By Matt Rissien
“I am a sophomore, a member of the debate team, a player on my lacrosse team, and a survivor of the Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
These words echoed through the sanctuary at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois on Friday, May 4th. Three hundred congregants and community members listened in awe as Sari Kaufman and Bela Urbina, two students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, came to speak to our community. The program had a follow-up the next morning for teens only, facilitated by our Assistant Rabbi, Ari Averbach and me.
Sitting and listening to the stories of these teens – so poised and passionate, speaking so maturely beyond their years, left an impression on everyone. As the weekend drew to a close, I knew this would be one of the most important programs I had been a part of in my six years as a youth director.
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas on February 14th hit very close to home for me. As a youth professional, I stay up to date with today’s trends, playing “HQ” and “Fortnite,” going bowling and to baseball games with our USY teens; to name a few examples. As a Jewish professional, it is also my job to be up to date with modern issues and what Judaism has to say about them. When United Synagogue Youth announced they would be participating in the March for Our Lives rallies across the nation, I was fortunate to be able to accompany our teens to the rally in Chicago. We were “Praying with our feet,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did with Martin Luther King so many years before. Following the march, we had a discussion with teens and parents about what Judaism has to say concerning guns, violence and the second amendment in our society.
Still sensing that our teens wanted more, I set about finding other ways to address this issue. I decided to “bring Parkland” to our community. Through a series of mutual connections, Sari Kaufman and Bela Urbina, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas when the shootings occurred, came to Congregation Beth Shalom to relate their stories and bring a glimmer of hope for the future.
Per chance, Sari and Bela’s visit came the day of Lag Ba’Omer. Historically, during a period of sadness and death, Lag Ba’omer served as a glimmer of hope for the Jewish people. The world is still mourning for Parkland, but hearing the incredibly touching stories of teens like Sari and Bela gives us hope in a time of darkness.
Looking back on the weekend, I have two messages I feel need sharing. The first is that our youth should not be ignored. Sari and Bela spoke to our entire congregation, making it very clear that their ages do not silence their stories or their voices. They challenged our congregation and teens to use their voices to make change in whatever way feels right.
This brings me to the sad reality of the second message. Our discussion with Sari and Bela was not about political affiliation. It was about spreading the word that our teens should not be afraid going to school, to the mall, to movies and even going to synagogue.
But our teens ARE afraid to go to school. They wake up every morning with the thought, “could this be the day that Parkland happens at my school?” On Shabbat morning, I sat in a room of 45 Jewish teens, who finally felt they had a place to express themselves. The students from Parkland answered questions as our students shared their own stories of fear and insecurities of going to school every day. As prepared as I thought I was for our discussion, I was not prepared for the harsh realization that our teens live in a constant state of fear. Surprised, I asked them to raise their hands if they felt scared, even before the Parkland shooting. Every single hand raised. With all these students being born after Columbine (1999), every one of them has grown up with active shooter drills held regularly in their schools.
I asked Sari and Bela to leave our teens with a final message. “Don’t be afraid to talk to administration. They are here to listen, and you deserve to have your voices heard.” Everyone shook their heads in agreement and understanding, and this message needs to be spread. It is time for our teens to speak up, and for us, as professionals, to help them do so.
As a Jewish professional, how can I help my teens feel safe? How can I make them feel like their voices and needs are being heard? It is up to clergy and Jewish communal professionals to have these discussions, and reach out to our teens. The synagogue has to be a place they feel comfortable, knowing they can find inspiration and direction through Jewish values.
Every week at Congregation Beth Shalom, we bring in 50-60 high schoolers for our USY programming. Having experienced this special Shabbat with Sari and Bela, I gained a deeper appreciation that while our teens feel comfortable coming into our synagogue, there is still concern about the reality that is teenage life today. These conversations need to be had in all of our synagogues and communities, and now more than ever before, we need to be there for our youth.
I hope this article inspires you to look into the culture of your own community. Ask the hard questions and be there for your teens. Synagogues and schools should always be a safe space for our youth. Now is the time for us to step up as dugmaot and mentors.
Matt Rissien is the Director of Youth Activities at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois. In addition to his role at Beth Shalom, he is a Hebrew School teacher and has created innovative Jewish YouTube parodies on his YouTube page (www.youtube.com/MattRissien).