Talmud Sanhedrin 37a teaches, For this reason was man created alone, to teach that whosoever destroys a single life, it is as if he destroyed an entire world; and whosoever sustains a single life, it is as if he had sustained an entire world.
This text is often cited as a testament to the value of an individual human life and its potential in generating more life. My work collecting the stories of individuals at the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati has taught me to see it in a new light– the story of each individual can sustain the collective notion of community. My role as a sacred service-learning Fellow at the Federation is to highlight the stories of individual community members. I seek out individuals in the community and interview them in order to write their Jewish stories. The Federation’s Public Relations department is collecting theses stories as examples of the rich Jewish living that goes on in Cincinnati. Through this experience, I have learned that the community is more than just a sum of its parts. The single lives sustained by the Jewish community are the real source of sustenance for the communal structure.
My experience at the Federation is similar to one I had working on a research paper. I was to utilize an enormous repository of first hand sources to report on Jewish soldiers in World War II. At first I was overwhelmed by all the documents at my disposal, but once I began reading them, one by one, the stories behind started to come to life. A GI’s letter home to his wife, a chaplain’s diary entry– these were the building blocks that constructed the narrative of history as a whole. I was similarly overwhelmed when I was asked to delve into the Cincinnati Jewish community and tell its story. Where should I begin? How could I tell the story of such a diverse group of people? But, once I started talking to the individuals who make up the community, the story wrote itself. For example, I interviewed an elderly couple on their second marriages who found each other and a new lease on life through the Jewish community. They now dedicate their time to giving back to the community that brought them together by running a senior citizens’ performing troupe. I also interviewed a young family who used Jewish Family Services to adopt their newest member. Through the support of the Federation, they added a new Jewish soul to the community and to their family. I met a newly engaged couple. The bride-to-be grew up in Cincinnati and left for college and then Israel at 18, but has now returned to settle down and raise a family in the community that raised her. These people don’t have that much in common on the surface, but when they told their stories, common threads ran together.
Cincinnatians view the Jewish community as their home. They turn to the community to celebrate simchas in their lives and for comfort in difficult times. The community lends support and infrastructure to growing families, makes professional dreams come true and helps people transition through the last phases of life. Cincinnati Jews turn to communal agencies the way one might turn to a family member. As the Federation meets communal needs through innovative programs and services, I have been able to see the impact they have on the people who constitute what this community is. These stories will eventually be published in local publications like bulletins, newspapers and eventually videos on Federation’s website to raise awareness of the rich living Cincinnati Jewry provides. Hopefully, these stories will serve as points of entry for some who view them. This vibrant community has much to offer in the way of sustaining Jewish life in Cincinnati, its greatest resource being the diverse individuals who comprise and sustain it.