They were dancing on the tables singing Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’ at the top of their lungs and the joy in the dining room was palpable and infectious.
For a split second, I was tempted to join them.
I had been invited to teach as a rabbinic educator at ‘Mega-Chalutz’, the annual pre-camp for madrichim (leaders) of the RSY (Reform Synagogue Youth) Netzer Youth Movement. So I found myself boarding several trains to the verdant hills and rugged coastlines of Wales where my final destination was a summer camp at the edge of a sleepy village.
What was to follow were four exhilarating days of singing, debating and community-building as almost two hundred young people in their late teens and early twenties challenged and celebrated their Judaism. There were soul-stirring harmonies during the Shabbat services, rowdy renditions of Birkat haMazon (Grace after Meals) and thoughtful, inspiring sessions on topics ranging from gendered peer-pressure and the beauty industry to contemporary anti-Semitism. There was plenty of silliness and creativity too, culminating in a real-life ‘Pokemon Go!’ treasure hunt that was painfully culturally relevant.
Yet what impressed me most about the weekend was the sheer kindness and thoughtfulness exhibited by the madrichim and educators.
For two hundred young people to come together in a spirit of congeniality and solidarity was a gift. There was no bullying, no undercutting or devaluing of each other. People were gracious, open-hearted and both eager to learn and willing to listen. They were responsible, civic-minded and idealistic.
2500 years ago, it was the Greek philosopher Socrates who lamented that
"the youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise."
Critiques of the upcoming generation are ancient and universal; not only in our time and place. Yet, the Netzer Youth Movement jettisoned all those stereotypes.
As I sat down to teach, share and learn, I was struck by the candor of their questions and the compassion of their responses.
Growing up in a world that seems more destabilised and more insecure with each passing day, they know what they value about their Judaism: community, ethics, wisdom, meaning, action, justice. My encounters with them were diverse, ranging from teaching a young woman how to put on tefillin, to encouraging a young man to write songs to engaging in vigorous, stimulating debate on what it means to be a Reform Zionist. Yet they were united in a common purpose and a shared response when I asked them what the Youth Movement meant to them. It was their home and it was the place where they could grow.
Four days later, I left – my energy stores depleted but with a full heart. I reflected on what a great thing it is for our young people to belong to a Youth Movement; this counter-cultural bubble where the primary currency in circulation is kindness. The narrative about the generations of the future can be shifted; we don’t have to be mired in cultural pessimism, narcissism or nihilism. It only takes four days in a remote Welsh summer camp with mediocre British weather to realise how much we have and how little we need: the company of friends, the wisdom of our tradition and a redemptive vision for our future.
Psalm 144:12 launches a counter narrative against this idea of the corrupted, incorrigible youth:
‘Asher baneinu ki’neti’im, megudalim bin’ureihem – benoteinu kezariyot – mechutavot tavnit heichal.’ ‘That our sons are as plants grown up in their youth; our daughters are as corner-pillars carved after the fashion of a palace.’
Our youth can be resilient and strong, flexible and creative. We can build a radical re-imagining of what is to what can be. We can stand by our ideals without being blind to the narrative of the other. We can embrace our Jewish identity without negating the identity of another. We can sing and jump to 1980’s classic hits and still learn Torah in all her depth and richness.
I am hopeful. And eager to send my own young children down their path of growth, compassion and exploration. With all that Judaism has to offer them, my heart is at ease.
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Photo credit: Folkert Gorter