"ובִמְקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִיש"ׁ
במשנה במסכת אבות, פרק ב' משנה ה
Hillel said... “And in a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.”
Pirke Avot 2:5
Last week, I wrote about a meeting with a remarkable leader in Israel, one who is standing up and speaking out against what are popular positions in some quarters but are destructive to the well being of the Jewish People both in Israel and abroad. Despite knowing that his opinions were anathema to many in his party, this individual chose to put the needs of Clal Yisrael above petty sectoral and fundamentalist interests. He knew that staking out such positions publicly would bring difficult times for him and for his family yet he felt that he had no choice - in a place where people were not behaving humanly, he had to strive to be human.
One of the classic interpretations of the section of Pirke Avot quoted above understands this statement to refer to teaching Torah. In other words, in a place where people are not or are unwilling to teach Torah, strive to be the teacher. Others, based on the context where the word appears throughout Torah, איש (person) to refer to the acts of tzaddikim. The רשב”ץ, Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Doron (Algeria, 1361-1444) wrote explicitly that Hillel’s statement meant:
“In a place where nobody is willing to stand in the breach and take care of the needs of the community, strive to be the person who does, even if it means taking a break from studying the words of Torah.”
For the רשב”ץ, stepping up when others do not or will not, either to lead or to care for the needs of the community or the needs of individuals, is paramount. It is the embodiment of what it means both to be human and to be created in the Divine Image we strive to imitate.
Throughout my visit to Israel, I met examples of people stepping up to meet the needs of the community, especially in areas where those needs were not being met. I reconnected with Elana Bekerman Frank. Elana worked at Ramah Darom the first summer of the camp and several subsequent summers. She and her husband recently made Aliyah and she serves as the Director of Development for Kfar Hassidim, a branch of Kfar HaNoar HaDati, a youth village near Carmiel. Working with CEO Beni Hadad, Elana is improving the physical facilities of the village and funding for its programs while Beni works to make life better for the the students, to provide them with hope for the future, and to inspire them to change the world. The students at Kfar Hassidim, mostly the children of immigrant families from Russia and Ethiopia, come from difficult family situations. They are joined by other students during the day because the school has excellent programs in education. Beni, Elana, the faculty and the staff are working hard to make a good place and a good life for these exceptional students. They are stepping into the breach because it has to be done. Kol HaKavod!
On Thursday, I visited a program called Shutaf, literally “Partner.” Shutaf was created by our friend Beth Steinberg, as a day camp and, during the school year an after-school program, for children with special needs. One of her sons has such needs and there was no program appropriate for him. Beth quickly realized that there were others like her son looking for such a program. In the summer, Camp Shutaf is made up of approximately 75% children with special needs and 25% typical campers. They are together. They learn from each other. They play. They have fun. And all boundaries between people disappear. I watched the afternoon program which meets at the Natural History Museum in Jerusalem, just off of Emek Refaim, behind one of my favorite bakeries, Pe’er. The smell of challot and baking bread, of cookies and rugelah waft through the air as we walk to watch the program. What was happening here socially, intellectually, and on all levels was nothing short of extraordinary. Beth and her friends, all of the staff and the volunteers are changing the world. They are striving to be human, to lead, in places where far too few are willing. And Beth and I started talking about ways that Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and Shutaf could partner in the future.
Standing in the Shuk Mahane Yehuda, shocked by the out-of-place nature of the new Cafe Aroma, I received a call from our friend Marni Mandell. Marni was telling me about her new job as Executive Director of American Friends of the Jordan River Village, a very special new camp being built in Israel. According to the website:
The Mission of the Jordan River Village is to enrich the lives of children from throughout our region, who suffer from serious illnesses and life-threatening conditions. They will experience a vacation that is cost-free, memorable, medically sound and physically safe. The specific medical needs of each child, no matter how profound, will be addressed by a fully staffed medical center on site, functioning 24 hours a day. These children will regain some of their lost childhood and will benefit from reinvigorated minds, bodies and spirit.
Marni’s enthusiasm for her new project is contagious, the scope of the vision stunning, inspiring, and deeply moving. This is not a new project and Marni is not the only person working on it, but she has moved it forward in ways that it has not moved in several years. It will become a reality as a result of her work and lives will be touched in deep and important ways. Marni is stepping into the breach and being human in new ways.
In a few weeks, our own Yali Derman will debut a new bag in her collection at Saks Fifth Avenue in Highland Park. Saks agreed to sell the bag at cost, to make no money at all, and to donate all of the proceeds to K.I.D.S.S. - Kindness is Doing Something Special for Kids, a project of Children’s Memorial Hospital. At $85, the bag could have sold for $200 to $400 or more but Saks stepped into the breach, along with Yali, to make this happen and to support kids with cancer. Yasher Koah to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin Alumnus Yali Derman for stepping up and showing Kindness to kids like her who will draw inspiration from her creativity and her success as a cancer survivor!
Today, there are many leaders that are too self-interested, that worry about their own well-being more than that of the community, who display painful lack of integrity. There are also those charged with or take upon themselves the challenge of providing and creating inspiring visions for the future that do not actually do that but instead provide short-term tactics and quick fixes. A vacuum of leadership leads to pandemonium. It leads to what we call hefkeirut, to each person doing what is best for themselves. In Moses absence, there was little willingness to stand up, to fill the breach, and thus, we ended up with the Golden Calf, the false god worshipped and prayed to, the deceiver created by people to fill the gap of leadership.
During my recent trip, I saw Elana and Beni, Beth and Marni. I met Rabbi Haim Amsallem standing up for the good of the entire Jewish People. I met Rabbi Yoav Ende, working with a group to re-establish Kibbutz Hannaton, the first Kibbutz of the Tnua Masorti. And back in the US, I was reminded about Yali and her new bag. Each of these people, individuals of courage and hope, integrity and humanity, are stepping up to change the world, to lead, to make a difference. I pray that we are inspired by each of them and that when we are in the place where there are no willing people that we stand up, fill the breach, and be the human beings that we know we can be.