started working at the Jewish United Fund in 1994, on Oct. 10, a day after my
birthday. In that time, I’ve had two marriages, three kids, three pets, eight
places of residence … and one place of work.
could tell you the story of how I came to work here, or how I got my internship
here when I was still in college even before officially becoming an employee.
But these stories — funny as parts of them are — would only be interesting if
you knew the people involved.
could tell you about all the Jewish history I have witnessed while here —
American, Israeli, European, even African. I was in our old office building – just
blocks away from the Sears Tower – on 9/11. I was here when the Ethiopian Jews
were rescued to Israel. I was here when the Soviet Jews were rescued to Israel, America and elsewhere. I have been here through war in Israel, and peace … and
then war again.
could tell you about all the amazing people I have met. Some were dedicated
volunteers. Some were active philanthropists. Some were entertainers or
politicians, and even the ones whose politics I disagreed with were completely
in line with JUF’s mission of providing help and, admittedly, very personable
and nice. I could name-drop enough A-listers I have heard, interviewed and
shaken hands with to warrant its own article.
I had just graduated college, John, the foreman in my dad’s custom furniture, shop
asked me a question:
never went to college,” he said, “So what did you learn? I don’t mean stuff I
could look up in a book. I mean what did you learn?”
made me think for a second.
learned that some people don’t want your help,” I finally replied, “And that
sometimes even if you ask, the answer is ‘No.’”
smiled wryly. “It was worth it. I wish I had known those things at your age.”
in the spirit of John’s question, here is what I have learned in 20 years at JUF:
learned that the capacity for human beings to hope is limitless. I have seen,
over and over in my years here, natural disasters devastating a town, here or abroad.
But every time, JUF raises money and sends volunteers, and Israel sends a field
hospital and recovery crew. We don’t know these people. We just know that they
are people, and that we can help.
learned that societal acceptance and economic prosperity create a positive
feedback loop. The more open a society is, the better off it tends to be
financially. Openness leads to possibility and opportunity, which lead to
inventiveness and adventurousness in academics, the arts, the sciences, and
commerce. Once it’s OK to be who you are, you can become who you want, and
bring everyone along for the ride. The opposite environment — oppression, intolerance,
and just-plain-bullying — creates the opposite, negative result.
learned that people will always surprise you. You never know how people will
react, what they will say, or if their beliefs are consistent or predictable.
So it’s best to be honest and give people the chance to be kind. It’s also best
to really listen — almost every time I have mentally finished someone else’s
sentence, I’ve been wrong.
learned that everyone pretty much agrees on what the problems facing society
are; they just have different ways of trying to solve those problems. They are
coming at the same issue from another angle, and until you trace their beliefs
and methods back to their sources, you are never going to appreciate that. You
can’t ever argue people out of their beliefs, even with evidence. What you can
do is find out why they hold those
views so strongly (hint: it’s usually fear) and then work to remove that fear.
learned that while individuals can inspire, it is groups that accomplish, especially
learned that all the good intentions in the world cannot feed one hungry
person, but even one dollar can.
learned that any excuse is good enough to avoid helping, and any reason is good
enough to start.
learned that hate is usually the result of ignorance, and that culture — including
cuisine, music, and other arts — is far from inessential and dismissible. Experiencing
another’s culture, distinct as it may seem from one’s own, is the best tool for
forming friendships across barriers. With every “Oh! We do that, too!” the
barriers are revealed to be much smaller than we’d imagined.
learned that when you believe in other people, and say so, it helps them
believe in themselves.
learned that Judaism works. Something about this set of rules and rituals and
stories and songs and judges and jesters — all swirled together in an alchemy
of uncertain proportions — led to the creation of the Jewish people, one of the
most productive and resilient groups planet Earth has ever hosted. Even with
every empire throwing all its laws and armies at us, we are still here, and
they are in museums (that we are on the boards of). And not just here, but thriving and
contributing to the world well beyond what the some might presume our percentage of the population
title of this post, of course, also opens the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. That album contains the question: “Will you still need me when I’m 64?” I hope the
problems that JUF addresses — poverty, persecution, passivity — are all solved
by then. But in case they are not, I know that JUF will still be here, just as
it has been since 1900 (and I think I
know what longevity is), holding up the banner of hope.