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Renewing the Civic Covenant

Yom Kippur Morning

Aspen Jewish Congregation

One night while he was running for reelection, the mayor of Reading, Pennsylvania went to a bar and paid for a woman’s drink. She thanked him but asked why a stranger had bought her a beer. “I’m running for mayor,” he told her, “and I want your vote.” “You got it,” she said, taking a swig. “Anyone’s better than the jerk who’s in there now.”

It feels like we are simmering in a social stew of resentment, ignorance, and disillusionment. National politics is dysfunctional, to say the least. But you get enough of that in your daily diet of social media. Actually, that’s part of the problem: We live in digital echo chambers of our own unwitting design.

But I’m not here to tell you how bad it is. I’m here to lift up reasons to hope. I’m here to call on all of us to do more to improve our communities and our country. And I'm here to convince you that it’s possible — in fact, that it’s already happening.

The March 2016 Atlantic Monthly magazine featured an essay titled, “Can America Put Itself Back Together?” In it, a history professor at the University of Virginia, Phillip Zelikow, was asked about the national mood. He said: “In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation. There are a lot of more positive narratives out there—but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”

This sermon is a step toward joining the melody of the Aspen Jewish Congregation and the Roaring Fork Valley to the chorus of other towns and cities doing the steady, decent, pragmatic work of civic renewal.

It is helpful to understand how we got here. We are well aware of the private and public sectors of society — business and government, the marketplace and the town hall. The private sector’s driver is prosperity, but without checks and balances it can succumb to greed. The public sector’s driver is justice and order, but without checks on its power, it devolves into Kafkaesque bureaucracy and Orwellian statism.

There’s a third sector that is supposed to balance the other two — the voluntary sector. Its drivers are value-based: family, community, morality. It is made up of congregations, service organizations, parent-teacher associations, and the like. The problem is, we don’t take it seriously enough, at least not anymore. It has seen a steady decline since the middle of last century. An individualistic impulse has pushed us out of every affiliation but those where our pre-existing notions are affirmed. And so we are losing the ability, and quite literally the physical spaces, to negotiate public issues and solve problems. David Brooks has written about this loss of what he calls “middle-ring relationships”: “The guy sitting next to you at the volunteer fire company may have political opinions you find abhorrent, but you still have to get stuff done with him, week after week.” I would add, you also see him as a human being, above and beyond whatever political labels he might wear.

Congregations used to serve this purpose. They were spaces where people of different backgrounds and perspectives gathered to break bread together. They were places where people learned how to interact with strangers, how to have public relationships, how to live in community. For many of our grandparents, the synagogue was the mediating institution that helped them settle in America. It was where they made friends and business contacts, learned the local culture, and started to feel a sense of home.

Congregations can serve a communal mission again, and many of us are working on exactly that in this valley. As some of you know, I’m on the board of the Valley Settlement Project, which was incubated by the Manaus Fund, on whose board I also serve. The idea of Valley Settlement is to help low-income and immigrant families put down roots here and integrate into the community. In other words, to settle. From the beginning, this was not about handouts to the less fortunate. It has always been about listening to our neighbors’ stories, hearing their concerns, and helping them connect to create solutions. Out of that listening came pre-school buses that offer bilingual education and prepare children to enter the public school system. Out of that came hundreds of parents trained to be mentors and advocates in their children’s classrooms, improving the school for all families. Out of that came Spanish literacy classes, GED prep courses, and partnerships with Colorado Mountain College to offer skilled job training toward solid careers.

The mantra continues to be what activists call “The Iron Rule”: Never do for others what they can do for themselves. It's a different way of thinking about charity than we're used to. This brings us to a new initiative, born out of the Manaus Fund’s social entrepreneurship mission, with opportunities for our community and our congregation. We are building an interfaith, diverse, multi-issue, valley-wide network. The backbone of the organization will be congregations and non-profits who see the value in a new way of relating as neighbors, as citizens, as strangers. The Aspen Jewish Congregation has signed on as one of a dozen sponsors in this phase, as we raise money to launch the organization. Other institutions around the table include, for example, Colorado Mountain College, Mountain Family Health, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church (Glenwood Springs), St. Peter’s of the Valley Episcopal Church (Basalt), Snowmass Chapel, First United Methodist Church of Glenwood Springs, and the Roaring Fork School District.

