Another Chance to Get It Right

Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig

“Cheers to a new year and another chance to get it right!” — Oprah Winfrey. I love the optimism and stark realism of Oprah Winfrey’s toast. The New Year is a time for reflection, for reassessment, and for a renewed focus on getting it right. It is the time to look at what was and, with hope in our hearts, to think about what can be.

On a personal note, this year was a time of both tremendous personal growth and gratitude (nothing like a brush with finitude to catalyze change and a search for greater meaning in your life). I have such a deep appreciation for everyone who reached out with love, support, and of course, food! I am happy to share that I am back to my day-to-day with my usual vigor and cadence and with an eye to try to be better about not letting my passion for my beliefs be at the expense of my health. This year gives me another chance to get it right, and with your patience and love surrounding me, I feel confident that I will.

While there is always room for growth and improvement, I have also spent a lot of time thinking about the things we have gotten right this past year. In November, we celebrated the WHC Hunger Project’s milestone achievement — one million meals packed! Run by members of our EmptyNesters auxiliary, the Hunger Project has held over 87 packing events that have engaged more than 2000 volunteers. It is a profound achievement. Not only have we raised the consciousness of our community about the need for quality food in shelters and food banks, but we have actualized it by providing one million meals to feed those in need.

WHC’s Hunger Project is just one of several programs that are possible because of the Tikkun Olam Values (TOV) Fund, which was established to commemorate my 25th anniversary with the Congregation. The TOV Fund and the Charles S. Bresler Tikkun Olam Center, which was created shortly thereafter, have enabled us not only to get it right but to do what is right.

I am equally proud of our congregation and its leadership in the Good Neighbors Initiative (GNI), another effort that is supported by the TOV Fund. Just before Thanksgiving, after more than a year of waiting and preparation, WHC’s GNI volunteers fulfilled the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger, as they began the year-long effort of helping a refugee family from Afghanistan resettle in the United States. You can read more about this incredible and heartwarming effort, including an update on the family, on page four. It is not lost on us — immigrant families ourselves — the gratitude, hope, and dreams that can begin when someone is given the opportunity to escape persecution and war.

I introduced the Good Neighbors Initiative in 2017 on Rosh Hashanah, when I challenged the Congregation to fulfill the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger by opening our hearts and arms to help a refugee family. I shared a quote, “You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up.” My friends, we have shown up, and we will keep showing up to provide for this family. Under the capable and dedicated leadership and members of our GNI committee, this is another thing we have gotten right by doing right!

I want to share another experience I had this year of things “gotten right.” On the fifth day of Hanukkah, I witnessed a modern-day miracle made possible by interfaith work and hard-won personal relationships: the transformation of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. It began two years ago when Rabbi David Saperstein — then America’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom –—and I were the only Jews to attend an international forum on peace in Abu Dhabi. Last February, just before our Shabbat of Peace at Temple, during which Sheikh Bin Bayyah spoke at a synagogue for the first time, he gathered with more than 500 Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy in Washington to write the Alliance of Virtue. This Alliance called for all the Abrahamic faiths to lift up our shared virtues to bring an end to hatred, prejudice, and religious persecution; to end violence and war; and to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the widow and orphan. Today, our world faces an international challenge: 68 million people who have been displaced by war and violence and are seeking shelter. All who signed the Alliance of Virtue know that to address it, it will take a religious pluralism and religious tolerance often seen only in the West.

Which brings me back to the modern-day Hanukkah miracle. In Abu Dhabi, at the fifth Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, Jews, Christians, and Muslims presented scholarly papers together, sat side-by-side on panels, and moderated sessions for and with each other. There was dialogue, and new projects – endorsed by all of the Abrahamic faiths – were launched. Kosher and halal dishes were served on the same tables, which fueled the rabbis, ministers, and imams who, in open dialogue, struggled together through the difficult challenges of making pluralism and peace a real possibility. This kind of unity, in itself, could be seen as miraculous, but there was more. During the Forum, on the fifth night of Hanukkah, Sheikh Bin Bayyah, one of Islam’s greatest living scholars, joined 18 rabbis from every movement to light the Hanukkah menorah. This has never happened before in the UAE. I was proud to have been part of the effort to orchestrate this gathering but even prouder of receptive nature of the leaders of the Forum.

I serve as the Jewish leader of the American Caravan for Peace, which brings rabbis, ministers, and imams together, and have worked to forge trust and friendships, one handshake at a time. As Reform Jews, our commitment to religious freedom and pluralism has been contagious, and because of it, there was a new light in Abu Dhabi – not just from a brightly burning menorah that dispelled the darkness, but from an Alliance of Virtue that brings hope into our hearts.

“Cheers to a New Year and another chance to get it right.”

I am humbly proud of all we have done right and the opportunity this year will bring to allow WHC’s mission to herald hope and bring continued blessing to our community and the world!

Happy New Year!