A month ago, Jewish families around the world could be found sitting together at their tables and celebrating one of our most important holidays: Pesach. We are all familiar with the smells and memories that a seder brings. We are also all familiar with the family members who attend our seder. Some we love dearly, some we love less. Some share our values, some do not. Some make us feel good and important, and some make us uncomfortable. But we are all there together celebrating not only the pivotal moment of the formation of the Jewish people, but we also are there celebrating Jewish family, Jewish community. We are there around that table to proclaim that we are one family, one community. We have been here for the past thousands of years and we will be here for the next thousands of years celebrating and honoring our heritage, religion, values and community.
This sense of one community is so important and is so embedded in the celebration of the seder that the editors of the seder (our Rabbis) decided that they had to teach us the sense of community building in the Haggadah text itself. Here we have the Four Sons. We are all familiar with them.
One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple and one does not know to ask. They are all there. They are all sitting at the table. They are all engaging each other and learning from each other. Maybe at times they argue with each other. But they are all there. That is what community is about – that is what family is about.
Some texts add a fifth child. The fifth child represents the child who has drifted so far from Jewish life that they do not participate in a seder.
As the CEO of the East Valley JCC, I had the honor to participate at the celebration luncheon held May 10 by the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix. The luncheon was a community celebration honoring the 12 Jewish organizations that have, for the past year, taken part in the Life and Legacy program promoted by the Grinspoon Foundation and JCF. This wonderful program ensures a strong future for the Jewish community by promoting legacy building. Each participating organization that secured at least 25 legacy commitments over the past year was awarded a $10,000 grant.
We were all there sitting together – professional and lay leaders, temples and schools, JCCs and the Federation, organizations that help the poor and organizations that help college students, organizations that help to maintain a strong connection to our past and organizations that help us build a strong future. We were all there – unaffiliated Jews and affiliated Jews, Reform rabbis and Conservative rabbis, Jews who believe and maybe even Jews who do not believe. We were all there because we are one community. One family.
And then I turned around and I saw that a member of our family was missing – there was not even one Orthodox organization. I turned around again, and I started to count. We were missing a family member, and I started to cry.
We were missing a family member, but we continued to celebrate. There was not one Orthodox school, synagogue or organization around the table celebrating Jewish unity and continuity.
There are at least 20, if not more, Orthodox organizations and institutions in Greater Phoenix, and not one of them was sitting at the table. Not one of them saw it as their duty to be a part of the greater Jewish community. I asked why, and the answer I received was that none of the Orthodox organizations decided to apply. (I was informed that one did apply but the application was incomplete and another was not organizationally ready.)
And all those times I’ve heard Orthodox rabbis speak about Jewish unity flashed through my mind. Is Jewish unity important only in theory?
Jewish unity is not only teaching Torah to unaffiliated Jews. Jewish unity is not only lighting a big hannukiah in a public space. Jewish unity is when we work together and help each other because we are all Jews.
The Life and Legacy program offered by the Jewish Community Foundation is an awesome moment of Jewish unity that was missed by the Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders in Greater Phoenix.
We can choose our friends, but we cannot choose our family.
To my Orthodox brothers and sisters – there are plenty of empty seats with your names on them. You were missed today. I missed you today. Your family needs you, and I hope you will choose to join our community in the future. You were the fifth child today. You were the missing child today.
Rabbi Michael Beyo is the CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center. Rabbi Beyo is an Orthodox rabbi.