Teens Make World Saner Place
It is wonderful to be here on this Shabbat.
I would like to join in the words of praise that you have already heard for Rabbi Michael Mellen. Rabbi Mellen is gentle, and caring, and more devoted to kids than anyone I know. He has been a truly great director of NFTY, and we have been blessed to have him.
I don’t often talk to teenagers, and I am glad to do so now, because I do not think it is easy to be a teenager.
Looking back on my years and my kids’ years in high school, it occurs to me that the high school years are in some ways the worst period of your life—the most awkward, uncomfortable, and embarrassing of all times, and in many ways, the most fruitless. It is astonishing how little they teach you in high school, or at least, how little you absorb of what they are trying to teach.
College is set up to let you be creative, but high school is not. From what I can see, the system is designed to prevent challenging ideas from ever reaching a student.
Add to that the fact that you get zits and hormones when you’re a teenager. And the fact that if you are a teenager who wants to be daring and creative, we adults don’t make it easy, because most of us, by the time we are 40, are as set in our ways as train tracks.
And add to all that the fact that we live in an insane world.
Times are hard, and more people are out of work than ever before.
Our country is sliding deeper and deeper into debt, piling up obligations that your generation will have to pay.
We pay absurd salaries to celebrities who aren’t exactly role models of how we should live our lives.
And we over-consume our natural resources.
All in all, America is a less hopeful place than it once was—and Canada is as well.
And now the big question: how do we keep sane in a crazy world?
Rabbi Harold Schulweis offers a simple answer: We are Jews, and Jews find sanity in sanctity, in emunah—faith.
But ours is not a cheap faith, or a passive faith. Ours is not a faith that claims: “God will fix it.” That is not faith; that is
We Jews never ask “why did God not intervene?” without asking “why don’t we intervene?” We never ask “where is God?” without asking “where am I?”
Every time you protest hatred, you show your faith and prove the presence of God.
Every time you help the poor and defend the stranger, you show your faith and prove the presence of God.
And every time you light Shabbat candles, bless the wine, and have a Shabbat meal around the table, you are creating an oasis of sanity in the midst of craziness, and you prove the presence of God.
None of this is easy. Having faith in an insane world is never easy.
But we Jews have been there before. In 5000 years we have experienced everything—good times and bad, freedom and slavery, ecstasy and despair.
And even in the worst times, we never resigned from the world. We deal with the world by repairing it, healing it, sanctifying it, improving it. Whatever the challenge or the crisis, we come back again and again.
And here we are once more, at this convention, studying, praying, singing, and dancing—as Jews.
What are some of the specific things that you can do as Reform Jews to make this world a saner place?
First, you can start by scratching the word “hate” from your vocabulary. If you don’t like someone, say you don’t like him. If you disagree with someone, say you disagree with her. But “hate” is a dirty, ugly word. Lo tisna et achicha bi’levavecha, “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart” (Lev. 17:19). Hate has no place in our lives.
Second, you can decide that you will not surrender to bigotry or to bullying. Not of gay kids, and not of anyone else.
This is a topic that you are dealing with this weekend. Bullying takes many forms: verbal attacks, social isolation, cyber bullying. And we have all read with horror of 13-year-olds and 15-year-olds who have shot themselves and hanged themselves because they were humiliated and demeaned by others—because they were different, or gay, or just lonely.
Very few of the people in this room would engage in bullying. You know what Judaism has to say about that. But the question is not what you do yourself, but what you are prepared to tolerate in others. And the fact is that bullying exists only because too many people are willing to put up with it.
So the question is: what are you prepared to do?
Will you pass a resolution? We Jews love resolutions! We meet, debate, and adopt one resolution after another. But resolutions without action are meaningless—worse, in fact, because they divert our attention from real answers. And the only thing that matters is the actions that you take. If there is gay-baiting in your school are you prepared to step forward and demand that it stop? If there is bullying on line are you prepared to engage the bully and say “enough”?
I believe that you are. I believe that you want to do what is right.
I believe that you are prepared to be upstanders and not bystanders.
Third, you can decide that just as individuals must not be bullied, groups must not be bullied. I spoke to you two years ago about hatred of Muslims in America, and since then, this hatred has gotten worse in every way. Over 40% of the American people now say that the values of Islam are at odds with American values. Leading public figures have compared Muslims to Nazis and have more or less suggested that American Muslims are not loyal to their country. Even worse, many of those who are saying this profess to be religious people.
