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To the (Jewish) Graduates

By: Rabbi Steven Schwartz

Wednesday night Becky and I watched with pride as our nephew Ezra graduated, with 27 fellow classmates, from Krieger Schechter Day School. The ceremony included the singing of Hebrew songs, words of Torah, and as you might expect presentation of diplomas. It concluded with Rabbi Josh Gruenberg of Chizuk Amuno blessing the 8th Grade Class using the words of the Birkat Cohenim, words that happen to appear in this week’s Torah portion: "May God bless you and keep you; May Gods light shine in your life, may God grant you grace; May God’s countenance turns towards you, may God bless you with peace."

Many of you know those words because we use them to conclude Shabbat and Yom Tov services here at Beth El. They are also frequently heard at weddings and baby namings and brises. It struck me as I heard them Wednesday night that it was a particularly Jewish way – especially since the words were spoken in both Hebrew and English – that it was a particularly Jewish way to conclude a graduation ceremony.

And it got me thinking about what kind of message I might give if I was asked to address a class of graduates, all of whom were Jewish? What follows is my address to the Jewish graduating class – wherever they may be – of 2019.

My dear graduates:

I stand before you today as a representative of the Jewish community. That idea – of Jewish community – might not mean all that much to you today. You live in, in fact you have grown up in, a world where  – particularly for younger people – everyone is blending together, and many of the traditional distinctions between people and communities are being broken down. I am not suggesting that is necessarily bad, but I am suggesting that it is OK to see differences in people, and to be proud of those differences, even to celebrate them. There is a distinctive Jewish approach to family life, to communal responsibility, to education, to charity, to civil rights, and to many other things as well. I hope in the years ahead you’ll embrace that distinctive Jewish approach and embrace it with pride.

I want you to know today that we need you. With an aging population and a low birth rate, youth is a precious commodity in Jewish life today. We need your spirit and optimism, we need your energy and enthusiasm, we need your presence in our synagogues and federations and JCCs. I know all the research! I’ve read all the articles that describe your generation as a generation that doesn’t join formal institutions, that doesn’t buy in to traditional structures, that doesn’t sit on boards, that prefers to meet in a pub and not in a sanctuary. But we also know (because studies have told us) that your Jewish identity is important to you, that you are proud to be Jewish. We know that you are determined, in a new way, to make the world a better place because you are in it. And we know that your time is precious and you want to live healthy and balanced lives.  

And so what I also want you to know today is that you need us. 

You need us to help you deepen and strengthen your Jewish identity. You need us because at some point you are going to need a strong Jewish community. You need us because without synagogues, and without federations, and without JCCs, the Jewish identity that you are proud of will not be able to continue to exist. 

You need us.  

And I hope you know that we are trying to meet you where you are. We are creating coffee houses and meditation and yoga centers, we are hosting cooking and card playing work shops, we have book clubs and High Holy Day hiking workshops, we have rock and roll musicians playing in our sanctuaries, we have self-help gurus speaking from our lecterns. We have young leadership networking programs and wine tasting events. And yes, if you really want to know, we will absolutely meet you in a pub. Happily so. We know you want to be better people, more moral and ethical and accepting and caring. We know you want to engage in Tikkun Olam. What I ask you to consider is this: embracing your Judaism is a way of embracing your humanity, of growing in spirit. It doesn’t have to be done in the way we did it – by sitting in services and going to Hebrew school. But it has to be done, and we can help you do it, if you will let us and if you will guide us.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say a word or two about Israel. There is a growing gap between us regarding the Jewish homeland. We often see Israel as threatened and the underdog, as a small country living in a dangerous and often hostile neighborhood. We remember the wars in ’67 and ’73, we lived through those moments. Some of us remember when there was no Israel, when Jews had no place to go during the Second World War when the Nazis were determined to destroy the Jewish people. To you WW II is an almost mythic memory. Your entire lives Israel has not been in a war, and you know that Israel’s army is the most powerful in the Middle East – by far. You see Israel as strong and dominating, as technologically advanced but morally challenged by its ongoing struggle with the Palestinians. And you see that in Jewish communal life today your views about Israel are often unwelcome and unwanted.

We owe you a seat at that communal table. Your voice needs to be a part of the Israel conversation, and if we have excluded you from that conversation it is our fault, and not yours. And we need to do better. So I hope in the years ahead you will join us as we wrestle with and find meaning in Israel, respecting our views and the history we bring to the table, but with a promise from us that we will do the same for you.  I truly believe that you can help us to understand Israel’s challenges moving forward. But I also believe that we can help you to understand Israel’s history, and that together we can help one another help Israel to be a place of which we are all proud.

There are so many other things we should talk about, a whole laundry list of ideas and challenges and opportunities that are just around the bend for you. Your Judaism, I hope, will play a role in all of it. I hope you’ll remember the history of our people, its challenges and its triumphs. My grandparents were immigrants, which means that your great grandparents, or great great grandparents were, and that is something we shouldn’t forget. I know this probably seems like its a long way off for you, and its presumptuous, but I hope one day you’ll have children – we need more Jews in the world!  We have to talk about marriage, an institution that is under siege today, but a primary value in Jewish life. We need to talk about Jewish literacy, which is on the wane. I am sad to say we need to talk about anti-Semitism, which at one point I thought your generation might not have to deal with, but it looks like I was wrong. The list goes on and on and on.

But the rabbi should not. A graduation speech shouldn’t be too long. I know you are eager – not only for this ceremony to be over, but also to begin the next stage of your life, to get out there into the world and spread your wings, and hopefully fly. As you do let me leave you with this – May God bless you and protect you.  May God’s light shine in your life, may God grand you grace. May God’s countenance turn towards you, granting you light, life, and peace.  

This is a text version of Rabbi Schwartz' Shabbat sermon from June 15th, 2019.

Thu, July 2 2020 10 Tammuz 5780