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Freedom is sacrifice

Editor’s Note: The Forward’s Youth Writing Contest is asking middle and high school students to submit essays, short stories and poems on the topic “What It Means To Be Free.” We’re still accepting entries at [email protected] — you can find the entry guidelines here.The deadline is Friday, May 1. Today, we’re proud to publish this essay by Lila Katz, a 16-year-old student from Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, TX. We’ll be publishing more exciting new voices soon. You can find some of them here.

In the West End in London, in a production of “The Prince of Egypt: the Musical,” performers sing “When You Believe.” They let their voices ring out in a full theater. It is a song of freedom, a song of the Jewish people escaping slavery in Egypt after centuries of oppression. They sing:

Ashira L’adonai ki gaoh ga-ah,/Mi chamocha baelim adonai,/Mi chamocha nedar bakodesh,/Nachitah v’chas-d’cha am zu gaalta,/Ashira, Ashira, Ashira./(I will sing to God for God has triumphed gloriously,/Who is like You, oh God, among the celestials,/Who is like You, majestic in holiness,/In Your love, You lead the people you redeemed/I will sing, I will sing, I will sing)

Steven Schwartz’s melody is met with a standing ovation. The actors take their bows and head backstage to change into street clothes. One cast member gets on their phone, and stares at the headline with a grim expression as they read: “ALL WEST END THEATRES TO BE SHUT DOWN DUE TO CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK.”

Lila Katz

Contestant: Lila Katz is a 16-year-old student at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, TX. Image by Courtesy of Lila Katz

Theater after theater and school after school are being shut down, and suddenly, the magic is gone. That song of freedom is no longer heard. Actors cannot take their bows and seniors in high school do not get a chance to play the lead they’ve dreamt of since freshman year. Weeks pass, entire countries close, streets are vacated, and masks are put on.

Then Passover arrives.

Broadway makes history with its first ever musical-theatre-themed Saturday Night Seder, and, for the first time since March, West End sings “When You Believe” again. We discover that we are more connected than ever, not physically, but electronically. The technology of the 21st century has made it easier than ever to meet, to sing, to pray together in the midst of a pandemic.

And yet, the public is still angry. They miss their lives, their schools, their work, their places of worship. They begin to point fingers, to riot over supplies, to protest in forbidden communal areas. They feel something valuable has been taken away. They feel they are being denied their freedom.

So: What is freedom? Is freedom crossing the sea after generations of enslavement? Or is it eating at Olive Garden with your friends after seeing the latest “Spiderman?” Is freedom simply escaping confinement or getting to do everything you’ve ever dreamed of without repercussions?

What defines freedom? What defines restraint?

I’ll share what it looks like through my lens: Freedom is sacrifice.

Wait… what?

You heard me right. Freedom is sacrifice for the health and safety of the general public. Right now, at what is possibly the peak of COVID-19, we live in fear, we live with uncertainty, we are changing our lifestyles, but we are still free. Freedom is getting to take walks with your dog around the neighborhood. Freedom is the opportunity to have school online instead of not at all. Freedom is buying birthday presents online. Freedom is having an oboe concert for your parents over Zoom. Freedom is taking one for the team. Freedom is staying inside to save millions.

Freedom is knowing you can make a true difference by doing what’s right. We refrain from stealing, murder, and crime because it’s the right thing to do. We commit acts of mitzvot because it is what’s right. We stay inside not because we want to, but because acting on our freedoms isn’t always the most enjoyable thing to do.

However, I will say, humanity is making it work. Millennials and Gen Z are learning to cook. Families are spending time together. Carbon emissions are decreasing at insane rates. The world is appreciating health care workers now more than ever. Teachers are being applauded for their quick adaptation in a crisis. Creativity is at its height, and no one is missing out on John Krasinski’s “Some Good News.” We are listening, learning, and accepting.

We are allowing ourselves to thrive in trying times, and that is what it means to be free. So sing, dance, cook, and most importantly, stay inside, because sacrifice and freedom go hand-in-hand. And, like our ancestors, we prosper in good times and bad. We have never given up hope, and we won’t begin now.

Lila Katz is a 16-year-old student at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, TX.

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