Back in the day, thirteen-year-old Jewish boys and girls became adults. Their parents were invited to recite the blessing: Baruch shep’tarnu mei-ha-onsho shel zeh – Blessed is the One who has freed us from the responsibility for this child. Parents marked the moment that they were no longer responsible for the (potentially sinful) actions of their adult children.
Today, anyone paying attention knows that the journey into adulthood unfolds for many young people well into their late twenties. In fact, as rabbis of Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), we have edited more than our share of Bar/Bar Mitzvah divrei Torah (speeches) away from saying “now I am a man/woman.” We guide students instead to say “today I am taking the first steps on the path to adulthood.”
But when really does adulthood begin?
Adulthood arrives later than when we were kids. When young people take more real responsibility not only for their own lives, but also for those around them, and for their community, country and world, they begin to manifest a level of maturity that evidences approaching adulthood.
Recently, we glimpsed twenty high school students inching closer to adulthood as we chaperoned them to the L’Taken social justice seminar led by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC). And it took our breath away.
With the RAC’s staff, our teens explored current issues before Congress and our country and enjoyed a crash course on how concerned citizens can lobby our leaders.
But L’Taken is more than a kid-friendly version of real-life citizen engagement. L’Taken is the next step in the adultification of our youth.
Invited into the halls of Congress to urge their elected leaders to effectuate Jewish values, these soon-to-be voters take personal responsibility for their future. They choose issues they are most passionate about and research them with seriousness. (Our delegation focused on healthcare, LGBTQ rights, immigration, reproductive rights, and campaign finance, and issues related to Israel.) They reviewed briefing papers and studied relevant Jewish texts. They debated potential positions on pending legislation.
Then as we adults sat back, the teens entered a junk-food-fueled late night of writing their own lobbying speeches and editing them under the mentorship of the talented RAC staff. Witnessing this moment – they take their responsibility very seriously – gave us hope.
Citizen-Lobbyists ascending Capitol Hill
On Monday morning these newly minted citizen-lobbyists boarded the buses to Capitol Hill, dressed in their power suits, carrying folders filled with their speeches. Sure, their youthfulness still required some further guidance: this one needed help tying his tie; that one sought instructions on how to shake hands in a way that projected strength and assertiveness. But they understood – more clearly in our divided country and broken world than at any previous time in their short lives – that as the prophet Joel said in the Bible, “while the old shall dream dreams, the youth shall see visions.” The future was theirs for the taking… and the shaping. They planned to bend the arc toward justice.
Entering the offices of our California senators and representatives, our delegates shook hands, introduced themselves, and got right down to business. These young lobbyists described current legislation by name and number, articulated the Jewish and American values underlying their position on the legislation, personalized the issue with a motivating story from their lives, and respectfully but firmly urged the leaders to uphold their opinions.
We met with the Legislative Directors who we could sense knew – and they knew that the teens knew – that our teens would be voting in just a few years time. So their opinions were taken seriously and their questions addressed forthrightly.
When do young people begin inching to adulthood?
We rabbis (like their parents) remember them as kids, who we alternatively coddled and cajoled through their Bar/Bat Mitzvah studies. Some were barely able to gaze over the bimah. Others had wrestled with voices starting to crack or self-identities struggling to emerge. Still, we placed them before family and friends and hoped they would lead in the way we had practiced together. Then, with our hearts swelling, we blessed them before the ark, propelling them forward on a path toward adulthood. We charged them to embrace Torah values to repair the brokenness in our world. But we knew they were still kids in adult-like clothing.
Then in Washington DC, our nation’s Capitol, these same teens moved closer to adulthood by taking charge of their future. They spoke with the confidence their future necessitated, expecting (and kindly demanding) that their values – rachamim (compassion), b’tzelem Elohim (the intrinsic worth of each person) and tzedek (justice for all) – would prevail.
Between snapping pictures for parents back home, we two rabbis smiled knowingly at each other. We were witnessing adulthood starting to emerge. In our nation’s Capitol, our youngsters really took the next step forward.
Our hearts were bursting with pride. And so, for their parents back home who could only experience this through the social media videos and our constant texts, for our Congregation Or Ami community and for ourselves, we whispered the ancient blessing, transformed anew:
Baruch Ata Adonai, shebrachtanu eem ha-brachot shel zeh – Blessed are You, Eternal One, who has blessed us with these blessings. Amen.