“Hope is not a strategy.” Many of you have heard this maxim in classrooms, in board rooms, or elsewhere. And there is of course merit to the idea that a full-fledged strategy requires more than hope. Yet at the same time, as we approach Rosh Hashanah, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which this expression undersells the critical role and power of hope in Jewish history, life, and peoplehood.
On the one hand, we are a stiff-necked people sometimes known for seeing the glass as half-empty. (This view is captured well by the old Jewish joke about the telegram reading “Start worrying, details to follow,” or the book on my shelf entitled “Born to Kvetch”). On the other hand, our history and present as a people are defined by an unrelenting optimism and hope for a better future.
This centrality of hope in our narrative is reflected in the title of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah (which translates to “the hope”), and is encoded throughout the Rosh Hashanah experience and liturgy. In reciting Psalm 136, we affirm our belief that God’s kindness endures forever; throughout Avinu Malkeinu we express our hope and prayers for forgiveness, redemption, compassion, sustenance, and support; in the first day’s Haftarah, we read the story of Hannah, who maintains hope, against all odds, for a child, and is blessed with Samuel; in the Shofar service, we read about b’shofar gadol (the great shofar) being blown to usher in a messianic future; and in the fundamental premise of Rosh Hashanah, we express the hope and belief that through teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (charity) we can be redeemed and our world can be repaired.
Even as I’ll experience a deep sense of Jewish hope and possibility during my time in shul, those feelings will be amplified even more so for me because of the visits I’ve already made this fall to Hillels that are brimming with the enthusiasm, optimism, and ruach (spirit) of students and Hillel professionals.
While it can be easy to feel the weight of challenges facing Jewish students on campus, as frequently reported in the news, if you want a dose of Jewish hope, optimism, and vitality, go spend an hour at a Hillel in your area or at your alma mater. You can speak with the Shabbat chair about what they’re doing to double attendance and to support student-hosted Shabbats across campus; or the Tzedek chair about their new bridge-building partnership with a local HBCU; or the Israel Fellow about how their campus Birthright Israel bus filled up with registrations faster than a Taylor Swift concert sells out.
You can chat with the Hillel rabbi about the strong student interest in their new Jewish Learning Fellowship course — some of our latest additions include the Jewish food course “Knead to Know” at Michigan Hillel, “Jewish Songs in the Key of Life” at Tulane Hillel, “Queer Talmud” at Ithaca College Hillel, and “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Well-Being” at Johns Hopkins Hillel. Or ask the executive director about the leadership development programs they’re implementing for both staff and students to strengthen the rabbinic and Jewish communal talent pipeline for the Jewish future.
Hope is in fact a critical part of our strategy, ethos, and optimism at Hillel; and in my view, an under-appreciated superpower of Jewish peoplehood. From all of us at Hillel International, I wish each of you and your families a good and sweet 5784 — and hope and optimism for the year to come.
Shanah Tovah u’metukah,