In the last few months I’ve had a couple of pretty amazing experiences. A month ago I went to Budapest with a team of colleagues to teach at a Jewish school there. And right now I’m on a plane in Tel Aviv with a group of students, returning home from a whirlwind trip that included running in parts of the Jerusalem Marathon and an amazing Shabbos. It’s been a series of experiences that seen in tandem make a fascinating contrast. Lemme ‘splain.
Our trip to Budapest was an attempt to both learn about the Jewish community there and also to strengthen it by teaming with teachers in a community school. (1) There were many memorable moments but perhaps for me the one that stands out was our dinner layl Shabbos. We hosted a dinner at the local Moishe House (2) for about ten twentysomethings, most of them finishing up their professional schooling. It was a super fun dinner, with games and Torah, and laughter. During one moment in the meal we went around the table to share a bit about our “Jewish stories”; how do we practice Judaism, what does it mean to us, favorite Jewish memories, that sort of thing. One of the young women there shared that when she was 18 she was at her father’s funeral and she noticed that he was being buried in a Jewish cemetery. It was at that moment that she found out she was Jewish. Soon after that she went on Birthright and now she’s starting to learn more.
This, it turned out was not atypical. Many young people found out they were Jewish after someone else outed them with an expletive or they themselves called someone an F-in’ Jew, only to be told by a parent not to say that because they were also an F-in’ Jew. Two or three whole generations are so deeply scarred by the Holocaust and by communism that all their associations with Judaism are negative. It’s something to be ashamed of and whispered in secrecy. That’s starting to change. There is a renaissance blooming, but the task is great.
And now Israel with these kids. (We’ve taken off finally. Not to worry, during the delay I had half the plane singing to the point where two men jumped up to dance and one guy pulled out a drum to beat a rhythm. True story.)
My 8 students from Beth Tfiloh raised money for Shalva (3) and then participated on Team Shalva in the Jerusalem Marathon. Most of the kids (and I) ran the half marathon and a few ran the 10k. (I’m not sure I can claim to have run the whole 21.1 kilometers, but I finished. Without assistance from Magen David Adom this time, so moving in the right direction.). Besides my 8 kids there were a couple of hundred high students from all over North America and beyond. On Shabbos there was a shabbaton for all the kids and it was at times sublime and at times ridiculous, just the way great Shabbatonim are. For me a highlight was the “slow shira” (what in the old days we called ebbing) where all of these kids were swaying and singing shirei kodesh (holy songs). Kids that just met found that they were connected through Shabbos and Torah. And I couldn’t help but think that even if we forget about the tzedaka, and we forget about Shabbos, it was a huge win for Jewish continuity. These kids were having such a powerful feeling of connection to each other, to the Jewish people, to Israel in a way that struck me as more important somehow because they came from so many different places. If we had only come for that Dayeinu.
These two glimpses into what’s happening with Klal Yisrael right now seem important as they are different. Adults on the one hand that are just starting to explore being Jewish or are scared to, and our teens on the other hand, who were in that moment so connected. I long believed that at this point in the twenty first century we have to be treat every student as if he or she has an option; in or out. How do we make sure that everyone (read: EVERY ONE) opts in? I know that many people this note reaches feel comfortable that the home they have created obviates the possibility that any of their kids could opt out. And maybe it does and to you I say, yasher koach and G-d bless you. I’m my few years on this planet, though, I’ve seen all sorts of families and lots of kids, and well, that’s what I think. Assume that anyone that engages Jewishly has chosen to do so; there is no more inertia. So how do we create a world where all our kids, wherever their families are religiously, opt in?
Let me share the dvar Torah I said to the kids on Shabbos. The Rav tries to identify the root, the source for the sin of the golden calf. How could such a mistake have been made? He explains that whereas Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden was a sin because they thought themselves in competition with the Creator and the Creator’s equal (who is He to tell me not to eat from that tree? I’m the boss of this garden!) the sin of the Golden Calf was based on thinking too little of themselves. When Moshe was “missing” they lost hope. The Jewish people thought, “How can we connect to G-d without Moshe? We can’t do this without him!” And that lead to trying to create an intermediary, or a tangible G-d, or however you understand this sin. But the point is they felt incapable of having a relationship with the Divine. They felt like they just can’t do it. I told the kids that for us, the message of the cheit haigel is, “you CAN do this!” Hashem loves you and wants a relationship. Appreciate the fact that in avodas Hashem (service of G-d) you can do anything. The same koach that a person taps into in training for a run (a push for one more minute, one more .1 of a mile, hang in there!) is the same koach you need to grow in all the aspects of avodas Hashem, not just Chessed but Torah and Tfilah too.
I’m not under the illusion that I know all the answers or that I even know all the questions precisely. But I do wonder if this is a message we are giving enough to our children and students. . I know in Budapest these young adults had not heard it before. I’m hoping that our Jewish day school kids all have. Hashem loves you. You can do this.
(1) This effort was spearheaded and facilitated by SOS International, http://www.sosintl.org/ , an organization that is focused on strengthening Jewish communities in central and Eastern Europe, in part by pairing up schools.
(2) A Moishe House is a house, or in this case an apartment, where the Jewish Twentysomething residents can live for free or greatly reduces rents. In exchange, the young adults provide Jewish engagement activities for other adults in their age cohort. (https://www.moishehouse.org/)
(3) Shalva is an organization that provides services, free of charge, to children with special needs and their families. The work they do is personal, impactful and holy. (http://www.shalva.org/new/)