Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Letter to My College Bound Daughter

 Click here to download a PDF of this sermon.

Who has seen the movie Toy Story 3? My wife Michelle and I saw it with the kids on the day it came out. There we sat, watching Pixar’s animated film about a bunch of talking toys, when I noticed the tears running down my wife’s face. I squeezed her hand tightly; I too was crying. Now just so you know, we didn’t get choked up in the original Toy Story, nor in Toy Story 2. We were crying because just like our eldest child Rachel, the owner and friend of the toys, a character named Andy was going off to college. When we later saw the movie The Kids are All Right, we again found ourselves sobbing during the off-to-college scene.

Michelle and I are experiencing a wonderful yet tear-inducing reality that our little redhead has flown the coop, venturing off as a freshman to Pitzer College in Claremont, CA. We long dreamt about and planned for our child to go to college. Yet now that she actually has the gall to go, we find ourselves on a rollercoaster of emotions.

Who has sent children or grandchildren off to college? Who remembers your own parents’ reactions when you first left home? (Who would like to schedule some time in my office to work through the memories of your parent’s joy when you left home?) How many are already emotional at the thought of your own children leaving, even though your own kids won’t go to college for many more years?

As Rachel prepared to leave, I sat down and wrote her a letter. Rereading it a few days later, I realized that the message I had tailored to my eldest child was applicable to so many transitions beyond leaving for college. Essentially, we can all use words of encouragement to go out and “seize the day,” to make the most of our lives while remain true to our core Jewish values.

So whether you have a child or grandchild going off to college, or are that student yourself; whether you have recently started a new job or find yourself searching for one anew, or are beginning or enjoying a recent retirement; if you have recently said goodbye to dear friends who moved away or had to move yourself; if you are reencountering the world after illness or loss or are struggling with the jumble of emotions in the midst of a loved one’s illness or death; if you are welcoming a new member into the family – the birth or adoption of a baby, a fiancĂ©, spouse or partner, a new son- or daughter-in-law, step-parent, or…; if you are about to make a decision to change the path of your life or if you just feel yourself getting stuck in a routine and want to consider a return to a vibrant life path; or whatever transition you find yourself in… I hope these words will inspire you.

Of course, whenever I mention Rachel and her transition of going to college, please substitute in your mind your name and your own transition, since this is for you too.

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Dearest Rachel:

You are about to embark on the next leg of the journey called “your life.” For all of us, this leg is bittersweet: Sweet, because as you go off to college, exciting new worlds will open up to you, worlds that you didn’t even imagine existed. They will inspire you and challenge you; you will grow in incredible ways.

Of course, this is a moment of sadness too. Your departure to college makes it undeniably clear that you are no longer a little girl, my little redhead, who lived in a protective bubble of family and community, as safe as possible under the watchful eyes of mom and dad.

No, although Mom and I fantasized about it, they don’t seem to allow parents to be your college roommates. You are off on your own. Although we will undoubtedly connect regularly – texting, BBM, Facebook, iChat and maybe even that old standby, the telephone – Mom and I will no longer have front row seats on your journey; from this day forward, we learn about you from you.

This all happened way too quickly. I miss the days when you could just curl up into my arms and my hugs and kisses were all you seemed to need, yet I know that you and I will be fine. We have worked hard to create a close, trusting relationship, which will grow and deepen as you and I change and grow. More than anything, I cherish our closeness. It gives me the strength to allow to you go off to the college of your choice, instead of my preferred choice: URTC – University of Right around The Corner.

As you leave, there is so much I want to remind you about, values to reaffirm, lessons to repeat. Now I know college is filled with really smart professors and really handsome T.A.’s. However, I want to share with you 18 bits of my chochma, one piece of wisdom for each of your 18 years of life.

