Like most people, I am reeling from the news of the past month.
The mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, the planned attack on the L.A. Pride festival in West Hollywood, the xenophobic rhetoric employed in the U.K.’s Brexit vote, the onslaught of terrorist attacks, shootings of unarmed citizens, shootings of police, the shockingly lenient sentencing of the rapist who attended Stanford University in contrast to that given a Hispanic man by the same judge for the same crime, and the misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic outbursts during this presidential campaign.
I am reeling from a conversation with a friend, a professional powerhouse and civic leader, who told me that she feels that no part of her identity (African American, woman, lesbian) is valued in our society, though she gives daily as a public servant.
I’m reeling also from the conversation with another friend, an African American father, about how he has had to painstakingly teach his beautiful young son not to grab an item off the grocery store shelf or move too quickly on a train for fear that his action could be misinterpreted.
Like all of you, I have read vociferously to understand the explanations for our current global state of affairs. Arguments abound: Unchecked economic liberalism has privileged a small group and caused massive unrest among those suffering from economic disparity; there is a culture war between social liberals and conservatives, cosmopolitans and nationalists, universalism and parochialism; terrorism is sown among Europe’s discontented immigrants who are not acculturated and employed but are compelled to submit their unique traditions to a new national identity; power has been consolidated in the upper echelons of government and has left behind the majority; systemic and pervasive racism and the devaluation of non-Caucasian life continues; there is legislative standstill; and America has failed to convert its legacy industries into sustainable economic opportunities.
One thing appears true: The health of our democracy is at stake.
We Jews know all too well that the decay of democratic institutions and fraying in civil society is kindling for something dangerous. Strains in social fabric never portend well for our community, often a quick scapegoat when this combustible amalgam of social ills exists.
All of America benefits from strong democratic institutions, a healthy and vibrant public education system, equity among our citizens, and having a sense of common purpose. But where is the civic experience that brings together the diverse elements of our society — across economic, racial and religious lines — to envision and work toward a shared future?
Imagine if compulsory civic service was a prerequisite for college admission. Imagine if the program gave young people basic training in American history, government, citizenship, civil rights, civil liberties, immigration studies, social and public policy — subjects that are not commonly found anymore in high school curricula.
John F. Kennedy’s famous “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” sounds quaint and old-fashioned. But why should it? Services could include support for the vulnerable, public works, mentorship and aid for the elderly, internships in government, supporting our military personnel and their families, and exploring social entrepreneurship. And every able young person would be required to serve.
In the absence of my pet fantasy, our Jewish community can do its part to respond to the toxic and combustible set of circumstances that are currently playing out in America and the world. We can serve in the public domain, and do so as a proud expression of our Jewish identity.
From serving on public commissions to attending school board meetings, from volunteering with civic organizations that empower and serve diverse populations to writing for public media about the world as we would like to see it, we must do what feels sometimes counterintuitive at a moment of fear: We must get out, work externally, engage and connect. External relationship building is the antidote, providing opportunities to unite with others about our shared vision of an improved society.
Abigail Michelson Porth is the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.