Honorable Mensch-ion

A Visit to Palisades High School

The below article appears in this week’s edition of The Jewish Journal.

‘I have not set foot on a high school campus in many years. I interact often with teenagers at our synagogue. I consult with teens, give them the appropriate resources to combat antisemitism in the classroom and in the halls of their schools, and educate them on the history and the importance of Israel. After they become b’nai mitzvah, complete religious school or graduate Sinai Akiba Academy, we send these young people off to act as Jewish leaders in their high schools, private and public schools alike. If we are lucky, a small majority of teens stay active and deeply connected to synagogue life. It is the reality of the world.

It was not until last week that I witnessed the uphill battle these teenagers face and the desperate need they have for their synagogues and Jewish communities to support them and their support for Israel.

Everyone is asking, “What can we do?” How do we speak to our co-workers about Israel? How do we speak to our friends? Teens are asking, how do we speak to our peers and to our teachers?

After the Simchat Torah Massacre, a Sinai Temple teenager from our Sinai Temple teen center reached out and asked if I would address the Palisades Charter High School community for a solidarity with Israel program held on the campus quad.

Speaking is what I do for a living. I speak at public rallies, I speak weekly on a bima, and I host a podcast with major sports personalities. Yet, I was never more nervous than the moment I walked into that high school.

The solidarity for Israel program was brief. Israeli music was playing and students wrote cards to IDF soldiers. That morning, I received pictures of excited students hanging Israeli flags on the quad in preparation for the program.

As I entered the school, I was asked to speak to the administration. They asked me, “What message will you be giving the students today? I responded, “The difference between good and evil. I will speak about humanity, but it must be stated that HAMAS is a terrorist organization that not only killed over 1,400 Israelis, and has taken 200 hostages, but continues to hold its own population hostage for the last 20 years!”

As I went to greet the student from Sinai Temple, she was asked, “Solidarity … so that means there will be Israeli flags and other flags too?” The student shyly answered, “No … Israeli flags … like I told you in the email.”

Based on this conversation, the flags hung up in the morning were taken down, and the only flag allowed was one that a student wore around their shoulders. I thought to myself, “If a Free Palestine program were taking place on this quad, would they ask if ‘other’ flags were going to be included?”

I was told that last week the Jewish Student Union hosted a program with a rabbi and a lawyer speaking about Israel, but since it was in an enclosed area, there was no issue.

What is the message? We can talk about Israel behind closed doors? But once it steps into the public sphere, we must be quiet?

As we entered the quad, two long tables were set up, with two small signs, barely visible from more than 10 feet away said, “We stand with Israel.”

Hours before I arrived, Israel was wrongly accused by Hamas and the entire world for bombing a Gaza hospital, while evidence clearly showed that Palestinian Islamic Jihad itself was responsible itself for killing its own civilians.
How could Jewish students not stand up in front of their community and publicly say, “We stand with Israel.” More Jews were killed on October 7th in the Simchat Torah Massacre then at any time since the Holocaust. Last Friday, thousands of Jewish children stayed home from school, fearful of the call for a Day of Jihad.

How can we not stand up and say, “My people were murdered — men, women, and children. It was supposed to be a day of joy, but that day will live in infamy as a day that will change the course of Jewish history.”

As I stood up on the stage to speak, I looked out at the crowd. Thousands of students were eating their lunch. One hundred students wrote letters to soldiers. I took the microphone and quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book, “Israel,” written in 1967 after he visited Jerusalem for the first time. He calls for a “community of concern.” Where a Jew hurts somewhere, he says, a Jew hurts everywhere.

I could see the pain on these teenagers faces. Many of those teens are thinking about where to study in college. These are the best and the brightest, and now they must ask themselves, “Will I feel safe on the campus where I wish to study?”

What I learned that morning is that the college campus is too late. What our children learn in our high schools and now even in our middle schools will shape them for life. And what we teach them in our religious schools and in our day schools must prepare them for a journey of pride, strength, and ultimately Jewish leadership.

October 7th will be a moment when the next generation stands up and says, “We are the one that will tell the story of Israel.” Over the last two decades, Gen Z-ers have disconnected from Israel, spent most of their time criticizing its government and not enough time finding the ways in which the land of Israel and the people of Israel bring light to our world.

As we concluded Sukkot on October 7th, we read the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything under the sun.” At Palisades High School, with a large population of Jewish students, the time is now. The time to proudly say Am Yisrael Chai, to call out evil and terror when it confronts us, to uplift the Israeli spirit of love. Even more so, it is all of us, the Jewish community, that must support these students.

I learned one of the greatest lessons of my rabbinate today. Don’t wait for your students to come to you. Go to them, teach them what it means to pray with your feet. Watch them grow and watch them lead.

Comments are closed.