What does this week's portion, Mishpatim, tell us about community? How has it influenced our history here in Greater Hartford? And who was David the Jew?
Mishpatim means laws, and that is largely what we find in this week's portion. In addition to rules about observing the Sabbath and other rituals, there are two specific obligations in Mishpatim that speak directly to our community.
First, we are instructed not to ill-treat widows and orphans, lest our own wives and children become widows and orphans. Our obligation to care for the most vulnerable is abundantly clear.
Second, we are instructed that "You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Once again, the Torah reminds us of our obligation to those on the margins of society.
The laws of Mishpatim exemplify our obligation to care for the weak and the marginalized - and it was these very values that led to the emergence of our local Jewish community infrastructure beginning in the 1840s, when the first permanent group of Jewish settlers made a home in Hartford.1
So, who was David the Jew? He was the first recorded Jew in Hartford.2 We don't know much about him, but he definitely could have benefited from a Jewish communal infrastructure. He was arrested in the year 1659 for going into people's homes and "trading provisions from children." He must have felt like an outsider, and he was certainly treated like one.
David the Jew was ahead of his time. It was nearly 200 years before our community's visionaries took to heart the teachings of Mishpatim, establishing services for widows and orphans, the sick and needy, and the thousands of "strangers" that arrived from Europe seeking refuge and a new life. They made sure that the "Davids" in our community had a place to go, food to eat, and a place to learn and pray. They paved the way for our Federation and all the resources our community enjoys today.
Today, our Federation is strong and our Jewish community is even stronger. But Greater Hartford has changed over the past few hundred years, and so have our community needs. David the Jew is calling out to me for answers. What are our current challenges, and how might we best address them? What do we need to do to ensure our community's continuous growth and prosperity - and how can Federation help?
This Shabbat, let's remember David the Jew and think about how far we have come and how much there is left to do. How can we ensure that Greater Hartford remains the place we have grown to love and cherish... a place that all of us can proudly call home? I would love to hear your thoughts.
President and CEO
Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford
1 Honoring the Past, Building the Future: The History of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. Betty N. Hoffman, Ph.D., Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford, 2007.
2 Hartford Jews 1659 - 1970. Morris Silverman, The Connecticut Historical Society, 1970.