The Better Together program is generously funded by a well-respected national philanthropist and brings together Jewish teens and seniors for learning, sharing, and relationship building in synagogues, day schools and senior centers. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with our congregations to bring this free programming to local communities. (Learn more about our 2017 programs.)
Teen participants are invited to write short essays about their experience in Better Together which are then entered into the Better 2 Write competition. The essay below was written by Jacob Schwartzberg of Temple Sinai of Denver, Colorado and was chosen as the NFTY Missouri Valley Better 2 Write Winner and received a scholarship to camp or Israel.
Ever since I started Hebrew school in kindergarten, the 10 commandments were pounded into my head. Specifically, kibbud av v’eim, honor your father and mother. However, we rarely talk about honoring our grandfather and our grandmother. As teenagers, we rarely take the time to realize the wonders that are our elders.
In the months leading up to my Bar Mitzvah, my father started making me come to Shabbos morning minyan at my shul, and at first, I really had no interest in attending. I was merely there to please my dad. Little did I know the good that would come of my attendance. After the service one morning, my father and I were invited to join a group of people for coffee. We went along and I remember my dad making sure I sat next to an incredibly tall, deep voiced man named Rabbi Joe Goldman. There are no words to describe the first conversation we had. He had a way of speaking and teaching that I had never encountered before. After this week, we went out for coffee nearly every week and we would just talk. Rabbi Joe taught me not only about the Torah and Jewish values, but the importance of taking time to learn from and with my elders.
When Rabbi Joe passed away, I was very upset. This man who had taught me so much was out of my life forever. I had lost my connection to this generation that came before me. For nearly a year, I sustained this lack of connection. Then, I learned about the Better Together program. Through Better Together, I knew I would be able to reestablish my lost connection.
In the Torah, the phrase “that your days may be prolonged” is repeated many times. We are offered long life as a reward for doing mitzvot. We are told, “Honor your father and mother in order that your days will be prolonged on the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” And “Dispatch the mother [bird] and take the young that it shall be good for you and you will prolong your days.” By treating our parents with respect we are helping them prepare us to teach our children right from wrong, and how to go about living in our world. Then, they grow up and have their own children and the cycle continues. Not only are we working towards prolonging our lives when respecting our parents, but we’re working towards prolonging theirs, and our future children’s, and grandchildren’s.
Now, when it comes to the mother bird, it’s a little harder to follow. In parsha Ki Tetzei, we read about a multitude of commandments. One of these commandments being, that if you see a mother bird guarding a nest of her eggs, then you should chase the mother bird away before taking the eggs. Why is it that fulfilling this commandment grants one with long life? There is a story about a rabbi named Alisha Ben Abulyah. One day on a walk, he saw a father and a son standing at the base of a tree. The father told the son to climb the tree and honor this mitzvah by shooing the mother bird away. Interested to see what happened, the Rabbi stayed and watched. The son did exactly as his father instructed however, on his way down, he fell and died. Shocked with what happened, Rabbi Alisha Ben Abulyah abandoned his faith until his death.
This story goes against the word of G-d. The boy fulfilled it just as the Torah said, and fell to his death immediately. So, maybe this commandment isn’t to be taken quite so literally. Maybe it is saying that if necessary, you can take what you need to survive, but it is crucial to make sure that there is still a source of life. The mother bird must survive so that she can continue to reproduce. So, by shooing her away you are creating life for other creatures. It is important for us to understand that we are given long life as a reward for our mitvot for a reason. Our elders are experiencing this first hand.
At my first Better Together meeting, after our discussion about a number of commandments involving long life (including the two previously listed) our senior citizens joined us and we prayed. However, this prayer wasn’t what struck me. It was the conversation I had with one of the residents following the service. We began to talk about life, she told me about what she did as a profession, when she moved to Colorado, and her family. She also asked me about what I do. We began to talk about my life as a musician and how her grandson is in school to play jazz music the way I hope to do in the coming years. This conversation was not very long, and not very deep. But, I could see the impact that I made on her, and I hope she could see the impact that she made on me.
This one conversation brought it all home for me. I realized that to many, this would be a conversation to merely take up time. But for this wonderful lady, it was so much more. I can imagine that it would be difficult to go from living out in the world to living in some sort of assisted living facility. So, I believe that it is our duty to bring the world into these communities, even if it’s just for a few hours every now and then. Just being there and talking can make a world of difference.