Rabbi Gary J Robuck
Progressive Congregation of the ACT Jewish Community
Enter the Young
Nearly 20 years ago, the Robuck family joined on stage in a community theatre performance of the Amazing Mary Poppins. Everyone was involved. Our oldest son, David operated the follow spot, Aaron played the role of Michael and our daughter Shoshana was Jane. Jocelyn was cast in the role of mother and suffragette Mrs. Banks – I will never forget how she stood with her sash atop a sofa, singing and marching - while I appeared as Mr. Banks, an unlikable curmudgeon who had little time for his family and no patience for his children.
The story of Mary Poppins is set in the Victorian era – a time when kids were to be seen and not heard. Impeccable manners were expected of the Victorian child. Heaven help those children who dared to be different. At school, “miscreants”were subjected to the “cane” if they dared to speak out of turn, talked back or committed any other infraction a disgruntled teacher deemed worthy of punishment.
One tale from the time, entitled "Table Rules for Little Folks," admonishes children while at home to “sit still, be patient and to "not speak a useless word.” Children were to be “polite and clean and to leave quietly when meals are over.” Interrupting a conversation was forbidden because the children were expected to merely listen quietly and learn.
According to the English Philosopher John Locke, “only experience could furnish the mind with character and ideas.” To Locke and others, “a child's mind was like a blank sheet of paper, void of reason and knowledge.” Children were not considered to have valid opinions of their own and discouraged from engaging in public discussion or speaking in the presence of their "betters."
It is so interesting how children were treated generations ago. The new movie, Downton Abbey (which I loved) is set in the 1920s and includes a scene in which the children are, discovered playing quietly in the drawing room while adults are present and immediately, and unceremoniously, made to leave. Can you imagine the nerve of those kids?!
Today, we live in a time of young crusaders, of daring explorers like Australian circumnavigator Jessica Watson, of young men and women who inspire us with their passionate beliefs, their willingness to stand forward, their readiness to speak out and to share their version of truth as they see it, loudly and repeatedly and to anyone who will listen. While last year may have been referred to as the year of “Me Too”, this year is the “year of the young”: the year of Greta Thunberg, the hour of Malala Yousafzai and a moment belonging to the Stoneman Douglas kids - kids who strike for their planet, who suffer for the rights of women to read and to go to school, and who march for their lives before the hail of gunfire.
How amazing are they? It is a bit like the 1960s all over again. When I was a kid growing up in the US at the time of the Vietnam War, young people, hippies, demonstrated and sang songs of protest and occupied college campuses. Jocelyn was born and raised just minutes from the campus of Kent State University where on May 4, 1970 during a peaceful anti-war protest 4 young people were brutally shot dead by the Ohio National Guard in an attempt to drown out their voices. But young people were not going to be silenced. They were being heard in the music of protest singers like Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan among so many others. One of the first “45s” I ever dropped on the record player, was the Association’s song, “Enter the Young”, a song of empowerment, a story of young people who “think and care and dare and demand recognition” from those in power.
But I’ve never seen kids like these. They are super-bold and are making a difference like few before them: but none more so than Greta Thunberg.
Sixteen year-old Greta is a “next generation leader”. Her campaign to call attention to the climate crisis has blossomed into a global protest movement. After seeing thousands marching through the streets in cities located all over the world, it is difficult to conceive that it was just a little over a year ago when Greta at the age of 15 began taking time off school to demonstrate outside the Swedish parliament, holding up a sign calling for stronger climate action.
But there she sat, week after week. Soon, other students engaged in similar protests in their own communities. Together they organised a school climate strike movement, under the name Fridays for Future.
Greta not only talks the talk, she walks the walk. At home, she persuaded her parents to adopt several lifestyle choices to reduce their own carbon footprint, including giving up air travel and not eating meat. She made her way to the states just a few weeks ago, by a carbon neutral boat requiring weeks of extra travel.
