By Diane Fisher, Director of Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), March 2021
In March of 2020, Rabbi Hugh Seid-Valencia and I were co-teaching a Melton class on Jewish Social Justice. It was an exciting partnership between the APJCC and JCRC that would initiate our trajectory toward merging into Jewish Silicon Valley with a common mission of “building bridges of understanding and improving lives.”
By March 23, the class had moved online to Zoom, and we were pleased that most of the students elected to continue in this unexpected format. The curriculum for the last class contained the unexpected lesson that we ultimately needed for this pandemic year. The topic was “Personal growth for social justice” and the ancient Jewish practice of Mussar, which is a process of growing certain character traits like empathy, flexibility, optimism, and patience. These are not the “self-help” traits focused on in modern American life, but a practice that grew out of the wisdom of 19th-century Lithuanian Jewish life. It is a focus on those character traits that allow us to see the inherent value in every person and the truth of the deep connectedness of all things.
Little did we know that our global connectedness would become so apparent through the crisis of the pandemic. Among the character traits listed in the last lesson of the class, I chose savlanut (Hebrew for “patience”) as our focus, because that quality means placing emphasis on the process rather than just on results. To be resilient social justice activists AND to be resilient survivors of a pandemic, it is necessary to cultivate patience, to set small, incremental goals, and to show up with whatever we have to give life, day after day. Adding in some qualities like hope and optimism, our patience will provide a foundation upon which we can build a better future.
We closed the class recalling the famous words of Rabbi Tarfon from the 2nd century: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Taking time to reflect JCRC’s work this year, I can see how each incremental effort of kindness, philanthropy and justice, patiently applied, has made a difference. We connected firefighters in Ben Lomond to needed supplies from the Israeli consulate. Democracy was strengthened through voter registration and candidate forums, co-sponsored by African American, Latino and Jewish partners. Interfaith messages of solidarity brought meaning at Thanksgiving. Interfaith dialogue sessions brought greater awareness of the intersectionality of antisemitism and racism.
We’ve planted seeds. We’ve added building blocks. We’ve been partners for justice. Little by little, with “savlanut,” with patience, we have moved forward on our mission of “building bridges of understanding and improving lives,” even during a pandemic.