Reflecting on the lessons of 2015

People placing flowers and candles on the pavement near the scene of the Bataclan theater terrorist attack in Paris, Nov. 14, a day after the attack. Photo: Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

“Month follow month with woe, and year wake year to sorrow.”

— Percy Bysshe Shelley

 The secular year of 2015 of the Common Era is coming to an end, and we welcome its conclusion with a sense of relief and exhaustion.  Back in the 1960s, the British Broadcasting Co. had a popular program called “That Was the Week That Was.”

The program’s producers would usually present an upbeat or humorous take on the news, but that all changed the week that President John F. Kennedy was murdered on the streets of Dallas in 1963. The program that week was somber and memorable.

Similarly, the year 2015 does not lend itself to an “upbeat” assessment.

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• It was a year of mass shootings and terrorism—most recently in Paris in which Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL)-inspired terrorists killed 130; over the Sinai, when a possible ISIS-planted bomb brought down a Russian plane and killed 224 passengers and crew; in San Bernardino, when two jihadi-inspired terrorists killed 14 and wounded 21 at a holiday party.

• It was a year in which the above recent events were preceded by terrorist attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a Jewish supermarket and a Paris synagogue, a harsh reminder that terrorism and mass shootings show no signs of dying down, and have become an almost weekly occurrence.

• It was a year in which young Palestinians stabbed to death over 20 Israelis, with over 120 Palestinians killed during the same period, most of them in Jerusalem, horrific incidents which only made even less likely that peace talks could be resumed between Israel and the Palestinians.

• It was a year in which relations between the United States and the State of Israel, historic sister democracies with shared values and national interests, became strained almost to the breaking point over the Iran nuclear deal.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed a joint session of Congress to denounce the deal, further worsened his already frosty relationship with President Barack Obama.

• It was a year in which the vicious civil war in Syria went into its fourth year, a war which has cost the lives of 250,000, the destruction of entire swaths of what used to be a viable state and forced millions of Syrians to flee for their lives, hoping to find a safe have in Europe or the United States.

• It was a year in which political rhetoric in the presidential campaign for 2016 has included an unprecedented amount of demagoguery, name-calling and demonization at the very time when national unity and compassion are absolutely essential.

• It was a year in which the Islamic State, while facing some effective resistance, especially from Kurdish fighters, has held on to a swath of land in Syria and Iraq equal in size to the state of Indiana or Great Britain.

Yes, the past 12 months have been depressing as well as frightening.  Yet, in our Jewish tradition, when we experience sadness, even in the midst of reading a sacred text or in a prayer service, we continue reading until we find the silver lining in the darkest clouds of despair.

This past 12 months also was marked by the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriages throughout the nation, giving renewed hope to the LGBT citizens of all 50 states that they will be accorded the legal right to marry whom they love.

The year just ending also saw an uptick in the overall Jewish population in the United States and in greater St. Louis.  The new demographic studies undertaken nationally and locally reveal a Jewish community that is not only larger in overall number, but also more diverse in how its members wish to affiliate with traditional institutions. It also points out the need for fresh thinking in efforts to engage our younger Jewish population while at the same time assuring the financial security of our synagogues, temples, Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation and its network of life-affirming agencies and programs.

As we reflect on the lessons of 2015, let us hope that the coming secular year of 2016 will be one of hope, responsibility and courage in the face of seemingly overwhelming challenges.  Let’s hope that the Jewish people in Israel, in America and in our own large and thriving community of 60,000 in St. Louis will prevail and be stronger no matter what.

Let us emulate the example of what Tom Brokaw has called “The Greatest Generation,” Americans during the Great Depression and World War II, who faced adversity head on with unity, determination so that we, too, can assure a secure America for our children and grandchildren.  We did it before and we must do it again.