by Eliraz Shifman Berman, Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Center for Jewish Life and Learning
To live in a pandemic is obviously a very challenging experience for us all. Our lives have changed; we are trying to cope with our new reality. Some say that we live in a time where the virtual sphere can compensate a bit for some of the difficulties imposed by social distancing. The Jewish Federation and the JCC of Greater New Haven have adjusted to the new reality and provide many online opportunities to learn and meet.
The David B. Keidan Collection of Digital Images from the Central Zionist Archives (via Harvard University Library).
Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher (1878-1965) wrote in his magnum opus I and Thou: “No purpose intervenes between I and You, no greed and no anticipation...Only where all means have disintegrated, encounters occur.” Buber contends that relationships are the basis of the human existence. The “I and you” relationship is where we see each other as subjects, where we don’t only experience others but truly encounter them.
With all the benefits of the virtual world, many of us do yearn for this Buberian “I and you” type of encounter nowadays. The virtual world puts an object—the screen—between us, and it may hide some of the essence of encountering each other.
Referring to a different kind of encounter, it is said in the Talmud that Rabbi Nehunyah ben Hakanah (Mishnaic sage of the first century CE) would recite a brief prayer upon his entrance into the Torah study hall and upon his exit. His friends didn’t understand it. Is the study hall a dangerous place that requires a prayer? Nehunyah replied that, “Upon my entrance, I pray that no mishap will be caused by me and, upon my exit, I give thanks for my portion.”
Even if we settle with this answer, we can still ask why he had to repeat it every day. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, who passed away recently, refers to this question in a Buberian way to say that every encounter changes our essence. Upon exiting, we are not the same as when we entered; that is why we need to give thanks each time.
I feel those ideas of encountering are very applicable to me personally. After a year and a half as a professional at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, I will be going back to Israel this summer. I leave our community with mixed emotions. The time here was meaningful for me in ways that words can hardly express. The wonderful people I got to know, the community I love and the meaningful encounters all changed my essence. I will miss them all very much. Upon my exit, I express the deepest thanks to my portion, and pray that we will all be able to meet again, in person, face-to-face, soon.
For more information on the Jewish Community Relations Council and Center for Jewish Life and Learning, connect with Eliraz Shifman Berman at email@example.com or jewishnewhaven.org/jewish-community-relations-council.