By Joshua Yudkin
Holidays are tools that demarcate time, and perhaps the greatest gift Judaism has given to the world. Regardless of how you may choose to observe or celebrate holidays, they provide us with purpose and a way to measure time.
As we conclude the Jewish year 5782 and begin 5783, who have we celebrated? For whom have we mourned? What have we accomplished? What setbacks or challenges have we faced? What do we want to achieve in 5783?
From rising antisemitism to hostage situations in synagogues, our community faces significant threats and challenges from outside. Yet, perhaps more difficult to acknowledge, our community also faces challenges of inclusion and acceptance from within. Interfaith Jewish families, Jews who chose to be Jewish at a later point in life, Jews who may have different phenotypic characteristics, Jews with different sexual preferences, Jews who may be differently abled and Jews who may connect with Judaism and the Jewish community differently than you are often met with judgment and experience exclusion. To provide some context, Avraham Infeld, perhaps one of the greatest Jewish thought leaders of our time, has repeatedly emphasized how “Judaism is not a religion,” although it [Judaism] may have a religion.
Whether we look in the Torah or later writings by Rabbi Akiva, the Jewish teaching, “Ve-ahavta le-re’acha kamocha,” to love your neighbor [fellow man] as yourself, is central in leading a Jewish life and building a Jewish community. But what does it mean “to love”?
Emotions researcher Barbara Fredrickson shares that love permeates everyday interactions with others and is the basis for building and strengthening relationships. Texas professor Brené Brown affirms that love is not given or gotten, but rather it is nurtured and cultivated when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known. In Hebrew, the word for love, ahava, comes from the Aramaic word hav, which means to give. The Kabbalah teaches that God created the world because love needs another to love.
With love, we can belong. We can belong to ourselves and to others. We can belong to our immediate Jewish community; to Am Yisrael, the greater Jewish community; and to B’nei Israel, all of humanity. Love is the tool we use for community development. Love leads to belonging, and belonging empowers us as individuals and a community to self-actualize. To be the best version of ourselves. To leave the world a better place than we found it. To rise in holiness. In her most recent book, “The Atlas of the Heart,” Brené Brown writes that true belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.
Without love, we cannot belong, and when we don’t belong, we suffer from loneliness. As I am an epidemiologist, it would be very remiss of me to not share this data from a meta-analysis: Living with air pollution increases your odds of dying early by 5%; living with obesity, by 20%; but living with loneliness, by 45%. In other words, by ensuring that all members of our community experience authentic love and belonging, we are, in many ways, fulfilling the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, of saving a human life.
As Elul, the month of reflection, has come to an end, and Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish year 5783, has come and gone, I wonder how we can cultivate love and facilitate true belonging for our entire community.
Shanah tovah umetukah im ahava, with love.
Joshua Yudkin currently serves as an executive committee member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and is a co-founder of JUST Conversations. He is an epidemiologist by training who was recently awarded a Fulbright research grant and works at the intersection of community building and public health.