A special message from Eric D. Fingerhut, Hillel International President and CEO



July 8, 2016

Colleagues and friends:

I am generally not in the habit of writing to wish you a Shabbat Shalom, as I know you all get so many wonderful and interesting things in your inboxes. But this week felt different.

For all Jews the world over, and additionally for those of us who are Americans, we head into Shabbat in pain. In America, we are reeling from the news in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, we grieve with the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and we know we must be part of a solution that addresses all racism throughout our communities. And now we must add to our grief the families of the slain Dallas police officers, and add to our responsibilities as citizens working for the safety of those who serve and protect us every day

In Israel, we have barely finished sitting shiva for Hallel Yaffa Ariel, and still do so for Rabbi Miki Mark.

And then there is Orlando, and Dhaka, and Baghdad, and Instanbul, and Brussels, and Tel Aviv and so much more.

And yet, we also know how fortunate we are to live in free societies where we can debate the right course of action, protest public officials and candidates we oppose and get involved to help make change happen. This week we celebrated the 240th birthday of America with fireworks and picnics – as we should – all presided over by our first African American President. The major candidates to become our next president argued and made their cases, even while being subjected to scrutiny by our free press and independent legal systems. In Israel, progressive Jews from around the world engaged in peaceful protests at the Western Wall plaza, joined by Natan Sharansky, our dear friend and the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel. (For all the political challenges to progressive Judaism in Israel, I am still struck by an event I was privileged to attend in Jerusalem two weeks ago. There, on King David Street, in the heart of the capital of the Jewish State, overlooking the walls of the Old City, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion dedicated its campus as the Taube Campus, accepting a major gift from the wonderful American philanthropist Tad Taube to expand and beautify the campus. At the ceremony, among many other dignitaries, was the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, and the head of the world’s Reform Jews, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who is an open critic of Israel’s domestic and settlement policies, all celebrating this wonderful occasion. And the amazing part is that we take such scenes for granted! In how many places in the world is it unthinkable that a religious institution that openly challenges the prevailing theological and political orthodoxy would be permitted, let alone celebrated, for expanding its presence in the center of the holiest city for that faith?)

By coincidence, my wife Amy and I had planned a trip to take our boys to see the American Civil Rights sites at Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham this week. We were in Selma yesterday. Visiting the various museums and historic sites, I was reminded of details about the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March that I had forgotten or did not ever know. For one thing, the first attempt at the march, known as Bloody Sunday, when the marchers were attacked by the police, was bloodier and more violent than anything I remembered learning. But the response of the organizers was to use both the pressure of peaceful protest and to engage the legal system to seek redress. Two days later, on “Turn Around Tuesday,” Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy led the marchers across the bridge, but then knelt in prayer and returned back without challenging the police. That same day they sought a legal injunction authorizing the march, so by the time the march was attempted the third time, they marched under legal protection, with the same police who had attacked them days before now ordered to protect their safety. This amazing combination of political action and willingness to work to create change within the system stands out to me as a model for tackling today’s challenges. It is certainly worthy of study, and, if we are capable, of emulation.

We all know that the Torah teaches us that human beings were created “btzelem Elohim”, in God’s image. But what does that mean? The Babylonian Talmud fills in the details:

Just as God is kind, so should you be kind;
Just as God is merciful, so should you be merciful;
Just as God is holy, so should you be holy.
Shabbat 113b

We will need to draw on all our qualities of kindness, mercy and holiness as we work to address the challenges we face in the coming weeks.

To all the Hillel professionals, wherever you are right now, who are teaching and studying and working with students as they grapple with tense events, thank you for your leadership and skill and please let us know what resources we can be helpful with.

I pray that the whole world will experience a Shabbat Shalom, a Sabbath of peace, and that we will emerge ready to do our part in fulfilling the Jewish obligation to build a world of peace and justice for all.

Shabbat shalom,
Eric D. Fingerhut