Ten years ago a tragic accident claimed the lives of Rabbi Zev and Rochel Simons in Sydney, Australia, and last week marked their tenth Yohrtzeit. Their son, Rabbi Mendel Simons, today a Shliach in Los Angeles, authored a letter connecting his parents roles as educators into his Shlichus and the need for values based education with an emphasis on passionately living.
by Rabbi Mendel Simons
My brothers and I often jestfully ask each other “what’s your story?”. That basically means ‘What’s up?’ ‘What are you up to today?’ ‘Are we going out tonight?’ ‘What’s your eta?’ – all in 3 words. Or if we’re texting, we sum it all in one word ‘Story?’ The word ‘story’ has taken on a deeper meaning for me and my siblings and you’ll soon see why.
Tonight, the 11th of Teves, commemorates the 10th Yartzeit (anniversary of the passing) of my parents, Zev & Rochel Simons, Of Blessed Memory. When I think about my parents, I think about their obsession with education, with their children, and with their home – the home that loved and nurtured 10 of us siblings (and countless extended family and friends). Our home and us children were the center of their lives. And it was all within the context of a passionate relationship with and the service of G-d.
I’ll never forget the slogan of our school in Sydney, Australia (to which my father dedicated his life) “Yeshiva College, where Judaism is not a subject, but a way of life”.
Judaism is a story. Not just the story of our past. It’s the guide to creating our own chapter in that story. Stories are experiences of people alive with emotion, passion and excitement. With fear, failure, joy, success, gratitude, sadness and everything in between.
We recite every day in Shema, “and you shall teach these things (Torah values) repeatedly to your children, speak of them when you’re sitting in your house, when you walk on your way, when you lie down, and when you rise up”. I’ve often wondered: How can you talk about something so often if you’re not passionately excited about it? You can’t. And if you try, you will quickly lose interest, boring yourself and your children/students/congregation. If not worse, you will turn them off. Because the experience will be one of coldness and boredom and who’s coming back for more of that?!
I’m often asked “What sets YJPLA apart?” Many parents/Rabbis/directors/program-developers ask themselves ‘what does my target audience need?’ and then through research and some guessing, they create an event or program based on what they believe their audience need.
In the 6 years since YJP’s inception, I have never asked myself that question. Instead, I ask ‘what kind of experience do I need?’ Yes me. I will not invite you to a party that I would not want to attend myself. I will not invite you to a class that I would not want to sit through. I will not invite you to a Shabbat dinner or High Holidays that I would not want to experience. We cannot effectively give to others something that we are not passionate about, something that doesn’t move ourselves.
My parents gave us a story. It was a story lived with passion and excitement. That’s why, when they spoke of “these things repeatedly” (at the Shabbos table, while walking on the beach, when we woke up and when we lay down), it was alive, they did not bore us (Ok sometimes they did ;).
My parents taught us that it is a grave mistake to think of education only in terms of knowledge and skills. As David Brooks of the NY Times put it, ‘Resume virtues’ as opposed to ‘Eulogy virtues’. My father was quite the pragmatist and he understood this well. This was not idealism. Guided by the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his shluchim, my parents prioritized a values based education. While most of my friends parents were obsessing over skills and knowledge, mine obsessed over passionately living a life of Torah values. Emphasis on the passionately living. The knowledge of Torah is useless without living it.
At 35 years old, I am beginning to understand the value in my parents approach. Never has the world changed so fast and it’s not slowing down. Skills and knowledge learned 20 years ago have no practical relevance in today’s world. Careers can change every 5-10 years. We have no idea what patterns of employment will look like in 2, let alone 20 years from now. Skills that are valuable today can instantly be replaced tomorrow by artificial intelligence.
The only values that will always be valuable is that of Torah and Mitzvos, of collective responsibility and common good. Freedom and democracy thrive as a natural byproduct of Torah values. We have no idea who will be the winners and losers of tomorrow’s economy. But with an internal moral navigational system, based on Torah, our children will be able to find their way through the unknown and ever evolving future.
I say this to couples while preparing them for marriage: Make your marriage, home and children the center of your life! Everything else you do is only in order to serve your home and your family. Don’t just tell your children about Shabbat; make it the center of your home. Live it with passion and excitement through the experiential. Show your children that every Mitzvah that they do is important and makes a difference in the world. Children that grow up in such a home grow up to be adults that can handle change without fear. They go out into the world feeling important and with the confidence that they have something to add to G-d’s beautiful garden.
Today, in memory of my parents, Zev & Rochel Simons OBM (may their neshama have an Aliya), stop everything you’re doing, turn your phone to airplane mode ;), close your eyes and think about a Mitzvah that you can connect with. Go and do that Mitzvah and in the act of doing it you will find the passion and meaning. Most importantly, learn about that mitzvah from someone that is alive and excited about that mitzvah.
What will my children answer when asked “what’s your story?”