On the first night of the Biennial, I had the profound pleasure of dining at Artista with the
San Antonio delegation to the Biennial, at the invitation of
Rabbi Barry Block. There are twelve delegates here from
Temple Beth El; the dinner also included another former San
Antonian, a really nice guy who lives in Atlanta now and with whom I chatted about our shuls, his travels, and GLBT inclusion in the greater Jewish community.
Toward the end of dinner, I got to sit a while with Barry and talk about all kinds of fun things -- how Jews respond to Christianity, the meaning of symbols like the cross or the mezuzah (to insiders and outsiders), the trend within the Reform movement toward reclaiming traditional observances, my Aleph studies and how I hope they will progress. It was a highlight of my day.
When I got back to the Convention Center, I realized we were in danger of missing Ruth Messinger's speech, which would really have bummed me out. I admire her work with American Jewish World Service tremendously -- she has done amazing things to help heal the world, raising money to do important work around the world, and I particularly admire her persistence in sounding the shofar to awaken the Jewish community about the genocide happening in Darfur, Sudan.
Fortunately for me, though we missed the first part of the plenary session (the welcoming speeches, and the presentation of the Eisendrath "Bearer of Light" Award for Service to World Jewry to Ruth), I caught a good part of her speech in response to the award. Unsurprisingly, it was terrific. I offer what I was able to transcribe of her remarks in the section of this post that follows.
The task of organizing on these issues is not easy, friends, but it is what our faith calls us to do. We are a people who have known centuries of oppression, but who now know privilege and enjoy many freedoms. Our lives in the 21st century are the answer to our grandparents' prayers. We have realized a level of affluence and influence they never could have imagined. The question is, what are we going to do with it to make change? ...How will we enjoy what we have inherited, and yet engage with the problems of the world? ...How will we end the genocide in Darfur, and create greater global equality? The answer, or at least part of the answer, is to be the leaders we have been waiting for.
Jews regularly ask, 'what's the point of being Jewish?' If we answer only 'to help ourselves', we will drive away those we need. Instead let us answer 'the point of being Jewish is to help heal God's creation, to act as proper stewards of God's bounty...'
Our potential must be unleashed in the service of others, in the pursuit of justice. Believe me, I know the obstacles. We have to confront...the feeling that we are too insignificant to do this work.
We feel overwhelmed by the statistical realities or the political challenges, but we do not have that luxury. We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. We bemoan the lack of leaders for our time, but...we are those leaders. We have that power. We need to believe more in ourselves.
As long as there is poverty, violence, or oppression anyplace, we are all from an underdeveloped world. The challenge is to claim our global citizenship and work to put things right. We must each do what we can. Start somewhere. Enlist others. Repair at least one corner of our world. This is, in fact, a question of faith. We have the power, the resources, the capacity to do good. We must take the leap, work together to change our communities, to tackle the problems in our country, to address the crises in our world. We must be the leaders we have been waiting for.
I know as you embark on this work you will keep in mind the wisdom from Pirke Avot which holds that we are not required to c omplete the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.
Let me close with words from Archbishop Oscar Romero: "We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. This is what we are about We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need future development. We may never see the end results. But that is the difference. We are prophets of a future not our own."
-- Ruth Messinger