At a JCP staff appreciation event this week on Thursday afternoon, in a room filled with the diverse array of educators and professionals charged with the sacred task of transmitting the Jewish tradition to our families here in Lower Manhattan, I was struck by the warmth and collegiality among all those members of our team on Worth and Duane Streets. Each person’s individual story played a particular note on the page of a greater composition that spoke to the vision of the open, pluralistic Jewish community that JCP’s founders envisioned some fifteen years ago.
Our team originates from all five boroughs of the city; from New Jersey and Long Island; from Texas, Arizona, Minnesota, Baltimore, California, Russia, Israel and in the case of yours truly, Wisconsin. One might have justifiably observed, “These Jews come from all over the place!”
This was clearly evident for me in the past year as I occasionally traveled in the American South to visit smaller Jewish communities under the auspices of the ISJL. In places like Lake Charles, LA, Florence, AL, Brownsville, TN and Greenville, MS, one encounters both the fragile uniqueness of each Jewish community while also experiencing the language, customs and traditions that bind us as Jews. For instance, wherever Jews have lived, Jews have died; and so the cemeteries and gravestones in each place mark even more profoundly the cities and towns from which Jews have traveled to get to where they lived, thrived and eventually passed away.
In some traditional communities, cohens, those whose lineage can be traced back to Aaron and the priestly class in the Hebrew Bible, are the ones charged with conveying blessing; and grave markers indicate their status in this world long after they are gone. You can often tell that some was a cohen because their gravestones will have hands in the shape of the Hebrew letter “shin,” for God’s name Shaddai, a ritual that only the priests performed when blessing the people, a custom that originates in this week’s Torah portion, Naso. Here we learn about the origins of one of Jewish civilization’s most revered blessings, the Blessing of Peace or Priestly Blessing. The text of the blessing may be familiar to you: “The Eternal bless you and keep you; the Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you; the Eternal bestow the Divine Countenance upon you and grant you peace.”
The Sages say that though this blessing is called the “priestly blessing,” in fact it came not from the priests or cohanim but from God; and that the priests were “channeling” God, or, Divine Light, or, as we might say today, doing sacred work. In other words, the conveyance of Jewish meaning and value comes not from any one individual but from the Source of Life, from Whom we derive the privilege to serve. It’s a humbling message and is most certainly true.
The portability and eternality of the Jewish Idea — that learning and doing what is right, just and true and that such an idea has inspired us to be a “light unto the nations” for generations — was totally apparent at our staff gathering. The devotion of our professionals to the idea of conveying goodness and kindness to our families was its own light that lit the room.
Learning about this unique JCP community up-close; meeting families and their children of all ages; forging forward into issues related to vision, program and budget; and listening to the stories of the past and aspirations for the future — well, it’s been a thrill to imagine both what has been created and what is possible for our community.
And if there’s a thread or a through-line that binds the many narratives, it has been the shared aspiration to find a place, a home, a center, for comfort and meaning and peace.
Walk around Lower Manhattan and one can’t help but be struck by the many layers of history here in New York. We are ever reminded by those who came before us, by their stories and struggles; by their journeys and aspirations; and by the conveyance of meaning that they passed on to us. We are the inheritors of their legacy, to be sure; and when we consider this thought in the context of this week’s Torah portion, we are struck by the ultimate gift they have bestowed upon us that we have the privilege of bestowing upon others — the gift of peace.
On this Shabbat of Naso; on this Shabbat of Memorial Day weekend when we remember the particular sacrifices of those who gave their lives in defense of our nation; and on this Shabbat in Lower Manhattan for JCP, may we each be inspired to love and learn and do what is just, right and true.
Andy Bachman is JCP’s Executive Director.