The Mystery of New Beginnings

It’s a funny thing being the oldest guy in the office. The last time it happened I was executive director of the Bronfman Center at NYU and while I was 35 years old at the time, the students were mostly college-age or in graduate school, making me the elder Jew on site. And now today, with JCP’s administrative offices in a coworking space downtown, it’s déjà vu all over again.

We made the decision to move our offices to save money on rent, and the open, collaborative work environment is actually a pleasant bundle of energy to encounter on a daily basis. The passion and creativity are quite real. It’s Start-Up Land, a certain idealistic slice of the American capitalist universe where venture funds, ingenuity, cleverness and coding make for a potent mix of innovation. There are two young educators building a new model for subscription based child-care; several fashion designers and bloggers and social media influencers; coders developing apps for accessi-ride vans and DIY head-hunting formulas for leveraging connections on sites like LinkedIn. The water cooler, which in point of fact is curated neatly with pineapple and lemons cut in the shapes of stars and half-moons, makes for its own fountain of new information each day. And still, despite all the new thinking, the men’s room floor remains a challenge to navigate. In basketball terms, the paper towel-to-garbage can ratio hovers just above 20%. No one is winning any titles in that department.

All this newness. All these fresh ideas. It’s exhilarating, to be sure. But it can also be rather alienating. For instance, nearly everyone’s ears are adorned with the Apple Airpods, nodes of pure white plastic homing in, linking person to person dialogue via satellite, 5G and wifi. Elevator doors open and close with neighbors rarely looking up from phones, their faces aglow from radiant screens, not the serendipity of human encounter. So to be a Jewish organization, witnesses to an ancient tradition, inside such a contemporary work environment, can be entertaining, if perplexing.

A couple weeks ago, Rabbi Deena and I were having meeting while behind us, a start-up Christian church was doing a prayer meeting for a pregnant member amidst the tumult of the shared space. Hands on belly and shoulders of the expectant mother, spiritual aspirations and supplications sent heavenward while the invisible future floated above, measured in bytes, data and other ephemera of the digital age. A couple days later JCP hosted a Friday “happy hour” which included hard cider brewed in Bushwick, Brooklyn and a quick seminar in how to blow a shofar. The human has been making intoxicating beverages since the dawn of civilization and the ram’s horn sounding in this season is, well, as old as the hills.

Driving out to Bushwick that morning to pick up the cider, I weaved in and out of traffic as deliveries were being made, road construction kicked up dust and detritus, Hasids prepared for Shabbos, children jumbled and jostled on playgrounds tucked next to schools which leaned into warehouses and there was noise, noise, noise. The family making the cider are Koreans who learned the craft from Basques in Spain and the young man who helped me load my car with a few cases of cider was a new immigrant from Mexico City, trying to make his way in the New York City food scene. I knew I needed to make it back to the office in time for our happy hour and while Google Maps was telling me it would take me 45 minutes, my “been living in Brooklyn for the past 29 years” told me otherwise. I silenced it, took the route I knew best, and shaved 10 minutes off the race. Damn the satellites sometimes, you know?

But really, I want to tell you about one moment that afternoon, when we started blowing the shofars. A ram’s horns with the plaintive, almost rusty cries; the larger Kudu horns, regal, moving, august. Start-up heads lifted from phones and laptops; Airpods popped out of ears; eyes blinked in slow motion. It was kind of like that moment after the rain, when the clouds clear and the sun comes out and we see the world, however briefly, in a new light. It was, dare I say, almost magical. Not unlike the wonder I saw throughout the Holy Days when visiting classrooms with shofars or Torah scrolls and watching our youngest ones gaze in marvel at the mystery of the material world and its ability to transport us beyond where we are to another place, unnamable, almost ineffable, but real.

It’s a kind of paradox of Jewish civilization that we begin again each year in autumn, as the leaves wither, as ground hardens, as rain and snow lurch forward. But we Jews have generally been a counter-cultural people, doing things our own way. And so we begin at the end and end at the beginning, finishing up our Torah scroll on Simchat Torah and in that very same instant, starting over all over again.

This soothes me. It makes me feel not like the oldest guy in the office, but one in a long line of other women and men who came before me, who saw to it that once in a while, history and perspective had something valuable to share in the grand scheme of the immediacy of things.

“In the beginning,” the Torah commences as it begins again each year. And what do we learn from this, fundamentally, except to say with confidence that in fact each year is a new beginning, and each new beginning is a new start, a new moment, a new day. From the ten days of turning and repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to the nesting and sheltering required as we build our Sukkot to the end/beginning of Deuteronomy to Genesis on Simchat Torah, Jewish civilization comes to teach us that personal and communal renewal are within our grasp at every moment. The idea of beginning, in Jewish time, is not a linear notion but rather is a cyclical one. Time is not a train that we may have missed but a process, an ongoing reality, always inviting us to be open, present and ready for the possibility of change.

So as our learning begins again with another year of reading Torah, of immersing ourselves in the values derived from generations of readers and doers and innovators who have come before us, let us remain open and inspired to respond to what is possible, to the needs around us, and to building a community and a world of kindness and justice and peace.