In 1963, the late President John F. Kennedy delivered one of the most stirring and memorable speeches of his brief presidency to a throng of hundreds of thousands of Germans gathered in Berlin.
The Communists had erected the infamous “Berlin Wall” almost two years earlier, separating Communist East Berlin from free West Berlin. There appeared to be little hope for the future.
President Kennedy’s visit to West Berlin was intended to provide strength and encouragement to the people of Berlin, and that it most certainly did. In soaring rhetoric, he referred to those who questioned why the West was so implacably opposed to Communism, and proclaimed, “Let them come to Berlin!” Again and again, with great power, Kennedy challenged those who saw the spread of Communism as the inevitable wave of the future by proclaiming, “Let them come to Berlin!”
Most people who were alive then, or are students of history, remember that speech because of its closing. Saying that all free people are essentially citizens of Berlin, the President himself proclaimed proudly Ich bin ein Berliner; I, too, am a citizen of Berlin! It was surely a powerful moment, but that repeating refrain of “Let them come to Berlin!” has stayed in my consciousness even more powerfully than the more famous tagline of the speech.
I have thought a lot about that speech over the past few days, since, in my capacity as President of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis, I was invited to spend a day this past week at the annual International Convention of the United Synagogue Youth (best known as USY), held this year in Boston. Gathered together from all across North America were close to 800 USY’ers, approximately 150 staffers, mostly alumni of USY or one of its programs, and sundry other movement leaders like myself.
Having raised four children with my wife in a Conservative synagogue with a strong USY chapter, I am hardly a stranger to USY and its work. But a more substantive awareness of USY’s mission and powerful influence over its members came to me much later in life, as my upbringing in the world of what used to be “Modern Orthodoxy” did not include membership in USY. And, though I have been a part of countless kinnusim (gatherings of USY’ers over Shabbat) and regional conventions and get-togethers here in my own synagogues through the thirty-plus years of my rabbinate, I had never participated in what USY’ers respectfully call “IC;” International Convention. This was a first for me… and it was, indeed, memorable.
In session after session, whether at prayer services, meals, or lectures, and even– maybe especially– in free time, there was an amazing sense of spirit and positive energy that manifested itself in the way the USY’ers conducted themselves. They sang, they danced, they were just totally immersed in the joy of being with each other in a setting where they were so at home– celebrating their Jewishness, and happily declaring themselves proud to be a part of the Conservative movement.
At the opening session of the convention, when all of the close to 800 USY participants made their way into the huge convention hall singing and dancing and waving Israeli flags (as well as the banners of their own regions), my mind– without any conscious effort on my part – went back to that speech that President Kennedy delivered all those years ago in Berlin.
More than a few observers of the American Jewish community have made for themselves a cottage industry of predicting the imminent demise of the Conservative movement. After all, what with the demographic decline and loss of “market share,” if you will, these are, I am obliged to admit, not the best of times for us, our institutions, or our movement as a whole. That we are in a period of transition from what was to what ultimately will be is clear and not debatable.
But drawing a straight line from the crises of today to the imminent demise of the movement as a whole is not, I think, what the moment calls for. Clearly there is work that urgently needs to be done, and a creative reappraisal of where we are and where we’d like to go to is the shared responsibility of all leaders of the movement.
But anyone who stood where I stood earlier this week and saw and heard those hundreds of teens could not possibly have believed that this is a movement with no future. The future was staring us in the face. Yes, we have to provide those USY’ers, within their own communities, with what they desperately want and need in order to nurture their commitment and retain their loyalty. But the most important piece- the raw material- is there, and they reported for duty last week, en masse.
And so it was that, as I watched them make their way into that hall singing and dancing, I said to myself– first quietly, and then more full-throatedly, “Let them come to Boston!” Let all who would declare us dead or dying see what I saw, and I’d dare them to say that there is no hope for our future.
The road ahead for my movement is long and winding, and fraught with difficult decisions and painful choices. But as The Who once sang, “The Kids are Alright!” Yes they are… and thank you, USY, for providing us with a glimpse of a better future.
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.