Our First 'Activist' — Reflections from Israel

Shalom Chaverim (hello friends),

I am writing from Israel on my first CJP mission in my new role as President and CEO. Today, our leadership delegation of volunteers and staff will join with communities from around North America for a festive pre-Shabbat celebration in the Western Wall plaza.

Our first stop on this mission was a visit to our sister city, Haifa. From the moment we arrived, we have been meeting inspiring individuals who care deeply about this country, the Jewish People, and the world. We’ve heard from IDF officers who brought the human side of Israel to Boston when they visited with CJP’s Hatikva mission, and whose lives and Jewish journeys were deeply influenced by our Greater Boston Jewish community. We visited a Parents at the Center site to learn how a local Boston-Haifa Connection initiative to support parents of young children from at-risk populations has now been replicated and expanded nationally with Israel’s Ministry of Education and Joint Distribution Committee. We learned from powerful female professionals who are creating networks of mentorship to advance and empower women professionals and women’s leadership throughout Israel. We heard the personal stories of a rabbi and a Palestinian man, both from the West Bank, who are working together for peace and co-existence.

These are just a few examples of the people we have met in our first few days and we know there are more to come!

Visiting Israel is always an opportunity to connect with our story and with the Jewish People, and to see the beauty of our homeland. What we have learned from the Boston-Haifa Connection affirms newly emerging research in Israel education: the most powerful way to engage with a vibrant, inspiring, complex modern country and with its rich history is through deep, authentic, human-to-human relationships with real people. In many cases, these are friends and family living everyday lives — just like us.

And yet, perhaps because of the youthful age of Israel and the intensity of life here and in this region, it certainly feels like everywhere we turn we meet someone who is making the ordinary extraordinary.

These passionate social entrepreneurs are today’s version of the Zionist pioneers — individuals and communities engaged in activism and robust debate to build and improve this not-yet-finished country. Meeting them reminds me of a rabbinic commentary on the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha (Genesis 12).

One of the most obvious questions about this text and the birth of our people has perplexed readers for millennia: Why Abraham? What was it about him that earned him God’s seemingly out-of-the-blue calling to go forth and build the Jewish people? The midrash teaches us that Abraham looked at the flawed world and the chaos around him and wondered, “Can it be that it has no guide?” It was at that moment that God called to him. It was as if God created an imperfect world and was just waiting for the person who would notice it, a person who would become God’s partner.

There are as many ways to understand this midrash as there are questions that it raises. 

What strikes me most is that Abraham “discovers” God through seeing a problem, caring for the world, and asking a question. What a powerful message about Jewish theology and about the roots of tikkun olam — it starts with seeing, caring, and then asking. That is what activists and entrepreneurs do: they see gaps between the way the world is and the way the world ought to be, and they care enough to step into and stay in those gaps, and ask: What can I, and we, do to close those gaps?

This has been the calling of our people since the time of Abraham, our first activist. It is also a powerful framework for thinking about the people-to-people relationships and shared responsibilities for our future that are at the heart of Zionism and Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st century.

I look forward to sharing more with you about my visit to Israel soon.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Marc Baker

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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.