw them, Abraham didn’t just wave to indicate they were welcome, but stood and ran to them, insisting they come in and rest, while Sarah rushed to prepare food and make them welcome.

Likewise, our Federation leaders aren’t sitting and waiting to see how the changes and additions under way in our communities will affect our work, but are rushing to embrace the future. May we have the strength, vision and courage to make what is old, new, and to make what is new, holy.

Mark Wilf is Chair, Board of Trustees, and Eric D. Fingerhut is President & CEO of JFNA.|S