Beyond Freedom: A Journey with the Jewish Teen FoundationsApril 18, 2012
By Sara Nesson, Director, Marin/San Francisco Jewish Teen Foundation
I am sitting in the Kurland Lounge at the Marin Jewish Community Center and our speaker, Sagie, is telling us about what it’s like to see young male teenagers gathered around sex shops on the dark streets of Tel Aviv in the middle of the night. “You know how they make a living,” he says, “and you know it involves sex and drugs, but you really just don’t want to think about it.” Many of these boys are homeless, he explains, because their Orthodox families would not tolerate their homosexuality.
Sagie, who represents a nonprofit based in Israel, takes a breath and admits he is a little nervous, and everyone in the room takes a moment to smile and acknowledge the courage it takes to speak to a group of strangers about something so difficult. Some speakers get extra nervous about presenting to high school students, although I know you won’t find a friendlier or more caring group of people than the members of the Marin/San Francisco Jewish Teen Foundation, who are fundraising for programs that serve at-risk teens in the Bay Area and Israel and will soon be facing some very tough choices about exactly where to allocate their funds.
It’s right before Passover and later in the meeting I will say a few words about the holiday and how we all will be taking time at out Seder tables to remember people in the world who are still not free, like the young people we are learning about this year who are on the streets in San Francisco or Tel Aviv.
Recently, one of the teen leaders in our program, Ryan, spoke at our Parent Night. “You can look at a list of twenty Jewish values in Sunday school,” he said, “and it’s just that, a list of great Jewish values. But doing this work has actually made those values a physical, tangible experience.”
This is one of those times that I think I know exactly what Ryan is talking about.
Sagie goes on to tell us how the kids come rolling out of the sex shops and alleys when they see the van his nonprofit sends out. Inside the van, they hang out on the couch, talk to the staff, get something to eat or drink. After a while, he explains, you can begin to see them relax, even act like teenage boys again, joking around, but then, eventually, they go back out to survive on the streets.
Sagie also tells us about the particular project we’re considering funding: a classy restaurant in downtown Tel Aviv that is largely operated by at-risk teens. Staffing this restaurant offers these young adults a place to experience and express responsibility, commitment, and community.
As we are wrapping up, Hallie, another teen leader in our program, comes back to the youth on the street. “Can they participate in the restaurant program?” she asks. “What happens to them?”
Sagie says that the boys at the sex shops are not called “at-risk,” but rather “high-risk” or “fatal-risk.” Most of them are not ready for the restaurant project. “You just can’t put a chef’s knife in the hands of a drug addict,” he explains. It will be up to those kids to take steps that bring them to the nonprofit’s center where they can benefit from other programs, such as working with a social worker, dealing with substance abuse issues, or earning a high school diploma.
We all know that many of the kids on the street do not make it.
On the second day of Passover, Jews are commanded to begin counting the Omer, a ritual that was once about preparing sacrifices of grain to offer in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. These days, many people turn to the Kabbalistic practice of using each of the seven weeks before the holiday of Shavuot (the revelation of Torah) to reflect on qualities such as love, power, compassion, wisdom, and discernment–emanations of God that we can also develop in ourselves. It’s not enough to be free, the ancient mystics seem to be saying, but what are you going to do with that freedom?
In the next weeks, my students will take the final steps in the journey of their foundation year—working to bring qualities like love, compassion and wisdom to their final grant allocations and to serve others from a place of humility and respect. They will not meet many of the teens that will benefit from the grants of our foundation, but those lives will be linked to theirs by an invisible partnership about freedom and possibility.
Today as I walked in the early morning rain by my favorite lake, I sang a simple Modah Ani, (“I give thanks”), and then went on to take in the many brilliant shades of green moss and new leaves all around, the carpet of damp Redwood needles beneath my feet, the newts plodding steadily back into the forest after laying their eggs by the shore. I love those newts, and in a way, I think we are a little bit like them. We must keep plodding along, shaking off one season to welcome another, remembering our hard-won freedoms, but never stopping there.