Growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, I spent the majority of my teenage years celebrating Thanksgiving with hundreds of other Jewish kids at United Synagogue Youth (USY) conventions, which took place in such cities as Minneapolis, Des Moines, Denver, St. Louis and Kansas City.
As a member of the USY Emtza Region, the high point of the extended weekend was hardly the requisite Thursday evening turkey meal. Rather, it was the ruach (spirit) and fellowship I found with my American counterparts, all of whom were active in Conservative Jewish life.
Those were the days, in so many ways. Conservative Judaism was popular, inspired and modern, the pre-eminent Jewish denomination worldwide. As the son of a Conservative rabbi, I was delighted to find myself in the company of other young people who -- like me -- saw no contradiction between our secular and religious lives.
If anything, we shared a feeling of dazed revelation that we were the lucky ones who had figured out how to fuse both facets of our identities. Being Jewish made it better to be American -- or Canadian.
Years later, when I moved to the United States, I discovered yet another revelation: Thanksgiving was regarded as a deeply meaningful holiday for the majority of American Jews who viewed a mandated day of expressing gratitude as a mitzvah.
Though Canadian Thanksgiving takes place in October, the day bears no resemblance to the American celebration, beginning with the missing narrative of a small band of people inspired to flee religious persecution in Europe and build a New Jerusalem in America. The religious freedom guaranteed in the United States has enabled the formation of the most unique, cohesive, functional and sustained Jewish community in the world. In recognition of the profundity of this blessing, it is customary in many synagogues to recite the Hallel prayer in the morning service on Thanksgiving.
For this American blessing and many others, I, too, have learned to give thanks. This year, for those of us affected by Hurricane Sandy, the gratitude goes deeper. It is less theoretical and all-too-tangible.
Following on the heels of the largest scale natural disaster those of us in the Northeast have ever endured, the simple blessing of heating and electricity has become the greatest of gifts. For those of us lucky enough to have avoided damage to our homes, injury or the death of friends and loved ones, we are thankful for the blessing of shelter, the stability of walls and a roof over our heads.
In our gratitude, we have a great responsibility, and that is to offer help where it is needed. Two and a half weeks after Hurricane Sandy assaulted our region, I am astonished to see the daily calls for hands-on volunteers in the hardest hit areas: Coney Island; the Rockaways; Red Hook, Brooklyn; portions of the New Jersey Shore.
Though perturbed by the prolonged recovery and rescue work that is needed, I am heartened to see those calls being answered by so many people. I am proud of the millions of dollars allocated for the relief effort by New York's UJA-Federation, an organization largely supported by Conservative Jews.
As the head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, I have been deeply moved by the example set by many of our kehillot (sacred congregations) in the path of Hurricane Sandy's devastation who opened their facilities to members of the larger community -- offering shelter, fellowship, food, electricity, showers and programming for children and adults alike. One of the USCJ kehillot hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy -- United Synagogue of Hoboken -- kept its doors open throughout the crisis, hosting a bar mitzvah in the unheated, candelit sanctuary because the family could not bear to celebrate this milestone anywhere else. The USCJ has been privileged to take part in the assistance effort for this synagogue, purchasing vital equipment and hosting a community meal this past Thursday evening.
Sustaining a house of worship through a time of crisis keeps provides immeasurable moral support for a community.
Equipped, as we are, to communicate and correspond with our over-600 member synagogues, we were able to serve as a command center to coordinate services, provide assistance and act as a hub. Dipping into our discretionary funds, we were able to provide assistance to synagogues that suffered damage and provide a significant grant to Nechama, a Jewish disaster response organization. Having just completed building a security and safety protocol for our kehillot, we were able to help our member congregations help the people in their area.
So, this year, Thanksgiving is relevant in an up-close and personal way. We are grateful. We are blessed. And in our good fortune, we are compelled to pay the blessing forward. In the immediate post-crisis period, giving is easier, but with the passing of time, it is natural to lose focus of the need.
After Hurricane Sandy, the Torah of Thanksgiving teaches us that thankfulness is not limited to a solitary day. Gratitude is an ongoing consciousness that compels us to open our eyes and hearts and wallets to respond to the devastation around us, now and always.
This year, I am approaching Thanksgiving with an extra dimension of kavannah (intentionality) finding in the observance of this American festival a new twist on a liturgical passage from the Hallel prayer service: "hodu l'hashem ki tov."
Though the verse is typically understood to mean, "Give thanks to God for God is good," I see another meaning, which is "Give thanks to God, for thankfulness is good."
Thankfulness is a mitzvah. Thankfulness is mindfulness.
One more thing. As American Jews prepare for Thanksgiving, we find our focus abruptly shifted to Israel, where a hurricane of another nature -- man-made and fueled by hatred -- is wreaking havoc on the citizens of the Jewish State. Indeed, the escalation of the conflict has compelled me to trade the comfort of my American Thanksgiving table for a last-minute tour of solidarity to Israel to visit the 300-plus young people currently studying there through the auspices of United Synagogue.
The Torah of Thanksgiving reminds me of the blessing of religious freedom and the security that we enjoy as Jewish Americans.
This year, my feast is movable.
May we be thankful for the blessing of peace. May it come soon to Israel, to her neighbors and to the entire world.