In Memory of Rabbi Shay Mintz on His 5th Yahrzeit
By Rabbi Sara Rich
During this time of year, if you listen verrrry closely, you just might hear the sounds of Pomp & Circumstance playing in the air. We are fully immersed in graduation season! At Hillel of Buffalo, we recently said good bye to our graduating college seniors. I am always struck by how quickly their college experience passes by for me! As I said good bye, one student at a time, my brain easily flashes back to the first time I met them, usually as freshmen. I remember when one student would sit quietly at Hillel, eating and doing his homework, until he gradually felt comfortable opening up to us about his passion for sports and politics. Another student came to Hillel as a high school senior when he visited for a tour of UB. He wanted to study something related to music, and recently decided to pursue music education through a master’s program at UB.
What passes for a quick four years in my life is a series of critical choices and turning points for these students as they try to figure out who they are and what they want to become. I see a glimpse of this in the Torah portion this week, B’midbar – the Book of Numbers. We start this new book of the Torah this Shabbat, and in the first few verses, we read that God commands Moses and Aaron to take a census of the Israelites.
God instructs, “Take a census of the whole Israelite company by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (Numbers 1:2-3).
Let’s start first with the obvious differences between the expectations of 20-year olds in the Torah and in universities today. Those young adults, ages 20 and up, are being counted so that Moses and Aaron know exactly how many men are eligible to go to battle as the Israelites face the military challenges of conquering the land of Canaan.
The thought of these young adults heading off to battle is hard, knowing the fierce rivals the Israelites are facing, even as God promises to help them defeat the other tribes. As we just passed Memorial Day, our hearts remain full of admiration and gratitude for the young adults today who serve and protect our country. May God protect them and bring them home safely to their families.
Even in a totally different historic context, the passage from Numbers resonates today because it recognizes the transition that takes place around the age of 20. With a special nod to all ‘non-conventional’ students who begin or return to their studies at a more advanced age, the majority of college students will turn 20 at some point during their time in college. In the case of the Israelites, the transition is from protected child to a fighter who protects the tribe. For young adults today, the changes that take place at this age are different, but still remarkable. Students might come to campus not knowing a single other person, and they graduate with a group of friends and shared memories. They enter with a high school level knowledge of chemistry, or computer science, or psychology, and in the matter of years have completed advanced coursework that qualifies them for research opportunities and jobs in their field. For many entering straight from high school, they are responsible for personal tasks for the first time, like laundry and cooking, and they learn how to integrate these chores into their daily and weekly routines.
With Jewish students, we see many variations on this transition. Some come to college having been very involved in Jewish camp, their synagogue, or youth group. College is an opportunity to move from participant to leader, or to take their leadership to the next level with more autonomy to plan programs and make decisions. For the many students who do not enter college with a long list of Jewish experiences, their transition can be as simple, but as profound, as feeling included in a Jewish community and validated in their Jewish identity. At Hillel, we see that the transition is different for every student, but in each case, it is remarkable.
I want to honor a special individual who committed years of his career to guiding students through this transition. Next week is the 5th yahrzeit of Rabbi Shay Mintz z”l, the director of Hillel of Buffalo from 1986-2000, and leader and educator in our community for decades. Rabbi Mintz was a passionate, dedicated educator. He was known for the unique connections he made with each individual student, as he would remember and refer to them by their Hebrew names. The cup of his spirituality (literally) runneth over as he energetically led students and community members for High Holiday services. Shay’s presence for the transitions of college continued as he officiated the transition to marriage for many former students under the chuppah.
Besides the practical and tactical reasons that the Torah gives for needing a census of the Israelites, the midrash in B’midbar Rabbah shares another explanation for why God commands this count. A parable is offered in which a person has a box filled with precious jewels. From time to time, she takes them out, and inspects them one by one, to ensure they are intact, and to admire their beauty. In the same way, the command to take a census is an expression of God’s care and delight that God takes from each Israelite, and from each of us. The legacy of Rabbi Mintz represents this same level of care. Each student of his was a precious jewel to him.
May we be inspired to be forthcoming with our admiration of the people who are dear to us and to be generous with our love and attention. May Rabbi Mintz’s memory continue to be a blessing and a light for us all.
Rabbi Sara Rich is the Executive Director of Hillel of Buffalo that recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.