During my beautiful – smaller this year because of COVID-19 – Rosh Hashanah celebration with my husband, our family and friends, I was thinking about you and all of our supporters. I was thinking how grateful I am for you and all who sincerely wish to do good in the world, upholding our deep and eternal belief in repairing our truly broken world. I don’t know how I or my team at AJWS could have done our work last year or could plan now for the coming year without you.
We find ourselves now in the “Days of Awe,” as they are called, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and they are especially meaningful to me. Every year, these ten days offer me the opportunity to reflect on who I am, what I’m doing that’s meaningful in my life and how I can do better. And I know the opportunity of these days is meaningful to you and our AJWS community because they allow us to reflect on the good deeds we have done in these perilous times with rightful pride. And yet, these Days of Awe are designed to keep us humble and to be open to thinking about how we can do more, or do things differently, to ensure that we and all people thrive in a more just world.
In that spirit, I have been reflecting on ancient Jewish teachings about being written into the “Book of Life.” What kind of behavior did our ancestors believe would merit our inclusion? What more would they think we could do today or could have done in the past? Whether or not each of us in our AJWS community believes in a Book of Life, we all embrace the core human and Jewish desire of being better, doing better and creating and living in a better world. After all, that’s why we are members of the AJWS community — to lift up our arms in labor as Jews to create a world in which justice prevails and in which every person’s dignity is upheld.
We believe that these ten meaningful days are days of communal reflection. Just as our ancestors taught that the Book of Life is open during these special days, so do we believe that the Gates of Justice are open. As a community, let’s reflect on what we have done and can do to keep the Gates of Justice open for all.
Let’s keep the Gates of Justice open so that no one is hungry, without meaningful work or living without their full human dignity.
Let’s keep the Gates of Justice open so that we know hate no more, based on a person’s skin color, culture, ethnicity, religious or political beliefs, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, disability or any other characteristic.
Let’s keep the Gates of Justice open so that those are who are suffering from catastrophes are cared for justly and equitably, whether they are living with the damage wrought by earthquakes and pandemics or the horrific fires and flooding resulting from our increasingly deadly climate crisis.
Let’s keep the Gates of Justice open so that everyone who wants to lift their arms in labor to build a better world has the opportunity to do so, especially those who are most directly affected by injustice.
As we strive to keep the Gates of Justice open, we must reach beyond ourselves to achieve justice for all.
Reaching beyond ourselves and our own community is all the more powerful at this challenging time and requires the wisdom to believe that a world that is better for others is also better for us and those we love.
When we are understandably concerned for our own health in the midst of a deadly pandemic, we reach beyond ourselves to ensure the health for all.
When we are concerned about our own society, our democracy and our desire to live inclusively and equitably here in the United States, we reach beyond ourselves to uphold democratic rights, inclusion and equity everywhere.
As I ready myself for Yom Kippur, I am pondering how I can do more at a time of human desperation unlike any in recent memory. How can I be more effective? How can I be even more resilient in the face of increasing suffering and inequity?
In that spirit, I hope that you’ll reflect on your role in creating a better world. Let each of ask: What can we do differently? How can we be even more open to justice? How can we be more effective in building a better world? What can we do to keep up our strength as we see fights for justice become harder by the day? How can we sustain ourselves and others in the face of the worsening global economic divide, pandemic disease, the climate catastrophe, resurgent racism and hatred, attacks on democracy and deadly terrorism?
While we each have our personal work to do in our lives, this is our work as a community. As I think of the year ahead, I know it will be better because of you. Without my belief in you and our shared values, I know my work would be immeasurably harder and my life less rich.
Robert Bank is President and CEO of American Jewish World Service, the leading Jewish organization working to promote human rights in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.. Robert has spent his career championing human rights as an attorney, activist and leader. He joined AJWS as Executive Vice President in 2009 and previously served in New York’s municipal government and in the leadership of GMHC—one of the world’s leading organizations combatting HIV/AIDS. Robert has been honored with GMHC’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Partners in Justice Award from AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.