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May 3, 2024

A Message to Our Seniors: Do Not Disengage

Rebecca Rosenthal

A Message to Our Seniors: Do Not Disengage
Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal


Counting the Omer, the days between Passover and Shavuot, is one of my favorite Jewish rituals. Not only does it take less than a minute (other Jewish rituals might want to take note), but it allows you a moment in your day to be truly present in what is happening right now. 

The rabbis assigned different kabbalistic attributes to each week and each individual day of the omer. Today, the 10th day of the Omer is characterized by the attribute of Gevruah, which is about judgment and limitation. We are supposed to think about our self-judgment and our judgment of others and where the limits of that judgment should lie. I think we can all agree that while we might be great at the judgment part, our ability to find the limits of that judgment may need some work. Nowhere is that more clear than in the current discourse around what is happening on college campuses.

This week is Senior Shabbat, where we honor the class of 2024. Many of them will be heading to college campuses next year and I imagine these decisions feel more fraught than they imagined when they were touring and committing to schools over the last few months.

These seniors are beloved members of our Central community. Some of you we have seen weekly (or more) since you were old enough to walk into our nursery school. Some of you joined us more recently, but quickly established yourselves as vital leaders and friends. And some we haven’t seen in a while, but however long it has been, our community is shaped by you.

Some of you know that you will walk on campus and immediately go to Hillel, to celebrate Shabbat and holidays, to create community with other Jewish students, and to engage in tikkun olam. For some of you, you will pick up an Israeli flag and be leaders of pro-Israel advocacy on campus. Some of you will go to Hillel for Passover seders, or bagel brunches, or a Shabbat meal, but will find your primary community elsewhere. And some of you are imagining yourselves sitting in tents on campus lawns, protesting the war. Wherever you find yourself, I urge you strongly to find some way to be in the Jewish community, so that people there will know what we already know about you, that you are thoughtful, engaged, passionate Jews. This might have been an easier message to deliver to last year’s graduates, but it is more important than ever that you hear it and act on it now.

I want to say two things very, very clearly to you and to anyone listening tonight. First, there is real, and frightening antisemitism happening on campuses, which we hear about from the news and also from our own Central students and from Hillel professionals. I am in anguish watching what is unfolding around us. A colleague and friend of mine who oversees a Hillel with thousands of students told me about the ways in which antisemitism on campus has both multiplied and become more dangerous than in years past. When people yell at Jews to go back to Poland, or call for 10,000 more October 7th, or rip kippot off the heads of Jewish people, or do not allow Jewish students to walk across campus to the library, or any number of other horrifying incidents against Jews for being Jews or because of support for Israel, that is antisemitism and it should not be tolerated. However you engage, you should stand up proudly for your Jewishness and demand that your university keep you safe.

The Hillels on campus are doing heroic work right now to support all Jewsih students and are doing everything from caring for traumatized students, to creating meaningful Passover experiences, to providing snacks and meals as students prepare for finals, to creating spaces for hard conversations and to listen and support many different points of view. They are also the people speaking to universities about what their students are thinking and feeling, and are on the front lines of working with schools to keep all Jewish students safe. 

These are not the things that make the news, but they are doing the work, on the ground. And if any of the adults out there are wondering how you can support Jewish students on campus, a donation to Hillel at your alma mater or any school you are connected to, or not connected to, is a powerful , concrete thing you can do right now. Hillel will be strengthened by your generosity, and if you want to help on the ground, ask what you can do.

And my second message to students in college and especially those of you who are on your way is this. No matter which side you sit on, whether you are calling for a ceasefire or believe that Israel should continue fighting or something in between or nothing at all, you are a Jew. You have a place in our community and you have a place in your Jewish community on campus. Your clergy here are committed to listening to you with an open mind and an open heart, and the Hillel professionals on your campuses are too. Do not disengage from your Jewish pride. Do not disengage from the many complex and emotional questions about Israel in favor of signs and slogans. Do not walk away from your Jewish community. We will not walk away from you.

And to those of you listening tonight who feel discomfort with one side or another, the omer is here to remind us that the way we put gevurah into practice is to temper our judgment of others— to ask and talk before screaming.  I understand the temptation to rail, decry and post incendiary content on social media.  But our tradition asks that we do the harder task —  to listen, to make room in our hearts even when it makes us extremely uncomfortable. 

As much as we practice gevurah, judgment, we also need the other attribute of the 10th day of the Omer – tiferet, which is connected to balance and compassion. In fact, the kabbalists would say that today’s intention is that the attribute of compassion should temper your judgment of yourself, but also of others. I’m not talking about not judging those who are trafficking in antisemitism. Some things are so far outside the bounds that we should not tolerate them. But are there people we can talk to?

At its best, college should not be a bubble, but should be a time where your ideas can be sharpened and refined. In Proverbs we are taught, iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Your education should be a time to allow for new thoughts and new ideas to challenge what you think now and maybe even change you. If you come out of college the same as you went in, that’s not a success. Give yourself some room to grow, to be unsettled, to try to understand and be in conversation and community with people with people whose ideas are different from yours. When you feel the urge for gevurah, balance it with tiferet. And it goes the other way too. Too much compassion, without a little judgment and discernment, leads to allowing anyone to say and do anything, regardless of the consequences, and we cannot stand for that. 

I know I am asking something really hard, boarding on unfair, because it is exhausting and scary to be vilified and painted with such broad strokes and we should not be the only ones who have to do this work. But I know you can do it, because I see it in you. And I am committing every person in this room, every person in this community, to have your back.

I want to leave us with the words of Rachel Polin-Goldberg, mother of Hersh Polin-Goldberg who has been held captive for more than 200 days. She said, “I understand that hatred of the other, whoever we decide that other to be, is seductive, sensuous, and, most importantly, hatred is easy. But hatred is not actually helpful or constructive. In a competition of pain, there is never a winner…We human beings have been blessed with the gift of intellect, creativity, insight, and perception. Why are we not using it to solve global conflicts all over the world? Because doing this is hard and it takes fortitude, imagination, grit, risk, and hope. So instead, we opt for hatred because it is so comfortable, familiar and so very, very easy.”

My dear seniors, I already know you to have so much fortitude, imagination, grit, risk and hope. Use these gifts. Use them to reach out instead of turning inward. Use them to build the world that you need, that we all need. May the next steps on your journey be a time of intellectual and creative growth and, in the words of the priestly blessing, may you be safe, may you be happy, and may you feel peace.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.