The following is an edited excerpt of a speech delivered last year by Rabbi Lee Buckman during a graduation ceremony at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.
Tonight is the last time you will be sitting together as a class of 2016. You are a terrific group of students and we are going to miss you.
Before we say l’hitraot, I want you to look around at your classmates’ faces. Take a second. I want you to take note of something truly special about our school.
If you look at each other, you see a microcosm of the Jewish People in its diversity. Some of you are dark skinned. Others are light skinned. Some of you look Sephardi. Others look Ashkenazi. Some of you are Israeli born. Some of you have Russian-speaking parents. Some of you have South African parents. And some of you have parents that come from my country, the one brings us Donald Trump, the U.S.A.
Some of you belong to Orthodox shuls, others belong to Conservative synagogues and some Reform temples. TanenbaumCHAT is a place where the silos come down and the labels vanish.
It’s a place where students encounter classmates who are unlike them, and yet everyone studies together, celebrates together, laughs together and lives together.
The Jewish world today is so divided – between hawks and doves in Israeli politics, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, between those in favour of women rabbis and those against.
The Kotel in Jerusalem has once again became a battleground between groups of Jews. Recently, a group that had gotten permission to hold an egalitarian minyan was jostled and harassed by a group of Jews who oppose egalitarianism. It was ugly.
And here in North America, we live in a world where the typical Jew in a Reform temple never meets an Orthodox Jew. And the typical Jew in an Orthodox synagogue never meets a Reform or Conservative Jew. We live in a world where it’s more likely that a non-Jew will be asked to speak from the synagogue pulpit than a rabbi from another denomination.
When you have no first-hand experience of another person’s viewpoint, when you never have a conversation with people who define their Jewish identity differently, you only know each other by stereotypes.
Not so at TanenbaumCHAT. Under one roof at TanenbaumCHAT, you can meet an observant Jew, a questioning Jew, a liberal Jew who dreams of a day when Jews and Arabs will live together in peace and a right-wing Jew who believes that Israel must be strong and on guard against the Arabs every moment of the day – and that’s just one student!
At TanenbaumCHAT, you have met fellow classmates who observe Shabbat differently, eat differently and pray differently. And sometimes this may have made you feel uncomfortable. But I hope it also taught you to see the world through the eyes of someone else. I hope it helped you understand your own convictions better and that despite our differences, we are part of one faith and one family with one fate.
Let me tell you a brief story about the benefits of first-hand experience with people who hold different ideological or political views. There’s a rivalry that’s heating up now in Israeli politics between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a former prime minister Ehud Barak. Netanyahu is from the Likkud party and Barak is from Labor. Netanyahu’s politics are right of centre, and Barak’s are left of centre.
The last time Barak challenged Netanyahu’s candidacy was in 1999. Netanyahu was the incumbent and Barak beat him. Journalists and political commentators had expected it to be one of the dirtiest campaigns in Israeli history. But it wasn’t. It was one of the most civil.
The reason for this is that in 1972, there was a Sabena airplane that was hijacked by some Palestinian terrorists who threatened to blow up the plane with all the passengers on board. A brave group of Israeli commandos from Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli equivalent of the American Delta Force, dressed up in overalls and pretended to be airplane mechanics. They charged the plane, rescued the passengers and neutralized the terrorists. The commander was a 30-year-old man named Ehud Barak. And one of the members of that elite unit was a 22-year-old man named Bibi Netanyahu.
When two people risk their lives on a joint mission, they’re not the same again. It’s hard to demonize, malign and mock a person who has put his life on the line for you. They don’t see each other as Likudniks and Labor, hawks and doves. They see each other as much more than any label can describe: they see each other as human beings – complex, conflicted, committed.
That’s the beauty and uniqueness of the TanenbaumCHAT experience. Whether in classes or during extracurricular activities, you have met and have made friends with classmates whose Jewish lives are very different from your own. You’ve made friends with classmates who aren’t necessarily any less passionate or committed, or any less open or more fundamentalist.
Imagine a Jewish world where Jews who interpret our tradition in diverse ways listen to, learn from and honour each other. Imagine a Jewish world where those who affiliate with a movement realize that the biggest danger that faces the Jewish community isn’t encountering people they disagree with, but the fact that there are so many Jews who don’t want to participate in the conversation at all. Imagine a Jewish world that mirrored the large tent of TanenbaumCHAT. You’ve experienced and appreciated that kind of world at TanenbaumCHAT.
Our tradition talks about being a “light unto the nations.” Sometimes we need to be a light unto the Jewish nation. We need to take the best of ourselves and bring it not to other communities, but to the rest of the Jewish community. Be a light to the Jewish nation. Now, go out and help shape the Jewish community of tomorrow to appreciate and mirror it, too.
Rabbi Lee Buckman is the head of school of TanenbaumCHAT.