By Billy Planer | Etgar 36

One of the reasons rock ’n’ roll caught on with the younger population was that it challenged the puritanical conservative lifestyle of 1950s America. The music asked the questions “Why can’t Tuesday night be a night of careless fun like Saturday night? Why can’t Wednesday night also be a night of dancing?”

In a few days Jews will observe Yom Kippur, and we have a 25-hour period to reflect and grapple with what it means to be a better person, how to interact with our world in a more positive manner, and what it means to be alive. Imagine what would happen if three weeks after Yom Kippur we could still be as self-reflective and considerable of positive change as we are on Yom Kippur. As rock ’n’ roll asked, why can’t March 1 also be a Yom Kippur?

I heard about a preacher who lamented that for an hour each week his congregation would gather and there would be love and harmony among the parishioners, but the minute services were over, they would be honking and cursing at each other in the parking lot as they drove out.

Billy Planer

Billy Planer

During the Etgar 36 summer journey, we spend a day at the Grand Canyon, and I have the teens go sit in silence around the rim of the canyon, pondering their lives and the issues they may be grappling with. When we gather again as a group, they all reflect on what a spiritual and affirming time they just experienced.

The next day we go to Las Vegas. After a day in the distracting glitz, noise and stimulation of Las Vegas, I ask if they are able to connect to that feeling of spirituality and reflection that they had just a day earlier. The answer is always no.

We challenge the teens to see if they can find it by understanding the connection to our fellow human beings. We emphasis that every day, regardless of whether we are in a place such as the Grand Canyon or if it is a specific day of the year such as Yom Kippur, lends itself to a connection to living better by giving us an opportunity to look at the people across from us not as the other, but as another.

Another human being, another person made in the image of G-d, is deserving of our concern, compassion, humanity and holiness. We are each other’s keeper, and the world is dependent on our actions.

As Elie Wiesel said: “To be Jewish today is to recognize that every person is created in the image of G-d and that our purpose in living is to be a reminder of G-d. … We must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings. We cannot remain indifferent to human suffering, whether in other countries or in our own cities and towns. The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.”

At the end of the documentary “I Am,” we hear about how The Times of London asked prominent authors the question “What is wrong with the world?” and G.K. Chesterton answered, “I am.”

On behalf of Etgar 36, and as the director of the movie suggests, may this be the year when we can flip the question to what is right in the world and we can answer “I am.”

Billy Planer, a native Atlantan, has been working in Jewish experiential education for 30 years. He is the founder and director of Etgar 36 (www.etgar.org), a program that during the summer takes Jewish teens across America to teach them about history, politics and activism. During the academic year Etgar 36 takes day schools and synagogue groups on civil rights journeys.