Committed to Climb Together

Listen to the 2019 Luncheon remarks from Rabbi Will Berkovitz, CEO of Jewish Family Service.

Back when I thought I was immortal, I liked to go climbing in the Cascades. Today, I prefer to limit my vertical exposure to air travel, a nice chairlift and maybe watching a climbing movie like “Free-Solo.” People who aren’t afraid of heights generally get eliminated from the gene pool.

For most serious climbing, you are literally roped together when traveling on treacherous terrain. Once you commit to that type of a climb, words of separation like “us” and “them,” “you and me” lose their meaning. There is only one word that matters – “we.”

There is only a “we” because if something bad happens, you are in it together. That little rope latched to your waist will either save everyone or pull everyone into the same abyss. I mention this because I fundamentally believe all of us are linked by an invisible rope. Some of us see it more clearly than others.

This is a foundational idea in the Jewish tradition, and what my parents taught me it means not only to be part of a family, but also a citizen of the United States. Despite our disagreements, the solutions need to be found together.

Our ancestors understood the importance of community implicitly as our tradition was built on the belief that we can’t separate ourselves from each other and hope to survive. On a rope team, we may be able to select our climbing partners, but in a society we cannot. As a community, we are all tied to each other and responsible for one another.

But that founding idea, that invisible rope, is increasingly under greater and greater stress. Despite our access to a universe of information, there seems to be an utter lack of curiosity about the experiences of people who hold different views from us. We tune in to reality TV when reality gets too complicated. It is increasingly difficult to find substance amid the superficiality. There is no shortage of hostility, righteous indignation and judgement. I admit it is something I struggle with at times.

The scapegoating and hate infecting our world must be called out everywhere for what it is and the threat it poses to civil society. We can care about our community without demonizing those who hold different views. That invisible rope is made stronger by weaving our reasonable differences, not shredding them.

The word “Jewish” in Jewish Family Service is not just a description of a population we serve; it is a defining statement of both the why and the how we do what we do. We are a Jewish organization founded over 127 years ago and fully rooted in the values, traditions and the experiences of our ancestors.

Many of the values have become universal, but the history shaping those values are particular to our journey. Some of the scars of the nightmarish experiences in our history still haunt and animate our community to this day. It is why we are hyper-vigilant and are triggered when anti-Semitism slithers casually into the light as it has been recently. It is why we care so deeply about the plight of refugees. And why we will always speak up when people are under attack for being who they are. We know that trauma passes from generation to generation, from parent to child, grandparent to grandchild, out into the mist of time.

At JFS, we witness the toll it is taking on the people who turn to us. And we know the solutions are rarely easy. For many, their personal challenges are more like climbing Mount Everest than Mount Si. But the traditions of our ancestor’s command that we not turn our back and allow people to fall into the abyss or suffer alone. They understood the infinite worth of every soul and realized that the person who is suffering today may be the one who will redeem the world tomorrow.

And because we take the responsibility to help each other seriously, we will always climb together with those who turn to us. We will climb together with dignity and respect, regardless of differing beliefs, regardless of who people love or what country they are fleeing. We don’t judge people by the passport they hold or by the storms crashing around them. We have all passed through darkness in our lives. In the end we will climb together, or we will fall alone.

Our ancestors too once sought a better world for their children. They arrived having experienced terrible things, yet despite their trauma and their brokenness they kept climbing, urged on by a commanding sense of possibility. They believed in this land of milk and honey, of the future’s wide expanding horizon. They saw past the struggles of their current reality.

Despite being haunted by trauma’s long shadow, many of them went on to do extraordinary things. And some of those extraordinary things, like a bush burning in the wilderness, seem quite ordinary — learning to navigate a new culture, overcoming depression, raising educated children, battling illness, paying bills, simply contributing to society.

And it doesn’t matter if we are a person in line at our Food Bank, volunteering as a board member or the CEO. Overcoming the challenges life sets before each of us is a fundamental human experience. As fundamental as the infinite worth and dignity inherent in all people. When we stop seeing that infinite worth in those around us, we diminish our own.

At JFS, we recognize we are not only helping people on that great climb, but they are helping us on our climb as well — seeing within our brokenness, the shimmer and reflection of the Divine.

We offer a safe place where people can share their stories of triumph and tragedy, where people can be who they are without judgement, with both their human failings and hidden potential. Striving to help people through the wilderness of uncertainty, to reach the summit of what is possible. And like all climbs sometimes we reach false summits. We must backtrack or go sideways before we can push on to the true goal — maybe just over the next ridge.

The people we work with are experts in their own journeys, their own experiences. They know the path, but like all of us, self-doubt can creep in when traversing the vastness of the unknown. Sometimes we just need to know our climbing partner is securing us from the exposure of a terrifying free fall.

One of our counselors, Erica, who works with kids, summed it up this way, “I think the biggest thing I see is anxiety. Our kids and teens are overloaded academically, personally, politically. Some of our kids have trauma on top of the cultural context. But even kids without trauma are worried.” She continued, “I also see how incredibly brave and wise our young folks are. They are so resilient and capable and strong self-advocates. She reflected, every day I’m blown away by the ways that kids survive and make sense of difficult, terrifying things. Young folks often know what they need, and when adults learn to listen, it’s incredible what healing can take place.”

I have noticed something changing over the past couple years — call it a counter current. It may be just my imagination, but there seems to be a greater desire among many people to be a part of something bigger. An alternative to alternative facts. A way to connect with our highest aspirations over our basest instincts.

It is like an antidote to the pessimism, fear mongering and divisiveness sweeping across all corners of our country. People want to be part of a solution and not just point out the problems. And that is what we aspire toward in our work at JFS.

We are offering a vision of what is possible when we work together despite our differences. When we see past simple labels and easy cynicism. When we climb together toward the same summit, not as individuals, but as a part of a community — part of a “we.”

One of our core values at JFS is trust and respect, and another is that we are a learning community. Since the solutions to society’s biggest challenges are extremely complicated, they will only be found when we work together. We must continually seek to learn from each other and fundamentally trust and respect the people around us. To reach the summit of our aspirations, we need to know when to lead, when to follow and when to change direction.

What strikes me about the staff and volunteers at JFS is an almost intuitive sense of this. An awareness that of all the things that they could choose to do with their all too short time on this earth, the thing that they choose to do is to be in common cause with those striving toward the same summit — no matter the challenges and struggles they carry.

All of you in this room today recognize the strength, importance and fragility of that rope linking us to each other. I believe you see it clearly. It is what draws us here today.

But, if we look closer, and closer still, we can all see the thin, but infinitely strong fibers binding that rope together — binding each one of us together.

And while I most certainly do want you to help us by making an awesome donation today, I want to ask you to do something else as well. I want to ask you to strengthen that rope. Please work to deepen your curiosity, strive to recognize what’s behind the complicated messes we all are. Recognize the hidden challenges we each face just by being alive. And let’s commit to climb on together through the storms and the uncertainty until at last, together, we arrive above the clouds and tree line where the great expanding horizon of possibility extends before us all.

Thank you so much for being with us today and every day.

By Rabbi Will Berkovitz, Chief Executive Officer

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