Every generation has to face crises. As much as we’d like to believe our particular tzuris is unprecedented, I assure you it is not. The economic downturn a few years ago, the environmental issues we are facing, the Jewish demographic challenges we are realizing or most recently the JCC challenges are all serious, even severe to be sure. And, yes, the particulars are unique but the various crises we face are not. And fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, we Jews sit upon a treasure trove of precedent, teachings and examples of how to navigate life’s tumult and crises when they come calling, as they always do.
Today we’d be well served to turn our attention back two thousand years just before the fall of our Second Temple, arguably one the most tragic crisis our people have ever faced. In particular, we need to remember Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. Rabbi Yochanan was one of the greatest leaders our people have ever known and without him we probably wouldn’t have survived the tumult of the time. Here’s what took place.
Vespasian, soon to become Roman Emperor, and the mighty Roman army had brought the Jews to total exhaustion after years of intensive battles. Jerusalem was destroyed, people were dying and complete despair had overtaken the Jewish community. At any moment the (second) Temple would be destroyed and there was no way the Jews could emerge victorious, they’d be lucky to even survive and if they did it would be as slaves.
Rabbi Yochanan, however, had an idea. He asked to see Vespasian, was smuggled out of Jerusalem by his disciples in a coffin and brought to the future emperor. When asked why he came to see Vespasian, Rabbi Yochanan responded that the Jews were willing to surrender, on one major condition: “Give me Yavne and its sages.” (The city of Yavne was known to be the home of many influential sages, the center of Jewish learning and the seat of an outstanding Beth Din – rabbinical court.)
Vespasian agreed, presumably laughing off the request as harmless – turning to study in such a remote location would be a low cost and effective way to get rid of the Jews, or so it would seem. Little did he know that this agreement ultimately led to the Jews outliving the Romans for thousands of years. Nor did the Jews who opposed this capitulation to Rome realize that Rabbi Yochanan’s agreement with Vespasian was not a sign of weakness but in fact a heroic deed resulting in a splendid victory. Although Rabbi Yochanan and the Jews that followed him may have lost the battle, ultimately they won the war – surviving to fight another day, returning to the land of Israel two thousand years later and flourishing once again.
Although there are many lessons within this event in our people’s history, the most salient for us in light of what we are grappling with here on the North Shore is this – Jews have survived because we are a resilient, adapting and resourceful people. And Judaism has survived because ours is a religion of ideas and beliefs irrespective of where it is housed or the form it might take. The holy Temple was just a space. Even the sacred city of Jerusalem was just a place. Nothing outside of us can terminate our message. Nothing external can touch the Jewish heart and soul. It is not a place or an organization – it is a mission and it is a mission which has been kept alive by leaders like Rabbi Yochanan and spiritual pioneers of every generation willing to take those ideas and head into the wilderness.
My friends, we are heading into the unknown wilderness in many ways. Whatever the future holds, however, we’d be well served to heed the teachings of our past. If we are attached to the form and the form alone we will suffer terribly, form is always changing, as structures come and go. The Jews who were attached entirely to the bricks and mortar of our original Temple (or all the little temples afterwards like Temple Beth El and Temple Israel here in these parts) could not imagine another reality and when the buildings fell (or sold to the Town of Swampscott) they couldn’t move forward and many of them drifted away. Those Jews, however, like Rabbi Yochanan, or years later like the pioneers of Shirat Hayam, who held fast to the values of these great institutions, or who clung tight to the ideas of Judaism not only survived but emerged stronger and healthier and now, thanks to God and visionaries amongst us, thrive.
The JCC is at the center of this community in so many ways. We need an organization which can bring together disparate groups and the rest of the Jewish community. We need the JCC for outreach to the unaffiliated, secular Jews and those on the fringe. We need an organization whose sole purpose is to foster Jewish identity which is ultimately what every JCC sets out to do. But if the JCC continues to hold true to these core aspects of its mission, if it continues to focus on the timeless and formless values for which it stands then nothing external, no outside factors and no building, downsized building or lack thereof can keep it from seeing its message through.
There will be a JCC if and only if we continue to focus on the content and the feeling and only then will the context and the form begin to take shape. We must get behind the JCC to help it during these times, to help it re-invent itself as Judaism always has and as this Jewish community must once again do.
For more of my writings on this subject please see the “Am Echad – One People” Series on my blog (www.RabbiB.com) or printed in the kiosk outside of my office.