  1. First, last, and in between, remember always that you are compassionate, intelligent, and beautiful. Every time we talk to you, you take our breath away with your insightfulness, the depth of your kindness, your “you.” This essence animates you. Our Creator, the Holy One, endowed you with these gifts. Embrace them, honor them, hone them. Especially because…
  2. The world is about to open up for you. Embrace the excitement and the challenge. Reb Nachman of Bratslav, wrote kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tsar me-od, v’ha-ikkar lo l’fached klal - that the whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid. So step up, step out – be it with people, experiences, or opportunities. Don’t be afraid to fall or fail. Where we can, Mom and I will be there to support you, but we trust your strength and resilience to pick yourself up and redirect. (Of course, be thoughtful. Just because a bridge presents itself, doesn’t mean you have to cross it.)
  3. Every new experience allows you to reflect upon the ideas you take for granted and ideas you have never before encountered. Absorb the knowledge; be challenged by the ideas of others. Listen carefully to their perspectives on the world, their philosophies, and even their theologies. As the Talmudic sage Ben Zoma taught: V’eizeh hu chacham? Who is wise? Ha-lomed mikol adam – the one who learns from every person.
  4. Remember that we were all created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. So seek out the diverse people who populate your college. As the Passover Seder reminds us, ger hayiti b’eretz mitzrayim, that we Jews were once strangers, shunned, to the edges of society by people with narrow minds. Move out of the Egypt of narrow-mindedness and into the promised land of pluralism.
  5. Remember that you are beautiful. So make sure you fall in love with someone who treats you beautifully. And try to fall in love with someone who shares your love and appreciation of Judaism and wants to create a Jewish home. Not because Judaism is the only truth. Not because you cannot find happiness with someone who is not Jewish (you can). Do it because it is who you are.
  6. Mom and I pride ourselves in getting you to this point in your life, healthy, whole and in one piece. Now your safety and future is up to you. Remember the four questions that Dr. Bruce Powell, founder of New Community Jewish High School, asks ourselves to consider before we do something: 1. Is it safe?  2. Is it legal?  3. Is it moral? And, because what you do today in your dorm room or at a party is apt to show up that night on someone’s Facebook page: 4. Would you want your mother, father, grandparents, teacher, or rabbi to know about it? If you cannot say “yes” to all four, perhaps you should not walk down that path.
  7. You see, the world will present you with a plethora of opportunities to indulge your wildest urges – intellectually, physically, spiritually, with artificial stimulants, with artificial people. College is a time of experimentation. But heed the wisdom of the wise Ben Zoma who said, V’eizeh hu gibor? Who is mighty? HaKovesh et yitzro. The one who controls her passions. So just remember: ultimately you are responsible for who you will become and what you make of your life.
  8. You are now the guide of your own learning. Make wise choices. Sign up each semester for classes that are thought-provoking and inspiring. Ask questions, and respectfully challenge pat answers so that you can advance from collecting knowledge to developing wisdom.
  9. Remember also that Judaism is a multifaceted, multi-vocal, intellectually compelling religion. There is so much you – and I – still don’t know about it. So choose a Jewish studies class each year to learn more about Judaism as an adult.
  10. At your school, the Religious Students Union provides a golden opportunity to broaden your horizons. Naturally, Jewish life on campus is not the same as at Or Ami. Just as you are growing intellectually, socially and independently, so too allow yourself to grow Jewishly. Do not feel self-conscious at what you don’t know. Seek out the Hillel director to explore together what your college Jewish life could look like. You might be surprised at the opportunities that appeal to you.
  11. Make sure to get to Israel. Apply for a Birthright trip early – with the Reform movement. Consider taking a semester abroad in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
  12. And speaking of Israel, you may soon discover that the University world is not always supportive of her. Many people use the open intellectual environment as a cover to bash Israel. You know that I love Israel, her people, and her land… You also know that I believe there is much to criticize the government of Israel about. As an Oheiv Yisrael, a lover of Israel, we must separate the critique of policies from our support of the fundamental right of the Jewish people to a Jewish pluralistic, democratic state. So align yourself with AIPAC, or StandWithUs, or Shalom Achshav/Peace Now. Wherever you stand, be sure to differentiate your response from those that just seek to harm Israel or our people.
  13. By the way, your religious/spiritual foundations are about to be shaken in exciting and scary ways. As you learn about the plethora of perspectives out there, you might find yourself considering ideas and beliefs beyond the Jewish ideas with which you have been raised.
  14. Don’t be afraid to find out that some of our most cherished beliefs have parallels or antecedents in other cultures or religions. I believe that God shares wisdom in many ways with many peoples, and that there are many paths to that Truth. Buddhism has informed the Jewish spirituality I have embraced; Christianity, Islam, and Judaism share compelling ideas about justice and compassion.
  15. I encourage all Or Ami students to call or email your rabbi – me – or Cantor Doug, when you are feeling shaken to your core. A lot of life happens in four years. We will help you remain grounded and process complex issues.
  16. About grades. Do your very best. You do not need to be an A+ student. But as you learned at “New Jew” (your high school), always strive to be an A+ human being. Living a life of kindness and compassion, integrity and honesty, of tzedakah and justice – this is non-negotiable.
  17. Rachel, you amaze and inspire me. Your journey excites me, as I get to watch you in the process of becoming. Know that your parents will be all right too, because we believe in you.
  18. May the Holy One bless you on your journey. B’tzeitecha u’voecha – in your going away and in your coming home too. Mei-atah v’ad olam. From this day forth and forever.
I love you.
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Friends, those are words of wisdom I shared with my baby as she ventured off – ideas about values and openness, about safety and Jewish involvement. These are the same words I could share with all our Or Ami college students as they step into the next phase of their lives.

