Teens should follow in footsteps of volunteerism

As I watch the first of my six granddaughters prepare to become a bat mitzvah this spring, I am filled with pride. She and young Jews like her around the world are following in the footsteps of generations of youth who came before them, affirming to their communities that they are prepared to take on the responsibilities of being a Jewish adult.

Every society has a way of marking significant stages in our lives when we celebrate our transitions and mark phases of maturing.

Moments of tremendous learning and growth, these “rites of passage” — often transformative experiences — are forever imprinted in our memories. Like rites of passage in other societies, b’nai mitzvah ceremonies have become nearly universal experiences in the Jewish community. While many children of bar mitzvah age are unable to grasp all that their newfound responsibilities entail, each one recognizes the occasion as an important turning point in their lives as Jews.

The bar mitzvah epitomizes obligation to our religious and cultural ideals.

But should the bar mitzvah be the only demonstration of a young person’s communal allegiance? There are so many values that the Jewish community embraces — values that are truly universal in nature — for which we have no outward tradition of affirming with the gravity of a bar or bat mitzvah. We say we are a people committed to chesed, or lovingkindness; tzedek, or justice; and tikkun olam, or repairing the world, but oftentimes we fail to see our engagement in such activities as an expression of who we are as Jews. As a people, we need to develop a new rite of passage devoted to these pillars of Jewish action.

These Jewish values were instilled in me at an early age. Some of my earliest and fondest memories of my father involve the time I spent with him visiting and helping care for people I remember calling the “little old ladies” — women who were probably no older than I am today. My father never talked in terms of charity. He spoke only of improving lives and, in turn, making the world a better place for us all. Time and again he would say, “Each of us is worth only what we are willing to give to others.”

Through our frequent volunteering I came to see that tzedakah, or giving money, is not enough — it must be coupled with its sister tzedek, bringing us closer to the people who benefit from our giving, and impressing upon us the importance of getting our hands dirty for the sake of others. The physical aspect of service is much more transformative than writing a check.

Schools and universities are catching on, adding service to standard classroom work. Service leaders in the United States also believe that they can ignite a fire in young generations who, through service work, come to think of themselves as responsible citizens, dedicated to their civic identities and to the ideals of democracy. Just as these American leaders hope to leverage service to benefit American society, so too can the Jewish community utilize service to touch both those who serve and those who are served.

We cannot underestimate the profound impact Jewish service has on its participants. First, service adds another rich layer to the lives of those already committed to Judaism. It is a channel for young Jews to expand their Jewish identities, to think about Judaism as a holistic living experience.

At the same time, service also reaches out to the Jewishly uninspired. Many young people today speak the language of universalism, choosing to view the world from that vantage point and inadvertently turning away from the particulars of Judaism.

Accordingly, Jewish service can give universalists a chance to live out their broader values in a Jewish context, to learn that they can be both Jews and humans.

Thinking about all this as a philanthropist, I began to tackle the question of how I could encourage more young Jews to engage in service. How could my philanthropy help to make service a universal Jewish experience?

Our Center for Leadership Initiatives, a new operating foundation that I helped establish in 2006, sponsored 550 young adults’ participation in service projects in northern Israel this winter, to assist the region after this past summer’s war. More than 3,000 young people from around the world applied to our Leading Up North program, and this incredible number alone shows how much this generation is eager to be involved.

When the volunteers we took to Israel finished their days fixing bomb shelters and preparing charred forests for replanting, they spent their evenings in discussion with young Israelis who have chosen to live in the socio-economically challenged regions of the country in order to bring about change. They met with Israelis and other Jews from around the world who are deeply engaged in service, working with non-Jewish as well as Jewish communities.

It was incredibly moving for me to spend time with them in Israel, hearing their impassioned words and responses. With more opportunities, they will come to see service as their unique contribution and as their duty.

In response, our foundation has not stopped with Leading Up North. We continue to support Jewish service in many ways, including J-Serve, a national Jewish teen day of service, and an online networking site and follow-up programming for alumni of Jewish service programs.

Whether you call it volunteerism, community service, tzedek, social action or something else altogether, an intense service experience must become a rite of passage for all young Jews. When it does, our community will be living the values, invested in positive change — both within the Jewish community and the general society — planting the seeds for their children to flourish, and returning the favor in a never-ending cycle.

