Our immigrant ancestors sacrificed much so that life would be easier for their children. Easier helped define a powerful American Dream: easier to put food on the table; easier to avoid persecution for religious beliefs,; easier pathways to education and access to medical care; easier pathways to owning possessions of convenience and pleasure and easier pathways of opportunities for contributing talent and skills. However, in two or three generations, this ‘Dream’ has translated into expecting fast and easy pathways to the top. Hard work, perseverance, sacrifice and thankless tasks are no longer bedrock values in our society. They have been replaced with happiness and recognition.
It is no longer felt we must give up something to gain something. We do not feel we have to make choices. We can have it all. In the past, the military was an example of shared national sacrifice. I believe we are missing an opportunity to adjust the American Dream for our time. True progress depends on a combination of and tension between stability and innovation. What we need is required national service which would accomplish this vision, allowing for exploration within a well-formulated structure.
A carefully planned, required national service system post high school would be a nation builder right here at home. It would enable our diverse young population of 18-20-year-olds, as future caretakers of this earth and its inhabitants, to be better leaders and visionaries. Imagine our youth, channeling their energy through exploring ways to help our country. Imagine them engaged in a multitude of fields, from fixing roads and bridges to human services opportunities.
The world of disabilities at its best is a living lab school for a national service system. Proven successes for people with extra challenges in the home, workplace, and religious institutions are where stability and routine are established alongside flexibility, exposure and community participation. Within a national service system, peers would physically train together and perhaps even reside together. Accommodations would be made for all but in common settings. Just a few examples of peers working together might include: assisting in nursing homes, senior center and day care settings; getting involved together in animal rescue; local food programs and other non-profits; assisting in a range of technology endeavors; and for those whose sensory systems would especially benefit from heavy labor – assisting with infrastructure, home building and environmental work. Other could be involved in park planning, community service boards, helping to build sets for local theaters. The list goes on and on. There is no end to volunteer work in this country that would not steal paid jobs but enhance their value, build community and teach multiple levels of skills.
Productive volunteer work could then translate into free or reduced college or further training programs. Graduates today merge each year from school into a fragmented world. Guidance in schools would provide preparation for exploration of areas of interest. Through national service youth would learn skills and be given tools to expand their knowledge in a chosen corner of it. How different our country would be if our government reinforced the most basic value and rich reward of sacrifice of all its citizens – giving time and energy to the needs of our communities and neighborhoods. Imagine now a healthy American Dream translated into a living reality where justice cannot be served unless self actualization is achieved alongside self sacrifice.
On Rosh Hashanah, we are invited to combine apples and honey and to eat them as an act of prayer for sweetness and renewal in the coming year. Apples cut the sweetness of the honey with their juice and tartness. Eaten together we know on a visceral level that if we give in willingly to the cravings of honey alone, we lose our taste for the tang of apples. Too much honey and we soon forget that a well lived life rarely comes easy. Our successes should not be measured in ease and what we gain, but by what we give. Hillel said “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
We should promote and proclaim national service from our own bully pulpits. It is a vital common ground calling for better times of sweetness and renewal, liberty and justice for all.
Shana Tova u’metuka…
May good will increase
May broken spirits be recharged
for a year of renewal and peace.
Amy Brenner Mitz is an ordained cantor who has served congregations in Chicago, St. Louis, New York and New Hampshire. She has an older brother with autism. Presently she lives in northern New Hampshire with her husband and 24 year old twin sons, one with Fragile X Syndrome, the other with Koolen DeVries.