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September 3, 2015 | 19th Elul 5775

2005 NFTY Convention Sermon


February 21, 2005

Los Angeles, California

Rabbi Eric Yoffie


Union for Reform Judaism 


Let me begin by asking you a few questions, to which you can respond by raising your hands:


How many of you have been to Israel?

How many of you have experienced anti-Semitism in school?

How many of you support President Bush’s policies on Iraq?

How many of you have a parent who is not Jewish? 

How many of you have been to a Jewish camp?

How many of you come from homes where Shabbat candles are lit on most Friday nights?


I asked these questions because I wanted to get to know you a little bit better.  I am here as a rabbi and as President of the Union, but also as a representative of your parents’ generation.  I too am a parent, and my own kids are just a few years older than you.  And as a parent, I know that you are not the easiest kids in the world to understand.


But I have a confession to make.  Part of the problem is us.  In many ways, it seems to me, we have done our best to ruin you.


We have given you a world in which television has turned everything into a contest, from dating to adoption; a world in which you can’t turn on the TV without seeing an endless array of dimwits babbling on about eating bugs, losing weight, or remodeling a bathroom; a world in which cash is the point, Donald Trump the role model, and where everyone wants to be a millionaire.


Even worse, we—your moms and dads—have fallen into the trap of competitive parenting, and too often we want to live through you.  And so we have turned your existence into a relentless treadmill.  We want you to get into college, and not only that but the best college.  We are sometimes more interested in your resumes than in your lives.  We send you to specialized learning centers to supplement high school, and to summer camps that concentrate on college prep rather than soccer.


And worst of all, we don’t always have time for you.  Studies tell us that the majority of children have fewer than 10 minutes of significant and meaningful conversation with their parents each week.


But now the good news. 


There is no reason for despair.  You are a pretty resilient bunch, and we haven’t ruined you yet.


Yes, you may tattoo your bodies, wear rings through your noses, and drive us crazy.  But most of you have adjusted to the realities that we have thrust upon you, and you have shown that you can jump through the hoops necessary to survive.


Not only that.  Most of you are looking for an alternative to the more-more-more, rush-rush-rush, me-me-me of the modern world.  And you are interested in far more than brand name clothes.  You know that the accumulation of wealth and the achievement of comfort are not the main goal of the Jew. In fact, most of you are looking for a way to find a sense of purpose, to bring meaning to your lives, and to gain access to your Jewish heritage.


What do you know about Judaism?  Not as much as I would like, but more than most people admit.  And you do understand that Judaism begins with community, and you join NFTY because it offers the community that you seek.


And I believe that the communities you create in NFTY are often interesting and exciting places, filled with your passion, caring, and sexual energy.  Indeed, they are often more meaningful than the Jewish communities that adults create. 


When it comes to prayer, for example, too many adults have rewired their buildings but not their brains.  But you kids are smart.  You don’t want to sit in orderly rows and sing hymns interspersed with bulletin-board announcements.  You don’t want to listen to long lectures called sermons.  And when you sing, you prefer flowing songs that seem to last forever while you stand enraptured in an atmosphere of worship.


What you want is heartfelt music and prayer, authentic Jewish ritual, Shabbat candles, and the loving embrace of friends.  What you create in your youth group and camp communities is a Judaism that is experiential, participatory, and connective.


So yes, you are terrific, and you are our future.  But I am not here just to tell you how great you are.  I am also here to challenge you.  Because all Jewish communities, including yours, must aspire to be better than they are, more deeply Jewish, more open and exciting, more creative and inspiring.


Not long ago I was visiting a congregation and I asked a Temple board member if her daughter was in youth group.  “No,” she said.  “She went for a little while, but then she stopped.  She said that the NFTY kids were mean.”


Her response stopped me dead in my tracks.  There was nothing I could say.


We all know that high school is a time for groups and cliques.  In the average high school you have the jocks here, and the geeks there, and the drama people over there, and the druggies somewhere else.  When I talk to kids, I hear a lot about the struggle to be included and the endless infighting among their peers.  They tell me how much of high school is about trying to find someone who cares.


But if a youth group is to be a Jewish place, a place for holiness, then it must be a safe place, the kind of place where nobody is mocked or derided, where nobody is “in” and nobody is “out.”  Where there are Jews, just Jews, and where everyone cares.


Is your youth group that kind of place?  Is it the kind of place where everyone is welcome?  Kids who are cool and kids who are not so cool.  Kids who are thin and kids who are heavy.  Kids who are straight and kids who are gay. 


My first challenge to you is this:  Is your youth group an elite club that is used to push others away, and to distance yourselves from anyone who is different?  If so, work with your friends, and change it.  Make it the kind of youth group that strengthens our Judaism and binds us to each other, while, at the same time, making it possible to reach out to others.


And now my second challenge:  I urge you to engage your mind.  I urge you to think.  Not only that, I urge you to rebel, or, at least, to be far more rebellious than you have been until now.


