15 January 2021
I started writing this reflection two weeks ago. After watching what unfolded on January 6, however, I chose to set this draft aside and focus on the historic and heartbreaking events at the U.S. Capitol. This original topic, however, now strikes me as even more relevant—and that is the value of spending time reading the words that make us think. Indeed, I found that 2020—and now 2021—gave rise to important and often beautiful pieces about our country and our community, and what we can do to shape a better future for them both.
I was inspired to reflect on the things I have read by The New York Times columnist David Brooks who, at the end of each year, selects a handful of long-from essays to receive his “Sidney Awards.” The honor is meant to acknowledge great writing in an era of intense punditry and noise, and call attention to articles that might help us see the world differently and, perhaps, more clearly.
For me, one such article came from American Enterprise Institute’s Dr. Yuval Levin. On election day, Levin wrote about starting local when it comes to restoring civil society: “At the heart of our pervasive crisis of alienation are widespread failures of responsibility, deep-seated cultural divisions and a deadly dearth of solidarity. Such challenges can seem impossibly immense when we look at our country from the top down. No president could resolve them, no Congress could address them. But from the bottom up, there are more opportunities to take them on.” I wonder what strides we could make if we each prioritized building the kinds of relationships that would help to mend the ruptures in our country.
These themes came up in the Jewish community, as well. In a thoughtful piece for JTA, Shalom Hartman Institute scholar Dr. Mijal Bitton wrote about how we must account for and honor our varied political leanings: “Our current Jewish communal efforts toward understanding our diverse community overlook conservative-leaning Jews from minority groups. We have learned how to check off diversity requirements without making space for ideological difference.” I was also inspired by an interview that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, gave about his last book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. One of his main messages was how we must take advantage of Judaism’s unique ability to balance individualistic and collectivist tendencies in a way that allows people and communities to flourish.
Like many of you, I spent 2020 consuming large quantities of utilitarian public health and election updates and refreshed my news apps more than I care to admit. This content kept me informed, but it was the longform pieces that kept me thinking. If you also found this to be the case, I hope you will reply to this email with links to your favorite articles from this past year—or even this past week. Perhaps they are relevant to Jewish communal life or perhaps they are on an entirely different topic, like this contemplative look at winter.
Whatever the case may be, I hope you will send me the articles that stand out to you—and continue to do so throughout 2021—so that we may all benefit from the words that compel us to move ahead with humility and intention.
Shabbat Shalom and looking forward to reading your submissions,