Since last August, when I began my term as CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, I have enjoyed getting to know hundreds and hundreds of people in the community. The dedication and passion I’ve witnessed for the future of Jewish Greater Washington is truly awe-inspiring. When I meet someone new, I like to ask them to share what they see as the best of the Jewish community with just one word. It’s a tough question to answer, and I’ve certainly struggled to answer it myself — there’s a lot to say about this community! But when pushed to answer with just one word, people in our community are amazingly consistent.
While the words may vary, I have heard six themes time and time again in my conversations with members of the Greater Washington Jewish community.
The first word is connection — a sense of belonging to something larger and to other people. We have always counted on it to sustain us and make our lives richer. People spoke about how they felt supported when times were tough and how that support elevated them to ever greater possibilities. No matter what, we need to strengthen our connections to each other knowing that each individual is a vital part of who we are as a collective.
The second word is meaning. There are lots of organizations that do amazing things. As a Jewish community, we must imbue our actions with a clarity of mission, purpose and even moral power. People are looking not only for personal connections but an understanding that we are part of something larger. That raises the stakes for what we do and creates the expectation that we do it a certain way. We must never lose sight of that.
The third word is impact. We achieve many things together which would elude us if we tried to do them on our own. That’s the power of social change through organized action. One sentiment that I hear repeatedly is, “when we work together, we can solve problems nobody else can solve.” That’s an amazing power — and we must invest our time and resources in strengthening that power.
The fourth is rootedness. We are grounded and committed to our heritage. Our legacy as a people draws from a story that sweeps from the time of Abraham and Sarah to the present. It is a story that provides us with heroes, values and examples that inspire us to do greater things than we thought possible. Affirming our roots and understanding where we come from is a way of identifying where to go next.
The fifth is relevancy. This seems to stand in contrast to the word just above, and perhaps sometimes it does — but it’s not in opposition to it. People talk about how they have made Judaism and Jewishness come alive for themselves and in our community. They are creating new ways to build Jewish life that is responsive to the demands that life places on them. That’s a good thing to keep in mind, because any community or organization that sees its work as finished is finished.
The final word is leadership. As a community, we don’t always agree on the best way to lead ourselves forward, or on a common vision for who and what we should be. Nevertheless, people consistently talk about the importance of leadership in shaping who we are today. How do we discuss the big issues facing Jewish life in the 21st century? How do we collectively build the community we want? How can we most effectively establish a platform for the necessary conversations so that we can work together in the areas where there is common vision? That’s hard to do, but if we don’t do it, who will?
These themes form, in my mind, a constellation of north stars — the ideas that should guide our thinking and our conversations. We may find ourselves nodding more vigorously to some of these than to others, but we can’t ignore any of them. And I hope that as we continue the work of envisioning our future together, we always listen to each other, respectfully and in the hope that we can build something great every day.
I continue to be intrigued, inspired and driven in my work by these common aspirations shared with me by our community members, and our team at the Jewish Federation takes seriously our responsibility to implement our community’s vision.
That’s why Federation launched a Strategic Planning process two months ago, to explore where we are today as a community, where we want to go and the role of the Federation in moving us towards that point.
As a core part of this process, we have been focused on hearing from our entire community. We have seen encouraging participation in our town halls, online survey and stakeholder-hosted community forums. If you haven’t already made your voice heard, there’s still time to do so.
I look forward to building the community to which we aspire together with each of you, and hope you’ll participate in the process.
Gil Preuss is the chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. A version of this message originally appeared in the Jewish Federation’s newsletter, Federation 5.