Jewish Family Service. Our first name is Jewish. Most people who work here are Jewish. I’m Jewish. I have a Hebrew name, Peretz Nachem. Most people we serve are Jewish. We close for Jewish holidays. Depending on how they fall, 13 in a year. We have a mezuzah affixed to our doorpost. We order kosher food for luncheons. Our mission says, “…We are focused on the needs of the Jewish Community…” Jewish Family Service is a Jewish agency. But what does this really mean?
I asked a colleague what she thought it meant and her reply was, “We are Jewish culturally.” I think that in 2012 that is exactly correct. When you call or walk into Jewish Family Service, for those who can tell the difference, we’re Jewish. It’s inexplicable. We don’t, as a rule, speak Hebrew. We don’t pray together. But we are Jewish. We have the religious, cultural and linguistic sensitivities and competencies to serve Jews. (By the way, our ability to serve people who are Jewish sensitively, I think, makes us great at serving all people sensitively.) Jewish Family Service is a safe place for Jews. It’s trite to state it this simplistically, but it’s important.
I think we need to start doing a better job of figuring out what it means to be Jewish. It’s not okay just to assume we’re Jewish because our name says so.
I was recently at our association’s annual conference and listened to leaders of the Atlanta GA and Berkeley CA JFSes talk about this issue. My takeaways from the session were that it is important to struggle with the issue and that the staff is thirsty for information.
Regarding the first takeaway, I’m not sure what the “struggle” will look like, but I am committed to it. For the second takeaway, I’ll offer a few words on the other reason we’re closed this coming Monday (for those paying attention, it’s coincidental that Shavuos falls this year on Memorial Day).
The festival of Shavuos commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah, and the Ten Commandments, to those assembled at Mount Sinai, more than 3,300 years ago. It occurs on the sixth day of the month of Sivan and is a two day long holiday. To celebrate, many convene for the entire night at synagogue to study Torah. One Shavuos custom mandates that only dairy foods be eaten on the first day of the holiday.
I think it’s really important to know where we come from in order to know who we are. Our first name is Jewish. We’re closed next Monday for Shavuos. I’m named for my mother’s mother’s mother, Pesah Nechama.
We’re not going to pull an all-nighter here next week to read the Torah. That’s not what we’re about. And we’re probably not going to have a blintz-fest either. The way I see the work of Jewish Family Service, and the “tag-line” that dances around my head, is that “We Do Jewish.” Every day, every person who works at Jewish Family Service, in whatever capacity, is the living embodiment of what the Torah instructs us to do. We perform mitzvot (good deeds). We repair the world (Tikkun Olam). In other words, We Do Jewish.
Perry Ohren, CEO