Gratitude lights the way in dark times

November 29, 2023

As I think about the events of the last several months, I am quite speechless. The emotions that we all feel—anger, sadness, pain, frustration, fear—sometimes are all encompassing. And at the same time, I also am filled with an immense sense of passion and inspiration sparked by the thousands of people within our Jewish and general community who stand with us in this time of need and uncertainty.

Over the last month, we have held endless support groups, individual counseling sessions, and case management visits. We have connected with our school systems, synagogues, and community partners. We have heard the pain and suffering loud and clear from across all segments of our community. People are once again afraid to be Jewish and the mass threat of antisemitism has spread like wildfire within many of our schools, colleges, and communities across the country. Each day I come work acutely aware that I must harness my own strength and survival instincts to ensure that our services not only continue but expand to meet the rising needs within the community, our country, and the State of Israel.

As a child of a Holocaust Survivor, I know we have the strength to overcome and survive. I know we have the ability to thrive despite all of the challenges and threats that we face. Growing up, my parents often taught me that life is 10% about what happens to you and 90% about how you react.

I have watched how our Jewish community has reacted and I couldn’t be prouder. This feeling of pride and gratitude sits side by side with the fear and anger that many of us hold in the face of unbridled hatred and antisemitism. I understand that our emotions are complicated, and both emotions can sit with us at the same time, but it is our choice to pick an emotion to guide us. I pick pride, gratitude, and love to guide my behavior.

I am grateful and proud of our Jewish community, which has stood strong with Israel and will defend and protect our ancestral homeland—as we are its Indigenous people.

I am grateful and proud of our non-Jewish community partners and politicians who have said, “Never Again is NOT now! We will not let you stand alone.”

I am grateful for all of you who take the time to read our Jewish newspapers, get involved in our Jewish community, learn about the services we provide, and lend a helping hand.

Finally, I am grateful and proud of our clients who have the bravery and the courage to come to us asking for help. I love them all and know that together we can help them change their lives for the better.

Leading with gratitude is a concept that not only has external value, allowing us to build bridges, strengthen relationships, and develop resilience, but it also has an extremely strong intrinsic value. It improves our physical health and boosts our immunity against disease. Grateful people are more likely to exercise regularly and care for themselves. Thankfulness can reduce negative emotions like frustration, resentment, and regret, and can help reduce depression.

The Hebrew term for gratitude, “hakarat hatov,” translates literally as “recognizing the good.” Practicing gratitude means to recognize the good you already have in your life. In times of crisis, it is so easy to fall into the trap of focusing on what we don’t have that we may be blinded to the good things in our life. However, it is in times of crisis that focusing on what we have, counting our blessings, and living in a positive space can be the lifeline that we all need.

The 18th century Chassidic teacher Rebbe Nachman of Breslov wrote, “Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy and is always ready to light a candle.” Gratitude helps us to keep moving forward when times get tough and lights the way for better times. As Jews, we have endured more than our share of challenges as a religion, a culture, and a community. Yet, our traditions and teachings promote thankfulness.

But how do we remain grateful when our homeland, Israel, is in an existential crisis? How can we be thankful when more than 200 of our brothers and sisters were taken hostage? How do we stay grateful when our high school and college students are confronted with a continually rising tide of antisemitism? It’s easier said than done.

For me, and for my colleagues at Jewish Family & Children’s Service, the answer lies in “service.” Every day, we take concrete actions to relieve suffering and bring life-affirming support to people from every corner of our community. There is so much good that emanates from JFCS every single day. We offer support for those who are struggling economically. We help individuals with disabilities reach their potential through creative programs and services. We help survivors of domestic abuse rebuild their lives and overcome their trauma and we keep seniors safe and healthy.

I can honestly say that every day at JFCS is meaningful, but every so often there is a standout moment—like one that occurred earlier this month at our Rhona Fischer Family Assistance Building. Key members of our staff, along with Jewish Federation volunteers Jamie Dollinger and Deenah Sirota, hosted displaced Israeli families for breakfast, conversation, and a “popup shop” where they selected clothing, shoes, and coats for themselves and their families.

Our guests were mostly women who had been forced to leave their husbands and adult children in Israel to fight with the Israel Defense Forces. It is not easy to come face-to-face with people who are dealing with unspeakable tragedy. Tears flowed from all sides as they spoke of their sleepless nights, the worry for their families and their children, and the running to safety to stay in safe rooms and bomb shelters. They shared the inability to leave their houses and the stress and numbness that resulted from pushing feelings down so they could stay calm for their children. And they spoke of the excruciating decision to leave their country and loved ones behind.

But then…they spoke about the overwhelming warmth and love they have received from our South Jersey community. They told us that they can finally sleep, knowing they won’t be killed by a rocket or a terrorist. They expressed their deep appreciation for the help they received. That morning, handshakes were not sufficient— only hugs would do.

Every one of us walked away with profound gratitude for being able to make even a small difference in these people’s lives. Meri Seligman, the director of our Rhona Fischer Family Assistance Program, shared with me and our staff that, “I’ve had many incredible days in my almost 13 years at JFCS, and many times when I’ve been brought to tears, but nothing came close to this experience.” I couldn’t agree with Meri more.

Simply put, I believe we all want to be “sameach b’chelko”—satisfied with our portion in life. It is through completing acts of loving kindness that we will find true happiness and satisfaction. So, I encourage every one of you to get involved in a meaningful way. Should you want to volunteer with Jewish Family and Children’s Service, please reach out to Sherri Jonas, director of Volunteer Services, at or via phone at (856) 424-1333 to find out more information.

I am profoundly grateful for the leadership and guidance of our community during this difficult time. The Jewish Federation and our family of agencies have led with open arms and open hearts. We have worked together to serve the needs here in South Jersey and abroad. Moreover, I am profoundly proud of all of you!