Public health: a pillar of Jewish service

By Joshua Yudkin

The locus where Jewish communal work and public health intersect is steeped in rich dialogue and history. Be it chanting the iconic Mi Sheberach prayer (prayer for the sick) and fulfilling the mitzvah of visiting the sick or less-known biblical teachings about personal hygiene and mitzvot regarding injury prevention, public health has been an inherent part of the Jewish tradition for millennia. In fact, at times, Jewish communal work and public health are frequently synonymous. Often employing different methodologies, these fields share similar values and outcomes, leading to a natural and untapped synergy. 

While Jewish education and worship are critical pillars of Jewish life, Jewish communal work transcends these pillars and is, at its core, about sustaining life and building resilience. When we look across the 20th century, there are countless examples of Jewish community organizing and leadership focused on lifesaving operations — to rescue Jews during and after the Holocaust, support Russian Jews leaving the Soviet Union, airlift Ethiopian and Yemenite Jews to Israel and aid Israelis in building sufficient and safe infrastructure — to name just a few. Recent events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the extreme winter weather across Texas highlight this synergy and its relevance. Through prioritizing our community’s most vulnerable, promoting access to diverse services and wellness for the entire community and partnering with the greater community in which we exist, we create a healthier and more resilient collective.

Ralph Goldman, an archetypal visionary and Jewish leader of the 20th century, affirmed, “There is a single Jewish world, intertwined, interconnected.” While many interpret his quotation to speak to the Jewish community, I believe Ralph was referring to the way in which, as Jews, we see the world. 

Ralph’s success is largely due to his profound understanding of the way in which the Jewish community interacts with and leads the greater communities and community in which we exist. True Jewish leadership transcends race, creed and ethnicity.

There is a famous quotation by Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In this commonly cited part of the quotation, the paramount importance of self-advocacy and actualization as both an individual and community is articulated. The next sentence that is often forgotten reads, “And being only for myself, what am I?” Here, we are reminded of the inherent intertwined and interconnected nature of humanity. It affirms that, through emergence, we collectively can have a stronger and more sustainable impact than if we act alone. 

It is for this reason that I co-founded JUST Conversations as part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). The firsthand leadership training and development, impactful experience and lasting relationships that form when diverse community leaders come together for the purpose of learning together, listening to one another and identifying common ground lead to collective and sustainable change that cultivates and sustains a healthy collective. Therefore, JUST Conversation’s next gathering will focus on public health issues in Dallas and exploring what type of collective action may help holistically address these concerns. 

Many of us have, more acutely, experienced the uncertainty, stress, disease and death that has plagued our world over this past year. From tornadoes to pandemics to winter storms, our Dallas community has weathered significant recent hardship. In such a world where normal is undefined, it is so easy to turn inward and stay insular out of fear. However, we must fight the urge to be closed and stay open — this is the Jewish way. The fabric of Jewish identity is built around communal activity. From every simcha to each sorrow, we come together — be it in person or virtually — to support each other. Like Jewish leadership, this Jewish teaching transcends race, creed and ethnicity. The Jewish way is to stay open, build partnerships and take collective action so that we are stronger together.

Excellent Jewish communal leadership has never just reactively responded to public health concerns just as evidence-based public health methodologies do not propagate a solely reactive response to public health emergencies. Strong Jewish and public health leadership continually engage in surveillance and planning that includes diverse stakeholders, including those marginalized within our community. Strong Jewish leadership takes places when Jewish leaders have a seat at the table to advocate both for our own community (employing the fullest definition of Jewish peoplehood) and the greater community’s needs. Effective Jewish leadership must be intertwined and interconnected with the leadership of other communities to build a stronger and healthier collective for all. 

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. 

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