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My Spiritual Journey – From Activism to Study and Back (Part 2)

February 24, 2016
Posted by: Rabbi Doug Kahn, JCRC Executive Director

This is a continuation. For part 1 click here.

I’ve often joked that, in my position as JCRC Executive Director, being a rabbi means much more in the non-Jewish community than the Jewish community. The fact is that the training and the knowledge have been very valuable. I was particularly struck when we did our first JCRC strategic plan 15 years ago and our consultant said, “What are the Jewish values that inform JCRC’s work?” We – like most in our field – had never made them explicit.

But after that we did. From “all human beings are created in the image of God,” which commands our engagement in movements for civil rights, including same-sex civil marriage, and international human rights, from Bosnia to Kosovo, to the Talmudic requirement of “mipnei darchei shalom” – that we must help non-Jews along with Jews for the sake of peace (really for the sake of good neighborly relations…a reminder that on a good day we are two percent of the population and we amplify our voice, our concerns by reaching out to others).

When I look back at 34 years I am amazed at the number of issues I have been able to be engaged in on behalf of our community (with phenomenal help from our lay and professional leadership – including from my predecessor and mentor, Rita Semel, and from my successor, Abby Porth):

-Soviet Jewry
-Sharing the complex and remarkable Israeli society
-Civil Discourse
-Same sex civil marriage
-Preserving the right of circumcision of minors
-Working with Holocaust survivors – living testimony
-Immigration reform
-Literacy
-International human rights
-Civil rights
-Anti-Semitism and bigotry in any form

Some mornings I wake up and think of how proud I am for what we’ve accomplished. Some days I wake up and say “what have I done?” We have so far to go to achieve Tikkun Olam.

My spiritual journey has been enormously enriched by my interfaith experiences, many of which I could never have dreamed of. From global conferences of URI in Myapur, India, to a Jewish-Christian human rights conference in still-communist Russia to standing side by side with my interfaith colleagues countless times in support of justice. So many moving moments…it is true, some of my assignments were a result of Rita still telling me what to do…but thank God she did, and I found my own voice within the interfaith environment.

There are countless issues where we have achieved great gains. I often say that as Jews we are terrible at proclaiming victory (e.g. the Soviet Jewry movement was an astonishing victory). We are on to the next crisis. But the reality is we have achieved so much. And, at the same time, I worry I worry about resurgent anti-Semitism, I worry about Israel and its place in the interfaith arena, I worry about the polarization in American society including in the Bay Area, and I worry about the persistence of so many social ills in the world’s most affluent large nation.

Since I mentioned my worry about Israel I want to put it out there. I was born in 1950, two years after the modern State of Israel. For nearly 2000 years the Jewish people had been powerless with fatal consequences – from ghettos to pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust. I feel privileged to have grown up at a time that has witnessed the rebirth of the Jewish State. At the same time, I resonate to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s extraordinary statement about Israel of today. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Jewish power must be exercised morally.” And then he added: “And there is no morality in Jewish powerlessness.”

For those of us who strive for a two-state solution, to end the suffering of both the Israeli and Palestinian people, there are no easy paths to get there – and it will take longer than any of us ever thought. I am not here today to discuss the politics, but I will say that the more Israel is isolated, the more it will reinforce the sense of the abandonment of the Jews and the risks that will need to be taken will be less forthcoming. My engagement with Israel throughout my adult life is inseparable from the rest of my spiritual journey.

So when I retire in June there will surely be much unfinished business. And that’s what a journey, including a spiritual journey probably should entail – a sense of profound fulfillment, gratitude for so many relationships, and appreciation of the work still to be done. As Rita has so often done, I will quote Rabbi Tarfon, also from the Talmud – “It is not incumbent upon us to complete the task but neither are we free to desist from our share of the work.”

I want to leave you with my favorite Chassidic Tale – a reminder that though I seldom talk about God in my work, preserving God’s creation and uplifting all human beings is at the core of what motivates me and all of us every day.

A rabbi asks his students how they can tell when the night has ended and the day has begun: “Could it be,” one asked, “when you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” No, answered the rabbi. Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No again,” replied the rabbi. “Then what is it?” the pupils demanded. The sage answer, “it is when you can look at the face of any man or woman or child and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

Let us work together so that the night will end and a new day will dawn when we can truly see everyone as our brother and sister.

Originally delivered as a speech during the San Francisco Interfaith Council Monthly Breakfast on February 11, 2016.