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Every week, we open our Torah and read the words written thousands ago. Think of the upheaval, the wars, the change that those words have witnessed.
Our Torah portions at this time of year center on the Jews' exodus from Egypt. We read of a dictator bent on crushing a minority people; of persecution, both overt and less obvious; and of the unassuming hero, Moses, a figure singled out by God, not for supernatural strength or overwhelming confidence, but for humility and wisdom.
In these times of change, we look to Moses, as our people have for so long, and turn our kids in his direction. We look at the choices he made, how he chose his words and sought advice from his elders. We look at his willingness to apologize for his own missteps, his empathy, and his awareness of the wisdom offered by others. Moses withstands the test of time. He is bigger than any movement. He is more enduring than any historic leader, no matter how renowned. There’s a reason we refer to him as the rabbi. He is our rabbi.
I took a break from Moses this week when I put the Torah to the side, just for a bit, and traveled to Chicago to visit NFTY Convention. Just a few hours after leaving Philadelphia, I was standing in a hotel ballroom with 1,400 Jewish teens and congregational leaders from across North America. Every kind of teen was represented: athletic and not-so-much, honor roll and maybe not, Democrat and Republican. The room was full of writers for their school papers, future rabbis, future scientists, future everythings. They were reserved and outspoken; they had one or two or three or no parents. They were interfaith, multiracial, vegan, gluten-free, and more.
They were a sight to behold, and it was so, so good to be with them. More than that, it was inspiring to be with them.
At NFTY Convention, I spent time with the leaders of our movement, including Rabbi Rick Jacobs who, like all of us, feels more motivated than ever to bring our teens closer to the age-old wisdom of Torah. After spending a few days with our teens, I, too, am motivated to lead and learn with them.
On Saturday night, a group of teens led Havdalah for all of us. People swayed. They put their arms around each other. When was the last time we did that? The braided candle illuminated the eyes of every one of us, more than a thousand strong, with hope.
Afterward, we heard from teens currently studying abroad in Israel with URJ Heller High (formerly NFTY-EIE) and actually Skyped with three students – even though if it was 4a.m. their time! What a revelation to listen to 16-year-olds who had chosen to travel half way around the world, leaving behind lacrosse teams and yearbook staffs to live on a kibbutz and immerse fully in Israeli life.
On Sunday, the teens headed out all over Chicago to immerse with the local community and put their learning into action. Some teens chose to go to an LGBT center downtown to learn about the work that goes on there. Some toured a historic synagogue. Others visited an African-American museum or went to hospitals. Every group thought deeply about how to bring their Judaism into the world in new and profoundly personal ways.
This was social action with a capital “A.”
As the convention came to a close, we heard from a panel of NFTY alumni impacting the world in important ways: One young man had started his own company, making environmental consciousness his life’s work. Another was working to bring a greater level of equality and tolerance to the Boy Scouts, while a young woman was using an earlier experience of being assaulted to educate young girls and boys regarding building healthy relationships.
NFTY Convention restored the spirits of so many. Instead of judgment, there was laughter. Instead of finger pointing, there were ideas. Everywhere there was lots of enthusiasm and the belief that they could and will change our world for the better. We may look to Moses for inspiration in troubling times; after NFTY Convention, I am also looking to our teens, who will be the leaders the world needs to ensure that Judaism will not only survive but thrive for generations to come.