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The Unsolvable Problems

“How do you feel about working in the non-profit world?”  It’s a question I’m often asked. Since I spent more than 20 years working on Wall Street, it’s not surprising that people are curious about my perspective. It’s a simple question, of course, but it is often laden with contradictory meanings. Former colleagues from my private sector days ask me the question as if I had a fatal disease (“you have our deepest sympathies”). Non-profit professionals, on the other hand, ask the same question as if I had stepped from the dark side into the light.

Once in a while, however, the question is asked in a way that is more thought provoking. When someone asked me the question recently they meant to ask me how I could work in a field where the problems were largely unsolvable.  

It’s a deeply cynical question - one that challenges the value of philanthropy. We can’t solve our most serious problems so why bother trying? Most concerning, the person who asked the question was a philanthropist.  

I admit that I am an optimist by nature. Can’t is not a framework that I’m willing to accept when it comes to repairing this broken world. However, I’m not unrealistic.  I recognize that some problems are too complex for easy answers. Finding a lasting peace in the Middle East, solving homelessness or curing dementia, for example, seem unlikely in my lifetime.

And yet, I believe the Jewish people and humanity generally are made better, perhaps even more holy by the pursuit of solutions (see a past blog – “Answers are Elusive” for a reflection on the power of pursuing “justice”). Is it Quixotic? Perhaps. But there is something uniquely unselfish and quietly heroic about the lives of people who refuse to give in to pessimism and hopelessness.

There are people like this all around us. Families that fund Jewish outreach programs and or Jewish day schools who both, in their own way, seek the continuity of the Jewish people.  Professionals across our community that quietly and anonymously care for our elderly parents, our developmentally disabled children or troubled youth in need of mental health counseling.  

The power of these actions is no less important because the individuals cannot alone achieve the continuity of the Jewish people or an end to the suffering of those in our midst. Their giving, their passion, their work is beautiful. Even more remarkably, if you ask them they will tell you that they are “just doing their part.”

These people are not bothered by what others might perceive as unsolvable challenges. They simply keep working, or giving, or caring. They don’t see problems as unsolvable. In fact, it was people just like this in an earlier generation that found a way to create a permanent homeland for the Jewish people. Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

    Michael Johnston is the President and CEO of the Jewish                Community Foundation of Greater Hartford.



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