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E Pluribus Unum, With Dreidels

by Joanne Palmer

So there they were, on the last day of Chanukah, almost 900 teenagers and staff members in their 20s, joined by a few older people, staffers and guests, sitting at round tables, 10 per table, happy but surprisingly tense, waiting to go.

Each table was entirely bare except for 10 variously colored cheap plastic dreidels.

The only people standing were members of the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown’s staff, led by its general manager. They were the impartial judges.

A countdown led to ten seconds of effort as hundreds of people willed their little plastic tops to keep spinning, even as many of them spluttered onto the table, sometimes banging into each other as they went down.

As it turns out, 10 seconds is a very long time to keep a dreidel spinning. Who knew?

Still, it seems that the record was broken. USY, in convention in Philadelphia that December morning, was trying for the Guinness Book of World Records title for the most people successfully and simultaneously spinning dreidels. It will be months until confirmation comes, but there seem to have been 687 spinning at once. The old record is 541.

In a way, the contest, on the third day of United Synagogue Youth’s five-day annual international convention, December 25 through 29, symbolized its underlying theme. There, in the home of the American constitution, where the concept of unity in diversity was refined, where the idea of tolerance of differences became the underpinning of a great democracy, USYers explored the relationships between diversity and belonging, glorying in differences and still being part of the greater whole.

USY, like the rest of the Conservative movement, is at the part of the Jewish world where the balance between tradition and change, the old and the new, the timeless and the transient, is always in tension. That is acknowledged every morning at the convention, when participants are given a choice of Shacharit services, ranging from the straightforward to more experimental, with music, with drums, with video, with learning.

Much of the convention is devoted to electioneering for international officers, to catching up with summer friends from other regions, to social action projects (a strong point), to learning about Israel, and to learning from classic texts. There is davening, there is food (not a strong point), there are the loud shrieking noises that teenagers emit when they haven’t seen each other for the last ten minutes or so. Eighteen former USY international presidents, ranging from 1962’s Danny Siegel to last year’s Josh Block, sat on the dais and glowed. All this is more or less the way it is every year.

This year, though, was slightly different. It marked the end of USY’s first 60 years, and the transition of its longtime head, Jules Gutin, to the new post of senior educator at United Synagogue. Jules, who has worked for United Synagogue all his adult life, has been in this job for 19 years. He is an avuncular curmudgeon with a heart so golden it radiates around him. He is so well-loved by generations of USYers that much of the convention was an achingly heartfelt tribute to him. He became a bit moist around the eyes as he gave his speech, which was both a thank you and a farewell.

The most unexpectedly stirring part of the convention played with conventions, and largely overthrew them. On Tuesday evening the outgoing president, Daniel Kaplan of Orange, Ohio, in suburban Cleveland, gave his farewell address. Kaplan, who graduated from high school in June and is spending his gap year with Nativ, United Synagogue’s program in Israel, is a well-spoken young man with the charisma to command a room. In his skillfully written speech. he talked about coming from a loving and protective family but always knowing that something about him was different, something he at first couldn’t identify and then, once he had named it to himself, knew he could not change. Structuring his talk around the famous three-part declaration in Pirkei Avot – If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? – Kaplan set out an argument in favor of acknowledging and celebrating difference.

“Hillel teaches us that if we do not reveal that ‘I’ – the part of ourselves that is unique – then who are we? What value is there to ‘me,’ the facade that operates in the world? It is just a shell that hides the person who we truly are,” Kaplan began. Using the Pirkei Avot lines as a prooftext, he talked about the difficulties of making his differences public – that is, of coming out as gay, first to his family, then to his friends, then to the rest of his world. USY cushioned him, supported him, loved him as he took those hard but necessary steps. Even in 2011, the declaration took courage; it was made with clarity, directness, trust, and love.

The USYers in the huge room showed Daniel Kaplan that he was right in trusting in them. As he finished, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. That might have been pro forma, although it did not feel that way, but the second one, begun soon after the first one ended and lasting even longer, was pure and spontaneous emotion.

The next day, Marc Elliot spoke. Elliot has Tourette’s Syndrome, and until about 18 months ago he ticced constantly. Despite what most people think, he said, most people with Tourette’s do not spew profanity, vulgarity, or racial epithets; as disconcerting and frightening as their tics can be, they generally steer clear of that content. His, he said, did not. Ticcing, he explained, feels like a terrible itch, and the only way to scratch it is to let loose one of a list of unacceptable behaviors. When he felt the itch that would result in a tic, he would fixate on the most embarrassing thing he could say, or the most ugly, or the most vile, and from that fixation came the need to say it. He is Jewish, and said anti-Semitic things to his family and friends; his brother is gay, so his tics were homophobic. When he talked to black friends at school, the slurs were racist. He didn’t mean any of it, and was horrified by all of it, but he could not stop it. He carried around a card that explained why he did what he did, and handed it out to strangers. “If you hate what I’m doing now – you should know that I hate it more,” the card said.

Today, Elliot tours the country, often speaking to Jewish groups, talking about tolerance. No one can know what is inside another person’s heart or head. No one can know what causes another person to act oddly or badly. No one can know what makes anyone else tick. In the absence of that knowledge, there should be no judgment. We must understand diversity and we must tolerate it, he said.

General Norton Schwartz is a four-star general and the highest-ranking officer in the Air Force, which he represents on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Schwartz spoke to the convention about growing up in Toms River, New Jersey. His father, Si Schwartz, was an international president of USY, his family belonged to Congregation B’nai Israel, and he was a USYer.

“I was in your shoes,” General Schwartz said. “I am a proud alumnus. I value the role USY played as a positive, strong influence during my own formative years.”

General Schwartz talked about the importance of public service; it upholds the Jewish value of derech eretz, he said. He urged his listeners to consider careers in the military, because military service both allows people to serve others selflessly and gives them a sense of community, purpose, and belonging to something larger than themselves.

Addressing his audience as future leaders, he stressed the importance of acknowledging the hard work and dedication of subordinates. It takes little time and no money to do so, he said, and it pays off endlessly in improved morale. To be a leader is to take such intangibles into consideration.

“As you go home,” he said in his final charge to the USYers, “continue your studies, develop leadership skills, put lessons learned into practice, and have commitment to excellence in service.”

United Synagogue’s CEO, Rabbi Steven Wernick, beamed as he presented the general with a tzedakah box as a thank-you gift.

By the time the convention ended on Thursday morning, this diverse group, made up of teenagers from across North America, Vancouver to Florida, Toronto to Texas, Maine to California, had melded. Tired, exhilarated, and as a group most likely the owners of a new world record, it was entirely e pluribus unum.

 
 
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