It’s 7pm: Do You Know Where Your Children Are?
When I was growing up, around 7 o’clock, there used to be a short, fifteen second commercial that would appear on television every night. It would say: Time and Weather from Commerce Bank. It’s 7pm, do you know where your children are?
How many of you remember that commercial? As a child I remember laughing at it because each night that I watched at the time the answer to that question was obvious: Pretty much every night at 7 my brothers and I were in the living room watching Time and Weather from Commerce Bank. And so we’d yell up to our parents: Mom, Dad, it’s 7pm. We just wanted to let you know where your children are!
But I must tell you that as thirty years or so have passed since I first saw that commercial, and as I have become a parent myself, I realize now that the answer to that once seemingly obvious question, “do you know where your children are?,” is not so easy for me as a parent, for we as a community, nor for our society to answer.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur invite us to recall the world’s formation, but these days it can feel more like our world is more tohu va-vohu, disorderly than ever. And it is without question that the greatest victim of that disorder has been our children, and the world that we hope someday will be their yerusha, their inheritance. Lately I can’t seem to stop thinking about a words of Jim Zimmerman who looking at the way our children suffer remarked how “it is always far better to prepare our children, than to repair them.”
Preparing our Children, and not repairing them. Certainly, Maimonides and other Jewish thinkers would have insisted that this idea was what Yom Kippur was all about. Because as we know, the highest form of teshuva, of repentance, is to spending time preparing ourselves, to avoid the need to repair in the future.
And yet as I look back at the year, and the year that our children have had, I can’t help but wonder: just how much repair, how much tikkun, our society needs, before we can even begin to prepare our children for the future.
My friends, the time is now 8:05 on Erev Kol Nidrei: Do we know where our children are? This year, if there was one topic that was featured in nearly every American periodical, including two summer issues of the Atlanta Jewish Times, it was the rising mental health crisis among our children. In the uncertain times in which we live, 31% of our teens 13-18, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, have a kind of anxiety disorder. The American College Association reports that 39% of current college students said that they “felt so depressed within the last twelve months that it was difficult to function.” And lest we think we in this room are immune--because, you know-- these things never happen to Jews, we should be aware that 42% of participants at ASPIRO, that’s nearly half of the largest wilderness therapy program for 15-25 year olds, the most extreme cases of those detoxing from substance abuse--are Jewish.
Today, the need to repair our children, who cannot turn on the news or the computer without becoming anxious, is greater than ever. And I would argue that inextricably linked and connected to this mental health crisis is that all around the world, are a lack of healthy environments where our children can grow, learn and thrive in safety and security. At Etz Chaim we have created a safe, loving, environment for our children to thrive; And I can say that first hand because as a parent, I know that our Director of Education, Debbie Deutsch, and our faculty are second to none. But I can also say that because thanks to our high tech security system from government grants, and our wonderful Cobb County police, we can consider ourselves so fortunate. Think of the children around the world, and even in our country, who are not as fortunate as we are, who live lives of tohu vavohu, with a sense of disorder. In Gaza, Hamas uses children as human shields. In Syria, Bashar El Assad gasses children with chemical weapons. All over America this year, we spent our time this summer calling the police on twelve-year olds mowing the wrong lawn and eight year olds walking their dogs without parents, instead of paying attention to at-risk children who really needed our help, and then brought guns to school. And if we cannot as adults in this great wonderful country of ours full of the brightest most talented people in the world cannot come together and find the answer for how to keep our children safe, if we cannot know where our children are, then I believe that we will continue in a cycle where we will spend more time repairing our children from traumatic events than preparing them for life.
There is an old Yiddish proverb, which states oyb der velt, that if the world is to be redeemed, it will be through fardinen fun kinder, the merit of our children. And that’s true. As one popular rabbinic midrash teaches, it is our children who are the greatest guarantors for our Torah, our tradition, and the world. But I believe that this proverb will come to fruition, if at 8:20pm, we can pledge to become partners with God in creation to once again create order in the lives of our children. Together, we in this room must must utilize the resources we have, and seek help from our partner organizations like Jewish Family Services, so we can give our children the help they need. We can also ask those in positions of political influence to take seriously the need for our children to have safe, purposeful, learning environments and to be proactive about the challenges they face. Because unless they forgot to study for a math test, no child should ever have to feel anxious about going to school.
I want to conclude my remarks this evening by inviting our Etz Chaim Ruach singers to join me on the bimah to lead us in one of my favorite classic hebrew songs written by the poet Naomi Shemer. It is called Al Kol Eleh. I hope you will sing along. In April, 12,000 Israelis came together in honor of Israel’s 70th anniversary to sing Al Kol Eleh. And it’s easy to see why. In Israel, where they know daily the struggle to keep their children safe from harm, this song continues to resonate. “My God,” wrote Naomi Shemer, “Guard what little we have that is precious. The morning light, and especially our children. Our children are the fruit that has not yet ripened, but may they, with your help, ripen at the right time.”
Tonight, as we hear from and then join along with our Ruach singers in singing the beautiful touching words of Al Kol Eileh, let these words not only be words of song, but a charge to us. Let us channel our words of song into hopes and dreams and energy by being God’s partners in creation and restoring a sense of order to the world, so that their fruit may not ripen before its proper time. Let us remember oyb der velt, that it is through our children that the world may yet, with our help, be redeemed. So that next year, at 8:25pm on Erev Kol Nidrei we may claim it was this night that we began to turn this world around: Because that was the night when we always pledged to know, whatever time it was, where our children were.