June 14, 2021

The Illumination of the Soul

Dov Ben-Shimon Federation CEO
Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ

“History … is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.” – Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History, 1895.

Our deep commitment to this community’s history has taken many forms. I’m deeply proud to live in Greater MetroWest, a community that is rooted in the rich heritage of our passions, and in all that we’ve built together. As the CEO of our Jewish Federation – itself an entity formed by agencies joining together (‘federating’) and, in its current form, a product of decades of change – I’m continually awed by the noble mission that we face. This mission, in modern terms, is threefold: to care for those in need, to build community, and to save the world. One person at a time. But underpinning this pathway is a deep sense of history. And a history that is not solely, or even mostly, a history of stone monuments and imposing structures, but rather, to quote Pericles, “what is woven into the lives of others.” That is true history, what we build that stays enduring and strong. That sense of history requires us to remain mindful and respectful of our position in an unending, uplifting continuum of community.

In the coming weeks, our Jewish Historical Society (JHS) will become a department of our Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. In truth, much of the logistic and administrative change will be quick and easy – we already coordinate much of our work, and the employees of JHS have been part of Federation’s building, health insurance, work regulations and more for some years now. But as we approach the Centennial of our Jewish Federation in two years time, the leaders of both organizations understood that it was time for a meaningful step in integrating our work. JHS’ Board will become a Federation committee, and Federation will continue the deep commitment of our community to the archives and JHS’ outreach to existing and new populations. We’ll ensure that seminars, social media, events, briefings and lectures continue, and we’ll coordinate with other Federation departments to expose even more people to JHS’ educational and preservation mission.

Elie Wiesel once said that there are no coincidences in Jewish life. Meaning, that all the things we love now, the programs and synagogues and agencies and buildings, are here because those who came before us believed in them, invested in them, paid for them, and supported them. And if we want our children and grandchildren to love these things too, even though we may not get there with them, we have to continue that path. In Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, this is expressed as

לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן-חורין להבטל ממנה

which translates approximately to us saying that it is not your role to finish the job, but neither are you free to desist from starting it. I believe that this message, of a renewed and renewing commitment to our past, is more important today than ever. Rootlessness, alienation, isolation, are all, in the end, fatal to our sense of community – and ultimately, to our future. And a community continually inspired and reignited by its history can do great things. Plutarch wrote that the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but rather a fire to be kindled. That’s us, renewed and renewing. That’s our community.

The American philosopher and writer Buckminster Fuller once asked a student, “what are you watching when you sit on a hillside in the late afternoon as the colors turn from yellow to orange and red and finally darkness?” The student answered, “you are watching the sunset.” Fuller replied, “that is what is wrong with our age. You know full well you are not watching the sun set. You are watching the world turn.” Here we are, on the hillside, in the late afternoon. This is not a sunset. It is a new turn, one that promises much for our community and our shared path. And I am grateful to see the colors turn with you.