Thoughts for Yom Kippur

Sometimes a chance encounter with a stranger can offer a unique window not only into who we are, but also who we can be for others.

Last month, I was in Moscow for the first time for an intensive three days of meetings and briefings with Jewish community leaders from Russia and around the world. In order to better understand the conditions for elderly Jews living in poverty, our delegation visited a Soviet-era collective apartment, in which residents live in private bedrooms and share a kitchen and bathroom with everyone else on their floor.

One of the residents we met is a 94-year-old Holocaust Survivor. Through UJA’s overseas investments, we fund her medicine, her food, and a homecare worker to provide her with daily assistance.

As we stood in her apartment, I asked her homecare worker, who spoke English, whether her client knew who we were. She asked the elderly woman, and then translated her response: “Of course I know who you are. You’re the people keeping me alive.”

She didn’t mean the people visiting her apartment. She meant the people we represented: You. The thousands of Jews in the Greater Toronto Area who, through their donation to UJA, have given her the gift of a better quality of life, however modest. Jews she had never met, in a city she had never visited, who cared for her simply because she is a Jew in need.

When we recognize that we have the collective potential to be something as extraordinary as the people that someone in need sees as keeping them alive, we realize the awe-inspiring responsibility we have as Jews.

This is as true for our community as it is for each of us as individuals. In recognizing that others view us as a potential lifeline, we are more likely to live up to that challenge – and help make another person’s life safer, healthier, and less lonely.

Yom Kippur is the most intensely personal of our holy days. In taking a hard look at where we have fallen short, we gain fresh perspective on how we can become our best selves in the year ahead.

This chance encounter in Moscow, coming just weeks before Yom Kippur, reminded me that we are so much more than who we think we are. We are also who others see us to be. And – especially as a community – we are capable of being what they are counting on us to be.

Gmar Chatima Tova,