Can a Community Ethical Will build a bridge across the Jewish divide?

As we watched the crystal ball drop in Times Square heralding the start of a new year many of us are accustomed to using that moment to make New Year’s resolutions.  Some of us share them aloud with others while many keep them secret like the wishes made when the candles are blown out on our birthday cake.

The making of New Year’s resolutions long pre-dates my earliest memories of New Year’s Eve when as a youngster I remember watching our black and white TV at midnight listening to Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians play Auld Lang Syne.  Couples kissed, confetti flew, champagne glasses clinked and many made their personal commitments to the new year in the form of resolutions to do better and be better.

The ancient Babylonians are said to have been the first people to make New Year’s resolutions, some 4,000 years ago. They were also the first to hold recorded celebrations in honor of the new year—though for them the year began not in January but in mid-March, when the crops were planted.

The tradition of New Year’s Resolutions is long and storied.  For most of us, those resolutions are almost always about us.  We pledge to lose weight.  To exercise more.  To watch less TV and read more books.  To be more patient.  To be more charitable.  The resolutions that we make are typically about changes we pledge to ourselves about ourselves.  Less common are resolutions made that will change the community.

During my years as President and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix our organization offered numerous workshops and seminars on the creation of an Ethical Will.  It was our belief that in addition to prudent estate planning which guides the disposition of one’s financial assets at the time of death we believed that caring and responsible individuals should consider providing for the transfer of one’s ethical and moral values and life lessons to those we leave behind.

The superb article How to write an Ethical Will by Martina Merashi in the December 2020 issue of the Arizona Jewish Life Magazine ( ) does a wonderful job describing why Ethical Wills are so important and how to go about preparing one.  But as is the case with New Year’s Resolutions, Ethical Wills are customarily more self-reflective and introspective. They are about us and what we believe and support.  Seldom are they about what our community should believe and support.

So what might we accomplish if our New Year’s Eve Resolutions or Ethical Wills looked beyond ourselves and our families and were instead directed toward ways of bettering our community?

Several years ago I wrote an opinion piece in which I addressed the divide that exists between different segments of many American Jewish communities.  That divide too often separates members of the Orthodox community from those who identify as Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and other streams of organized Judaism including those who identify as non-observant or secular Jews.  That 2015 commentary ended with my wish that “we could all find channels and pathways to better connect, respect and learn from each other without the sense that there are two Jewish communities in the Valley – the Orthodox and everyone else”.  My commentary was a public call for a process that might hopefully help to mend broken bridges or strengthen and build stronger bridges among and between various elements of the Jewish community.

So what do New Year’s Resolutions and Ethical Wills have to do with building bridges?  Potentially quite a bit if they are expressed as other-directed rather than a reflection of one’s internal view of personal goals.  In other words, New Year’s Resolutions and Ethical wills, if conveyed with an eye toward the broader community, potentially have the power to change not just an individual or a family but an entire neighborhood or even a nation.

Five years ago The Greater Hartford Rabbinic Association, a group comprised of Rabbis representing the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox congregations of Hartford, CT, may have discovered such a pathway to common ground for Rabbis who otherwise hold different halachic (Jewish Law) views which understandably separates them rather than brings them together.

The Hartford Rabbis, for all of their differences around Jewish law, custom, worship, and Jewish practice came together to write an Ethical Will for their community.  As Susan Turnbull, a life-long community activist who is involved with a myriad of social justice activities says: “if your legal will addresses ‘what do I want my loved ones to have?’ your ethical will addresses ‘what do I want them to know?’”  And this is the tool the Hartford Rabbis used to toil on common ground as they wrote an ethical will for their community.

Here in its entirety are the simple yet powerful words of the Hartford community’s ethical will:

As the Rabbis of the Greater Hartford area, we see ourselves and our congregations as stewards of the generosity of those who came before us. We found orchards of learning, bushes burning unconsumed and our air filled with compassion.

We affirm the centrality of Torah, Chesed (loving kindness), Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), Tzedakah (justice/charity), and Achrayut (responsibility), of learning, compassion, justice and communal responsibility. We have committed our rabbinate to the belief that our tradition and connection with our Creator brings meaning to our lives as individuals and as a community. We recognize that from our creation we were not meant to be alone, and that we need each other. Our enduring legacy is to exhibit generosity of resources, faith, wisdom and kindness that others might be as fortunate as we are.  We affirm that we bear responsibility to each other and that our own spiritual journey is part of a larger covenantal framework which guides our lives.

The challenges of today and tomorrow present both manifold needs and opportunities to assist in continuing the chain of tradition that is our inheritance. We affirm the inspiration and truth of the essential teaching of our tradition: ‘You are not obligated to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it.’ (Pirke Avot/Ethics of Our Ancestors 2:21)

What better way could all the members of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix and the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Greater Phoenix find to come together on something that their members should all be able to agree with than the creation of an Ethical Will for our community.  Surely the right words can be found which can reflect areas of agreement among Rabbis of all streams of Judaism.  Words which communicate a unified and collective aspiration for our community.  Words which speak to what all Rabbis can agree with and which leave behind those unique and parochial differences that differentiate us.

Creating such common ground would be an enormous step toward mutual understanding and respect for one another while expressing a hopeful and unified message for the diverse Jewish community in the Valley of the Sun.

So whether we write a Resolution or an Ethical Will the idea of creating a communal vision and aspiration that extends beyond and is greater than ourselves could have a profound and unifying effect on the broader community.  And if it is well crafted just imagine the way it might help mend broken bridges.  And those bridges could help link and bring together disparate segments of our community as never before.

Even though the Times Square Crystal Ball has been dismantled and placed in storage for next year’s celebration it is not too late for that New Year’s Resolution.  So let’s all resolve to act in ways that will build or mend bridges instead of building walls.  Let’s share not only our personal ethical and moral principles with our family but help to use those values to promote a communal aspiration that emphasizes what we share in common more than what separates us politically, religiously or philosophically.

If we haven’t learned anything else from the events of the past year it should be as clear as the Times Square Crystal Ball that our words and our actions can divide or unify.  Let us all choose wisely as we start this new year.

For more commentaries by Stu Turgel go to:


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