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
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
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.