Visions for Community and Campus

By David Cohen

The coming months will be important ones for our community in ways that I think we don’t yet even grasp.  Of course, some of our most important holidays are on the horizon.  Also, the spring will bring an intensified focus on Israel, the relationship between the United States and Israel, and the very cohesiveness of the North American Jewish community.

If you noticed, I wrote “cohesiveness” rather than unity or solidarity.  I did that intentionally because I think these concepts will take quite a hit in the coming months.  As activists in Harrisburg and the surrounding areas will increasingly attempt to influence our public officials to condemn Israel, our own Jewish community will be asked to take sides.  As conferences representing the Protestant movements will come out with proclamations and resolutions against Israel, our interfaith partners will be asked to take sides.  Even within our community, there will be increasing demands to criticize the Israeli government’s decisions and actions in Gaza.

The issue always has been: criticism is one thing, but demonization is another.  And yes, to compare a war – no matter how just or unjust you think it is – to Genocide is simply wrong.  It just is.  Especially if you feel such a connection to October 7th that it is as if you were back in 1939 in Nazi Germany – that genocide analogy is simply wrong.  There is no “final solution” that Israel is carrying out against an entire population like the system of camps and cold-blooded murders that took place under the Nazi regime.  And to throw terms around like Nazi, Holocaust, or Genocide when it comes to how Israel deals with the enemies who have been allowed to attack her for decades, is simply wrong.  It just is. 

Now – does that leave space in our community to call for a ceasefire or to ask for peace – even if hostages have not been returned?  Maybe yes.  Maybe no.  And here is why.  I have always advocated that though I may ask something of my Israel family and friends, I simply cannot demand it.  I may think that a particular course of action is a better way or the best way.  And I can say that.  I am a Jew and part of K’lal Yisrael (the Jewish people for which the state was created).  So, I do have a say.  But I also get why any Israeli or any Jew would be upset with an American Jew for demanding something be done. 

Yes, it is true that even Israeli relatives of those murdered on October 7th have called for a ceasefire.  They can do that.  They have earned that.  I have not.  I have a say.  I have an opinion.  I should not claim a certainty that I know how Israel should behave or act in this insane time and in an intractable place.  In fact, this is my biggest critique of the current anti-Israel activist movements.  They claim a certainty that is simply strangling our society right now.

But here is my bigger question.  Why?

Why does it matter that I write in these pages on ways to navigate the conversation in our community?  Well, maybe it has something to do with what happens when we have come together for our Community Shabbat experiences.

We should not be a people defined by how others define Israel.  As in – we should not simply be a unified people because of our fears of anti-Israelism or antisemitism.  We should be a people who are defined by our love for the holy and the good.  We should be a people defined by a rich cultural history.  We should not be defined by “they tried to kill us, they failed, we ate.”   Some of us choose to be defined by Shabbat observance and Kashrut, and some of us choose to be defined by the Jewish laws around service, justice, good deeds, and learning.  Some of us choose to be defined Jewishly simply by our name, our family, and our core values.  Some want to be defined by all of the above.  This is us, as they say.  And this should continue to be “us” because there is great value in the community we have formed over centuries.  We may disagree on some core issues, as our ancestors did in the desert when yes, some rebelled against even our great sage Moses and his rule over our people.  Yes, even Moses was once portrayed as Bibi is today.  This is who we are, it is what we do.  But at the end of the day, we find ways to love, mourn, and live Jewishly – together.

The test ahead will be a significant one.  And only we can know if we are prepared to meet the moment.  So, if I could share one vision of what community means to me in this season - right now at this time - it is a cohesiveness that is strong enough to support us and flexible enough to let us differ in significant religious and political ways. 

And again, why?  Well, think of our seniors who can know that they have a community who supports them when isolation and illness could tear them down.  Think of our young families and young children who yes, could go a million places for learning and recreation, but know there is a community here – when they want and need them to be a part of their lives.  All life is better in community, and we have a rich and vibrant one with stakeholders and supporters who want to spread that holy message.  Kehillah Kedosha – holy community.  It is a community inspired by specialness – some may say inspired by godliness.  That is the vision we stive for.  Not one that is due to those who choose to negate us.

And so too, I would use that same ideal to share the vision for our community campus.  In just a few short months we will have so many more people engaging together in Jewish life on our campus.  And whereas before, we were often segmented into different parts of a building with a field off to the side,  we will now all be able to see our multiple buildings and our children playing on the Etter Family Quad right in front of us.  It will be a place to celebrate the holy and the mundane.  It will be close to and inclusive of Jewish life at our synagogues.  It is already a place where learning is a focal point and that will only increase with time as more programs and services are held on the Grass Campus.  But most importantly, it is a place where we will come to be Jewish in all the different cultural and political ways we choose.  And yes, it will not be easy to always focus on the cohesive elements – as opposed to the divisive ones – but at a time when that togetherness is at risk, what better moment to be talking about the ways our community can keep us in relationship, and in Kehillah Kedosha?