Posted on January 20th, 2016

Lessons from a Unitarian Universalist Minister and 3 Rabbis

“Want what you have.
Do what you can.
Be who you are.”

These words of Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church z”l have been ringing in my head since reading them in his last book, Love & Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow. Church says that these words are his life mantra. His 12 words simply state how I live my life, and how I try to teach my children to live their lives. Not surprisingly, his words draw me to some of our own teachings, which serve as mantras for me.

  • Ben Zoma: Who is rich? He who rejoices with his portion. (Pirke Avot 4:1)
  • Rabbi Tarfon: It is not our obligation to complete the work, but nor are we free to refrain from doing it. (Pirke Avot 2:16)
  • Before he died, Rabbi Zusya said: “In the world to come they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ “They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?'” (Legend about Hasidic Rabbi Zusya of Hanipoli)

As I look forward to our upcoming Yom Iyun: Day of Learning on Youth and Adolescent Mental Health, it seems to me that some of the challenges our youth face are grounded in a culture that does not live by these teachings.

Our children are pushed to want more. Our western society worships material wealth. In my adolescence, owning a pair of Guess jeans epitomized this notion. For today’s youth it’s exemplified by the drive to own the next generation smartphone on the first day it is released.

Our kids are pushed to accomplish everything, especially when it comes to academics: earn that 4.8 GPA; take as many AP courses as possible. When they don’t succeed in those courses, they feel like failures, as if they aren’t doing their best, when probably in fact they are. And we, their parents, feel shame and embarrassment – as if we are not good parents. What’s wrong with setting reasonable expectations for success with each of our children, based on their unique capacities? Nothing should be wrong with that!

It is developmentally appropriate for our youth to look up to rock stars, actors and other public figures, and to want to be like them. I wonder to what extent the individuals our culture spotlights really exemplify standards of goodness, greatness, beauty or menschlich behavior. Are they presented with models who typify consumerism, going with the crowd, and self-centeredness? Or are they looking to models who help them strive to be their best selves, and meaningful contributors to their communities?

As an organization, we are blessed to be a community of individuals who strive to provide healthy venues for our youth to learn these Jewish values, in which to grow and embody those values, to meet and be inspired by positive role models. I pray that our Yom Iyun will help us become more knowledgeable about how to serve our youth and families more effectively and that we will find opportunities to share our challenges and successes together. I pray for a time in which all our youth will be able to stand strong and live according to the teachings of Ben Zoma, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Zusya, Rev Forrest Church, or others who may guide them down good paths.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE, is the President of the ARJE.