It has been an incredibly sad week for the extended CJP and Hillel International families who are shocked and grieving at the sudden passing of Cheryl Aronson (z”l). Cheryl was an extraordinary human being and a passionate warrior for the Jewish People and Israel, whose impact on generations of young people, Jewish professionals, colleagues, and friends across the globe is impossible to overstate. The outpouring of love in memorial tributes and on social media honors Cheryl’s memory and teaches us about a life well lived.
Our community has led the way in innovation, Jewish learning, connection to Israel, college campus engagement – think of Me'ah, Boston-Haifa Connection, IACT – and so much more. Cheryl was the driving force behind all of them.
In his moving eulogy, former CJP President and Cheryl's dear friend, Barry Shrage, described Cheryl’s love for Israel and her tireless commitment to inspiring a love of Israel in our next generation: “I don’t know anyone who loved the Jewish People more than her. [Her message to us right now is] ‘Don’t stop [this critical work], don’t forget our brothers and sisters in Israel . . . we are yearning for contact and connection with one another . . . Every one of us has to do whatever we can do to make the dream of mifgash [shared experiences and deep relationships between Americans and Israelis], and of loving and caring about our People, a reality.’”
Cheryl’s unparalleled dedication to the Jewish People was matched only by her boundless kindness, generosity of spirit, and personal relationships with everyone with whom she interacted. At a virtual CJP staff gathering to process this news and support one another, 90 colleagues shared stories and fond memories of how Cheryl touched their lives.
I thought of Cheryl when I read a commentary on the opening lines of this week’s Torah portion. It begins with the instruction for the Israelites to build the mishkan (tabernacle), the portable sanctuary that would travel with them through the wilderness, reminding them that the Divine dwells among them. The building process begins with communal offerings. “God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall bring gifts for Me from every person whose heart moves them [to give].’” (Exodus 25:1-2)
The Hasidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, in his commentary, Sefat Emet, focuses on the phrase “from every person.” It’s the participation of every person that makes this sacred building so powerful and, he suggests, when a person gives or does anything, they should do so with a sense that they are part of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish People). “When a person enters and becomes part of Klal Yisrael,” he writes, “their actions become elevated to God.” He goes on to explain that an essential characteristic of a person like this, who dedicates their life to Klal Yisrael, is that their heart moves them to give of themselves –- to everyone around them and to the greater whole.
This close reading and interpretation creates a powerful connection between the moral, spiritual, and communal dimensions of our actions and our lives. Love of and responsibility for the Jewish People, treating one another with kindness, giving generously of our resources and time, and living a spiritual life, are all integrally connected to one another.
This vision of the sacred building of the mishkan teaches us about how we are to build community, and it beautifully captures the way Cheryl Aronson lived her life and the legacy she leaves. May we carry on that legacy and may her memory be a blessing.
Rabbi 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.