NFTY Convention, Los Angeles, CA Sermon by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations February 17, 2001
Last December, I attended a family Bar Mitzvah in Providence, Rhode Island. After the service I ran into a woman who used to be active with me in NFTY-Northeast. (In those days we called it NEFTY.) We had not seen each other in more than 35 years, but very quickly we began to exchange stories and memories from our NFTY days. I have forgotten a lot of what happened to me in high school, but it is interesting how much I remember from my youth group years. Both she and I had vivid recollections of friendships and romances-who went out with whom, who broke up with whom; and we also remembered the meetings and conclaves, the singing and programs-and we talked about all of this, recalling every detail. We both had friends that we had made in NFTY in the 1960s who are still our friends today; we both knew people who had met each other in NFTY and had gotten married a few years later.
So look around. When you are old like me, and there are a lot of things you don't remember, there is a good chance that you will recall all the details of this convention, and of other conclaves and youth group events; and there is an even better chance that some of the friends that you have made in NFTY, here and elsewhere, will be your friends for the rest of your life.
When I was your age, NFTY dominated my life. I spent more time at conclaves and youth group meetings than I did studying for exams. And why did I do this? Why was it so important to me?
I think it was because the teenage years are always difficult years, and it provided a safe place for me during those years. It gave me a sense of warmth and belonging. And it nurtured my independence and my capacity for leadership as I got ready to leave for college.
And this too: it was the first place where I felt a part of the Jewish community, the first place where I seriously studied Torah and experienced worship that was powerful and meaningful. NFTY was a nonjudgmental place where it was cool to be Jewish, and fun to be Jewish.
And for the first time I learned about Judaism in a way that made sense to me. Until then, like most kids, I just figured that everyone was pretty much the same. But what I learned in NFTY was that there is a reason to have walls; that we all need our own values, and rituals, and traditions; that without walls and categories to separate us, we have no identity or integrity-we are simply a mass of jelly and incoherence.
But at the same time, I learned what is special about Reform Judaism-that to be a Reform Jew is to understand that our walls should never be so high that we forget the people and the problems that exist on the other side. Reform Jews need walls just as much as everybody else, but we never ignore or demonize those on the outside. We know that we must constantly pull ourselves up to look over that wall and extend our hand, and in doing so, give expression to our common humanity.
That is what I learned when I was a teenager in NFTY, and what I learned then has been my philosophy of Judaism ever since.
How are you different?
But enough about me; let's talk about you. How different are things now than they were 35 years ago? How different are kids today from the way that we were then?
A lot of people who follow the media might think that they are very different. Look at the newspapers and the TV dramas. They tell the story of youth in perpetual crisis, failed by an awful educational system and by society's plummeting standards, corrupted by television, materialism, and violent video games. We read of kids who are out of shape, lazy, and immoral, and of teenagers who are explosive, aimless, sullen, and distant.
Is this today's reality? Is this you?
I don't think so. I have a teenager at home, so I know that you can be aggravating, annoying, and unwilling to clean your room. But on balance, when I look at the kids in our synagogues, I see something else altogether.
I see kids who are bright and full of optimism, and who look at the world with fresh eyes. I see young people who are passionate, inquisitive, and challenging, and who want to leave their mark on the world. I see teenagers who are independent, entrepreneurial, and who watch less TV than any other age group.
Also, despite a popular culture that has descended to new levels of depravity, despite gangsta rap and Internet porn and really stupid "reality TV," I see the sharpest declines ever in teen violence, sex, illegitimacy, and drug use. In other words, I have stopped listening to the simple-minded, moralistic critics who insist on seeing you as impressionable morons--as the type of kids who watch a violent movie and immediately go out and perform a violent act. Give me a break. What you have demonstrated is exactly the opposite--that you are perfectly capable of seeing entertainment as fantasy, and that it usually has no connection to the way that you lead your lives.
And this too: In a world where technology drives everything, technology runs in your blood. Technology is about relentless change, and change favors the young. You learn and relearn things faster than your parents, and you are far more likely than your mother or father to be the tech guru in the family. Therefore, when you demand responsibility and respect from the older generation, you are very likely to get it. Because adults don't always have the answers any more.
But now the tough questions: Does your technological expertise translate into Jewish expertise? Does the sophistication that you demonstrate in every area of your lives mean that you are sophisticated in your Judaism?
And the honest answer is: Usually not.
Your generation is more advanced, and more impressive, and more accomplished than my generation in every respect that I can think of. Except for one. Except for your Judaism.
I am not saying necessarily that you are much less Jewish than we were. But you are not necessarily any more Jewish either.
Let me ask you a question: If someone who did not know you were to follow you around for a day, at the end of the day would that person know that you are Jewish? Would you have done enough distinctively Jewish things during that time so that someone could tell you are Jewish?
The point of my talk this Shabbat morning is really very simple. It is to convince you, first, that you really need what Judaism has to offer. And it is to convince you, second, that we in the Reform Jewish community really need what you have to offer.
Why you and Judaism each need the other?
