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We Need Teenagers in Power

This is a drash I wrote for services at Congregation Ner Shalom on June 11, 2021 to honor teenagers, whom I have long felt have been pushed to the side, wasting their energy and ingenuity, a detriment to our society and the world.

I’ve long been an advocate for what used to be called “youth empowerment.” I don’t know if this is actually really used anymore; Google says it is, so I’ll take that as a yes.

I worked for several years as an employment counselor for at-risk kids through a program of what was then the Boys Club and is now, of course, the Boys and Girls Club. I helped kids from 13 - 21 get ready for job interviews, making sure they knew how to shake hands, sit up straight and speak well of themselves, and maintain eye contact – a hard switch for some of them, taught to look down as a sign of respect.

During some presidential election in the 80s or 90s, I was so angry and frustrated by the mendacity, the lies, the hypocrisy and the will to obstruct ordinary goodness (sound familiar?) that one day, all of a sudden, I realized that I believed that teenagers should be in charge of the electoral process.

Teenagers were still close to the ability all children have to live in wonder, they had fresh perspectives, hope, and the belief that they could change the world. Accustomed to studying, their mental muscles were still flexible and strong. And best of all, they would not be grasping to hold on to past years of power, but rather willing and able to create and facilitate new models of community dynamics. And offering teens a stake in the way things are run would be a meaningful encouragement to engage.

I still think this, by the way.

So when I looked at the parsha for this week, which recounts the attempted coup in the desert by desperate men who wanted things to go back to the way they were – that’s one way to look at it –that vision of teenagers at the helm popped up again..

It was Korech who led the insurrection against Moses and Aaron, along with Dathan, whom perhaps you remember as Edgar G. Robinson played him with mustache-twirling gusto in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandments.” Korech’s challenge brought to mind the button I used to wear that said “Question Authority.”

I can just see the scene: Korech pushes his way up to Moses and says, “And who appointed you grand poobah? God?”

And Moses, stuttering a bit, something like Chris Reeves (of blessed memory) as Superman, looking abashed, says, “Well, actually, um, yes.”

But yes. We need to question authority, to question our own authority, to question everyone’s authority whenever and hopefully before proclamations are made and officials installed. Despite what some of us experienced elsewhere and in our youth from rabbis unwilling to hear our questions, it is the Jewish custom to question and challenge, even, like Tevye arguing with God.

And who is better at questioning authority than kids?

As Reb Judith pointed out, leaders need to embody ethical principles. We must not ever let the bullies win or those unaware of history make the rules.

Now, I have to say that I would not ask anyone to do what I, myself, am unwilling to do. So–and I’m speaking to you graduates now–when I urge you to step up and join those teens and twenty-somethings who have, hallelujah and thank God, already stepped up as models for how youth can lead, I need to admit that as a young person, I was afraid to make waves, and still don’t like to. When a Democratic committee agent asked me to run for city council in 1989, when I was well past my youth, I said no, thanks, and asked my friends to hit me upside the head with a frying pan if I ever told them I was considering running for public office.

That’s scary stuff. To be willing to stand up and stand out requires courage, if you have any sense at all. Some people will say awful lies about you. You’ll lose some friends. But of course you already know that you’ll be better off without those friends.

There are many ways to lead, to nourish and support, to influence and witness. And thank goodness, things have changed since I first became aware of the importance of youth in leadership positions.

Kids have been standing up and refusing to let what doesn’t serve the good have pride of place. Malala Yousafzai was the first, amazingly so, a Muslim girl defying the Taliban for the right to read, and then Greta Thunberg quietly persevering in support of the Earth – and being accorded the ultimate recognition, the Nobel Peace Prize, for her efforts. Emma Gonzales reading out the names of her dead classmates and then standing defiantly silent for four minutes - the length of time it took the gunman to carry out his attack in her Parkland, Florida high school. Other kids have initiated changes in medical, social, and political arenas.

And where to begin the in-breath that must precede a courageous act? As Torah tells us, it is not far away, but Torah tells us, it is not far away, but is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it. Most simply, in the quiet of noticing how your body responds to your life. When does your body relax? Breathe in that blessing and notice the power of feeling good. When does your body tense up? Breathe through that moment, just breathe in, and breathe out, and notice how that feels.

Of the variety of motivations that leads people to step out to make a difference, anger is often front and center, propelling us onto the fray. Anger can be useful, as long as we know how to manage it rather than allowing it to manage us.

I learned a powerful and useful lesson from a book in which I read “At the very first moment you begin to feel anger, say to yourself, ‘Wow, I was really angry.’ In that moment, as you say that you were angry, in fact you are not angry any more. Because anger is a very filling emotion, sating that place in us that yearns to be full, you can’t just move out of anger; you have to replace it immediately if you want to be out of it. So you need instantly to make a decision: to go back in to the anger, or to replace it with something just as strong that will move you into another space. Honestly, that means you always need to have something tucked right under your heart, accessible at a moment’s notice. It could be a powerful love. For me it was my child. A song? Mine was “Dolphin” by Kenny Rankin.

Coming of age in 2021 seems very daunting to me, and I congratulate all our graduates on your accomplishment. I look forward to your blossoming in all the ways that may rise from your authentic strengths. And if you can think of a way I can help, please, really, let me know.

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