Michaela Brown was the winner of BBYO’s BBG Oratory Contest, the results of which were announced at BBYO’s International Convention 2012 taking place this week in Atlanta, Ga. She addressed the prompt: “What makes Judaism unique and why is it important to me?” (See the winner of BBYO’s AZA Oratory Contest here.)
Struggle!! The Jewish community has faced its fair share of struggle over the millennia. Ultimately, we embrace struggle. As Abraham struggled with G-d over the fate of Sodom; as Jacob wrestled with angels; as Moses lost patience with a stiff-necked People; struggle is what has molded and evolved our faith for thousands of years.
Instead of casting away these challenges, we are taught to welcome ambiguity and take risks – to appreciate the uncertainty in life – and come to terms with it, just as our ancestors did.
Of course, the word ‘Israel’ itself is referenced in Genesis, where Jacob wrestled with an angel and prevailed. His name was changed to Israel, literally – ‘one who struggles with G-d.’
At sixteen-years-old and graced with G-d’s blessing, I find myself unsettled. If I am this Jewish woman – this practitioner of ancient customs, this beacon of G-d’s image, this partner with the Spirit that guides us – how come my peers, who share my Jewish heritage, cast off Judaism? Is this what our vast and nuanced monotheistic religion has devolved to? Regrettably, for many teens, it has. We associate Judaism with rules and regulations, Hebrew school, mumbling prayers – no wonder there is so much resentment. Have we forgotten the meaning of the People Israel – the People who embrace the struggle?
I get so wound up when I see peers turning away, but then I stop and think: I am a Jew. I am part of the Jewish People. And as a member of the global Jewish community, I accept the struggle of attrition and I commit to addressing it. It’s a struggle, but somewhere there is a solution.
Even more, I can help others try to struggle when they disregard their Jewish identity; when they veer off course from their Jewish journey. I can help to engage my peers in Jewish life and culture, and challenge them to make sense of it all. Judaism was never founded upon dogma or strict ritual. Our traditions are meant to instill spirit, meaning, sanctity, values and community into every facet of our lives. Once people are given the opportunity to experience Judaism in this more enriching way, they can begin to struggle with and establish their own personal connections. Alongside my peers in BBG — the girls’ division of BBYO — I have found meaning in prayer, kashrut, Shabbat, and many other aspects of the religion. I have gravitated more and more towards Judaism the more and more I let myself struggle.
I have been blessed to find my place within a People. I have been blessed to find myself within a faith. And I have been blessed to be part of the struggle – a beautiful, life-loving, earth-shaking struggle that will rage on l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, l’olam va’ed, forever and ever.
(Michaela Brown is a 16-year-old from Sterling, Va. She is a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School.)