In decades to come, we will look back on 2020 as a watershed moment. The COVID-19 pandemic has already changed so much. We are in the midst of a public health crisis, an economic crisis, a race crisis, a law and order crisis, the ripples of which have been felt around the world. To rebuild what we have lost will take at least a decade, and the effects will last at least a generation.
Within our community, too many families will be heading into the Yamim Noraim having tragically lost loved ones. Many of our communal organisations have suffered. For Birthright Israel, whose work is focused on physically bringing young adults to experience Israel, it has been particularly challenging.
Since its founding in 1999, Birthright Israel has been, perhaps, the greatest single innovation in Jewish life in the past quarter century. Over 750,000 young Jews have made a life changing trip to Israel, the result of which has been a deepening of their Jewish identity through a strengthening of their links to the land, the State and the people of Israel, and a renewed sense of their place within the global Jewish people. It is a remarkable and outstanding achievement.
Yet, despite this success, too many young Jews are still choosing to walk away from Judaism. They see an inherent conflict between engaging with their heritage and faith, and engaging with the world, when in reality none should exist. That is the fault of us all. It is really bad news. It hurts. So how can we, Jewish leaders and organisations like Birthright Israel, do more to demonstrate the value of Judaism to young Jews in the increasingly challenging and complex world they are growing up in?
Today, it seems as though our lives are run by algorithms. I don’t exactly understand what an algorithm is or how it works, but I do know that Israel has developed most of them! How is it that Judaism has stood the test of time? And how can it inspire us today? What is the Jewish algorithm?
Look through Jewish history and you will notice one thing: we are a super-resilient people. The more pressure we’ve been under, the stronger we’ve become. If you need an example of this look no further than the State and the people of Israel. It is not only the Start-Up nation, but the Super-Resilient nation. Every day for the past 72 years, Israel has faced, and faced down, constant threats to its existence. The more pressure she has faced, the stronger she has become. If you want Jewish children to really understand the life-transforming power of resilience, you need to bring them to Israel.
In Israel the Jewish people don’t just survive, but thrive. We’ve always used tragedy as the impulse for new creativity. The national anthem of the State of Israel is “Hatikvah“ which means “The Hope”. There are many elements to the Jewish algorithm, but at its heart is one fundamental idea: the super-resilient ability to turn tragedy into hope. Right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, this sense of being part of a people whose story and identity is one defined by super-resilience and hope is the greatest gift we can give our children, and one they desperately need.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah readings are not about the creation of the world as one might expect. Rather, they focus on the miraculous birth of two children, Isaac to Sarah and Samuel to Hannah, because children are our deepest investment in the future. That is why Birthright Israel is so important: because it is making the deepest investment in the Jewish future. The world may take a long time to recover from a turbulent 2020, but I am confident that because of Birthright Israel, we are ensuring the next generation of Jewish people are not just proud of who they are, but super-resilient and hopeful about what the future holds.
I wish you all Shana Tova U’metukah. May 5781 be a year of blessing and health for us and for the world.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a respected international faith leader, philosopher, moral voice and author of over 30 books, the latest of which – Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times – was published on September 1, 2020. You can learn more with him on social media (@RabbiSacks) or join his free mailing list at www.RabbiSacks.org/Subscribe.