Sunday, August 26, 2018

A “Tet Offensive” for 5779

This summer, I traveled to Southeast Asia for the first time, including a stop in Vietnam.  Back in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, if I had been a little older and lot less lucky, odds are that this would not have been my first trip there.  I’ll be sharing some stories from my travels over the coming weeks; for now, I just want to highlight one ironic twist.

Fifty years ago, the turning point of Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War) was what became known as the “Tet Offensive,” named for the month of the Vietnamese lunar new year when the uprising began.  That campaign, which was devastating for both sides, ended on Sept 23, 1968.  For Americans it was a psychological blow that demonstrated how we had gotten ourselves into an unwinnable quagmire.  It was during Tet that Walter Cronkite decided to see for himself what was going on and when he stated his deep concerns, President Johnson reportedly remarked, “If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America.”

This September,  Jews are entering the year 5779, or tav shin ayin, tet.  The Hebrew letter Tet equals nine in Hebrew. Tet is the first letter of the word “Tov,” which means “good,” and that word and that letter are inextricably intertwined. 

As we enter the new year, I propose that we embark on our own Tet Offensive, a Crusade of Kindness, as we project our spiritual power out into the world.

As many of you know, my book Mensch· Marks is scheduled to be published in the first part of 2019.  I’m hoping that the term mensch might become as ubiquitous as other Yiddish words that have snuck into the vernacular, like chutzpah and kvetch.  Because what our country needs right now is more menschen, more people of character, not more kvetchers. When rabbis meet at conferences, we typically ask one another questions like, “How many do you get for Shabbat services?” or “How many in your congregation keep kosher?”  The question we should ask is, “How many in your congregation are menschen?”  How many embody those menschy traits, which, as delineated by Dr. Saul Levine in Psychology Today, include decency, wisdom, kindness, honesty, trustworthiness, respect, benevolence, compassion, and altruism?

I can proudly tell my rabbinic colleagues that I’ve got a whole bunch of menschen here.  I would pit the simple decency of this congregation against any other congregation out there.  But part of being a mensch is not resting on our laurels.  There is a lot of work to do, because our world is tilting toward precisely the opposite characteristics: indecency, bad judgment, harshness, dishonesty, untrustworthiness, disrespect, malevolence, cruelty and selfishness.  Our work is cut out for us.  What we need is a Tet Offensive.

And that is precisely what is happening, on a number of levels. Just in the past few months, we've started a new volunteer group, called “Hand in Hand,” that will assist people who are confronting the long process of bereavement.  We recognize that grief doesn’t end at the conclusion of shiva – and we want to be there to help. 

We also have signed on to HIAS’s efforts to support refugees, culminating on National Refugee Shabbat on October 19-20.

And we have just signed on to be part of the second cohort (one of a dozen congregations nationally) of the Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI), designed to help us become even more inclusive in our embrace of interfaith families.  For example, we are learning to avoid negative terminology in describing families.  We need to ask people how they wish to be identified rather than simply slapping a label on them.  And we need to be careful in assuming that one type of family unit is the “norm.” The late Gary Tobin offered a critique of organized Jewish life, asking what percentage of American Jewish families were “traditional,”’ by which he meant: a mom and a dad, neither ever divorced, both born Jewish, with children, who were not adopted.’

The answer is five percent.

So as we move into this year of menschlichkeit, of Tet, now more than ever, we need to gather together to gain strength for the struggles that lay ahead.  Your unaffiliated friends and relatives need us now more than ever as well – and we need them.  No one should be forced to confront these untethered times alone.  Come in from the craziness and join us here. Oh, and BTW, we have some major incentives for new members too!

Let’s make 5779 the year of TBE’s Tet Offensive.

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