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NOTE: This is Ari Rosenblum’s first column in a series for RCBJ. Rosenblum, Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County, is hoping to create common understanding and foster a sense of shared purpose through the work he does.
If Not Higher
By Ari Rosenblum
In the early 20th century, the well known Yiddish playwright IL Peretz collected stories from Jewish communities across Poland and published his take on many of them. One of these was the story “If Not Higher”. In his version of it, Peretz describes a scoffer and scorner who wonders why the Rabbi of a small shtetl community disappears on the morning of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement – the holiest day of the year, a day of fasting and prayer – every year! The simple townspeople think that he travels to heaven to advocate with the Almighty on their behalf. The skeptic? Not convinced.
The skeptic was determined to find out what he really did so he hid under the rabbi’s bed the night before the holiday. He watched the Rabbi wake and dress in shabby clothes, and then followed him as he slipped out very early and headed to the local forest. Once there, the rabbi went to the home of an invalid, blind, and needy aged woman. He spent the entire day tending her garden, fixing her roof, plowing her small field, washing and mending her clothes.
This look at our own dispositions will help to make Rockland a good place to do business, a place with opportunities to help the vulnerable, and a great place to live.
The Rabbi headed back just as night fell to join his congregation at the conclusion of the fast. One villager saw the skeptic following the rabbi in and asked – “So, did he go up to heaven?”
“Yes,” answered the skeptic. “If not higher!”
Peretz wasn’t writing from a position of great fondness for the religious practices, prayers, and rituals of the religious Jewish community. In fact, having grown up in an observant home, he had left the community, gained a secular education and became an avowed socialist. He was far from an apologist for what he considered an out-of-touch lifestyle.
What Peretz did illuminate were two things: The piety of the rabbi could be demonstrated not only in his year-long study, leadership, and prayer, but also in the nobility of his service to the needy, without fanfare or accolade. Second, he highlighted the role of the skeptic, and indicated that even the most jaded or subjective observer could be moved to greater understanding and empathy.
Recently, Rockland County Business Journal invited me to begin writing a regular column in these pages. I thought about it for a while, and decided that this was an opportunity to inhabit both the observations and conclusions of the outsider or skeptic, who could see the piety, nobility or goodness in each of us. This look at our own dispositions will help to make Rockland a good place to do business, a place with opportunities to help the vulnerable, and a great place to live.
I have the privilege to serve as the Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County. Guided by Jewish ethics, the Federation’s mission calls for collective action, helps the most vulnerable, addresses security needs, strengthens connections to Israel, combats antisemitism, and celebrates the breadth and beauty of Jewish identity, truly bringing Rockland’s community together.
The Jewish community comprises more than 30 percent of Rockland’s population, and it is as internally diverse as Rockland is itself. There are many businesses in Rockland owned and operated by people from all streams of Jewish observance, and many of these people make important contributions to community life across all of Rockland’s towns and villages. I’m getting to know several of them and I hope to share more about them.
One of our key goals at the Federation is to build bridges both within and beyond our community. I intend to continue that effort through my columns here. I operate under no illusions – there are daunting challenges to overcome, there is a dearth of understanding, and not a whole lot of goodwill. But like the skeptic in the story, I will share what I observe and invest in it the idea that we all can and must look for the nobility and goodness among our neighbors if we are to build and sustain a thriving community.
Ari Rosenblum is Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County