Embodied Optimism

By Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield

Every year around Rosh Hashanah, I purchase tickets to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in December. It’s as much a ritual for me as cleaning for Passover or building a sukkah.

Having grown up taking dance lessons, I’m drawn to the way movement allows for freedom and expressiveness, and although I will never move as the Ailey dancers do, I resonate with how these dancers stretch the outer reaches of possible human movement. Their muscles contract and extend, their arms move and their hips sway; as if I possess a phantom body, my synapses are firing, echoing the movement. I know this is the sensation of fully realized possibility. This awareness becomes a benchmark for my own sense of what’s humanly possible, of the feeling that I aspire to in all areas of my work and life.

Over the past decade I have worked in the social justice arena focusing on climate change, human rights, and now the North American-Israel relationship. There are no short cuts to addressing any of these issues. Oftentimes, they feel overwhelming. Over the years, I’ve learned that the antidote to apathy or ignorance, or, worse, destructive behaviors is radical human creativity.

Sometimes when I’ve despaired, I’ve been surprised to find nuggets of creativity — creative moments when I shift from a passive position of being acted upon to acting. For example, watching the final credits of Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” I felt truly daunted by the cataclysmic issue of climate change. And yet, it was during this exact moment that I imagined how I could help my own Jewish community address this issue. These efforts ultimately yielded the Jewish Greening Fellowship. Another example: After witnessing the profound pain caused by the verse in Leviticus (18:22) about homosexuality, I resolved to address the issues of LGBT inclusion in my community. I began to imagine an inclusive community that would test and challenge communal norms, pushing past limiting boundaries toward a new realm of possibility.

In the face of despair, an initial spark of empathy and imagination can fuel creative action and make change possible. While the steps may seem simple—listening with curiosity, pushing at “boundaries” to test their malleability, holding engaging meetings and programs, learning new skills and ideas — these steps toward change take the form of art; the inspired embodiment of an Ailey dance.

The realm of possibility opens up when we transform a series of small movements into unexpected and extraordinary outcomes. These moments often occur after years of slow and unrecognizable change; they offer optimism and inspire us to believe in our potential to make change. At other times, it seems painfully obvious that creativity and perseverance — even political power — are not enough to solve the immense problems we face. But we cannot default to cynicism, hopelessness, or passivity; if we do, we utterly surrender our power to be change-makers.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world; it celebrates our aspirational capacity. We are curious, playful, rule breaking seekers of knowledge. On Rosh Hashanah we can ask ourselves: Have I fully accessed my powers of creativity? Have I nurtured them adequately? Have I deployed them against the world’s greatest challenges? And have I inspired others to use creative means to address human ills? Am I moving through the world and my life reaching for the outer limits of human possibility?

Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield is National Director of iEngage at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Previously, as Director of Experiential Education at American Jewish World Service, she led the team that developed and implemented innovative educational programs to inspire and train American Jews to support AJWS’s global justice work. She was founding director of the Jewish Greening Fellowship, an initiative that cultivates environmental change leadership among Jewish communal professionals and generates meaningful responses to global climate change.

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