And so I challenge all of us to step it up. Let’s step up the number of young Jews doing service. Let’s step up support for Jewish organizations that provide authentic service programs, significantly expanding their reach. Let’s step up our commitment to tzedek and tikkun olam. Let’s unite our community with a sincere, shared obligation to Jewish service. Let’s make service universal.

This column courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Lynn Schusterman is chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Parental Dishonor

My Torah portion is the retelling and explanation of the Ten Commandments by Moses. A teacher of mine encouraged me to pick a commandment mentioned in my portion, and write about what it means to me. Five words instantly flew into my head: “Honor thy father and mother.”

You see, at this very moment, my mom and dad are suffering from alcoholism and substance abuse. They have both relapsed recently, and I was, and still am, coping with the loss.

My mother almost had 13 years clean and sober when she relapsed. She kept it quiet until early this summer. A family member called me and told me the news. I remember the exact words she started off with: “I need you to be an adult.”

After that, my memory goes a bit fuzzy.

I was devastated. After all this time, why did she relapse now? That’s all I could think about. Had she forgotten that she had a daughter to support? I felt like my life as I had known it was crumbling around me and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I knew I had to deal with my family’s newest problem and be strong, but I still wished with all my heart that I could crawl in a hole somewhere away from the rest of the world and cry.

I was living with my mother near Seattle, although I am close to both my parents. I called my father in Los Angeles. He didn’t sound worried. He said that I was to be a good girl and that everything would be fine. He said that I would be fine. I didn’t feel fine.

After finishing school soon after that, I flew to California to stay with my father. Los Angeles had always been a haven for me. It was a place to recharge the batteries that kept me going during the year. It seemed that as soon as I stepped off that plane that day, I felt happier and more alive than I had been in those last few weeks at home. Upon reaching my father’s house, I wanted to stay there forever.

One evening, my father left for what was going to be a couple hours to play cards. A couple hours ended up being around 18, as he finally came home at around 5:30 the next morning. He had drunk alcohol while he was out — my dad had relapsed.

Now I felt really stuck. The silver lining to my dark cloud was that my father and Carrie would let me move in with them. Now, that wasn’t a possibility, as my dad had his own problems.

At this point, I was so confused I didn’t know what to do. I had never really dealt with these diseases firsthand. I never saw my dad when I was younger, when he was using, and my mother had been clean and sober since the November after I was born. For my mom to relapse was a huge deal, but for my dad to also, a little over two months from when my mother had, was overwhelming.

I was furious with my parents for doing this, and I was so scared about what would happen in the future. I didn’t even want to think about it all. How was I supposed to honor my mother and father?

The thing is, with my parents, there is so much to honor. One of the most important things my dad has passed onto me is the act of love and tolerance.

To me, this is one of the things I live by day to day, maybe more so than the average person. Because my mother is also a lesbian, I’ve dealt with some discrimination. People have openly told me that my mother’s lifestyle is evil. With advice from my father, I can forgive and accept their blindness in this situation. My dad is loving when loving someone can be tough and listens when it seems no one can hear. Those traits to me are important and make him a really wonderful role model.

My mother has taught me numerous things and has raised me to be independent. She taught me how to laugh at myself and my mistakes. She has been a listening ear and has helped me with my problems. She has been the best mom a girl could ask for, and a best friend to me throughout my life.

But we’re still stuck with that question. How do we honor our mothers and fathers? Better yet, how do we honor them when they dishonor themselves? There are numerous answers I’m sure. For me, I think honoring them would be to understand and be there for them. Children of addicts who aren’t addicts themselves need to remember what these diseases do to our parents. They muddle their brains and mess with their priorities.

When they relapse, we have to try to remember not to take it personally.

They don’t do it to intentionally hurt us. We can also remember what they teach us and follow in their admirable footsteps. When their own footsteps get shaky, we can also keep in mind that we can always make our own set of prints.

This ceremony is a bittersweet blessing. Now I’m going to have to be an adult. There will be more bumps in the road farther down this path, I’m sure, but I’m just going to have to keep my head up and keep going. Just like addicts on their path to recovery, I have to keep walking down my path to acceptance and support.

This essay was prepared from a bat mitzvah speech given by a 13-year-old last month.