I’m tired, and I’ll bet a dollar you are too.
These past four years have been exhausting, regardless of whether you love or hate President Trump, or perhaps even something in between. The divisive rhetoric, impolitic statements from all sides, and a hysterically hyperbolic media have contributed to a hot mess. Throw in the anxiety enveloping us via the tragedy of the pandemic, and we are left with an understandable feeling of helplessness.
Thankfully, there is an antidote, a realistic way to restore our spirits and begin the painstaking process of healing our wounds — spending less time talking Trump and more time talking Torah.
I mean this in the broadest sense — “talking Trump” as a proxy for both Trump himself and all things involving our dysfunctional political theater; “talking Torah” as a symbol for everything Jewish, including but not limited to studying our sacred texts, becoming involved in Jewish institutions, and feeling a collective responsibility for each and every Jew.
In 2020, far too many family gatherings were turned into amateur debates — and not the fabled Lincoln-Douglas kind. Social media became a steel cage match, making actual professional wrestling appear as tame as a baby bunny. Friendships were strained; some, sadly, were even destroyed. Personally, I have tried to avoid social media like covid-19, but in reality, I’m more like a moth desperately trying to avoid a flame or a motorist trying not to catch a glimpse of an accident — there were times I just could not look away. With the election in the rearview mirror, I humbly suggest we stop denigrating those who voted for someone other than our preferred candidates and start focusing on our shared challenges as a people. And there are many.
Personally, I consider posting on social media the equivalent of screaming into a pillow or crying into the dark night — it may be cathartic but doesn’t really accomplish much. This is not meant to denigrate my friends who became politically active and expressed their heartfelt opinions. From lawn signs and party paraphernalia, to emails, memes, and emojis, our freedom to engage — and ultimately to vote — is a beautiful thing and should be cherished. But there is an important distinction between a healthy, even heated, dose of political engagement and a debilitatingly myopic worldview that divides people into camps of good and evil, righteous and enablers, friend and foe. All too often, I’ve witnessed that line being crossed by Jews against other Jews. It needs to stop. Now.
Whether you believe anti-Semitism is worse on the Left or the Right doesn’t matter. Sadly, there’s enough to go around, a veritable cornucopia of lousy choices. Right-wing extremists have become more prevalent and increasingly bold, spreading their bigotry against Jews and other marginalized groups. On the Left, there is a growing acceptance of BDS and other anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses and, perhaps more troubling, within the halls of Congress. The recently departed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, a giant of his generation, likened anti-Semitism to a virus, constantly mutating through the ages. Leaving aside his apt metaphor, Rabbi Sacks’ prescient words should serve to rouse us from our lethargy.
Think of all the time we spent in 2020 agonizing over politics, whether tuning in to propaganda machines posing as cable news channels or reading newspapers that rate only slightly better. How many discussions can we have over whether Trump is an amazing president for Israel and the Jews or a white supremacist? What do we accomplish by ostracizing Jews who support Trump, or mocking those who don’t? Not much.
Instead of Facebook, let’s face our challenges head on. Our brothers and sisters need us, now more than ever; and especially during these daunting days, our children need to see unity, not division. We should angle our gaze past the chaos, listen for what lies beyond the cacophony, and concentrate our efforts on shoring up our collective Jewish institutional and communal foundation.
When I grew up, there was an infomercial that taught us that for the price of a cup of coffee a day, we could help lift a child out of poverty. Imagine if we each spent 30 minutes less per week talking Trump and instead devoted that time to talking Torah. We would all be better off.
So what should we do? While these days we cannot have house guests, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get our house in order. Now is the time double down on our Jewish infrastructure, our synagogues, schools, communal organizations, and of course, our homeland Israel. These are difficult days for our Jewish institutions — synagogues remain closed, camps were shuttered, schools are struggling to stay open, and organizations are losing support because they cannot host fundraisers or events to sustain membership. Thankfully, many generously have stepped up to close the gap, but it is not enough. So take out your checkbook (or open Venmo), roll up your sleeves, or pick up a broom to help clean up this mess — I’m confident your respective rabbis will confirm that there is no hierarchy of mitzvah when it comes to helping our Jewish institutions weather this storm.
We will never receive a postcard in the mail informing us that the time is now, nor will there be an email, text message, or carrier pigeon — there never is. And I doubt a neon light sign featuring Rabbi Hillel’s “If not now, when?” will adorn a building in Times Square anytime soon. If you are waiting for the perfect moment to finally get more involved with your synagogue or other Jewish organization, I promise you the moment is now — in fact, it probably was yesterday.
Now is the moment to recommit to strengthen and protect the Jewish people and to invest more in the next generation. If you are on the fence about sending your children to Jewish day school or camp, climb over the fence and just do it. These past four years have exposed our children to far too much division; let’s flip the script and expose them to a rally cry for the ages — a call to arms, as well as legs, hearts, and minds, to fight for all of our people.
Every minute we spend is an investment of our precious time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to consider returns on my investment, whether getting involved in a particular organization or professionally. (An exception is my time spent watching the New York Jets, who seem to produce weaker returns each season.) When we spend our time talking Trump, the return on investment is, at best, uncertain. While perhaps you were able to convince your friends to vote for your candidate or party of choice, most people vote their own consciences. Social media posts dissipate into the ether, literally and figuratively. Thus, talking Trump ultimately devolves into ambient noise.
By contrast, talking Torah — that is, by investing time to sustain our Jewish institutions and people — offers a guaranteed return, ensuring that the next generation can learn our traditions and be well-prepared to safeguard our future. Every minute spent volunteering for your synagogue or Jewish school offers immediate and surefire impact, especially when our institutions need it most. Our Jewish institutions — synagogues, schools, camps — are the guarantors of our people’s future. If your financial advisor were able to offer to lock in such wonderful returns, you would ask where to sign and how much you could invest. Let’s apply the same enthusiastic logic to investing our time and energy talking Torah.
Our Jewish institutions also are tired. Boards of trustees are spent. For those of you who serve on boards of Jewish institutions, thank you and kol ha-kavod. This past year has been more than you bargained for, wrestling with how to close and then re-open (and maybe even close again) our synagogues and schools. Struggling to balance budgets and minimize layoffs, desperately trying to project strength while knowing that difficult decisions must be made. Give yourselves a pat on the back for a job well done — and now go recruit a couple of friends to get involved in your respective institutions, because you need the help and we need all hands on deck. This is going to be a heavy lift.
At bottom, we must ask ourselves how history will judge our response to this moment. How did we spend the pandemic? After stocking up on toilet paper and canned goods (and binge-watching some Netflix), what did we do next? We all are struggling with fatigue, a pandemic paralysis. Each day has become lather, rinse, repeat. Like many, I’ve grown tired of waiting for the world to begin again. But none of this is about me. It isn’t really about you either. This moment is about all of us, a familial tribe. It’s time to shake that albatross from around our necks and beat it to a pulp, to lift each other off the mat, in a moment of brotherhood and sisterhood, achdut.
As 2020 nears a merciful end, let’s double down on the Jewish people. Amidst the thick fog of 2020 emerges an outstretched arm, beckoning each of us. We must all grab hold — together — and pull our people into better days ahead. This is Mount Sinai moment — a historic episode for our entire tribe, where we need each and every Jew to listen and to be heard, to gather together (socially distant of course) and to speak with a single voice: Am Yisrael chai. The Children of Israel live!
Ari Berman is a partner at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. He lives in West Caldwell and is a member of Congregation Agudath Israel there.