There is a famous Hassidic Story about a Rabbi named Zusya, which I know you have heard from Rabbi Tonti:
Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:
“Zusya, what’s the matter?
And he told them about his vision; “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”
The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”
Zusya replied; “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?”‘
Zusya sighed; “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”
The challenge before you in this next phase of your lives is all about who you choose to become. Who will you hang out with? Who will you admire and emulate? What parts of your identity will you show to others? What parts will remain quiet? What will inspire you?
I can’t answer these questions, but I can share a quick story that helped me understand who you already are, at the core.
Just a little over a year ago I joined your class while one of you decided, appropriately and with adult support, to share information about themselves that was very sensitive. That student asked for your understanding and your friendship while bravely standing up and describing ways in which that student would always be different from the rest of you. You responded with kindness, curiosity, warmth, and support. I was deeply moved and so proud of each of you that day.
For those of you who haven’t experienced life as a student in a Jewish day school yourselves, let me tell you — managing the rigor of a dual curriculum schedule is hard. It’s worth the effort, but it is not easy. It is a significant accomplishment, worth celebrating, and I want to take a minute to discuss how the experience sets our graduates apart from their peers in certain ways.
As you move into your new schools and beyond, you will find that your understanding of what it is to be Jewish, what it is to be part of a Jewish community, and how to to lead in that setting, are all rare and valuable characteristics. Many of the other young Jewish adults you will encounter will have far less experience with the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and holidays, with the sounds, smells, and tastes of Jewish rituals, and the Hebrew language will not be theirs in the same way that it is yours. Many will have very little sense of why it could ever be important or meaningful to engage in Jewish practice or Jewish community, and few will have as clear a sense as you do of what Judaism even is. Few will be comfortable with Jewish prayer. Most will not have been to Israel, and many will have some pretty egregious misunderstandings and misconceptions about our homeland.
Because you’ve had the opportunity to deepen your study of Torah as well as your knowledge of modern Judaism, you will be far more equipped than most to explain our values to others and to act in ways that demonstrate them.
Let me be clear – I’m not saying you can’t get these things if you don’t go to Day School – but the stats don’t lie – it’s much less likely without this kind of education.
In what feel to many of us like increasingly polarized and polarizing times, you will need the skills we’ve worked hard to train you in here at Gesher. In particular, I’m thinking about the ability to examine information with a critical eye, to ask questions, to advocate for your values, and to be curious and brave enough to respectfully engage with people who think in ways that it seems like you could never understand.
This is all part of the gift and responsibility that your parents and the educators here at Gesher have been planting and tending since you first sat under those tallitot on your first day of kindergarten, and as you grow it will be up to you to decide what you do with this knowledge, this identity, and these skills.
Talmidim Yekarim, our precious students, I pray that you will remain rooted in your sense of who you are and what matters to you. I hope that you will find meaningful ways to express yourself in the world, and meaningful relationships to support and strengthen you. I hope that you will discover passion within yourself that enables you to make the world better, even if it feels like it is only in a small way. Finally, I hope that the Jewish tradition and wisdom you’ve explored here at Gesher will help you chart a healthy, fulfilling path forward through your next experiences and beyond.
Class of 2018, know that you are always welcome to come back and visit us, and that we can’t wait to see who you continue to grow into.