Ten of our teenagers from the Jacksonville Jewish Center just returned from what I have no doubt was the best week of their lives: USY International Convention in Boston, Massachusetts, the annual convention of our high school youth group, United Synagogue Youth. I know it was the best week of their lives because I still distinctly remember my first International Convention in Chicago and how that was the spark that led me to where I am today as a rabbi. While we were all busy making that “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” inside joke — which isn’t even really an inside joke anymore — about spending December 25th eating Chinese food and catching a movie, they were screaming at the top of their lungs, full of ruach, singing zemirot, Jewish and Hebrew songs, making new friends, and showing so much pride for being Jewish. I asked them, after spending a week with almost a thousand other Jewish teenagers from across North America, what was their favorite part? What stood out the most? Was it the singing? The activities? The discussion groups? The learning sessions? The staying up late? The making new friends? The end of convention dance? The meeting that boy or girl for another region? No.
They told me that their most memorable experience was the rally. You see, a thousand teenagers and staff came together, with signs, speeches, and song, in Copley Square, in downtown Boston, to rally against gun violence. Think about it: we were out eating lo mein and seeing Les Mis on the big screen and they were rallying to end gun violence. Not to end guns. Not to ban guns. But to end violence.
Among the speakers at the rally was Pastor Corey Brooks of the New Beginnings Church in Chicago. He has
dedicated his life to ending gun violence. Pastor Brooks, founder of Project HOOD, Helping Others Obtain Destiny, has been walking across America from Times Square in New York City to the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles to raise awareness of Gun Violence in both urban and suburban areas. Mourning 500th gun-related death in Chicago just this year, Pastor Brooks, a black preacher from inner city Chicago shared his prayer with a thousand Jewish teens from across the continent: “We are all brothers and sisters in creation. What affects me affects you,” he said. “We don’t need to accept gun violence as normal. No other country in the world accepts this as normal. Gun violence isn’t a black issue or white issue. It isn’t a rich issue or a poor issue, it’s a humanitarian issue,” he added. When he shared his prayer to a group of adults, it fell on deaf ears, so instead he shared it with teenagers, with children, whose future is still in front of them, like a blank canvas waiting to be painted.
Rabbi Dave Levy, Director of Teen Learning for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and a close friend and colleague shared with the USYers that this isn’t a political issue. It is not political to say enough is enough. It is not political to say that we want to be safe, we want to be freed of the violence. “Making a difference,” he told these teenagers “is more than just pressing ‘like’ on a Facebook post or retweeting someone else’s 140 character tweet.” He encouraged the future of the American Jewish community to hold unto the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory.
Last week was the 40th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Heschel, the great scholar, theologian, and social activist. Reflecting on his march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, arm and arm with Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., he prayed with his feet. That is what these 900 USYers were doing.They did not necessarily have policy answers or solutions. What they did have was a vision for a peaceful future.
As parents, we want to keep our children safe, but we acknowledge that this is impossible. We know that we cannot watch over them all the time. We cannot protect them all the time. So we turn to God and ask God to protect them, we ask God to watch over them. We say this every Shabbat: May God bless our sons like Ephraim and Menashe and our daughters like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. May God bless them and keep them safe.
In fact this Shabbat, as we read Parashat Vayechi and concluded the book of Genesis, we read of this exact account. As Jacob is laying on his deathbed, he blesses his children. When Jacob blesses his grandchildren, Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe, he shared these words:
HaElohim asher Hithalchu avotay lefanav Avraham v’Yitzhak, HaElohim Haro’eh Oti me’odi at Hayom Hazeh, Hamalakh HaGoel Oti mikol rah yevarech et hane’arim.
May the God in whose ways my forefathers Abraham and Isaac walked, May the God who has been my shephard from my birth until this very day, May the angel who has redeemed me from all evil and harm, bless these teenagers.
Jacob offers this blessing, knowing that ultimately Ephraim and Menashe are responsible for the blessings in their own lives. Their actions lead to blessings and ultimately bring blessings in Jacob’s and Joseph’s lives as well.
We always think we know what is best for our children and that is why we want to protect them. Thus, it is quite humbling when our children teach us life lessons and teach us about what is important. It is quite powerful when our children teach us how to pray with our feet.
I know we have though a lot about the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut in recent weeks. As individuals, we tend to have kneejerk reactions. It takes a terrible tragedy to remove the blinders from our eyes and tell us that something is not right. Then, another tragedy occurs and we forget about the previous one. What amazed me about this rally against gun violence was that this had nothing to do with Newtown, Connecticut or Aurora, Colorado or Portland, Oregon, or Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Yet, it had everything to do with these places.
This rally was not a kneejerk reaction. Planned many months ago, it was teenagers deciding that enough was enough and they wanted to take a stand. It seems that our children have a lot to teach us. Maybe we are consumed by darkness. Maybe we have become the pessimists who do not believe that the world can improve, who accept this as reality and do not believe the world can change. Thank God for our children who encourage us to believe that a better future is possible, who want to paint their blank canvases of the future with sunshine and rainbows in stand of darkness and bloodshed.
Some may say that it is just a rally, just an event. With little direction, no pressure to make any legislative changes, all it was was a show, a simple act; a small group participating in a small event. I disagree. For it was Margaret Mead, the American Cultural Anthropologist of the last century that said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has.” So let this rally be a rallying cry, a charge, and a lesson to us all.
Thank you to our children, both young and old, for blessing us, for inspiring us to change the world. This past Shabbat, as we ended the book of Genesis, we recited the words Hazak Hazak, v’Nitzhazek, through strength, strength, may we be strengthened. We say these words, to link the narrative of one book of Torah to the next. However, these words speak to the power, strength, and courage of community. we recite the Hebrew word for strength, Hazak, twice. Alone, we have no strength. Alone we are powerless, we are silenced. But together, as community, we are truly strengthened with the strength to make a difference. So let us go from strength to strength and let us all have the strength and courage to no longer remain silent. Let us bless our children with a better future by learning from the blessings that we have been taught by our USYers this past week. As we begin the secular year of 2013, may we also go from strength to strength and have the strength to stand up and pray with our feet.
Hamalakh HaGoel Oti mikol rah yevarech et hane’arim.
May the Angel that protects all of us from harm, bless these teens, bless all of our children, and bless all of us. Amen.
- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky