I want to preface my talk by speaking about my Bar Mitzvah. I cried my eyes out during my service—it was a little embarrassing and a little unexpected. While I have always been a sentimental person, I thought that maybe I could have held off until the end of my service to start crying. But no, I opened the floodgates right in the middle and didn’t manage to close them for a while after that. I am going to try to keep my floodgates closed tonight, but no promises…
After tenth grade, much to the dismay of my father (then the head of the Hebrew School Board), I wanted to stop coming to Hebrew school. I don’t remember what necessarily prompted this specific argument, but I do vividly remember having an argument with my dad about my Jewish identity around that time period. I argued something along the lines of: “I’m not even that Jewish! I don’t feel strong ties to Judaism.” He responded sharply, “Then explain to me what happened to you during your Bar Mitzvah service.” Ever since that argument, I have been thinking about what actually happened to me during my Bar Mitzvah, because my dad’s argument has still been left unanswered. I don’t, however, want to answer him for him. I want to answer him for ME. And, based on the knowledge that I have accumulated both in life and in Hebrew School since then, I think I can do a good job of that.
First off, why do I cry a lot in general? I am not a cry baby. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I have cried of physical pain. Perhaps your average football player isn’t one to shed as many sentimental tears as I have in my day. In my mind, crying is no loss of pride. Only the prideful can wear their tears proudly as a testament to their understanding of impactful experiences.
As I have matured, I have started to realize that impactful experiences and Jewish experiences are connected. Every time I leave Hebrew School on Monday nights, I feel as if I am leaving a better person than I came. Every time I leave work on Sunday mornings, I feel proud knowing that I did my little part to help the temple out. I come here because I genuinely like being here, or, as Rabbi Bronstein would say, being there. I realize that, in class, we touch on some of the greater, self-bettering principles of philosophy, stemming from the analysis of one line of Torah. Perhaps I am that Jewish, simply because I have come to realize that Jewish learning really isn’t about Judaism. It’s about being a good person, and being there, and understanding those impactful experiences.
Why did I cry during my Bar Mitzvah (and why am I crying now)? I cry because I care… about the temple, about my classmates, about Abby and Jack, and the Rabbi, and my family. And that’s why it is okay to cry.
I believe I speak for most people here when I say what a wonderful and worthwhile experience Hebrew High School has been these past four-years. Although this Siyyum marks the end of a journey for our Senior class, it is certainly not the last time Bet Am will have a presence in our lives. Each Monday night has presented a new opportunity to learn. Whether it was studying the profound and sometimes esoteric texts with Rabbi Bronstein, or learning about the historical origins that fuel conflict in modern day Israel, the hours spent here, in this synagogue, have left an immeasurable impact on me as an individual.
Spiritually, the time spent in Rabbi Bronstein’s cheese-scented room has, of course, taught me to be a more ethical person. However, his class was comprised of much more than that. With each lesson, I was pushed to my intellectual bounds. I interpreted the Torah and other important texts in unique and insightful ways, far more than I formerly thought possible. Moreover, through the support of my classmates and candidness of the Rabbi’s lessons, I genuinely feel that I am now confident enough to step out on intellectual ledges, unafraid to ask provocative questions or attempt to answer difficult problems.
Entering adulthood as a Jew, I will invariably encounter many challenges. May it be anti-Semitism, anti-Israel dialogue or simply ignorance towards Jewish culture, each of the aforementioned will certainly be prevalent. Though this may seem like a daunting future to some, my many years in Mr. Gruenberg’s class has more than prepared me to face those challenges. Starting from the biblical claim to a Jewish homeland, followed up by Israeli independence in 1948, and up until contemporary times, Mr. Gruenberg has taught me to hold my own, intellectually, against people and groups who slander and attempt to conceal the genuine right to a Jewish homeland.
On June 26th, I FINALLY graduate from New Rochelle High School, and, from there, will be moving on to college. Thanks to the fantastic teachers and staff here at Bet Am Shalom, I truly feel like I have an advantage over my peers in facing what comes ahead. As I mentioned at the beginning of this speech, although this may be the end of Hebrew School, the knowledge I have received and relationships that I have made, will forever be with me, there to comfort and assist me when needed.
Thank you SO much to Rabbi Bronstein and Mr. Gruenberg, to director Abby Reiken for organizing and administering this school, and to everyone else who has helped in running Bet Am Shalom.
And lastly, since I probably won’t make that many speeches in my life, this is a great opportunity to say, “thanks to my parents as well for everything, I love you guys!”
I’d like to start off by thanking Rabbi Bronstein, Mr. Gruenberg and all the administrators here for a great four years. I definitely enjoyed my time here, and that wouldn’t have been possible without all of you, so thank you.
When we were instructed to write a speech for this graduation ceremony, we were given very little guidance on what exactly we should write about. For a while, I was stumped. How do you summarize 4 years of Hebrew school in a short 2-3 minute speech? It’d be a disservice to the work of Rabbi Bronstein and Mr. Gruenberg to think that was possible, let alone attempt it. Rather, I’m going to focus on the importance of why the younger children here should continue to attend Hebrew school, and why you parents should continue to send them.
Two years ago, when I came to this event to give my 10th grade culmination speech, I never thought I would be standing here again in two years to give another speech. Frankly, I thought I would have dropped out by now. But year after year, my father pleaded I attend, and looking back it- I’m glad he did.
So what changed between now and then? What made me go from wanting to drop out to wanting to come here on Monday nights? I can’t point to a single thing and say, “That was the epiphanic moment that made me appreciate my Jewish education.” But I can list a few things.
One thing that comes to mind is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that gained national attention a few months ago at the University of Michigan, the school I’ll be attending in September. For those who don’t know, in April of this year, a student group at Michigan proposed a resolution to the student government that would pressure the University into divesting from companies that invest or operate in Israel. The resolution was eventually voted down after tense weeks of debate, but nonetheless, the situation was eye-opening. Students on campus were being harassed by anti-Israel students, regardless of their position on Israel. Those students, Jewish or not, didn’t ask to be called names and receive threats to their physical wellbeing. And as for the Jewish students, they didn’t get to choose how the anti-Israel students perceived them. The anti-Israel students merely identified them as Jewish, and consequently pro-Israel and deserving of harassment. This lack of choice, the choice of how others objectively perceive us, is what concerns me. We, as ethnically Jewish people, didn’t get to choose the curly hair known as the ‘Jewfro’, or the size of our nose, or the last names that contain the words Katz, Berg, Gold or Stein. Though that last one can be changed, the first two can’t, and as Jews, most of us have one or more of these features that allow us to be identified as Jewish, whether we like it or not.
So others will judge us as they please, and that leaves us with two choices. We can sit there and turn the other cheek when others spew derogatory, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel comments, or we can educate ourselves and stand up for Israel and the Jewish people when appropriate. The importance of doing the latter is a whole different speech, however your reasons for standing up for Israel and the Jewish people should be the same reasons you attend Hebrew school or send your kids to Hebrew school.
I’ll close by sharing something I learned in my last class here with Rabbi Bronstein. We studied a passage that said in order for the Israelites to receive the Torah, they must divide into tribes with “each person under his banner.” The explanation was that each person must realize himself and his identity in order to fully understand the truth of the Torah. Rebbe Yitzhak Rothenberg further explained, “The minute we are who we are, we are able to be changed and grow. What keeps us from realizing ourselves is trying to be someone whom we are not. Somehow, as we grow up we are contaminated by outside influences as to who we should be and what makes us happy. What we must do, therefore, is find out who we are, keep telling ourselves the truth.”
My proposition to those who still have a few years left here is this. Let this place, and these educators help you find out who you are. You’ll find that the tools and skills you learn within this building will help you avoid the contamination that the Rebbe was referring to, so that you too, can change and grow.