When I served as spiritual leader of Temple Israel, I participated in the rotation of pulpit rabbis who offered words of Torah in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin’s “From the Pulpit” column. Now that I have the honour of following in the footsteps of Barbara Crook and other wise and insightful columnists who have contributed to these pages, it requires a different approach than “From the Pulpit.”
I have chosen to follow the wisdom of my paternal grandfather in naming this column “A View from the Bleachers.” Growing up in New York City, the Bronx to be exact, I had the pleasure of attending many a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. When I went with my grandfather, he always bought bleacher seats, then the cheapest seats, those furthest away from home plate and the pitcher’s mound.
I once asked him if we could afford the more expensive seats, closer to the action. He said that we could sit closer but the view would not be as good. Puzzled, I asked him to explain and he said, with great surety, that from the bleachers we could see everything. Up close, we would miss the movements of all the players, the nuances of the game, the intellectual duel between hitter, pitcher and fielders.
At the time I did not understand him but I gradually accepted his wisdom as my own. The closer to the action you are, the more tunnel vision you develop. I love to sit up high at a symphony so I can see all the members of an orchestra at once. Watching a play from the orchestra narrows my field of vision and my sightlines. Looking at our Jewish world from the pulpit certainly narrowed my perspective. So now I sit in the bleachers and offer some perceptions from afar.
Three decades ago, the power of the Jewish community was made most obvious to me. Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews was a march and political rally held on December 6, 1987 in Washington, D.C. An estimated 250,000 participants gathered on the National Mall, calling for Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev to extend his policy of glasnost to Soviet Jews by putting an end to their forced assimilation and allowing them to immigrate to Israel.
My children and I were participants in that march. We were part of two plane loads of Jews who flew from Toronto to Washington. Thirty years ago, Jews from all over North America gathered under the slogans, “We Are One” and “Let My People Go”: a thrilling moment for a united North American Jewish community. It was perhaps the last time we found a way to gather together as a united community.
I was reminded of this long-ago event by the decision of the U.S. army to change its slogan from “Be All That You Can Be” to “An Army of One.” It is their response to the powerful force of individualism in society. The U.S army recognized that unless they can capture what links people together they will fail in their endeavour to create a unified, culturally diverse enterprise.
Thirty years after the March on Washington, our community seems to be moving in the opposite direction. We have yet to effectively master the balance between communal and individual needs. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that “sacred symbols synthesize a people’s ethos,” and we must ask, as Rabbi Elyse Winick notes at My Jewish Learning, “How can we present these symbols as personally meaningful as well as communally binding?”
Some of our community leaders believe that what will bind us together and preserve our future is a Jewish day school. Some of our community leaders believe that synagogue life and new models of synagogue life are an alternative to community solidarity. Some of our communal agencies see themselves in competition with the community for dollars and support. Some in our community believe that unfiltered support of the Israeli government and its policies is necessary for communal welfare. Of course there is truth and wisdom in each road travelled.
Yet, today I do not feel the urgency that permeated the marchers on the National Mall to put aside denominational, institutional, personal agendas for a greater good. I do not hear a commitment to shared visions and shared values. I wonder if the time has come for us to take the slogan, “We Are One” out of mothballs and search for the road less travelled, the road of communal solidarity laced with a new understanding of communal diversity.
My next column will be written while I am in Israel. There, in the midst of history and modernity, the notion of community takes on a very different perspective.