Thanks to the passionate support of several Jewish donors, the AJC has funds to sponsor this effort. It will be a lean operation, with the vast majority of the budget used to hire a community organizer for the valley. I know that term has become politically charged, so think of it as a leadership consultant, a civic adviser, a relationship builder. Each institution that joins the effort will form its own internal leadership team — ours is already in formation. (If you want to learn more, let me know!) This team will work to revitalize our outreach efforts within the congregation — listening to stories, hearing concerns and hopes, identifying leaders. Also, the teams from all the member organizations will gather regularly to compare what they’re hearing in their congregation or non-profit. What stories overlap? What interests do we share? What issues can we work on together? Who are the leaders among us to move change forward?

Ultimately, it’s about how we structure power in our community, and who is at the table where decisions get made. I know that as third and fourth generation upwardly-mobile white Americans, many of us don’t see why this should interest us. I can offer a couple reasons -- in brief, because this work can revitalize our community and our congregation.

First, take a look at the ongoing struggle to get the Aspen school district to respect Jewish holidays. There has been some progress, and I’m so grateful to the parents who are now leading the charge by organizing to hold the district leadership accountable. But imagine if we had a broad coalition of interfaith allies who would show up with us. Imagine if the district calendar were one item on a broad agenda of social change. And then, imagine if we showed up with our allies on issues they care about — whether it’s special needs resources, or bilingual support, or teacher housing — or something we don’t even know is an issue because we don’t have the relationships in place to hear about it. What if we had allies who would lock arms with us when antisemitism, God forbid, rears its ugly head in our backyard? I find myself scratching my head when I hear Jews ask, “Why doesn’t such-and-such group show up for our cause?” Well, when was the last time we showed up for theirs? Let’s stop scratching our heads and get to work.

Second, consider that synagogues across the country are struggling to attract members. And then think about how many Jews are involved passionately in community issues — from town councils to non-profit leadership to local mentors and volunteers. Now imagine if the Aspen Jewish Congregation welcomed and encouraged Jews looking for a space to do civic engagement as Jews. Imagine if we became the congregation that people think of as a leader in the community, a place that lives our values in public, a powerful group who gets things done both for the Jews and for the common good.

This morning we will read from the Torah in Nitzavim. We will hear Moses’s call to think of community in the broadest, most inclusive possible terms: You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God — elders and officials; men, women, and children; the one who cuts your wood and the one who draws your water; the stranger who dwells with you — all of you, to enter into the covenant. (Deut. 29:9-11, adapted)

As Jews, we are called to renew this brit (covenant) in every generation, in every new year. As Jews and Americans, we are called to renew our civic covenant. About 2,500 years ago, the prophet Jeremiah urged the Jews in Babylonia to work for their community’s welfare, even in exile. “Seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you and pray on its behalf to God, for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (Jer. 29:7). How much the more so in this land of freedom and opportunity should we act like our prosperity is tied to our neighbors’!

As a member of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Nitzavim campaign, today we stand for civic participation. In the high holiday newsletter, you’ll find a Jewish call to vote, and there are Colorado voter registration forms at the welcome table. I hope all of us will fulfill our responsibility on November 8. But voting is only one piece of civic engagement, and in some ways the most basic. This year, it feels like all eyes are on Election Day. But on November 9, life goes on, and challenges remain. No elected official can fix all our problems for us. Elections matter, but it matters more what we do in between, and how we hold our elected officials — and ourselves — accountable to our values.

We need to do more. We owe it to our ancestors, and we owe it to our children. Our civic covenant, like our Jewish brit, is not with us alone, but also “with each one who is not here among us today” (Deut. 29:14). The past calls us; the future calls us, too. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, not only have we inherited this society from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children.

It’s not enough to complain about the current state of politics, when we have it in our power to act. As the Aspen Jewish Congregation commits to renewing the civic covenant in the new year, what will you commit to? Join our community initiative; mentor or tutor; serve on a local board; volunteer for a cause. And if you’re already doing these civic mitzvot, invite your friends and neighbors to join you.

There’s a story told of a long sea voyage, when a severe storm broke out and threatened to sink the ship. As it swayed violently from side to side, passengers cried and fainted. One Jewish passenger prayed loudly, over and over, “Help, O Lord, the ship is sinking, we’re going down, help, O Lord!” Another passenger asked him, “Why are you making so much noise? Is it your ship?”

We ought to make noise when the ship starts to sink. But after that, we should get to work — the steady, decent, pragmatic work of repairing our ship of state. It’s all hands on deck, starting right here at home. Let’s add our voices to the national chorus of civic renewal.

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