Over the past year, Or Ami has begun to refocused and strengthen on our youth. We now have reinvigorated programs: Mitzvah Club for families with children in 2nd-6th grades; Temple Kef Night, evenings of fun for 6th-8th graders; and an active LoMPTY senior youth group for high schoolers. Today, we are proud to announce four new initiatives to reach out to our Or Ami college students:

  • If you send me your child’s or grandchild’s email and snail mail address, I will be in touch regularly. First, I will share a version of this letter, advice for the college student, addressed specifically to your child. Then we at Or Ami will be in touch with them over holidays and before semester break.
  • As soon as I reach our goal of raising $2,500, the first 25 college student children of Or Ami members who take an approved (by me) Jewish studies, Israel studies or Hebrew class will receive a $100 gift card for iTunes, Amazon or Starbucks. This will begin spring semester. The idea is to incentivize Jewish learning; it’s an investment in the Jewish future.
  • We are beginning to webcast our Shabbat Services, primarily to ensure that our congregants who are ill or homebound will be able to enjoy the Cantor’s music and our prayers. In fact, we are experimenting today by webcasting these High Holy Day services. We will make sure that our college students know that when they are missing home, feeling lost or alone, they can log in to sing Listen and Shema with Cantor Doug, light candles with the congregation, or be inspired by their rabbi.
  • Or Ami’s First Annual Thanksgiving Weekend College Reunion is happening this year. On the Saturday evening of Thanksgiving weekend, I am inviting all Or Ami college students of current and former members to join me as my guest for an early sushi dinner. Come reconnect with each other and with your rabbi, and there still will be plenty of time to go out later with your other friends.
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As our children go off, we pray that they go to a place where they will be safe. Where they will be wise in times when we won’t know. And that they will find God’s light, when the stars come out each night. Our babies are precious; we needn’t give them up when they go to college. We can guide them differently, more subtly, but with the same love and inspiration. Or Ami’s Henaynu caring and support does not end when our kids graduate high school. Let’s shine the light of Or Ami brightly as they make their way into the world.

May we as individuals, as parents and grandparents, as children, as a community, continue to recognize the beauty in our relationships with one another, continue to reach out, to inspire each other, to evolve, and to embrace change.

2 comments:

  1. This is a beautiful letter to and tribute of your precious daughter. How wonderful you are to support your Jewish community!

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  2. This is such a treasure of riches to your daughter. My own daughter is a CIT at Camp Newman this summer and will be leaving for college in a year. This has inspired me to create my own wonderful message for her that encompasses many of these principles and ideas. Thank you for sharing this intimate, loving communication.

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