Tonight, I think not just about your last four years but about the last 17 or 18 years of your life. These were tumultuous times.
When you were about two years old, everyone everywhere was worried about the Y2K bug. People feared all our databases would crash on January 1, 2000. Christians feared the end of the world. Of all the New Year’s Eves to stay awake, this was the one to do so.
I remember where I was on December 31, 1999. It was erev shabbat. I had a big shabbat dinner with my wife and four boys; dinner and kiddush wine lulled me to sleep by 8 or 9 pm. I woke up the next day, and, as your presence today attests, the world didn’t come to an end.
When you were four, you were too young to understand, but the deadliest terrorist attack in history took place on American soil on September 11, 2001. America lost its innocence. I remember where I was at that time as I’m sure your parents do too.
When you were about 7, Facebook was launched; over a billion people now have accounts. It connects you and your “friends” but also guided the protests of the Arab Spring and transformed the war in Gaza this past summer into one that was personally felt in an unprecedented way by Jews everywhere because we are so connected.
You probably don’t remember when Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in June of 2006, but you certainly remember his release in Grade 9. You likely remember well the Boston Marathon bombing at the end of G10, and certainly the 12 Charlie Hebdo murders and those of 4 Jews two days later in a kosher grocery store in Paris in January of your G12 year. Those events were the backdrop of your educational journey.
As you prepare for the uncertain times ahead, I want to leave you with a message based on a comment by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century in America, an activist in the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam protest movement, who died in 1972.
Heschel once said that the worst thing a Jew can do is to forget what he or she represents. The worst sin we can commit is to forgot what we stand for because only if we stand for something, can we make a difference in the world.
Rabbi Heschel was right. Think of the great figures of the last century or two who were known for their wisdom.
Mahatma Ghandi was first and foremost a Hindu. His methods of civil disobedience influenced political activists in other countries decades after his death.
Mother Teresa, who died in the year many of you were born 1997, she was first and foremost a Catholic. She dedicated herself to helping the poor and sick throughout the world.
The more deeply these individuals immersed themselves in the message of their own particularistic tradition, the more universalistic they became. These individuals teach that when we are rooted in something, we affect the world most deeply. It`s when we are different that we make a difference, not just for ourselves but for other people.
A former student of mine was once asked when he was in Grade 10, whether or not he would be prepared to survive on a university campus, in the “real world,” after going to Jewish day school all his life. The person wanted to know: when he leaves the day school bubble, how will he navigate the diversity of university life?
He responded, “I will have such a good sense of who I am as a Jew that I will have something to contribute to that diversity.” Indeed, that’s what he did.
There is a man named Natan Sharansky who is head of an organization like the UJA Federation but in Israel. In the 1970`s and 80`s he was a human rights activist in the former Soviet Union. He fought on behalf of Soviet citizens like Andrei Sacharov who advocated freedom of thought and Alexander Solzhenitsyn who tried to draw public attention to the existence of forced labor camps during the Stalin era. When Sharansky, himself, tried to emigrate to Israel, he was refused an exit visa and thrown into prison. In his autobiography, Fear No Evil, he tells how the more he discovered his Jewish roots, the more he redoubled his efforts on behalf of all dissidents. He draws a famous analogy that I`m sure you know but is worth repeating. He says that just as a shofar only makes a sound if you blow from the narrow end, so too do we, as Jews, make an impact when we speak with a Jewish voice.
We make the biggest contribution to the world around us the more we remember who we are.
We Jews comprise a fifth of one percent of the world’s population. Yet, 3 of 9 Supreme Court Justices in the US are Jews, 1 in 3-4 Nobel Laureates are Jews, over half of world chess champions are Jews.
You are part of a people whose contributions to better the world are found in the inventors, scientists, thinkers, teachers and poets that have all helped make the world a better place to live.
You are part of an amazing people, graduating from one of the leading Jewish high schools in North America, with parents who have raised you with enduring values.
Remember who you are, and you will bring great blessing to the world.
Mazel tov and congratulations to the class of 2015.