Rosh Hashanah 5706 was a time to reflect on the end of World War II and the cost of the Holocaust. Rosh Hashanah 5709 was a time to celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel. Rosh Hashanah 5726 was a time for Jews to dedicate themselves to the civil-rights movement in the wake of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Rosh Hashanah 5728 was a time to meditate on the meaning of the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. And Rosh Hashanah 5762 was a time to reflect on the terrorist attacks that occurred eight days before the beginning of the Hebrew year.
And so, in this context, what meaning should we apply to Rosh Hashanah 5784?
It is a year, after all, that will include the struggle for the Republican presidential nomination and the two major-party nominating conventions. It is a year when the conflict in Ukraine will end, or intensify, or be rendered an impasse. It is a year when the United States once again must reckon with the uncertainties growing out of COVID-19. It is a year when Israel must confront the possibilities, or the limits, of its democracy.
All those things are on offer for the new year. Rosh Hashanah always is a time for reflection (about the year past, about our own lives, about the state of our country) and a time for rededication (to the principles of Judaism, to the precepts of the Bible’s instructions for proper conduct, about our relationships in our families and our communities). All that is true in 5784.
But please permit me the columnist’s prerogative of offering my own notion. I believe 5784 is a time for filling in.
By filling in, I am not talking about substitution – though there are many readers who would like to substitute for Joe Biden and Donald Trump as the election furies continue unabated. I am also not talking about backfilling – this is a year to look ahead, not backwards, to imagine a future different from the past, and especially different from the recent past, which offers us little inspiration.
Filling in. By that I am talking about filling in the empty holes left by COVID, a dispiriting political scene, deaths from drug overdoses, and deficits in the sort of inspiration, ambition and confidence that have always been part of the American spirit.
We need to fill in the emptiness in our lives as a result of the pandemic, the emptiness in our downtown storefronts as a result of changing patterns of work and commerce, the emptiness in our synagogues, the emptiness in our sense of optimism.
One place to start is with young people, traditionally a source of confidence about the future, optimism about the world they are determined to create, and energy as they move through our institutions, including our synagogues.
“I’m thinking a lot about Jewish community life and how patterns have been disrupted by the pandemic,” Yael Splansky, the senior rabbi at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple and president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, told me the other afternoon. “The younger generation lost a lot of time and experiences. We can’t win that time back, but we have to redouble our efforts to draw in the next generation.”
They’ve missed a lot. B’nai Mitzvahs. In-person religious instruction. Summer-camp experiences. Field trips. A sense of community based in youth groups and temple outings. Time to fill in.
Every report from education experts speaks to the gaping holes in young people’s educational backgrounds and intellectual outlooks. It isn’t only that math and reading scores of American 13-year-olds reached the lowest level in decades, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The Center for School and Student Progress report issued this summer had even more sobering news: In almost every grade, the rate of progress of American students was far lower than in pre-pandemic times, with the average student 4.1 months behind ordinary levels in reading and 4.5 months behind in math – and the gap is widening.
There can be little doubt that this pattern has been replicated in Jewish schools – the learning of Hebrew, the exposure to the history of the Jews, the examination of customs, holidays and observance. Time to fill in.
Now we come to the difficult subject of Jews’ relationship with Israel.
This has seldom been in doubt; pollsters recognize that American Jews’ support of Israel has been extremely stable. In 1971, for example, 95 percent of American Jews advocated continued diplomatic and military support of Israel, according to the Newsweek/Gallup Poll. Tracking that is difficult, but half a century later in 2021, 83 percent of American Jews said they were emotionally attached to Israel, according to the Pew Research Center.
Emotionally attached, to be sure. But we can also be sure that many American Jews are emotionally troubled about Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision of Israeli democracy and the place of Palestinians in contemporary Israel. The relationship with American Jews is a vital part of the Jewish state. These tensions must be resolved – and as Hillel said, if not now, when?
There are other areas that must be filled in. Synagogue seats may be one of them, though an increasing number of newly ordained rabbis, themselves affected by the pandemic and changing demographics, are questioning the primacy that synagogue attendance and membership traditionally have had in the United States. Time to fill in.
And now the emptiness that so many feel, not only at the holidays – when that emptiness sometimes feels deepest – but throughout this era as well. It is an emptiness of the spirit, fostered by the emptiness that seems to pervade the era. The task of filling this in belongs to all of us. Let’s make it our new year’s resolution. Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.