As I look back on my first year at JCP, I am thrilled by the depth of enthusiasm among so many of you to build a permanent Jewish home downtown. It is an irony of sorts that in an area of New York City so suffused with history—Native American tribal lands; landing sites of Dutch and English settlers; the African burial ground and slave market; the tavern where revolutionaries tipped pints as they threw off British rule; the Shearith Israel cemetery, where our ancestors buried their first Jews on these shores—there has been very little continuous and ongoing Jewish life. Early synagogues in New York City established themselves further east before migrating uptown to make way for the ever renewing and regenerating waves of immigrants that continue to make America truly great.
And so when Jewish families and individuals began moving downtown again nearly twenty years ago, the founders of JCP did what Jews have done for generations: established a house of learning for children and adults, placing study and friendship and community at the center of their enterprise. JCP operates exceptional programs for children of all ages, from birth to bnai mitzvah to high school and beyond. JCP celebrates Shabbat and holy days with joy and an openness of expression to all walks of life. And JCP extends its hands and hearts to those in need with community service and acts of lovingkindness that link each of us, made in the Divine image, to one another in the broader fabric of our society.
From the earliest records of Jewish communities going back nearly two thousand years, Jews have always supported institutions related to the education of children and support for teachers; aid to the poor and those in need; and burial plots for our dead. JCP is another such institution in the chain of tradition that through these commitments, makes Jewish life possible for another generation.
When Jewish communities settled in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, schools, synagogues, charitable organizations and cemeteries were immediately established through donations large and small from the various communities where Jews lived. Tzedakah, often translated as “charity,” is in fact an obligation in the eyes of the Jewish tradition. Our shared generosity makes our shared community possible.
For the greater part of the past generation, among some Jews, there have been a number of critics of the membership model. “Money shouldn’t be an impediment to Jewishness,” goes the critique. Or, “Why pay so much money if I only go to synagogue twice a year?” says another. And much ink has been spilled and philanthropic dollars spent finding new and exciting ways to engage another generation of Jews who eschew the membership model. Heck, I worked two summer jobs to pay for my first trip to Israel in 1985; now it’s a “birthright” and it’s free!
But seriously, while there may be existing impediments to involvement, money isn’t truly one of them as long as communities are sensitive to being truly open and welcoming; making needs based assessment where necessary, and communicating clearly that a Jewish community can serve as a sustaining and fulfilling and meaningful connection to others and to the eternal values of our ancient civilization.
While membership in the Jewish community is technically voluntary, the membership model does assist communities in establishing a baseline for involvement. It says “I am a stakeholder!” It’s a declaration of pride and commitment. In fact, this commitment among the members of the community allows Jewish institutions like JCP to exist and thrive where each of us do our part. It’s not unlike voting in a civil society. We don’t like the direction of politics and our leaders? We have a way to change that—by using our voices to make a difference. Similarly, membership in community is like voting. It says the direction of my people matters; my part in this sacred tradition makes a difference; I want in.
So as JCP takes another step into the future of this inspiring journey we are sharing, making a permanent home for an open, pluralistic Jewish life downtown, I hope you will join us on that journey. It promises to be rooted in learning, connection and deeds of loving-kindness toward all those we encounter. Together, let’s create a world founded on our sacred values of justice and peace.