This past Shabbos our Valley Chabad CTeen (Chabad Teen Network) chapter from Woodcliff Lake joined over 100 teens for a regional Shabbaton in Tenafly. Teens came from Chabad centers from throughout New York and New Jersey.
Almost all the teens had one common denominator: They attend public school and don’t consider themselves observant. Yet these teenagers find a warm home and connection in their respective Chabad Houses.
A focus in conversation over Shabbos was what it means and what it takes to be a proud Jew in a secular and often hostile environment. How can it be done? How can a teen connect with their heritage in a world that idolizes Fortnight and Snapchat streaks?
One moving highlight of the weekend was during the Torah reading, as each teen was called for an aliya. Often shuls ask for a donation after an aliya, but we asked the teens to instead commit to taking on a mitzvah they were comfortable with. Putting on tefilin. Affixing a mezuzuah on their door. Increasing their Torah study or lighting the Shabbat candles. The teens took away from the Shabbaton not only new friends but a new spiritual energy.
Doing the right thing in an often uncomfortable or even hostile environment is a theme we find in this week’s parsha as well.
In the portion we read this week, Vayeitzei, our forefather Jacob leaves Be’er Sheva and heads out to Charan. Charan, as Rashi explains, is “Charon af shel Makom — the wrath of God.” It was referred to as such since many of the people there were the likes of Jacob’s cousin Laban. Laban was a swindler, a cheater, and anything but a straight shooter. He was the polar opposite of the way Jacob lived his life: Jacob lived by the morals, ideals, and mitzvahs dictated in the Torah.
Throughout his stay in Charan, Jacob was tormented by Laban, most famously when Rachel was switched for her sister Leah on the day of his marriage. Notwithstanding it all, Jacob held firm to his belief.
We see this idea mentioned later on when Jacob is approached by his angry brother Esau. The first thing Jacob says is “Im Laban garti” — I lived with Laban. Rashi explains the word “garti” by its numerical value of 613 — the amount of mitzvahs in the Torah. Jacob was telling Esau that while he did spend years with Laban, he adhered to the 613 mitzvahs. He was able to stay above the fray and not allow the cunning and deceitful ways of Laban to guide or even impact his life.
I look at the Jewish teens today and I see that strong Jacob. They may live in a hostile environment of a different kind. One that is plagued by anti-Semitic symbols or comments that unfortunately exists even as recently as last week in our local public high schools. They are often challenged by peers that are sometimes full of apathy and indifference to our tradition and to mitzvah observance.
Yet the spirit of Jacob lives on every day. Is it easy? Not in the slightest. But it can be done and it is being done.
If only we all can have this Jacob spirit of perseverance and determination, we would be able to endure the winds that challenge our own personal faith and that of the Jewish people as a whole. May we merit, that like Jacob who went on from this challenge to be blessed as the father of the 12 tribes, we will build many generations of strong, proud and committed Jewish people for now and till the imminent arrival of Moshiach, amen.