By Rabbi David Levy
On Hanukkah we gather as a Jewish community to add light in the darkest time of the year, but with recent events there has been a sense that this is harder to do than we remember. In our changing world how do we find the strength? Like the menorah, we need candles, and to find them we need look no farther than our teenagers to light the way.
This week teens from the corners of the globe gathered in Dallas, TX for the 66th USY International Convention, the theme of which was Chazak Chazak V’nitzchazek; Be Strong, Be Strong, Let us be strengthened. At our convention USYers explored different types of strength in the Jewish tradition, and how we have used our strength to persevere, lead, and form new meaningful connections. They heard from incredible speakers, studied with outstanding educators and participated in experiences that reinforced these messages.
I think the Jewish community can learn a great deal from our teens in this approach. Chazak Chazak V’nitchazek has three component parts which carry messages we can take as we celebrate Hanukkah.
Chazak – Be strong. In thinking about strength, we encounter challenges, obstacles, and pressures. To be strong we need to have ourselves grounded in something that gives us roots, like our Jewish tradition from tefillah to tikun olam and everything in between. At the convention the teens were immersed in Jewish life, benching after meals, davening each morning and evening, tasting kosher Texas BBQ, collecting money for charitable donations, and lighting the menorah together and singing Ma’oz Tzur each night.
In a sense this emphasis on tradition is also the story of Hanukkah. The Hellenist Greeks were conquering the world and a small band of Maccabees were able to resist the onslaught because they drew strength from our, traditions. They stood up and said no, and they were empowered to do so because they knew who they were. Like their ancestors before them, traditions give our teens and us strength.
That brings us to our second Chazak. This points to relationships; we are strong when we have people we can count on. Our families, our communities, our kehillot are all sources of strength. This week we had with us world leaders from NOAM, the worldwide Conservative Jewish youth movement. We have met our sisters and brothers from Israel, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, England, Uganda, Germany, Ukraine, France and Australia, and are certain that both NOAM and USY will be stronger because of the relationships we are forming. The menorah in the Temple was made out of one piece of gold to show unity of the Jewish people, so too USY and NOAM represent two distinct branches in our unified youth menorah.
In the months ahead each of our USY regions will be paired with a NOAM chapter from around the world for long-term learning, social action, advocacy, and relationship building. The international exchange will be a new source of strength for our USY and global Jewish community.
Finally V’nitchazek – We must strengthen each other. This one is so important; how will we share our strength? The world needs us all desperately; there are many challenges and I look at our teens with hope that they will Nitchazek when they share their many strengths with the world.
Like the Hanukkah candles, there have been so many moments of illumination this week. Two amazing young women shared stories of the nonprofits they started to address the challenges they see in the world, one that brings art to children and another that raises funds for therapeutic horseback riding. These teens like a shamash shared their fire for making change and the important message that even a teen can make a difference. Another teen courageously shared his journey to come out so that his peers could hear the importance of becoming one’s true self and knowing how to seek support along the way. Still another told an inspiring story of how precious our lives are. Finally, the entire convention body felt the glow of the candles, sharing their time and many talents with 11 local organizations across the Dallas/ Ft. Worth area during our Day of Service.
Our teens know that when we share our flames to ignite others we are not diminished, but rather find ourselves awash in more light than before. That is the power of our convention, we are igniting the Jewish future one candle at a time.
Rabbi David Levy is USCJ Sr. Director of Teen Learning.