Physically, Greta is extremely diminutive; she has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome- this she calls her “superpower”. But when she speaks, “wow”. In a letter submitted to US Senators, she disdained their platitudes, and asked that they "save their praise”, saying, “we don't want it."She doesn’t want awards or compliments for activism. So nu, what does she want instead?
At Davos, before the EU, in Congress or when standing on the stage before thousands of admirers, Greta makes it plain what she wants: she wants action! She wants the help of world leaders and of each of us to save the world for her generation and for the generations that follow. She wants us to behave as if our “hair is on fire”. And if we listen and act, it will be in part because Greta dared to change the world.
Greta’s words resonate with people of all ages and people of conscience everywhere. As a Jew, I am deeply impressed by her chutzpahand inspired by the ferocity of her call to action that is nothing less than prophetic. Inspired, because respect for the wellbeing of the earth is a central Jewish value. The principle of bal taschit serves as the basis for Talmudic law that prohibits wilful destruction of our natural resources.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch summarises a Jewish approach that balances our earth’s preservation with our needs. In his magnificent work, Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Law and Observances, he writes: “Do not destroy anything is the first and most general call of God (for) God’s call proclaims: If you destroy, (if you waste) if you ruin – at that moment you are not human. You are an animal, and you have no right to the things around you. Never forget that I lent them to you.”
Hirsch said plainly then what Greta says so empathically now: the planet is not ours to exploit or to exhaust, but ours in trust only. Good on’ her for renewing the Torah’s ancient call to be active guardians of the world.
Can you just imagine what they would have thought of Greta at the time of Queen Victoria?
Yet Greta is not the only young person who is daring to change the world.
In January 2009, in Pakistan, the Taliban had banned girls from going to school. Despite murders and countless girls’ schools being destroyed, some continued to attend. Malala Yousafzai was one of them. On the 9th of October 2012, Taliban fighters stopped her school bus, demanding that Malala identify herself, or else all the girls would be killed. Malala suffered a gun shot to the head and some of her friends were injured. But Malala survived and her battle for life became global news.
Since that time she has been compared with Anne Frank. Now, living in England where she first received life-saving medical help following an attempt on her life, she is a children’s rights activist. In her bedroom is displayed the Nobel Peace Prize –she is the youngest person to have ever received it and a remarkable example of the character, strength, courage and conviction so often found in the young.
And what should be said of the students of the Stoneman Douglas school? On February 14, 2018, a gunman attacked the school murdering 17 students and injuring many others. But as their world went dark and their childhood came to an abrupt end, the survivors – boys and girls like David Hogg and Emma Gonzales, together with so many others, turned their attention to action– calling out legislators, changing minds and laws. They set up student-led, gun-control advocacy groups and like Greta and Malala mobilised thousands of students each determined to change the world. Together, they are the leaders of tomorrow and today. They are young and bold and trying to do what “responsible adults” are charged to do: to protect them.
Though none of those I have referred to may be Jewish, I wonder whether Greta and Malala and the children of Stoneman Douglas would find within our faith a spiritual synchronicity and a common world view built upon tikkun olam? For Jewish tradition also puts our children first and like Greta prefers action to words as the Mishnah teaches: Lo Ha’mamar, eleh ha’ma’aseh.
In Judaism, children are not “bit players”, to be seen but not heard, they are the drama’s very purpose. At Pesach for example, we are only able to fulfil our mitzvah - v’higa’d’tah l’vincha - (to tell the story of our freedom) when in the presence of a child - be that child contrary, or simple, or wise or unable to ask. In the Midrash, Rabbi Meir in says: “Your children are the best surety, better than patriarchs and prophets… explaining that it was only because of our children that God gave the Torah to Israel.
The prophet Malachi described the conditions necessary before the world could be redeemed: “the hearts of parents (would be turned) to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents. (Malachi 4:6).
