Friends: below you will find the sermon i delivered at Tower Hill's Baccalaureate service last night.
It is a joy and a tad surprising to be able to stand here with you this day. Not because there aren’t Jews among your student body—of course there are! And not because I get to speak to you from this pulpit which, while beautiful, isn’t exactly what I’m used to! It’s because my high school experience was so very different from your own.
You see, I went to a large public high school, the only game in town, and if you graduated at all, it was as likely you’d end up at the state penitentiary as the state university. This is not to say I didn’t have friends or supportive teachers, and I certainly learned a great deal; but I couldn’t wait to get out of there! My goal was to achieve escape velocity and never, ever look back.
And you—you have been a part of this group, many of you for your entire childhood and young adult lives. You have teachers who have nurtured and supported you, who have helped create, as Megan spoke about in her remarks, a real community, one that accepts and lifts up your differences as much as it provides tools for the future, all in an environment of joy. Has this place been perfect? Of course not, and I’m sure many of you are reflecting tonight not just on moments of support but also some rough moments. As with any family, it is among the people we care about the most, the people we feel safest around, that we also feel the most hurt. And this is a family.
So what does it mean to leave this place of safety? What does it mean to step into a new place, whether that place is geographically far away or only twenty minutes up the road? For one thing, it means learning other people’s stories. Most of you have been together for years; now you are going to meet people whose stories are very different from your own. They don’t know your narrative and you don’t know theirs. And they may or may not be especially interested in hearing your story, or sharing theirs. You will encounter people who seem to have lived gilded, perfect lives compared to your experience, and people whose economic, personal and familial experience is too terrible to contemplate, and people in between. The old assumptions and dynamics you so easily fit into now will be gone, for better and for worse.
You will have to take your experience with you and learn to internalize it. You know what it means to be supportive and supported; what it means to be nourished and to nourish others. You have done everything asked of you; now you will have to take all of that and learn to carry it with you, inside. I had the chance to visit your school a few weeks ago; it’s a beautiful space. But if it were merely a beautiful space then it would have no value. No, you have to take the best of Tower Hill with you and learn to share it with those around you. You will have to learn to be leaders; which doesn’t mean being in charge—it means owning your experience.
I know many of you have been to a friend or relative’s bar or bat mitzvah, sometimes even at my synagogue. And you’ve probably marveled that a 13 year old kid could get up and read from the Torah or lead the service. They don’t do that because it’s a special, one-time thing, their one chance to do what the rabbi does. They do that because that’s what Jews do; to be a Jew is to be counted not just to do what is asked, but to step forward and take ownership because it needs to be done. So it is with each of you; yes, carry Tower Hill within yourself, but don’t just hoard it for your own use, share it with those around you. And bringing forward your experience isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a complex thing. If your teachers and classmates have done their jobs, then it should be right there, as close as they are right now. As the text of Torah we read from says, it’s not across the sea or in the sky, nor is it for someone else to do. It’s in your mouths; it’s in your hearts. It’s in your actions. It’s in your choices. They matter, and when your voice, your actions and your choices align with what you’ve learned here, well, I can’t promise that taking your experience and sharing it with others will make the world perfect or your college experience perfect. But it will make it better. And sometimes better is enough. Your experience matters.
Your story matters. Your choices matter. May they bring you strength, and hope, and especially, Joy. Amen.