By RABBI BARRY COHEN
For this Chaplain’s Corner, I share an expanded version of the invocation I delivered at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s 103rd Annual Meeting on June 6.
Our Jewish community stands at a pivot point that will determine our nature for years to come. We have weathered Covid. We have navigated its primary threats, stresses and strains. We continue to adapt to its collateral damage upon our physical and psychological health, our economics, our politics, our sense of community, our interpersonal and organizational relationships. We are learning how to maximize precious resources: time, talent, energy, finances and experience.
In the midst of these challenging times and looking ahead to the exciting, potential aftermaths, we must have a sense of vision. We can turn to the wisdom of Proverbs, chapter 29, verse 18: “For lack of vision, a people lose restraint, but happy are they who heed instruction.” What does this verse mean by “restraint”? It teaches us to be under control … to set clear limits. In addition, through restraint, we express discipline over our emotions, thoughts and actions. We are aware of our biases and preconceived notions.
Where can we find the “instruction” of which Proverbs speaks? We can acquire it from one another, by sharing our wisdom, experience and knowledge. But we can also acquire instruction through The 2022-23 Greater Portland Jewish Community Study. How we review, discuss and mine the results of this study will offer us precious vision.
As we do so, we need to be aware of blind spots, preconceived ideas and biases. We must be curious. Curious is one of my favorite words. When we are curious, we ask questions. We are open to answers. Curiosity leads us from answers to more questions. And so the process continues.But as process leads to results, we may need to pivot if necessary to revise our hopes, goals, expectations and dreams of who we want to become.
This combination of curiosity, restraint and instruction creates a unique vision. And this vision feeds back on itself. As Proverbs instructs, through vision, we can maintain restraint. Through vision, we can determine and follow instructions that transform vision into reality. Another example of restraint: We must find a balance between using the results of the community study to pursue our organization’s particular interests and knowing how to work collaboratively to pursue strategies that help multiple organizations.
We also need to think long-term, such as forming three-year and five-year plans, coupled with steps to transform ideas into reality. Now is the time to be courageous and take risks. This includes thinking beyond previous conventions of buildings, budgets and participation costs. Our working collaboratively, uniting the talent, wisdom and experience of our community’s and organizations’ leaders and participants will only benefit all of us.
Here are some additional study results that jumped out at me: A significant number of Jews in our community define themselves as Jewish, without putting a descriptor in front of that word, like Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Orthodox. They are proud of being Jewish but are only willing to participate in programs and activities that interest them. The location, cost and content of that experience play crucial roles. As we plan and promote programs, activities and services, we must lower as many barriers as possible to make them affordable and accessible. We may have to provide transportation for participants and reconsider the days and times of day these events take place, in addition to any costs to participate.
Lastly, in the community study, what stood out for me as Community Chaplain? A significant number of Jewish households live in Northeast and Southeast Portland. These individuals and families are underserved. In addition, a large percentage of our community economically is living paycheck to paycheck; we must ensure our community is accessible to them, and that cost to attend is not an impediment. A significant percentage is dealing with health needs, special needs, chronic illnesses or disabilities. Many of them noted that they have a very limited support system. Another significant percentage must balance caregiving responsibilities with their already busy lives.
How can we assist them, reduce their pressure or address their unique needs? Now is the time to utilize and expand our volunteer base. How are we helping them navigate spiritually, economically, relationally? How are we there for them?
We have an opportunity to create a community that is healthy, secure, safe and vibrant. A community open to rich diversity and expressions. A community that is welcoming and adaptive and hospitable, that looks out for one another. A community where we gather, learn, celebrate and mourn. A community where we heal and thrive. And, as Proverbs instructs, a community filled with happiness for us all.