Well, we are religious people too, and we are proud to stand with the forces of inclusion and to oppose the forces of intolerance in this land. Let me be clear: we reject extremism wherever it is found, but we will not demonize or marginalize Muslims in America.
And the time to stand up for our Muslim neighbors is now, when they need it most. Yes, lots of groups have known the fire of bigotry. And with time it passes, because America is a great country.
But the test is: when the fires of intolerance are roaring unconstrained, will we raise our voices in protest? Will we stand with Muslim Americans when emotions are raw and the danger is greatest? We will, I believe. Because that is the moral course. And if Jews are to be free and safe in America, and Latinos are to be free and safe in America, and gays are to be free and safe in America, then everyone must be free and safe in America.
Fourth, you can stand up for the Jewish state. Because Israel too must not be bullied. And must never be forsaken.
Last night you saw the video on Israel. The lesson of that video is that there must be an Israel, because without Israel we are a truncated, incomplete people; and that any distancing from Israel for any reason is Jewishly unacceptable; it flies in the face of everything we know about Jewish commitment and Jewish history.
We need not agree with all of Israel’s policies. Israel has its share of religious extremists and fanatic nationalists, who work hard to hijack Judaism. But we will not let them; working together, we will take Judaism back. And this we know: Israel is a good country in a bad neighborhood, where, most of the time, the best impulses of its people determine the direction of the state.
We need you to visit Israel, experience Israel, and defend her against the lies and distortions of those who hate her, including those Jews who defend every group but their own.
Now, I do not suggest that when you hear Israel criticized, you jump up and launch into a rendition of “Hatikvah.” I do suggest that you train your ears to distinguish between criticisms that are sincere and those that suggest hostility to the essential proposition of the Jewish state.
In our Torah portion for this week, we read about the children of Israel building the golden calf. Remember: when this happened, God forgave them. But later, when the Israelites rejected the Land of Israel by refusing to enter the Land, God did not forgive them. This is the tradition’s way of telling us how important the Land of Israel is, and, by extension, how important the State of Israel is. Simply put, the State of Israel represents the triumph of the Jewish spirit over the chaos of history. And our connection to Israel must therefore be unconditional and non-negotiable. And again: Go there and see Israel for yourself. You will not be disappointed.
Fifth, you can spend some time thinking about what it means to be Jewish in the world today. It means studying our tradition and taking pride in our history. It makes a difference that the blood of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Maimonides, Ben Gurion and Golda Meir runs through our veins. At the same time, we must think about not only what Jews were, but what they are; about what they now believe, and not only what they once believed; about how Jews act today, and not only how they acted long ago.
What some adults don’t understand is that Jewish pride cannot be inherited; it must be earned. The critical question is: what are we proud of now? Knowledge of the past is not enough; we need a Jewish present. And we are looking to you, through your actions and enthusiasm, to help us create one.
Sixth and last, you can think about how you will deal with the conventional temptations that teens have faced since the beginning of time: sex, alcohol, and drugs.
The general rule with sex is that it’s a good thing. Freud was right: it is the motor that makes the world run. People who like sex are happier and less violent; they don’t go to war because they would rather stay home under the covers.
The general rule with drugs is that they are always bad.
The general rule with alcohol is that moderation is the key.
But my broader point is that you are not yet adults, and each of these temptations could potentially be a killer, emotionally and physically. You will benefit from finding a standard outside of your own feelings before you decide to indulge. And the place to start is with your parents, your rabbis, your youth groups, and the teachings of Judaism.
Since I have mentioned your parents, let me say a word about them.
Do me a favor: from time to time, give them a break. They were not always as boring as they are now. The reason they are the way they are is that they spend so much time worrying about and providing for you. They were a lot more interesting before you came along. And they have worries of their own—bosses they don’t get along with, fears about how they will pay for college, problems with their own parents. So by all means, speak up for yourself, and remind them that you are no longer in the 4th grade; a lot of the time you will be right and they will be wrong. But they care about you a lot, so take their feelings into account before you give them a hard time.
As you work to keep the world sane and to have faith, it is important to enjoy yourselves as you go. After all, God tells you that you are an infinitely precious person. And nothing matches the sensation of discovering your own power to advance justice and fix the world.
And this above all: look around. There is much consolation to be found in the knowledge that you are not alone; that ours is a community of friends and family, of camps and youth groups, of rabbis, cantors, and youth advisors. And the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition are with us always.
So enjoy. Have a wonderful, productive, and joyous convention. Shabbat Shalom.