Bennett Rosenberg - High School Graduation Speech
For one of my college application essays, I was asked to describe my favorite keepsake or memento in 300 characters or fewer. This was my response:
“When I traveled to Alabama with my temple to closely study the Civil Rights Movement, we met Joanne Bland, a survivor of the Selma protest. She folded my fingers over a pebble from the courtyard where the march began, reminding me to always stand against injustice. This pebble sits on my windowsill.”
Had I been given more characters to elaborate, I would have explained why this experience means so much to me. Sure, it was cool to meet someone who made history, to keep a fragment of her story through this little pebble. But the memory sticks with me because, despite Joanne being from an entirely different background, she urged me to do the exact same thing which Beth Am has been teaching me: to stay true to my values, especially in the face of adversity.
This is no easy task. Values are complicated; they may contradict each other, or change based on the scenario. But I’ve spent my years at Beth Am discovering and developing a moral code alongside my peers, and I will be able to carry this onward through college and beyond.
While nine years at a Jewish day school taught me lessons and values to be practiced within the Jewish community, it was through Confirmation that I learned what it means to be a Jew in modern American society. We learned about acting with “tzedek” in mind, even in non-jewish situations; we explored the connections between faith, religion, politics, and comedy; and we always asked big questions of ourselves and of our Jewish community. Questions like:
“When do we take a stand?”
“How do we connect?”
“For whom are we responsible?”
The answers to these questions, I’ve found, are up to us. Judaism provides a backbone and helps to determine our core values. (One of them, ironically, is to ask big questions!) But it’s up to us to determine the extent to which we act on them.
Personally, I value being an upstander―not only knowing my values, but upholding them when they are challenged. I haven’t always been good at this. A few years ago, in the middle of a soccer practice, a teammate―a friend of mine―made some anti-semitic comments about Jewish intelligence. I was too stunned to act, and in a flash, the quick window for responding passed. Just weeks later, he insulted Jews again, this time about money. And once again, I froze! It was only after the third time when I finally spoke with this teammate calmly and directly, calling his comments offensive. It wasn't easy to confront my teammate, but I felt like my integrity and reputation were at stake. I couldn't allow his slanders to define what it means to be Jewish.
I am still fostering that courage, preparing for my future in college, outside of the world I’ve always known. Beth Am has prepared me for the coming years when I must make tough decisions based on my values, whether by asking me hypothetical moral dilemmas or providing opportunities to make real decisions based on my Judaism.
When our Confirmation class travelled to Washington D.C., we were presented with one such unexpected dilemma. We could visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as we had planned, or we could join a protest rally against President Trump’s Muslim travel ban that had just gone into effect the week before our trip. At first we considered which would be most interesting in the moment. But the ultimate decision variable was which would be most meaningful in the long run. Would we rather learn about our own people’s struggles or defend another’s? Would our statement of marching on the capital in defense of the Muslim people be more important than actively remembering the struggles of our ancestors? Ultimately, we chose to march because that meant acting on our values, attempting to make a difference.
Confirmation taught me how to call upon my Jewish values in day to day life. But that is not all that this synagogue has taught. I learned the value of open discussion through Beth Am’s Muslim-Jewish Teen Alliance. In this program, Muslims and Jews sat together in respectful and amicable discussions, on topics ranging from holidays to politics to the differences in our death rituals. I was shocked that, during a 2-hour long discussion about the incredibly controversial and complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we agreed on almost every point. From this experience, I learned that open-minded discussions with those who I may think disagree with me, can open doors to unexpected agreement. Judaism’s emphasis on debate and discussion elicits a sense of vulnerability―a welcomed vulnerability―as I analyze and reconsider my own opinions.
In addition to broadening my perspective of Judaism, Beth Am has urged me to dive deeper into its core values, one at a time. The Civil Rights Journey explored Judaism as it relates to social justice. It was on our trip to the Deep South when we met Joanne Bland, the Selma protest survivor who gave me the/this pebble, and heard her stories of rising against oppression. That was the moment when I realized that, despite our shared fervor of standing up to injustice, our experiences with doing so are drastically different. And yet we both fight. It is a Jewish value to fight for justice everywhere, not just within the Jewish community. Joanne gave me that stone not just to fight racial oppression, but to stand up for all victims of injustice anywhere. Wherever I go.
I’d like to address every teen in the room, from those yet to be confirmed to the graduating seniors. In the next few years, dramatic change will occur in your life―in our lives. But the world around you isn’t what’s shifting―it’s how you see it. Once I built up the courage to stand up to my teammate’s anti-semitic comments, I felt more confident when defending my heritage, beliefs, and values. I continue to feel this confidence. When Joanne handed me that pebble and asked me to continue to fight injustice in the world, I felt empowered to do so. I continue to feel this empowerment. When I learned just how much Jews and Muslim teens agree on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I felt that I can agree with, or at least understand, others’ opinions so long as I remain open-minded and respectful. I continue to embrace an open-minded attitude; and this will be especially important as I leave the Bay Area.
While your journeys may lead you to insights completely different from mine―maybe even contrasting with them―you will discover who you are and who you want to be. Just stay aware, and you will find yourself.