To the Shalhevet Community, friends, classmates, rabbis, and teachers,
In 32 days, I will be a college graduate. For me, graduating at Yankee Stadium is just mind-blowing. I love the New York Yankees. I love their pinstriped uniforms, their winning history, and Derek Jeter. Every spring, when the season begins, I am just a little happier with the solace of knowing that no matter what happens at school or in life, the Yankees are playing. They were a constant throughout my childhood. However, I am not a Yankee. And while I am a New Yorker, I was not even labeled as one until my family moved here from Rhode Island when I was four and a half years old. I am a college student now, but very soon, I will not be. There is only one trait that I can be defined as from now until the end of time. I am a Jew.
You might not know this but 32 is a very significant number in Judaism. In gematria it means “lev” or heart. But it also has a different meaning. On October 6th, 1965, in what was the first game of the World Series between the Minnesota Twins and the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the greatest baseball players of all-time, Sandy Koufax, refused to pitch because the game fell on Yom Kippur. Koufax, who wore number 32, was not a religious man by any means. However, he stayed true to his convictions, which are summed up in the following quote from a 1999 Sports Illustrated article, “He always put team before self, modesty before fame, God before the World Series.” It just happened that the team in this case was the Jewish religion, fame did not sway his beliefs, and he had the understanding that the Jewish belief in God has long transcended the World Series and baseball. Koufax did not forget who he was. Neither should we.
We are at one of the most tumultuous points in the history of the Jewish people. Yes, you could make an argument that every moment is a tumultuous point in the history of the Jewish people. I thoroughly believe though, that today is different. For two thousand years, our people were left stateless, and were at the mercy of the ruling power in the country in which they lived. Not anymore. We have Israel. We have a place to go, a place we can call home. However, as the State of Israel blossoms before us, the situation for Jews around the world is deteriorating. 2014 was a year ripe with anti-Semitism and hatred towards Jews. We see it not just with our own eyes, but online, on television, in the newspaper, and elsewhere. Militant Islamic terror groups and states threaten to destroy Israel and the Jews. Many countries all around the world believe Jews to be a burden on their society. Even in the United States, some politicians cause us to think twice about the things they say and the actions they take in regard to the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
I must admit, I am scared. My fear does not come from anti-Semitism though. Anti-Semitism is merely a phase, which will not reach the core of the Jewish people. If it did, we would not be here today. My fear stems from every time our parents’ generation or our grandparents’ generation tells us that we are the Jewish hope for the future. Think about the importance of what these people are saying. The Jewish people have been around in some form or another for thousands of years. Literally. We are just the latest chapter of it. Whether one believes in God or not is irrelevant when you consider how lucky we are to be part of the chosen people, and all that comes with it. What is distressing though, is too often we forget that when our grandparents were our age, many of them were fighting for the right to live as Jews. Some might say that our generation in America is too comfortable living as the second generation removed from the greatest atrocity that has ever befallen the Jewish people. I believe this is true. We are too complacent. The only way the Jewish people will ever be destroyed is from the inside. It begins with each community, when the leaders lose sight of who they are leading, and the direction in which they are leading. It also happens in how individuals choose to conduct their lives.
In the Haggadah we read, “In every generation, it is every person’s duty to regard himself as though he personally had come out of Egypt.” As we know, this part of the Haggadah is about imagining ourselves as Israelites being redeemed from slavery. Taking it a step further, it is a metaphor, imploring us to feel as though we have been part of every time God has redeemed our people. We have to know where we come from, in order to know where we are going.
My grandfather was one of the greatest people I have ever known. His fervor for Judaism and living a proud Jewish life is something that has inspired me to do the same. For in truth, I love being Jewish. He passed away when I was in eighth grade. One of the deepest sorrows of my life is that I was not cognizant enough when I was younger of the struggles he went through in order to live as a free Jew. What I do remember are some of the boisterous conversations when my grandfather would talk about politics or about life in America. His points were always from a Jewish perspective. Why? Because being Jewish and defending Jewish ideals was of the utmost importance to him.
We are a very fortunate group of students. We attend top tier academic institutions, whether it is New York University, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, or other colleges in New York City. With our education comes a responsibility. Students, professors, and staff look at us as a representation of Jews all around the world. Every action we take, whether we like it or not, is scrutinized because Jews are the most dissected group of people around. If we do not care about Jewish ideals, morality, values, or traditions, who else will?
This past Thursday, we observed Yom HaShoah. On Wednesday, Israel will observe Yom Hazikaron, followed by the joyous celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, on Thursday. These days should not be observed by only those affected, Holocaust survivors for the former and Israelis for the latter. That would be forgetting who we are. We are part of a greater Jewish family, where our struggles should be felt by all, and the successes of the Jewish world celebrated with innate happiness. We should not stand by silently while those who seek to destroy us use cunning and deception. We should go out and seek to defend our people, who wish to live peaceful lives without the existential dangers that have and continue to threaten our existence.
We are the leaders of the future. For some, the future begins in 32 days. For others the future begins in a year or two. But for all of us, there will be a future, a Jewish future, because that is who we are, and who we always will be.
While many of you might not remember this letter or this Shabbat, I ask that you only remember who you are: part of the greatest people in the history of time.
May we all have the strength to lead Jewish lives, have courage in our religion and traditions, and provide inspiration to those around us.
Joshua Zachary Lavine