Looking Up: Jewish Values in Action

By Rabbi Will Berkovitz, Schocken Family CEO

The text below is edited from remarks given by our CEO, Rabbi Will Berkovitz at our 2024 Community of Caring Luncheon. The full audio of his remarks can be found here. 

This has been an extraordinarily troubling time, with increasing division and polarization on so many fronts. It can be hard to see each other across an ever-growing chasm.

And that is what got me thinking of the eclipse in April. In Seattle, we missed the total eclipse, but I did see the one a couple of years ago. Even from a distance it seemed more poignant this time. The shadow of the moon, a 100-mile-wide disk, sliding across the landscape traveling thousands of miles an hour. Three hundred-sixty degrees of twilight. The darkness lasted only a couple of minutes.

We need to look up more. We need to look in more and look out more. To seek what unites us instead of divides us.

I wish the shadow we have been living in since October 7th would pass quicker. But this darkness is not a celestial phenomenon. It is a very human creation. We have seen this eclipse of humanity before and, as in the past, its shadow is spreading far beyond 100 miles. And it is upon us to cast away this darkness.

The responsibility is in each of our hands.

We know that all it takes is for good people to stay silent, be paralyzed by indecision or the wrong political calculus – to get too comfortable. And, like ink spilled across a map, this shadow will keep expanding until it darkens our world.

And that is what struck me about the eclipse. It offered another path.

At a time when it seems there is so little uniting us, for those two minutes people paused. They left their houses. Traveled thousands of miles. Not to fan the flames of division and hostility, but simply to look up.

In some places there was a hushed silence of reverence. In others, people cheered. No matter their political views, their religion, or backgrounds. In that brief two minutes, there was a collective experience of being part of something bigger – illumination in the darkness. And that is what we need now – illumination.

We need to look up more. We need to look in more and look out more. To seek what unites us instead of divides us. We need to continually look for what connects us, and further we need to commit every day to strengthening those bonds. None of us can sit on the sidelines. We all need to do the work.

Now, imagine an alternative reality where people generally get along.

Where people seek the best in each other not the worst. A reality where instead of dehumanizing people we humanize them. A way of being that believes in building relationships instead of tearing them down. Where we turn towards each other and not away. Where we can debate ideas without demonizing people. Where we strive to give more and take less. And where we push each other to lead with curiosity and not our worst assumptions.

We cannot have compassion with boundaries.  As Jews and as Americans we know there is a price for our freedom.  Our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of a life of ease.

I have chosen to live in this alternative reality. Many of you have been telling me I live in a fantasy world for a long time, so this isn’t a surprise. And maybe that is so. But I would rather raise our children to reach toward our highest aspirations than act from our deepest fears.

A reflection of our highest aspirations is how I view the mission of Jewish Family Service. JFS is an alternative reality to the one that dominates the news. And it is a vision of what it looks like to work together to dispel the darkness that fills the lives of so many in our community. People, like all of us, in need of light. That light has the power not only to dispel the darkness, but to transform our world.

What we do at JFS is a statement, not just for the Jewish community, but broader society as well. It is a statement of what could be. Working at JFS these past 11 years has allowed me to witness the words of our ancestors made manifest by our choices and our actions. It has offered me an advanced degree in humanity.

I mentioned at a recent meeting of our JFS Board of Directors that I wish I could give a speech about the work of our Finance team, our Facilities team, or all those who work behind the scenes. Because, what truly makes JFS a vision of an alternative reality is the dedication, wisdom, and passion of all the people who choose to work with us.

What unites everyone connected to JFS, and what I view as essential, is that they are menches (“good humans”). They are very smart, and they are dedicated to our mission of serving our community.

One of those people is Rosemary, who directs our team that works with those challenged by cognitive disabilities. She shared with me,

“The thing that brings me the most pride in my work at JFS is being part of a group that shows up every day with the same goal—to work hard on behalf of clients and to work hard for each other.  We turn to each other for support, guidance, kindness, laughter, and wisdom. The way we count on each other—sharing wins about clients and sharing tears when a client is sick or struggling.” She went on, “This is what makes working at JFS incredibly special.”

That is a widely held view, and it is the magic of JFS. There is a depth, dedication, and relentlessness to serving those in need from our Board of Directors and our staff to the volunteers who deliver food or just take the time to talk with someone who is living alone. Nobody takes the easy path. We continually push each other to look up. To think beyond ourselves to the needs of others. This is the vision of the alternative world: working for others, for each other.

All of us, and all of you who are here today, are united by a kind of faith. A faith in what is possible for our society. A faith lived through our choices – the small decisions we make as well as the big ones. A faith that we can work to heal some small corner of all that is broken in our world – not beyond the sea, but here in Seattle.

And that work is not to be left to others. It is in our hands. It is an individual as well as a collective responsibility. The alternative world we live in at JFS is founded on the belief that a life of service unites us in common cause.

Two thousand years ago, our ancestors taught, “If you happen to be planting a tree and someone tells you the messiah has arrived, you should finish planting the tree and then go greet the Messiah.”

At JFS we don’t wait…not for a messianic redemption, and not for someone else to do the work. We do the work ourselves, with our own hands, our own actions, and our own words to help as many people as we can with our limited resources.

I believe that while we must take care of our families and community, we are also commanded to see ourselves as connected to something larger. The higher calling of perfecting our society and our world. We must know our story and history and serve from that unique place.

Adam co-directs our Older Adult Services team and explained, “Given that we repeatedly tell our children and the world to ‘never forget,’ I am grateful that JFS has ensured we don’t forget some of our most vulnerable older adults – Holocaust Survivors and Jews from the Former Soviet Union.”

But we must not stop there. It is reasonable to turn inwards during times of threat, but as Jews, we are inheritors of an ancient legacy, and with that legacy comes a responsibility to serve beyond the unique needs of the Jewish community.

We cannot have compassion with boundaries. As Jews and as Americans, we know there is a price for our freedom. Our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of a life of ease. In this room are those upon whose shoulders we stand – and the spirits of those who are not with us. People who fought for our country and our freedom – people who heeded the call to service. People who turned toward higher aspirations and away from personal comforts. People who sacrificed what was in their personal best interest to advance a higher cause.

We need to understand that we may not always achieve our highest aspirations, but we must always strive for that wider horizon. The tradition says, “We are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.”

I think of the words of my colleague Belayneh who leads our team helping children who have survived human trafficking as well as unaccompanied minors:

“As an immigrant myself, there is nothing that brings me more happiness than seeing our clients receive the support they need and witnessing their lives be transformed…not only current clients but future generations.” He continued, “Every day, I am reminded of the direct impact JFS has on the lives of so many refugees and immigrant families.”

Looking around, I see many of my teachers, mentors, and colleagues, some who themselves came to this country as refugees or whose parents did. You continually remind me of our common cause, our common effort, and what I believe JFS ultimately stands for. It is to ease the suffering, loneliness, and isolation of others. It is a call to look up.

One of those people is Keara, our Director of Facilities. She shared with me,

“I am proud of our community who I have witnessed for more than quarter-century be steadfast, compassionate, tireless, conscientious, and generous in their care for people in need. I have seen families bring their children here to volunteer and learn about tzedakah and Tikkun Olam, repairing our world.” She continued, “I love to see caring people raise caring children and awaken them to their responsibilities as humans.”

And if we can awaken in each other this spirit, we will not only cast away the darkness, but we can also teach our children what it means to be part of our country, part of our community, and part of our people. And that is a world worth striving for.

Thank you for helping us bring that world into being.

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