Why do you need Judaism? Because for all of your sophistication, and idealism, and technological adeptness, you are often more isolated than ever before. Because your parents are often too busy with their own pursuits to be involved with you. Because the average teenager spends 20% of his or her waking hours alone. I repeat: 20%!
Because like all people, and especially young people, you sometimes feel bewildered and perplexed about being human. Because as much as you want to succeed, you know that achieving wealth and comfort are not the primary goals of humankind.
And therefore, when I look at you, what I see is a hunger for belonging and a craving for community. What I see, just below the surface, is a need for holiness, for tradition, for a connection to the sacred. What I see is a desire for direction, affirmation, and good moral decisions.
And, to be honest, I see parents who are sometimes able to help you, and sometimes are not. Because, let's admit it, sometimes parents get it and sometimes they don't. Sometimes, despite their best intentions, they are spiritually bankrupt themselves.
But now the good news: What Judaism and NFTY have to offer is what you are looking for. Judaism is a warm and caring religion in which each person can find his or her own niche. Judaism is about being part of a people, and a community, and a tradition. Judaism is about cultivating a passion for justice and always caring about wrongs done to other people. And Judaism is about Ahavat Yisrael- love for those who share our commitment to the holy.
That's why you need Judaism. At a time of spiritual emergency, when so many are ignorant and empty of heart, you are very fortunate to be part of a tradition of such deep humanity and intellectual splendor. And to turn your back on that tradition would be very, very dumb.
And why does Judaism need you? Again, let's be completely honest.
We need you because too many of the adults in our synagogues have gotten lazy and complacent. They have become passive spectators in Jewish life, rather than active partners. Worst of all, they have stopped thinking. What they learned about Judaism they learned long ago, and they are satisfied to just repeat it over and over, no matter how obsolete their ideas are. At this moment of great excitement and possibility in Jewish life, they refuse to see their Jewish world from a new perspective.
And so how can you help? You can do what young people have always done, and what we desperately need at this time of spiritual renewal. You can be creative, daring, and revolutionary; you can refuse to be prudent; you can cast aside stereotypes and clichés; you can act, and think, without being weighed down by a lifetime of habit.
Because Judaism is not only a religion of tradition; it is also a religion of revival, rebellion, and change. And this is a time when we require new thinking and bursts of creativity. This is a time when we need Jews, and especially young Jews, to look within themselves and to discover new modes of the spiritual.
Adults talk about the survival of Judaism; we need you to talk about the revival of Judaism.
Adults talk about surveys and numbers; we need you talk about justice, joy, and redemption.
Adults talk about committees and budget; we need you to talk about holiness and hope.
I would like to offer two very specific examples of what we need you to do-two areas where our synagogues desperately need your help.
The first area is prayer.
When it comes to prayer, the synagogue cannot get along without you.
We need you because those who are old and tired need your smiles and vitality.
We need you because we need the talents that you bring to worship-your singing voice, your ability to learn new songs quickly, your warmth and friendliness, your example for younger children.
We need you because when the service is over, you can offer us a critique and fresh perspective on how we?re doing.
"Wait a minute," I can hear you saying. "What does this have to do with me? I hardly ever go to Shabbat services at my synagogue!" And you're probably thinking that services in the synagogue mean dark suits, somber melodies, and still prayer. Who would choose that over surfing the web or the latest Jennifer Lopez video? How can that compare to the neon outfits, synthesized pop tunes, and frenzied dancing of MTV?
And what's worse, when you do go to the synagogue, it is likely to be for the dreaded "Youth Group service." We all know what the "Youth Group Service" is. That's the time, once a year, when they put you on display-when you sing your songs and do your readings, and everybody sits there thinking how cute you look. And then, when it's over, you, and the adults, go back to business as usual.
But now the good news.
Worship in our synagogues is beginning to change. And it's changing in large measure because of you. Because NFTY kids and camp kids reminded us that worship need not be stiff and formal and boring. Because you reminded us that tefillot are about joy and mysticism and spiritual ecstasy. Because you taught us how to sing-and through singing, how to make our souls fly and how to bring spiritual fervor back to Jewish life.
There is a worship revolution going on in our synagogues today, and it is one that you helped bring about. Rabbis and cantors and lay people are following your example, and responding to your concerns. But this revolution is just beginning, and it will only succeed if you help it succeed.
This means there are things that you must do. You need to join your Temple's ritual committee. Most of all, you need to become a part of your Temple community. For example, perhaps your youth group, as a group, should pray with the congregation once a month, followed by your own Oneg and social gathering. Or, perhaps your youth group should volunteer to lead a special monthly minyan for beginners-for people who would like to get involved in prayer, but just don't know how. You could teach them the basic prayers and the contemporary, accessible music for which NFTY is famous, and you could share with them your model of Shabbat prayer as sustained celebration in song. Eventually, this minyan could be integrated into the regular service, and help to change its direction.
Once you do these things, you will begin to have some influence, and you will be taken seriously. The key is engagement with the congregation-and not a once-a-year performance. I admit that this will not be easy. Some congregations will welcome this dialogue, while others will not.
