“Oh. Oh wow. You must be exhausted,” the flight attendant gasped when I explained that I was on my way home from a four-day conference with eight high school students.
He wasn’t wrong: my feet hurt from the nearly 20 miles walked throughout the trip and my body hurt from the midnight bedtimes and 7 a.m. wake up calls. My voice hoarse from talking would agree, too, but I, for the first time in a while, have a remembrance of why we fight. Between the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic which is still raging, having passed the second anniversary of the insurrection on the capital, and after yet another mass shooting in our country, I’ve truly been exhausted – spiritually, physically, and emotionally.
I wrote my college essay about why I wanted to go into international affairs, a dream left happily in the past as I found my passion for education, highlighted by my habit of knowing immediately where any exits or hiding spaces may be in any room that I am in. A superpower born out of being Jewish in the world – I knew exit paths of buildings and which doors had locks and which would need to be barricaded. My DNA holds the question “If someone comes in, where do we hide? Who knows about our Judaism and who would rat us out? If we need to pack and leave tonight, what do we bring and what do we leave?”
Recently, I woke up earlier than I would have liked, on a morning colder than I would have liked, and met eight high school students at the airport to begin our journey to Washington D.C. for the L’Taken Conference through the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism. Upon landing, we immediately went to the African American History Museum and journeyed through the torrid history of dehumanization – eerily like the experience we would learn about 48 hours later at the Holocaust Museum. These museums highlighted the deep repercussions of these historic events on our current laws and society, which set the stage so beautifully as we spent the next few days learning about the legislative process, the nation’s history, and our Jewish faith.
On the last night of the trip, through bites of Oreos and sips of soda, the teens sat together and wrote speeches they would then deliver to staffers in their senators’ and representatives’ offices.
“I began to think, ‘Could I fit in that locker? Could I fit through that window? And would any of it matter against an AR15?’” One of my students wrote as she beautifully described her increasing fears after living through the school shootings of Sandy Hook, Parkland, Uvalde, Michigan State University, Tree of Life Synagogue, the hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, and the Fourth of July shooting at her hometown parade. Words which echoed my own, fifteen years and many mass shootings earlier.
Another student wrote about the MS St. Louis, a ship that sailed from Germany in 1939 carrying 937 Jewish refugees on board, who were so close to escaping the war and the genocide, who saw the shore of a nation with the ever-present promise of:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
And yet – we turned them back to the Holocaust. Of the 620 people who returned to continental Europe, 254 died. The echo of this tragedy can be heard in the recent news of nearly 60 migrants perishing when a boat crashed off the coast of Italy, with dozens more missing. It is the constant reminder, put so beautifully by Warsan Shire, “That no one puts their children in a boat/unless the water is safer than the land.” The students reminded us: “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt,” (Exodus 23:9) a value which is noted thirty-six times throughout the Torah.
Other students called on their congresspeople to think about mental health initiatives and raising the minimum wage, all with empathy for others at the center of their calls to action. They sat in rooms with staffers, made their pleas with poise and grace, and asked for a better future for themselves and all of us, all rooted in making sure that we do not repeat our past.
Our second day of the conference was on February 25, which was also declared a ‘National Day of Hate’ by a neo-Nazi group based in Iowa. Soon, white supremacists across the country began threatening synagogues and Jewish organizations nationwide, pushing them on high alert. Here I was, surrounded by 500 teenagers singing “Oseh Shalom,” a song dedicated to peace, while I was sneaking glances at news apps on my phone, hoping not to see the name of a synagogue pop up on a breaking news alert. This wouldn’t be the first time that anger and violence interrupted a Saturday Shabbat service. And yet. We were here, unapologetically Jewish, louder than the hotel would like us to be, singing together.
This juxtaposition of deep and vast hatred and the students’ hope and public displays of Judaism was a moment of hope that I didn’t know I needed.
In a country so deeply driven by a majority religion and a narrative that sometimes leaves others out, these students were asking for what they needed for themselves to be able to participate in the full promise of America. Seventy-five years ago, their families, my family, were going into hiding and being murdered for their faiths, and here they are, sitting in front of politicians, some in kippahs, some in tefillin, and most (but not all) in sensible shoes, quoting the Torah, Talmud, Rabbis, and Jewish leaders to ensure their voices would be heard.
I write this on the plane ride home as a way to remember the whirlwind of a weekend – yes, I am exhausted and I am hopeful. My feet hurt from walking through museums and running from senate office to senate office. My body would like a little more time in bed, but I was up late helping with speeches and up early to make sure we could fit in all the world had to offer. And my voice is hoarse from singing prayers, laughing too loudly, and counting the teens more frequently than needed so I didn’t lose anyone’s child. I am exhausted and yet hopeful. Exhausted, yet replenished. Exhausted, yet excited.