As I write to you, I am screeching up the East Coast aboard an Amtrak train with my two colleagues and 12 tenth grade students as we return from Washington, DC, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. This is an annual rite of passage for our Confirmation classes, going back many years. In fact, generations of Temple Israel students (and our clergy) have made this journey. We make this trip each year, not just for the fun and the bonding, which are outstanding, but also for the important things that occur there: deep learning about our values and beliefs, soul searching and learning how to voice our values to those who have the power to turn them into tangible benefits for our nation and the world.
In my years of doing this trip, stretching back 28 years now, I have been a part of these seminars during both Democratic and Republican presidencies, Democratic and Republican houses of Congress and liberal and conservative Supreme Courts. Ultimately, that back and forth is an inherently good thing for our country. That vacillation between the hands that control the levers of power generally lead to a government that falls somewhere in the middle, representing an electorate that in past generations was likewise, generally, somewhere in the middle.
So, each year, we head down to DC, aiming to replicate the amazing experiences of years past, as well as knowing that we are headed into an environment of healthy give and take, exchanges of ideas and, often a frustrating, but importantly slow pace of change. This year, however, there was a different air in Washington when we arrived. The government is, as of my writing, in the midst of the longest shut-down in its history. I’ve been on these weekends at the RAC under shut-down conditions before. But, again, this year was something different. Added to the mix was 5 inches of snow. DC barely tolerates an inch of snow under fully staffed conditions. These 5 inches, combined with the shut-down gave DC an aura of a wasteland. Nothing happening. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do.
DC was frozen, both literally and figuratively. Paralyzed, better portrays it. Worse, still, is the sense from all around us that there is complete resignation that, perhaps, this is the best we can expect nowadays: dysfunction, despair, loathing. It was with that dispiriting sense all around us, that we arrived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. While we go every year with our teens, the USHMM took on a rare role this year – a place of refuge, as it was one of the few places open in the entire city. The exhibits, moving and challenging in their own ways to all of us, only heightened the sense of despair outside.
Then, we made the short journey over to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Standing there, King’s words, from his famous “I have a dream” speech, the overarching theme of his memorial, are emblazoned into the rock: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope!” I couldn’t help but think of the sense of despair King and millions of black Americans felt then, in 1963. At the same time, that speech, on that day, in that place, was an important turning point in the fight for civil rights. In just the next two years, momentous legislation guaranteeing both civil and voting rights for all of our citizens would change our country forever.
Standing there, reminded me that in our current state of Washington despair, we too needed a stone of hope. This weekend, mine came in the form of our handful of days with our teens. Their earnest concern for our world and our country was evident throughout our intense learning. This contradicts the usual “kids today” zeitgeist that they are apathetic and ill-informed. In fact, they are acutely aware that they are living in times that are not normal, imperfect and ready for tikkun – repair. They engaged in our tradition and sources, debated ways we can change and live our values and prepared to advocate for the world they want to live in, not the one we are giving them.
Then came Monday. Plans were shifting all around us as the snow and shut-down made all of our scheduled visits on Capitol Hill tenuous, at best. Not to be deterred, we stood for over an hour in frigid conditions to get into the Supreme Court to watch oral arguments. Once inside, each of us had a little faith in our government and our American values restored. Before us, we saw the one fully functioning branch of our government, engaged in reasoned debate, questioning petitioners in a time-tested dance of resolving our national issues. In a year that has included much acrimony over the Court, it was a relief to see adults behaving adult-like in our government. I was glad that the students were there to see it. We all kind of needed it.
At that same moment, just feet away, the House and Senate were at a stand-still and a few blocks further down Pennsylvania Avenue, the President of the United States was essentially locked in the White House. On we marched, into the offices of our elected officials. Our teens, eloquently, powerfully told their story. They didn’t ask, didn’t beg or plead with our congressional leadership to do the right things in the year ahead – our teens were the adults in the room. They stood tall, used their learning, their wisdom and their voices. They articulated the future they expected to see and how they expected these leaders, our leaders, to make it happen. They were as clear and rational and as principled as those justices we had witnessed just an hour earlier. They weren’t nervous, they weren’t flustered and they certainly weren’t intimidated. They spoke truth to power. These 15 and 16 year olds were the grown-ups in the room. Just one week before MLK Day, they were a stone of hope in a capital city of despair.
We stepped out of the office buildings of the US Congress into a day, and a future, that was suddenly bright and full of promise. Snow was melting. Hopefully, another kind of thaw was just beginning.