But your task is to make the argument as forcefully as you can from your own experience--that without enthusiastic worship there will be no hot passion to transform Judaism. At the same time, your task is to listen to what others have to say, and to meet the congregation half way.
I tell the adult generation that if they really want kids to be part of congregational prayer, they must be flexible and open and learn to sing songs they do not like for the sake of community.
But, of course, this is true for you as well. Changing your congregation's worship means being part of that worship. It means establishing a routine of synagogue prayer in which all generations participate and support each other. And this means that sometimes you too will have to sing songs you do not like for the sake of community.
But for now, what is most important is to begin. If Reform Judaism is geriatric Judaism, then it is a failure and a contradiction in terms. We need a Reform Judaism that spans the generations-that embraces you without leaving the older generation behind. And this means, above all else, a new approach to heartfelt prayer and to the kind of worship that you have modeled for us.
It means the kind of worship we will see at this convention: worship with excitement and noise, with improvisation and spontaneity, with participation and informality. It means worship where, from time to time, we dance in the aisles. I urge you, I plead with you, to help us make this vision of Reform worship a reality.
Making a difference.
The second area where the synagogue needs your help is in the work of social justice.
I don't need to tell you that to be a Jew is to be touched by other people's pain. That our sacred texts teach us to take special care of the widow, the orphan, the stranger-those who are vulnerable and without power. That Judaism's most powerful message is the redemption of this world, and every time we help the poor to escape from poverty, or give the homeless a home, or cause the unheeded to be heard, we bring God's kingdom one step closer.
So what's the problem? The problem is that adults are expert rationalizers and excuse-makers. We look at suffering here and around the world and we say: "Of course we are sympathetic, but there's not much that can be done." We start using the language of "cost effectiveness" and "realism." "Be realistic," we say, very sincerely, "be realistic. Yes, it's a problem, but we just don't have the resources or the know-how to help."
So what do we need from you? We need you to do what the young have always done: to articulate the anger, the indignation, and the passion of the prophets. We need you to proclaim, with Amos and Isaiah, that every injustice is an emergency, and that Torah without indignation at social evils is impossible. We need you to remind your parents, and me, that you cannot worship God at Shabbat services, and then look at poor children as if they did not exist.
There are ten million children in this country who do not have health insurance. We are not talking about Bosnia, or China, or Iraq, but the United States of America. These children do not go to doctors when they are sick because their parents cannot afford it.
And, there are 200 million guns in this country. Each year 35,000 Americans are killed with guns. And 12 children are fatally shot every single day.
How many sick and dying children will it take until we start seeing healthcare as a right of every American? How many Columbines will it take until we start to pass common-sense gun control in this country?
So what is your job? Your job is to get up off your you-know-what and to start working for change. Your job is to go on the moral offensive. Your job is to refuse to surrender to despair or cynicism; to dream about what might be; to challenge the entrenched and work for a better day.
And this doesn't mean rhetoric, and this doesn't mean resolutions, and this doesn't mean folk songs. This means concrete, practical projects that will change the world and renew our hope.
And the next time someone tells you to go slow, to be practical, to be "realistic"-the next time someone tells you that you really shouldn't think you can change the course of history, you tell them that to be a Jew is to reject theologies of despair. You tell them that if Moses had accepted this theology, you and I would still be in Egypt. You tell them that that the Jew does not do what is practical, or political, or comfortable, or "realistic," but what God demands of us. You tell them that others may not care about the victims of handguns or children without doctors, but we do, and on these issues we will lift the nation's sights and challenge the country's conscience.
And finally, remember this: Never doubt that a small group of concerned people can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has. And when others tell you can't make a difference, they are really afraid that you will.
When you return.
There is one final thing that I ask you to remember. Many of you are here because you were influenced by rabbis, or cantors, or educators--committed Jews who believed in your capacity to grow, and who won you over with mentschlikeit and caring, with trust and respect. When the time comes for you to think about what to do with your life, think about becoming a rabbi, a cantor, or an educator. There is nothing easy about such a life, but nowhere else will you find an existence of such intellectual engagement and spiritual grandeur. Nowhere else will you find a career so filled with high purpose and deep humanity.
And I leave you now with three challenges, each vital to the well-being of the Jewish people.
First, you are here because you are leaders, and I so urge you to be leaders-and that means bringing back to your youth group the message of this convention. That means telling the members of your youth group why they need Judaism and why Judaism needs them. And remember-it is not leadership to tell people what they want to hear. It is leadership to tell people what they may not want to hear, and to give them a reason to listen.
Second, I urge you to go back to your synagogue and to make the case for Jewish worship infused with spiritual fervor; I urge you to build for yourself and your Temple a form of prayer that stirs the heart and touches the soul.
And third, I urge you to keep social justice alive in the Jewish community, and to reject the endless excuses that our leaders offer for indifference and inaction. I urge you to speak up for the poor and the sick, and all those who have no one to speak for them. And I urge you to confront the epidemic of violence that has swept our nation, and to help us get the guns off of our streets and out of our schools.
And this above all, this above all: I urge you to remember that to be a Jew is to make a difference; to be a Jew is to be a blessing to all humankind.