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Unknowable Moments

Seth Cohen of the Schusterman Foundation recently captured my attention with a blog about “unknowable moments,” those moments of societal and potentially historical significance that in the moment make us feel disconcerted. He noted that sometimes “an unknowable moment is really made up of many different unknowable moments, making the entire intellectual, social and emotional environment around us feel unmoored.”

In speaking with people across the community, I get the sense that we have reached one of these unknowable moments. Cohen has it exactly right – people are feeling unmoored. It is not just about uncertainty, divisiveness or disunity, although there is plenty of that, and it’s not just about the pace of change, although that too is unnerving.  At this moment in time it feels as if something deeper and more fundamental may be occurring.  As if our society has reached some significant socio-cultural turning point; as if the very principals upon which we have led our lives have begun to shift all around us. 

This anxiety has stirred feelings of discord and despair and left many wondering how we will find a positive way forward. Yet, the Jewish people and American society have faced such moments before and have always found a path toward hope. I don’t use the term loosely; I believe that hope is the answer. 

Apparently so do many of my colleagues. On Sunday July 31st the leaders of 39 of the largest and most influential foundations in America joined their voices in a campaign of hope.  Taking out full page ads in newspapers across the country, these leaders in the philanthropic sector called for hope in the face of uncertainty.  In part, the ads said “though we find ourselves at the crossroads of crisis, we are also in a moment of opportunity.  In spite of anguish and uncertainty, ideas, inspiration and action abound.”

The ads argue that the work of philanthropy is unifying, impactful and filled with hope.  Jim Canales of the Barr Foundation put it eloquently.“Any act of philanthropy is fundamentally a hopeful one; we invest in people and institutions because we are inspired by their commitment to advance change, and we believe in their potential to make our world a better place.  The challenges before us are enormous – and the times we live in seem to erode our confidence in the possibility of a brighter future.  Yet, it is precisely at moments like this that we need to remind our selves of the power of possibility and aspiration.”

We as Jews understand hope and despair. Despite all the tragedy of our history, we are a people who  believe in the future – even in the face of sadness. (I wrote about this idea recently in a blog entitled “A Wedding and a Funeral”). It is one of the most beautiful and most powerful aspects of our faith.    

In times of uncertainty and difficulty, we are a people who hold fast to our faith and to our calling to help repair the world.  We have for thousands of years, and we will for thousands more.  Because… “it is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.”

Whatever changes or uncertainty may swirl around the Jewish Community or our broader national society during this “unknowable moment”, I believe that it is important for us to stay hopeful.  To believe in our collective ability to overcome any obstacle, surmount any challenge that may face us.  When we embrace the common thread that connects us – our history as a people and a set of shared Jewish values including our obligation to assist in the repair of the world – our footing will be surer. 

Let us do what we always have in uncertain times - hold fast to our beliefs and embrace our calling to make things better.

   Michael Johnston is the President and CEO of the Jewish    Community Foundation of Greater Hartford.



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