Redemption Through Relationships – A Letter To A Heartbroken Teen

By Rabbi Joshua Rabin

Dear Friends,

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”
This is Water,” David Foster Wallace

I know you are heartbroken.

We all are.

Over the past few weeks, a cavalcade of Jewish organizations cancelled their summer programs, including camps, Israel trips, teen tours, and other experiences around the world.

Sadly, there are more to come.

And while the greatest amount of sympathy should be reserved for you, the teenagers who are missing out on experiences they will never be able to replicate, I want you to know that the adults who send you on these trips and the staff responsible for your well-being share your disappointment.

I would know, as I’m one of the people responsible for deciding to cancel my organization’s trips, simultaneously breaking your heart.

As someone for whom “USY is my pulpit,” it’s hard for me not to think that I failed you.

If only our team could put our heads together and find a way to provide you an exceptional experience that was sufficiently safe, you would not be heartbroken right now. But as much as educators occasionally pose as superheroes, we do not have superpowers.

And, as Dr. Anthony Fauci said during an interview, “[We] don’t make the timeline. The virus does.”

Furthermore, I wish I could promise that we will find a way for your summer to be amazing, even if you cannot go to Israel, camp, or any destination that is not your computer screen. From the time I was in kindergarten until I graduated rabbinical school, I only spent one summer working in an office, and it was the worst summer ever. I wanted to be outside, in the fresh air, leading a bus for USY on Wheels, and everyone knew it.

We will do our best to care for you, but I know that it’s not the same. And you do too.

And yet, for several sleepless nights, a single question continued to cross my mind: What is the essence of what will be lost this summer? Yes, part of what is lost includes a trip to Masada or the Grand Canyon, new friendships and romances, or a chance to be the oldest kids in camp.

But why is that a loss?

Don’t look too confused.

You know the answer, you just may not have ever thought about it until the summer was something that happened in the past, as opposed to something to look forward to. Perhaps, by identifying the essence of your loss, you may come to find that which you need to devote your energy to this summer, and, in some small way, redeem it.

Twenty years ago, I went on USY Israel Pilgrimage, a summer that changed my life. One week prior to the trip, one of my USY classmates died in a car crash, throwing my entire USY experience into turmoil. A moment of great excitement turned into one of incredible dread.

In truth, I no longer wanted to go.

And yet I did, and I’m grateful to this day that I did. And I am grateful because what I learned that summer was how to use my Judaism as a sword rather than a shield. Too often, Jewish education is taught as something meant to insulate us from the outside world, as opposed to something that allows us to navigate the world with purpose. In a moment of great tragedy, Judaism was my sword, and I came out, as Ernest Hemingway would say, stronger at the broken places.

This summer, there are Jewish teens who were hoping that their summer experience would make them stronger at the broken places. Yes, many teenagers only see the summer as a time of fun and friendship. And yet we are telling ourselves a lie if we ignore how many teens see their summer experience as an escape from school, social toxicity, social media, and sometimes even their own families. At their best, these experiences give us the chance to form relationships that make us feel seen, affirmed, loved, and free.

Yes, those relationships are best formed sitting on a long bus ride, playing frisbee on the migrash, or watching someone’s eyes light up upon seeing the Kotel for the first time. But just because the context of your experience has been radically changed does not escape the fact that one critical factor towards Jewish transformation remains, and that is you.

You are the magic that makes these experiences magical.

I know; it’s not the same.

This is not meant to make you feel better, only to give you a challenge about how to direct your energy. Give everything you have to your relationships, with the friends who give you energy, and people who need your love and care. Many people are hurting now, and many of them are much less fortunate than we are. We are confined to our homes, yet our circle of obligation must significantly widen.

By all means, take advantage of what USY and other organizations will offer you to give you something to look forward to this summer. But, to the extent that you can, if you want to have a taste of what you would experience, give as much time as you can to growing deep, meaningful relationships.

Yes, it will not be the same.

But as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text-people.”

The trips are not what we work for.

You are what we work for.

And you are the ones who can make what appears to be a disappointing summer a transformative one.

Hazak V’Amatz (Be Strong and Brave),


Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Senior Director of Teen Engagement at USCJ, where he leads United Synagogue Youth (USY) in North America and Israel. You can read more of Josh’s writings