by Mark Jacobs | Passages Group Leader
Rosh Hashanah Message to Passages


In just a few weeks I, like millions of Jews across the world, will be observing Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the two ‘High Holy days’ of the Jewish calendar. These two days are a sacred time of prayer, remembrance and self-reflection for Jews as we look ahead to the coming year.

But in truth, I have already started the process of my self-reflection, and this year I know the exact moment it began: on a bus ride in Israel last June as a faculty member on a Passages trip.

As the lone Jew among some 200 people, I often found myself in a new role: the resident answerman of all things Jewish and Israel. Had this been an all-Jewish trip, I’d likely fade into the background and mostly spend the days quietly watching and learning. But not on that Passage trip, where I was constantly (and understandably) fielding questions from inquisitive students about a variety of Jewish-related topics. “What does the torah say about…?” “Why does Israel do…?” “How can peace be achieved in the Middle East?  Not surprisingly, I sometimes felt like the designated spokesperson for some 15,000,000 Jews worldwide, a responsibility I did not take lightly. Many of the conversations were just friendly bus chatter, but still I always carefully considered my words and tried to give thoughtful answers.

I did my best. I’m active in pro-Israel issues, so I already have lots of opinions which I’m happy to share. But if I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that I’m not satisfied with the knowledge I displayed.  Too often I felt like I didn’t have the answers. I was hardly the expert I wanted to be, and I knew I could do better.

But then again, that’s not an uncommon feeling when one is physically present in Israel. Seeing the actual facts on the ground – the closeness of the geography, the variety of people, the history, the dangers, the joy, the sorrow – has a way of dispelling pre-trip notions about what Israel is all about. If learning is a lifelong process, then being in Israel is like speeding through the accelerated classes. There’s so much to absorb that it’s sometimes dizzying and confusing.  It’s almost better to just take it all in and then, once one returns, attempt to try to make some sense of it, which will still be elusive.

Since that trip, I’ve been reflecting on those discussions with the students. I’ve come to believe that those students actually gave me a huge gift: they made me a better Jew. Through their curious eyes, I learned I needed to think more, learn more, study more, stay more current and be more open-minded. I was asked pointed, practical questions that required reasoned and honest responses. I thought I knew a good deal about Israel, but the students made me realize it’s time to deepen my knowledge, and I will.

“Much have I learned from my teachers and colleagues,” the Talmud teaches us, “but most from my students.” Those ancient words remain powerfully true.

Issues relating to Israel and the Middle East are vitally important to our collective past and future. As a Jew, I feel a moral imperative to grasp the issues as best I can and articulate and defend my positions.  That’s what we Jews do – we discuss, debate, advocate, argue – and hopefully do so with sound reason and fairness.  We place a premium on knowledge and teaching; the word ‘rabbi’ actually means ‘teacher’. And we have learned that, being such an oppressed minority for so many centuries, we must always stick up for ourselves if we expect others to support us. As the great scholar Hillel asked over two thousand years ago, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?

And so as I observe the High Holy days, I will, as my tradition commands, reflect on what this last year has meant to me and how I may better myself. I already know what I need to commit to in the coming year: I need to know more about my Judaism, and Israel, and building bridges between my people and other cultures and communities. That was my Passages epiphany. It wasn’t something I learned in a classroom or from a book. It was a lesson taught to me while riding on a bus throughout the magical land of Israel.

L’Shana Tova (“Have a good year”) to all!