I hope you are enjoying the last sweet days of summer. I have been on the road and in the air most of the summer, to places near and far. Last week, near and far came together.
I went down to Union Beach to check in on the Bonim B’yachad project, where a group of Israelis and Americans were helping to rebuild a home. It’s no more than 35 minutes from my house to 115 Dock Street, a home almost totally destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, sitting a few hundred yards from Raritan Bay.
It was a beautiful sunny day, with a light breeze coming off the water. The members of Bonim B’yachad were swarming in and around the house, installing sheetrock and building a new deck.
By the time I got there, it was time to move the new deck into place. All together, we counted in Hebrew, “Echad, shteim, shalosh — (one, two, three) — and up the deck came. I couldn’t believe how light it was with all of us helping. It reminded me of the scenes of Amish barn raisings I’ve seen in the movies, and a saying from my grandmother, “Many hands make light work.”
It was amazing, really, to be standing in a house in Union Beach, New Jersey, hearing Hebrew and English called back and forth across the rooms. In speaking with Rabbi Joel Soffin, president of Jewish Helping Hands, who was the project’s inspirational rabbinic leader, I learned how truly amazing this group was. “Bonim B’yachad” is Hebrew for “Building Together.” But the 22 Israelis and Americans built more than a home. Through discussion and study of Jewish texts, they built a community. They argued, they disagreed, they agreed, they came to understand different points of view.
This, in my experience, is what happens when Israeli Jews and Jews living outside Israel come together in common purpose. I saw it when we began to re-imagine our relationship with our Partnership Together communities of Ofakim and Merchavim. I’ve seen it continue through our first two Peoplehood cohorts. What does it mean to be Jewish inside Israel? What does it mean to be Jewish in the Diaspora? And what can we learn from each other?
And then I realized that I had also seen this same conversation taking place a world away from Union Beach, in Belarus, earlier this summer. As part of the annual Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission sponsored by Jewish Federations of North America, I was in Belarus and Israel.
We visited the site of the former Vlozhin Yeshiva, in the little shtetl of the same name. Jews lived in Vlozhin for hundreds of years, until the Nazis came into the village and murdered almost all of its Jewish inhabitants. The cemetery in Vlozhin has many, many graves, and there is no permanent Jewish population to care for it.
Because of a program of the Jewish Agency, there is a form of care for the Vlozhin Jewish cemetery. Every summer, the Jewish Agency brings together young Israelis who have made aliyah from Belarus and young Jewish leaders still living in Belarus, to work on restoring Jewish sites throughout the country. We joined this group in cleaning up the cemetery, cutting grass and cleaning headstones. We were performing one of the most important mitzvot, cheshbon ha-nefesh, caring for the memory of the departed, who can no longer even benefit from that care in this world.
Talking with these terrific, independent young Jews from two different worlds was almost like being in Union Beach, with the same questions about shared Jewish identity. It was a privilege to work beside them, even for a few hours.
What Union Beach and Vlozhin have in common is that in bringing people together to do good for others — the family in Union Beach that needed a new home, or the souls of the departed in Vlozhin who deserve dignity and respect — we actually do good for ourselves, strengthening the vital bonds among and between our worldwide Jewish family.
As we move through the Hebrew month of Elul, we are supposed to be preparing for the High Holy Days, atoning for things done or left undone in the year gone by. I believe that some of the holiest preparation we can do for our souls is to do good for others, and in so doing, do good for ourselves.
Union Beach still needs your help — if you want to volunteer, contact Stacey Brown, firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 929-3027.
Happy end of summer –