Thursday, January 2, 2014

Rejoice, Rebuild and Rachamim: Reflections on the USY International Convention #ICNOLA

Recently I attended the International Convention of USY.  Seven hundred teens, 100 college students as staff and more than 100 adult volunteers converged on New Orleans for a week of fun, study, service, and prayer.  It was a transformative experience for everyone, including me.

On Monday, the USYers spread out across New Orleans to participate in the city’s ongoing efforts of rebuilding.  I was touched by their energy, enthusiasm, seriousness, and commitment to tikkun olam, to repairing the world.  That evening I was inspired by the weekly Torah reading and shared with them the following thoughts.  That I continue to reflect on this moment demonstrates how deeply their actions transformed me.  And that’s why I share them now with you.
This week’s Torah reading begins in a somewhat odd way.  God says to Moses that to Israel’s ancestors God appeared as El Shaddai (God Almighty), but by His name Y-H-V-H (pronounced Adonai, meaning my Master) God was not known to them.  What’s odd about this is that any reading of Genesis clearly shows that God’s name Y-H-V-H was clearly present.  So what then does the text mean when it says that “by My name Y-H-V-H I was not known to them?”
Our sages suggest that it was God’s attribute of rachamim, mercy, that was not known because the promise of redemption was not fulfilled.  It’s only now that God hears the cry of the Israelites and through Moses comes to redeem them that this element of God’s name, His attribute of rachamim, becomes known.
Today USY, this attribute is well known to you for YOU made it known to each other and to others through your incredible acts of rachamim in New Orleans.
Today you formed a band and played music to the elderly in a home for the aged.  You lifted their spirits with song.  You fulfilled the mitzvah of honoring your elders.  You brought rachamim into their lives
Today you, USY, cleaned up a lagoon.  And when you got there and realized the challenge of how to get into the water to do the job right, you didn’t hesitate.  You created wading pants and shoes taking garbage bags and wrapping yourselves in them.  Then you waded into the cold water and did the job that had to be done.  You did this because you know that shomrei adamah, that caring for the Earth is more than is good deed.  You know it’s a mitzvah, an expectation of God.  So you brought more rachamim into the world.
And today, USY, some of you went to a woman’s house and worked to complete its repair.  You laid insulation, drywall, flooring and more.  And then, at the end of your day’s work the woman who owns the house came to greet you.  And you learned that the reason it is still not livable is because her husband while working on it suffered a massive heart attack and died.  You brought rachamim into her and her children’s lives today; rebuilding her home so she is that much closer to reoccupying it.  And when she does; you will have played a role in her rebuilding her life.  That’s rachamim.
And USY, tonight as we celebrated a Taste of Bourbon Street here at the hotel, I happened to go to the vendors to thank them for coming and adding to our evening.  In so doing, I met a man, a jewelry maker, who said to me, “No rabbi.  It’s me who must thank you.  Let me tell you my story.”  So he told me how his wife died in his arms during Hurricane Katrina and how at that moment, his middle class life was washed away.  It’s been a long haul rebuilding his business, rebuilding his life.  This year, he said, has been a particularly tough one economically.  “So, Rabbi,” he said, “it is I who must thank you.  And these wonderful young people who have been buying my jewelry and more importantly, I am so moved by how respectful and kind they are to me.” 
USY, this is the definition of rachamim.  When we read the Torah this week and we come to its opening verses in which God reveals his attribute of rachamim lift your head and say God’s name.  For unlike our ancestors, this week, you KNOW this name.  You lived it.  And you shared it with all of us.  This week, New Orleans knows God’s name.  Thank you for making this world that much better!
That evening we honored our USY teen change makers.  We heard from Jessica Abo and Andy Fickman, USY alumni who though extraordinarily successful in their careers, continue to be change makers, inspired from their time as USYers.  They inspired and charged our USYers to do the same.  And we celebrated USY’s 18,000 hours of community service challenge -- a goal they far exceeded with more than 32,000 hours logged!

You can view Jessica and Andy’s talks, and the USY Changemakers video, here.

The power of USY is that we teach that tikkun olam is not simply the performance of good deeds –  Tikkun Olam is a mantra and a lifestyle. The enduring power of our International Convention is that takeaway. The committed, impassioned teens of USY go back to their communities, infusing them with vital energy. In New Orleans, I have seen the future of Conservative Judaism and it is bright; it is our youth, the next generation coming of age. They hold the secret to the Jewish tomorrow: Tikkun Olam is a verb.