By David Cohen
Entering my first week as the new President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg, a few different refrains were swirling around in my head. As I recently expressed to our staff at our first gathering, there is a passion for this work that really should be that force that, as they say, “gets you out of bed in the morning.” So, as I try to express what I truly love about this job and this work, I am reminded of the Kevin Costner movie For the Love of the Game and the Elvis Costello song – “What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding?”
What these pop culture staples signify for me is the ideas that one – you really need to love “the game.” Despite the trials and tribulations, the rifts and challenges, you have to love the very institutions of community building, Jewish identity formation for young and old, and the outreach that is the bedrock of thriving Jewish life in America. For me, that is the game we are all a part of, and the positive outcomes, the beautiful relationships we get to forge, and the opportunities for creative engagement and learning far outweigh any bumps in the road along the way.
Also – philosophically – what is so funny about stating categorically that we live for bringing peace, love, and understanding into this world? As we say in our tradition, the world is based on three pillars – Torah (Learning and Understanding), T’filah (Worship or finding reflective meaning in the wonders of the universe), and Gimilut Hasadim (Doing acts of love and kindness). As a community, how can we not be excited every day to do our best to bring more love and peace (Shalom) into the world? To bring more learning into our lives. And to help our larger community better understand who and what the Jewish community is. And of course, to every day – and especially on Shabbat – reflect on our teachings and the lessons they provide for family harmony, leadership, personal growth, and communal relations.
To give Elvis Costello his due, the imagery of walking through troubled times and doing so with those who are strong and can be trusted with the tasks at hand, the people who will help us find the harmony – the sweet harmony – compels me to think of the truly amazing leadership, community members, and staff I am blessed to be working with here in Harrisburg. It does indeed take a village – and together I am convinced we will be able to do great things.
It took strength, trust, and vision to embark on our move to a wonderful new home for our community agencies. And I think it will be these same attributes that will help us have the beautiful Grass Campus at our center – and realize growth and opportunity in the wider community. As I put it to the search committee – many Jewish communities today focus on a frame of survival. Harrisburg seeks not just to survive – but to thrive. And this is the excitement and forward-looking attitude that can transform communities.
One other message I shared with our staff this week was the way in which a Jewish Federation in North America in 2023 plays a unique role in bringing community together. In a country and planet that is increasingly polarized – there are fewer and fewer organizations dedicated to trying to pull people together, to find consensus, and try to overcome difference by finding common ground. Our community is challenged by this daily in our country’s politics, how we relate to and connect with Israel, and how we work towards a more inclusive and respectful society.
There are today so many organizations, media outlets, and social media posts, that focus so narrowly on their perspective that the larger picture is often lost – on anything, really. For the Jewish community, if you only read one organization’s emails and posts you might think the future of the Jewish community is dire. If you only listened to one pundit, you might think Israel is the vilest state on the face of the earth. And if you only listened to another set of writers and speakers, you might think the Jewish community and Israel can do no wrong. So, lest you thought this was going to be a puff piece, it is not.
We have hard work to do in our community to overcome this polarization. But what I am truly optimistic about is that my organization – OUR Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg – is an organization among a few who are strong and proud about telling the full story of our people, our faith, and our homeland. If all you every focused on was our failings – you would not see the community for what it is – an amazing place where we are teaching Jewish values and Torah to the next generation. You would miss the smiles on the faces or our children who come to school and to camp to build friendships and grow and blossom like flowers. You would miss the love of family as they create a Jewish home – even if that home is part Jewish and partly non-Jewish. You would miss the amazing history and fortitude of the people of Israel who face incredible challenges and who – in spite of the actions of their government – act more often than not with compassion, love, and respect (just like we in America are not only what our government says or does).
So where is the harmony? Where is the sweet harmony? It is in the pursuit of community. It is in the smile on our children’s faces. It is in the peace and security that we try to bring into the world both here in Central Pennsylvania and in Israel. It is in the boardroom as we discuss plans for the future. It is in the classroom when teachers get the most amazing answers to their questions. It is in the divine spark that permeates the holy work we do with acts of loving kindness for those in need. And it is in the respect we have for all those in diverse communities across America and with those we both agree and disagree with in our own Jewish community.
I truly hope you will join us as we seek this harmony and as we do this holy work – if you have not already. I hope that you will trust in the directions we will set together and help us be the strong, vibrant, and thriving Jewish community I know we can be.
Kol Tuv (Wishing you all the best)