In the Tanach, David slays Goliath when he is just a small boy and Joseph resists the advances of Potiphar’s wife, interprets the dreams of Pharaoh, and later, rises to second in command of all of Egypt before his 18thbirthday. Not bad!
But the most convincing evidence of our Torah’s regard for the rights and stuture of children comes from the teachings of Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Hanina who said: (Talmidei chachamim marbim shalom ba’olam): “Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as it is said: kol banayich limudei Ha’shem…And all your children [banayich] shall be taught of Adonai, and great shall be the peace of your children.” (Isa. 54:13). That said, the rabbis go on to observe: “Do not read your children [banayich], but your builders [bonayich].” (Talmud Brakhot 64a) Our children are not meant to wait in line but to lead the charge
A homespun Yiddish proverb puts it nicely: “each child carries his or her own blessing in to the world. “ For us; their parents, grandparents and teachers, it is our responsibility to nurture that blessing and to teach them, by word and through example, “to love and revere God, to love their neighbour, to strive for holiness, to study Torah, to cherish Eretz Israel, to love and pursue justice, to be compassionate and to show civic responsibility” (Donin). Or, in just a few words, “to be a mensch.” And once having done so, to get out of the way!
Chevra, when I was just 20 years old, I was selected to appear in a national talent quest, a show sponsored by Maxwell House coffee and emceed by Robert Klein. I finished second. I performed the immensely popular song, “The Greatest Love of All”, made famous both by George Benson and Whitney Houston. A beautiful and memorable melody, it begins with these words, “I believe the children are our future”. But they are not always part of that future. Sometimes, they only make the future possible.
This past year in Israel, on the grounds of Har Herzl, a memorial was dedicated to the more than 23,000 citizen-soldiers, mostly young adults in their late teens and early 20s, who have died in defence of Israel. An impressive, solemn structure nestled into the mountain’s hillside, the museum allows the country to remember these soldiers as individuals, to ensure that they are never forgotten and their sacrifice forever honoured. It is an eternal reply to the question, which haunts their parents: “Who will remember my son when I pass on?”
In our community, it devolves upon us to do more, to do everything that we can to put our children first. To consider them when we organise our programs so that they will be able and interested to come along. To make our children’s Jewish education a priority, to provide the best quality cheder we can possibly afford, one staffed by the best teachers who not only teach from a textbook but are themselves, text people.
For that reason this year we will conduct our second Shabbaton, a young family retreat on 3-5 April. It will be an intensive weekend of learning, friendship and fun. Throughout the year, there will be out-of-hours and out-of-centre activities specifically designed for our young people. But this is not nearly enough.
We must all play a role in helping our children to take their place in the Jewish world. If our children are older, it is up to us to reveal to our kids and grandkids and to children within our orbit, the beauty and richness of the Jewish way of life. I feel this calling profoundly. Following the death of my father this year and as a result of moving house to be closer to our kids, I now take more seriously than before the responsibility of handing on the lessons of our Torah to our two grandchildren, to provide them and all my students with meaningful, holy and relevant Torah – Torah for today that speaks to children honestly, respectfully and invites them to engage.
Friends, we are not Victorians. Children must be seen and heardand their views shown deference. For the world that we have inherited is theirs to build – their stake it should be said is greater than ours.
As the great sage Maimonides taught in his Sefer ha-Hinukh:
“God has commanded each and every Jew to have a Torah scroll ready at hand so that he can read it at any time.” And here is the point, “even if his parents left him a scroll, [one should write a new scroll] lest our children tire of reading from the old scrolls left by previous generations.”
Our children must not be required to read from the “old scrolls” only but encouraged to write their own scrolls – scrolls that are different than ours perhaps but still infused with love of Israel, a belief in God and in the Torah’s timeless values. To make this possible in our community, in this congregation, we will need to adapt, to compromise, to include and to encourage our young for they are now as they have always been, our people’s future, our promise and our hope.