E pluribus unum, with dreidels

E pluribus unum, with dreidels

USYers explore relationship between unity and diversity

With 603 dreidels spinning simultaneously, the world record for most Chanukah dreidels spun simultaneously in the same room (541) appears to be topped by Conservative Jewish high schoolers at the United Synagogue Youth’s annual international convention in Philadelphia during Chanukah. It will take some time for the Guinness Book of World Records to verify and authenticate the claim. Phil McAuliffe/Polaris

So there they were, on the last day of Chanukah, almost 900 teenagers and staff members, most of them in their 20s, joined by a few older people, staffers and guests, sitting at round tables, 10 per table, happy but surprisingly tense, waiting to go.

Each table was entirely bare except for 10 variously colored cheap plastic dreidels.

The only people standing were members of the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown’s staff, led by its general manager. They were impartial; they were the judges.

After a short video, exhorting the contestants to break the record, a countdown led to 10 seconds of effort, as hundreds of people willed their little plastic tops to keep spinning, even as many of them spluttered onto the table, sometimes banging into each other as they went down.

As it turns out, 10 seconds is a very long time to keep a dreidel spinning. Who knew?

Still, it seems that the record was broken. United Synague Youth, in convention in Philadelphia that December morning, was trying for the Guinness Book of World Records acknowledgement for the most people successfully and simultaneously spinning dreidels. It will be months until conformation comes, but there seem to have been well more than 600 spinning at once. The record is 541.

In a way, the contest, on the third day of USY’s five-day annual international convention, Dec. 25 through 29, symbolized its underlying theme. There, in the home of the United States constitution, where the concept of unity in diversity was refined, where the idea of tolerance of differences became the underpinning of a great democracy, USYers explored the relationships between diversity and belonging, glorying in differences, yet still belonging to one greater whole.

USY, part of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, is at the part of the Jewish world where the balance between tradition and change, the old and the new, the timeless and the transient, is always in tension. That is acknowledged every morning at the convention, when participants are given a choice of Shacharit services, ranging from the straightforward to more experimental, with music, with drums, with video, with experimentation, with learning. In keeping with the broad appeal with which it prides itself, USY offers one nonegalitarian minyan alongside its egalitarian offerings; a sociologist of religion would be interested in watching that minyan’s small but constant appeal.

Much of the convention is devoted to electioneering for the annual turnover of international officers, to catching up with summer friends from other regions, to social action projects (a strong point), to learning about Israel, and to learning from classic texts. (Jews do not study texts; we “learn them.” There is a difference.) There is davening, there is food (not a strong point), there are the loud shrieking noises that teenagers emit when they have not seen each other for the last 10 minutes or so. Eighteen former USY international presidents – ranging from Danny Siegel, from the mid 1960s, to last year’s Josh Block, and including Jeremy Fingerman of Englewood – sat on the dais and glowed. There was outside entertainment, this year from the a capella group Six13.

All this is more or less the way it is every year.

This year, though, was slightly different. It marked the end of USY’s first 60 years, and the transition of its longtime head, Teaneck’s Jules Gutin, to the newly created post of senior educator at United Synagogue. Gutin, who has worked for United Synagogue all his adult life, has been in this job for more than 20 years. He is an avuncular curmudgeon with a heart so golden, it radiates around him, and he is well-loved by generations of USYers. Much of the convention was an achingly heartfelt tribute to him, and he became a bit moist around the eyes as he gave his speech, which was both a thank you and a farewell.

The most unexpectedly stirring part of the convention played with conventions, and largely overthrew them. On the Tuesday evening of the convention, the outgoing president, Daniel Kaplan of Orange, Ohio, a Cleveland suburn, gave his farewell address. Kaplan, who graduated from high school in June and is spending his gap year with Nativ, USCJ’s program in Israel, is a handsome and well-spoken young man with the charisma to command a room. In his skillfully written speech, he talked about coming from a loving and protective family, but still knowing that something about him was different, something he at first could not identify and then, once he had named it to himself, knew he could not change. Structuring his talk around Hillel’s famous three-part declaration in Pirkei Avot – If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? – Kaplan set out an argument in favor of acknowledging and celebrating difference.

“Hillel teaches us that if we do not reveal that ‘I’ – the part of ourselves that is unique – then who are we? What value is there to ‘me,’ the facade that operates in the world? It is just a shell that hides the person who we truly are,” Kaplan began. Using the Pirkei Avot lines as a prooftext, he talked about the difficulties of making his differences public – that is, of coming out as gay, first to his family, then to his friends, then to the rest of his world. USY cushioned him, supported him, loved him as he took those hard but necessary steps. Even in 2011, the declaration took courage; it was made with clarity, directness, trust, and love.

The USYers in the huge room showed Kaplan that he was right in trusting in them. As he finished, they gave him a standing ovation. That might have been pro forma, although it did not feel as if it was, but the second one, begun soon after the first one ended and lasting even longer, was pure and spontaneous emotion.

The next day, Marc Elliot spoke. Elliot has Tourette’s Syndrome, and until about 18 months ago he ticced constantly. Despite what most people think, he said, most people with Tourette’s do not spew profanity, vulgarity, or racial epithets; as disconcerting and frightening as their tics can be, they generally steer clear of that content. His, he said, did not.

Ticcing, he explained, feels like a terrible itch, and the only way to scratch it is to let loose one of a list of unacceptable behaviors. When he felt the itch that would result in a tic, he would fixate on the most embarrassing thing he could say, or the most ugly, or the most vile, and from that fixation came the need to say it. He is Jewish, and said anti-Semitic things to his family and friends; his brother is gay, so his tics were homophobic.

When he talked to black friends at school, the slurs were racist. He did not mean any of it, and was horrified by all of it, but he could not stop it. He carried around a card that explained why he did what he did, and handed it out to strangers. “If you hate what I’m doing now – you should know that I hate it more,” the card said.

Today, Elliot tours the country, often speaking to Jewish groups, talking about tolerance. No one can know what is inside another person’s heart or head. No one can know what causes another person to act oddly or badly. No one can know what makes anyone else tick. In the absence of that knowledge, there should be no judgment. We must understand diversity and we must tolerate it, he said.

On Thursday morning, just before the convention ended, Gen. Norton Schwartz, a former USYer from Toms River who now heads the Air Force and represents it on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked to the entire assembly about the importance of public service.

By the time the convention was over, this diverse group, made up of teenagers from across North America, Vancouver to Florida, Toronto to Texas, Maine to southern California, had melded. Tired, exhilarated, and as a group most likely the owners of a new world record, it was entirely E pluribus unum.

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