What Jewish History Teaches Us During the High Holidays

By: Barry Shrage, President of CJP

As the late Rabbi Soloveitchik said, when defining the Jewish faith, we must think of ourselves as a congregation; that is, a group of individuals possessing a common past, a common future, common goals and desires, a common aspiration for a world which is wholly good and beautiful, and a common unique and unified destiny.

That’s the reason that we don’t observe Yom Kippur alone. Because as personal as Yom Kippur is – a day to fast, review our lives, consider our actions, repent our sins – just as strongly, it’s about judging who we are as a community: What are our values? How do we live up to our ideals? How can we improve in the year ahead? We reflect on our sins of commission and our sins of omission. What have we done wrong and what could we have done to set things right?

As a congregation, when we look back on the past year we almost always find ourselves whipsawed between fate and faith, sorrow and joy, mourning and rejoicing. Yet, through it all, and even through spirited debates and disagreements in the wake of the Iran nuclear agreement, we have continued to express our love and hope for the Jewish people.

Even during our moments of disagreement we needed each other, and we needed to remember that we shared a common concern for the fate of our people and commitment to their well-being. Therefore it was incumbent upon us to conduct our internal debate with civility. Empathy and love for our brothers and sisters in Israel required love and empathy for each other as we debated these life and death issues.

To understand the importance of the High Holidays we must also aspire to an exalted ethical idea that is nurtured by the sentiment of love. We must use our love to work together for a world that is wholly good, just and beautiful.

This isn’t a new idea. In the haftarah, the prophetic reading we recite on Yom Kippur, the prophet Isaiah casts a critical eye on the ritual of fasting that so many of us observe so faithfully. Why fast? Does it make a difference? Does it really matter? 

Here’s how Isaiah asks (and answers) the question (Isaiah 58: 5-10):

Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?

No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness . . . and let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.

Then shall your light burst through like the dawn; then, when you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry, He will say: “Here I am.”

If we want to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, we need to be a community that teaches justice and righteousness to its children. We need to know what that means and we need to work together to fulfill that dream.

For me, the idea of “charity” and “doing good” comes to life through promoting justice and righteousness, through providing dignity for every member of our community. It means that every person has enough to eat. It also means having a fulfilling job and having opportunities to fully participate in our community and our society.

We live in a vibrant community, yet far too many people among us are suffering in plain sight—and often, we don’t even notice. 

Did you know that one in eight Jewish households in Greater Boston’s Jewish community is struggling? Some might find the statistics surprising, but it cannot be denied: We know that 75% of Jews receiving services from our agency partners have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 37% have a master’s degree or higher. We know that Jewish poverty exists in our cities and the suburbs (even in places like Brookline, Newton, Framingham and Sharon) among families, mid-career adults and young adults trying to enter the workforce. We know that many poor Jews don’t even know where to turn for help.

Isaiah tells us that God wants us to be there with the people who most need our help and support. Jewish history tells us that if we turn our backs on these people, we can’t call ourselves any kind of a community, certainly not a community of justice and righteousness. When we teach Torah to our children (which I value personally above all things) they must also understand that carrying out Torah means creating lives of hope and meaning and dignity for all our brothers and sisters—otherwise, the Torah they’ve learned has no meaning.

So what do we do to move our brothers and sisters from despair to hope?

I’m so proud that this year we’ve launched CJP’s Anti-Poverty Initiative, a great collaborative endeavor that brings together CJP and our community’s social service agencies—Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JF&CS), Jewish Family Service of Metrowest (JFS), Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly (JCHE), Yad Chessed and Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters (JBBBS), as well as our synagogues—to help those in our community who are struggling, to  strengthen our safety net and to raise awareness.

We’re coordinating our services across agencies; moving people from emergency assistance to long-term stability. We’re improving access to services like public benefits and job-search support. We’re committed to responding with compassion, kindness and sensitivity to cultural and religious needs. We’re carefully tracking and measuring the impact of our work to be sure that we are making a positive difference in the lives of individuals and the well-being of our community. So if you want to give help or get help, go to cjp.org/raiseyourhand.  

Isaiah tells us that this High Holiday season is about the moral choices we make as a congregation, as well as individually. It’s vitally important that when we reach out for help, we feel accepted, respected and valued as part of a caring community; that when we respond, it is with meaningful help and with love. And when we do, “then shall your light burst through like the dawn,” a new light for ourselves and community, a new light that illuminates a bright and beautiful Jewish future for us all.

L’shanah Tovah.


Barry Shrage

About the Author

A passionate advocate for Jews in Greater Boston and around the world, CJP President Barry Shrage has worked tirelessly to create an inclusive community and drive positive change.

CJP welcomes an open dialogue!  Please refer to our policy for more information.


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