This may seem like a strange request coming from a bona fide adult and member of the Jewish establishment.  Many people think that you are too rebellious already.  But I am not so sure.


I love talking to you and being with you.  But teenagers today, it seems to me, are too often non-contentious and afraid to offend.  Their inclination is to go along.  They want to be tolerant and understanding and laissez-faire.  The result is that they are too deferential to authority and unwilling to challenge or contradict a teacher or a rabbi or anyone else.


What I see, at least some of the time, is a reluctance to debate; a failure to engage with the world; a failure to test one’s convictions against the logic and passions of others.


But Judaism is not an abstract theory.  It cannot be understood from a distance.  It requires involvement and intellectual engagement. 


Let me give you an example of the dangers of “going along.”


Almost everyone here will go to college.  When you get there you will be confronted by very smart and clever people who will argue that Israel has no right to exist.  That the Palestinians are always right and the Israelis are always wrong.  That the Israelis are conquerors and the Palestinians are victims.  That we have to accept, or at least “understand,” Palestinian terror.  And by the way, you will also meet not a few Jews who will tell you that you have to support every single action of the Israeli government, whether you agree with it or not.


What will you do?  Will you turn away because you don’t know what to say?  Will you smile, and be polite and accepting, because you don’t want to offend?


Well, I certainly hope not.  But what makes you think that you will know the answers then if you don’t know the answers now?  So you need to spend some time in your youth groups searching for those answers, arguing and debating them, finding out where you stand.


And I would like to believe that you will do this.  Because it seems to me that many of you do want access to your heritage.  That you seek direction and are eager for understanding.  That you know, in your heart, that knowledge of Judaism is not gained with ease and sustained without effort.  And you know too that Judaism is about morality, character, and virtue, and that Jews who don’t stand up for something fall for anything.


Too many Jews have stopped thinking.  But we need more from you.  We need you, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, to cease being a spectator and become a partisan and a partner.


And now my third and final challenge.  I challenge you to believe in God.  Not in God the way others define it, but in God the way Jews define it.  I worry that too many of you do not believe in God, not because you are incapable of belief, or even unwilling to believe, but because you do not know what it means for a Jew to believe in God.


To find the answer, of course, you need only look in the Torah. In Deuteronomy 10:18 it states:  “The Eternal your God upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.”


There you have it.  It couldn’t be simpler.  For the Jew, to believe in God is to care about God’s special children:  the poor, the homeless, the widow, the stranger.


Why is this important now?  Because we live in a selfish time in America.  We live at a time when the gap between rich and poor has never been greater.  We live at a time when 45 million Americans have no health insurance and no way to provide basic medical care to their children.  We live at a time when fundamentalists of all varieties, who claim to  believe in God, spend all their time telling other people what they should or should not be doing in the privacy of their bedrooms, but don’t seem to care a whit about what happens to the poor in their midst.  I’ll tell you the truth:  it makes me ill.  What kind of a God, exactly, do these people believe in?


And so, when nobody is speaking for the poor, we need you to speak for the poor.  We need you to lead the battle against spiritual isolationism, against all of those, Christian and Jew, who use church and synagogue as a hideout and an escape from suffering and injustice. 


Do not misunderstand me.  Jews are not liberal or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans.  But carved on the marrow of our Jewish bones is the ethical demand:  You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brothers. 


What guides us is not liberalism or conservatism, but mentshlikeit and rachmones.  We address our God as El Mole Rachamim—God full of compassion.  And compassion for the Jew means to act—to intervene in the world and to stop the suffering of those who must do without.


We Jews are sometimes accused of being “bleeding hearts.”  Well, maybe.  But that is a good thing, not a bad thing.  What concerns me is the opposite:  that the indifference of our politicians and the greed of our corporations will thicken our hearts and grind down our Jewish sensibilities.  What concerns me is that we will grow accustomed to the hungry and jobless and the exploited immigrant workers who are locked into stores at night.  What concerns me is that our hearts will become so petrified that when we see homeless bodies on the street, our major concern will be stepping over them so that we do not trip.


You know, it is not an accident that the Torah warns us against hardness of heart, and Pharoah is evil precisely because he hardens his heart and does not see the suffering of his Hebrew slaves.


And so this is my concluding message to you:


For centuries, we Jews have passed on our faith and way of life to our children.  No other people has cared more for its children than the Jewish people, invested more energy in them, and shaped the whole of its religious life in order to hand on to them what it finds precious.


Our responsibilities as parents and teachers are heavy, but then, so are your responsibilities as children and students.  And I have no doubt whatever that you will meet them.


Therefore, my final request, my final challenge is this:


Be concerned with the health of your Jewish heart.  Jews can be smart but they must never be cruel.  And it is far better to have a bleeding heart than a frozen soul.


So remember:  to be Jewish is to be a healer, a fixer, and a pursuer of justice.  To be Jewish is to be a blessing to all humankind.


Ken yehi ratzon.  May it be God’s will.





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