History Has Its Eyes on Us

Rabbi Marc Baker deliveres his keynote at From Strength to Strength, CJP's 2020-2021 kickoff event. Watch or read below.

This past winter, my grandmother Muriel passed away at the age of 97. Nothing gave her more nachas (joy) than her 8 grandchildren and 13 great-grand-children. I’m not sure anyone in my family was prouder of me than my Grammy was – and she was so inspired by the work of CJP. While she didn’t have access to the internet, people in her building would clip out articles for her from the Jewish Journal about our work – I think it made her feel like a celebrity.

My grandmother was strong and wise, and her passing represents the end of a generation on my father’s side. My kids are blessed to have grown up with great grandparents, and to be fifth generation Bostonians.

I mention her tonight because while the Covid pandemic has reminded us that life is fragile, losing my grandmother reminded me that so too are our ties to the past – and it is our sacred responsibility to carry on the legacy of the generations that have come before us.

My great grandparents came to this country and settled in the Boston area around the turn of the 20th century along with the wave of 10’s of thousands of immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. My family moved to Chelsea and E. Boston and Lynn, seeking a better life in the Goldene Medina (golden land).

That first generation was faced with critical questions about their lives in this new country:

Would they be free to practice their religion in their new home without persecution? Could they earn a living and build stable lives for their families? Could they integrate as minorities and immigrants into a new society?

Luckily for my great-grandparents, they arrived at a community here in Boston where the first Jewish Federated Charity in the country had already been created to make sure that the answers to all of these questions – would be yes.

That’s because in 1895, the Jewish leaders of this community had the insight and the foresight to build something transformative.

They knew that a collection of individuals, and of human service, educational and cultural institutions acting on their own would struggle to serve the needs of a growing, diverse Jewish population at a critical moment in American history.

However, bringing together the community’s institutions, leaders, volunteers and generous donors into relationships with one another in service of a common good, would create a multiplier effect: a powerful, interconnected network built on strong interpersonal ties, mutual responsibility and common ground. This network would let no individual slip through the cracks; It would renew and revitalize a uniquely American version of our ancient Jewish tradition and culture; and would become a leading center for our country and the world. They created CJP.

We are standing on the shoulders of the giants who fought in two world wars, who helped create the State of Israel, who fought for civil rights, who rescued an Ethiopian Jewish community, who freed Soviet Jewry; who built historic Jewish institutions here in Boston that light the way for the Jewish world and beyond.

Now, 125 years later, we are the inheritors of their vision, sacrifices, and commitment to Jewish culture and tradition. Here we are in the midst of a global pandemic, natural disasters, racial injustice, rising antisemitism, a deeply polarizing presidential election in which the character of our country and the future of our democracy are at stake, and all this while notions of Jewish community and identity changing almost as fast as the world around us.

This is a critical time, dare I say an existential moment, for the Jewish People, for this country and for the world. And just like 125 years ago, to paraphrase Lin Manuel Miranda, history has its eyes on us. When our great-great-grandchildren look back on this moment, they will ask about our generation: what they  we do with their inheritance?

I believe they will judge us based on the answers to three fundamental questions:

Question 1: Did we care for one another and for the Jewish People in Israel and around the world?

The pandemic has reminded us that meeting basic human needs - the ability for everyone to live a life of dignity, and of physical, material and emotional security, is still an enormous issue for our community.

I have seen the faces of individuals, here and around the world, who were not sure where their next meal would come from and who received groceries or cash assistance from us, and knew: “I will make it through this because this community sees me and cares about me.”

I have heard the stories of elderly members of our community, feeling isolated, lonely and scared during this pandemic, who received i-pads from our community so they could see and connect with the people they love, because it is not enough for them just to survive, we want them to live with the dignity of human connection.

And we need to do more, and we will do more, as we come to better understand the impacts of this pandemic. 

We will build on our groundbreaking Anti-poverty initiative to address food insecurity, unemployment, the rising epidemic of mental health . . . because the character of our community will be determined by how we care for one another, and especially the most vulnerable among us. We are bound up with one another and we know, in a world that feels so unpredictable right now, that there but for grace of God go we. It could be any of us who need the compassion and support a caring community.   

Question 2: Did we teach our story to our next generation so they and their families can find meaning and purpose in Judaism and Jewish life?  

Covid has challenged traditional models of engagement with Jewish life while also breaking down barriers and accelerating access to meaningful content and connection. In a time of social isolation, the demand for new ways to be together, to learn together, to create joy together is growing. 

During the past six months, we have adapted and innovated to ensure that people stay connected during a time of social distancing – whether that’s long-distance Jewish learning, virtual prayer services, or zoom funerals and shivas - so people are surrounded by communities of comfort and love when they need them most.  We are creating a Judaism that speaks to the human longing for meaning and connection.

And we need to do more, and we will do more.

We need to make it easier and more compelling to make Jewish choices - so every encounter makes you want to come back, so powerful experiences inspire the quest for deeper knowledge and understanding, and so meaningful moments translate into a life-long Jewish journey. We need to teach our next generation the story of the past, and more importantly to empower them to write the story of the future.

This spring I received an email from a young person, relatively new to Boston, away from her family on Passover for the first time. Not sure how she would make a seder, she received a Passover-in-a-Box from our community and realized: I am home. The Jewish community cares about me. The Passover story is my story, and Judaism has something powerful and relevant to say to my life. We can create compelling, vibrant intergenerational Jewish life - through meaning, purpose, belonging, and joy.

Question 3: Did we bring our Jewish wisdom and values to bear on the most pressing issues of our world and our time?

We should be proud that members of our community are leading and contributing to the most influential institutions in our city and the world. These leaders remind us that the notion that we need to either take care of our own, or care about the world is a false choice. We already reach out and pursue justice beyond our Jewish community to fight poverty, homelessness, mistreatment of immigrants and refugees, and to advocate for Jewish and democratic values.

And we can do more, and we will do more.

We will work towards greater equity, dignity and justice for communities here in Boston, in Israel and around the world.  We will deepen relationships with our fellow Bostonians from different faiths and backgrounds, learning from them and standing with them.  We will create more opportunities for young people and all of us  to live out our Jewish values in service to a better world.  

History has its eyes on us, and our community has been preparing for this moment for 125 years.

So many of you have asked me: how can I help?  You have asked me: where and how can I give more to make an impact?  Tonight’s award recipients are powerful examples of some of the ways you can make a difference, thank you all for leading the way. 

A special thank you to everyone who has spoken tonight, and to my amazing CJP colleagues who have worked so hard to make this happen. And I am so honored we presented the inaugural Barry Shrage Leadership Award tonight. Who represents the values of our community more clearly than Barry?   

You know, a couple of weeks ago, on Rosh Hashanah, I was walking down my street when I heard the shofar sound from a neighbor’s back yard. And then, moments later, I heard a different shofar, with a slightly different pitch but equal power, sounding from a different back-yard. It was dueling shofars!

Their calls pierced through our neighborhood in what felt to me like a timeless, primal metaphor that collapsed thousands of years of Jewish history into one poignant moment. They represented the multivocality of our tradition and our community – different voices contributing to the same song; different perspectives arguing about shared values. They were calls of memory – our people have been hearing these horns since Mount Sinai. They were calls crying out for our broken world. They were calls to action – reminders of our responsibilities to better our community, our world and ourselves.

This year it’s not enough just to hear the shofar blast.  Each and every one of us can be the shofar – we can use our voices and actions to make a bigger difference in our community and world. And we need to listen for the ways that we are called to play our parts in the unfolding story of this community of boundless possibility.  

I’m asking you to join us to learn, to lead, to volunteer, to give whatever you can.  We need you more than ever. 

And what a blessing it is for me to be on this journey with all of you. Thank you.  

Marc Baker

About the Author

CJP President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker is an educator, writer, and leadership mentor who is devoting his life to Jewish learning and building Jewish communities.