As I attend your graduation today, I think of the many achievements you have achieved, and of the many challenges which lay ahead of you. You leave the Jewish Day School armed with a strong Jewish identity, a command of our Holidays, traditions, and texts, showered with love and encouragement. You have grown up in a family-like greenhouse environment in which each and every one of you is recognized, appreciated, and cared for. We have become a family.
And yet, now you enter a new phase in your lives. You are moving forward into a world that is changing much faster than your own teachers can perceive or fully recognize. You are moving into a world in which things change so fast that even you, generation Z, cannot fully catch up with. Sadly, many of these changes do not carry the same positive implications change used to carry. Global and domestic antisemitism are rising by double digits every year. Hate and partisanship and tearing through the fabric of society, and facts and news are no longer matters of consensus.
This leaves you with a challenge, a responsibility, and an entitlement.
I encourage you to embrace all of those with the fullest measure.
The challenge. You will be challenged. In ways, you did not imagine. Rampant antisemitism, an era of “post-truth”, and a rising culture of hate. When challenged about your Judaism and commitment to goodness I say: be fearless and be good. Do not allow anyone intimidate you, do not allow any challenge to deter you, and do not allow any bigotry to faze you. Stand up to those who you need to stand up to, and stand up for, what is your responsibility to stand up for. Live up to what is your moral responsibility.
Anti-Semitism, hate, and discrimination, all thrive in the absence of strong opposition. I once heard Brett Stephens speak to pro-Israel college activists saying:” if you are afraid of the idea of people hating you, you will lose. If you are Jewish and want to stand up for what you believe in, you must be prepared to be hated. Perhaps to even like it”. If you are doing the right thing, fear nothing. When you see something say something. It works with crime and it works with combating bigotry and hatred.
Fearlessness and courage, though, must be coupled with goodness. Recognize those who are being kind to you, those who just want to better understand you, and those who need you to stand up for them and protect them. Live up to Isaiah’s call “And He said to me, “You are My servant, Israel, of whom I will be proud.” (Isaiah 49:3)
Remember, you are leaders, not followers. You have been entrusted with the torch of doing what is right, no matter what others think. You have the ability to inspire others to do good. Make sure you live up to that. You are ambassadors of good will. live up to that with the dignity and courage we know you posses.
Entitlement. Always remember that you are entitled to a better world. You are entitled to a world in which hate, discrimination, and antisemitism do not exist. You are entitled to be proud of your heritage, of who you are. No one will, and no one can take that away from you. You are the heirs to the oldest and most respected religion the world has ever seen. You are the children of Abraham Isaac and Jacob. Don’t let anyone ever take that away from you.
As you move on to the next stage in your lives, always make sure that it is a beginning, not an end. President John Adams once wrote “I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be an essential instrument for civilizing the nations … ”.
The Torah has been the veritable epicenter of who we are as a people and has transformed this world and Western civilization in a powerful way. Let this day of your graduation mark a beginning of study, not the end of it. Allow yourself to always refer back to the Torah, find time to study it—by phone, online, or in person. A great rabbi once said:” “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study Torah, I keep quiet and let God speak to me.” Let God continue to talk to you.
And finally, with tears in my eyes, I say: thank you, thank you thank you. Thank you for being such amazing students with such a Joie de vivre. Thank you for being such a model of what Rabbi Chanina stated in the Talmud “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students” (Ta’anit 7a). Thank you for being so engaged, thinking, respectful and for being so kind to one another. May you continue to grow and thrive and serve as a model to Isaiah’s prophecy: “And I placed My words into your mouth, and with the shadow of My hand I covered you, to plant the heavens and to found the earth and to say to Zion: you are My people.”
With deep respect, admiration, and full confidence in each and every one of you.