Civic Discourse, Not Civil War: A Message from Federation CEO Gil Preuss

With Chanukah’s approach, I’ve been giving some thought to the true origins of the holiday, and how they mirror some of the challenges we face as a society today. The holiday hoopla of dreidels, jelly donuts, potato latkes and presents masks the dark secret of the holiday’s history. While it is true that the Maccabees miraculously restored Jewish sovereignty to Judaea and cleansed Jerusalem from foreign cultural subjugation, the actual catalyst for losing Jewish independence and religious freedom was an out of control Jewish civic debate on religious/cultural identity and loyalty. Talk and debate turned into violence. Sinat Chinam, senseless internal hatred, tore the community apart and led to civil war.

Chanukah’s historical cautionary tale of civil unrest feels particularly poignant this year. A recent Pew research poll discovered that 31 percent of adults “will be intentionally avoiding political conversations with family and friends” over the holidays. While it is normal human behavior to avoid conflict, what is the cost in saying to family and friends, “pass the latkes but hold the opinions?” As one couple responded to the Pew study, “we can keep it civil when it’s just us,” but, “I’m not sure if the rest of the family can.” Do we avoid the hard conversations? Do we retreat from “the family?” Can we no longer engage in conversation on issues that really matter?

I’m hopeful that our answer, as a Jewish community, will be that we choose to fully engage with one another in honest reflection, open discourse and as active listeners. I have had many enlightening conversations over the past few months as CEO of The Jewish Federation and have learned a great deal about our shared aspirations. We hope to build a more inclusive, engaged, caring and vibrant community; one that comes together and addresses the most critical issues and challenges both locally and in broader American society. One that cares for the vulnerable and believes that we can build a better society for the future.  We aspire to serve as a national model for what it means to be a Jewish community of meaning and purpose, where all members of the community can engage. These are goals we can all agree are important, even if we don’t always agree on how to accomplish them.

It is towards that end, towards building a Jewish community that reflects our hopes and dreams, that Federation’s Board of Directors has approved the launch of a strategic planning process to begin in February 2018 and be completed by September 2018.

This process is designed to build on our strengths, address challenges and move us forward as a community to define and create our collective future. We are seeking to bring many new voices and perspectives into the conversation. We will embrace the chance to ask ourselves hard questions about what we do and how we do it. We will reimagine what is possible if we work together differently, harnessing our collective strengths to fulfill our highest aspirations for making this world a better place for our children and grandchildren.

The hallmark for this process will be transparency, inclusion and adherence to the highest and menschlich (human) rules of debate. We recognize the various facets of truth held by this diverse community and aspire to listen carefully and respectfully to all opinions.

I invite you to join me in determining how, together, we can ensure the continued growth and vibrancy of our community. What is our vision for the Jewish community? What are our hopes and dreams? How do we come together to achieve this vision? What unique role can Federation play in strengthening the Jewish community and the community in which we live? Over the coming months, there will be several opportunities to answer these questions.

As we contemplate our approach to these questions as stakeholders of our broader Jewish community, we might consider the two Hebrew words for argument. One is vikuach, from the Hebrew root for proof. Vikuach is a debate in which the weight of proof on either side indicates a winner and a loser. The other is machloket, which comes from the Hebrew root chelek, meaning a piece of a whole. In this discourse, each side tacitly accepts that their own opinion is simply a part of something larger; that the other person’s point of view is another part of that same whole, but perhaps from a different vantage point. Perhaps we should attempt to keep most of our debates within the realm of machloket, where all sides are understood as having portions of truth.

You may know that the way to light the Chanukah menorah was the subject of intense debate by the Schools of Hillel and Shammai. These two sages were known to engage in machloket, but the disagreements were known as “arguments for the sake of heaven.” What made their debates acts of sacred engagement was that, “even though this school would permit something, and that school would forbid something, they did not refrain from eating together… and each school married spouses from the other school.” The Talmud reminds us that they acted towards each other with respect, realizing that, “these words (opinions) and those are the words of the living God.”

For Judaism to be relevant and meaningful, for it to be a living entity that morphs and refreshes itself, it must be debated and analyzed with vigor AND humility. In that spirit, the sages of the Talmud decided that Hillel’s way of lighting the menorah should be the standard. The reason included the perception that increasing light every day is a powerful symbol for knowledge and freedom.

May all our family and friends be party to the increase in light through celebration and debates for the sake of heaven. I look forward to engaging with – and listening to – each of you in the coming year to determine together how we may spread our light throughout Greater Washington.

Wishing you and yours a Shabbat Shalom and a very Happy Chanukah,