The school year is underway and our students have filled the school – classrooms, dining hall, hallways, sports fields, art studios – with energy, creativity and intellectual discourse. On our first day of classes, I spoke to our students about Gann’s mission in the context of both Jewish tradition and our current social and political climate. Let me give you a sense of the words I shared with them.
Since we moved onto our forest street campus some thirteen years ago, tense of thousands (if not more) of students, faculty and staff, parents and community members have walked through the archway in front of our building. While you cannot miss its physical beauty , I suspect that most of us have not paid close attention to the Hebrew words engraved on that archway. Yet, when you think about, it, what an institution chooses to engrave on an archway like this says a great deal about its mission, values and worldview.
Our Jewish tradition certainly understands this: we are obligated to put a mezuzah containing the words of the Shema – with its core principles of Jewish faith and tradition – on every doorway. Doorways, or an archway like ours, are a kind of crossroads, a liminal space; they mark a movement from one place to another, certainly physically and perhaps intellectually, emotionally and spiritually as well. Both rabbis and architects understand that that this moment of crossing over is a critical time to remind ourselves who we are and of the core values and aspirations that guide both where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
So, what words did the founders of Gann Academy choose to put on our archway and what is their significance for our community, especially as we begin this 2016-17 school year?
Ours are the words of three verses from first chapter of the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs): For learning wisdom and discipline, for understanding words of discernment; For acquiring the discipline for success, Righteousness, justice and equity. . . Let wisdom ring out in the streets, Raise her voice in the square. (Mishlei 1: 2-3, 20)
A close reading of these verses can generate many questions, insights and interpretations, and has over thousands of years. As I think about Gann’s mission and this year in particular, three particular ideas stand out to me.
First, the notion of discernment, binah in Hebrew, connotes a deeper level of understanding than simply knowing facts and figures, or than acquiring basic academic skills. It speaks to depth and sophistication, to seeing the multiple layers of meaning in everything – from science experiments to historical documents, Jewish texts to works of art – including ourselves and the world around us. Great learning penetrates far past the surface, always striving to go deeper, to ask more questions, to see things in new ways, and to emerge anew with greater discernment, greater understanding. This is true in every high school discipline and is particularly critical for Jewish learning if we want our next generation of 21st century Jews to see the profound depth, wisdom and relevance of our tradition.
Second, the juxtaposition of learning wisdom with righteous, justice and equity illustrate that education is not only an academic endeavor, but also an ethical one. We are concerned not only with sharpening our minds and deepening our understanding, but, perhaps more importantly, with how we translate that learning into moral action. Our rabbis have always linked Talmud (learning) with Maaseh (action) and these words of Mishlei make it very clear: great education is its own form of social justice when it develops in the learner a deep sense of ethical responsibility and the capacities to work tangibly and effectively to create a better, more just world.
The observation I want to make feels particularly relevant during this election season and this moment in Jewish history. Our children are coming of age at a time when technology and social media, social and political fragmentation, the erosion of civil discourse, and rising fear and insecurity fill the air. What often rings out in our streets is a culture of sound-bites and consumerism. We need our students to raise their voices – voices of wisdom and justice – in the streets. Mishlei teaches us that great education is not merely an internal conversation that occurs within the four walls of our Forest Street campus. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it so powerfully, Judaism has an important voice to contribute to the conversation of humankind.
We are educating the next generation of citizens and leaders for our American democracy and for our diverse, global Jewish people. Our American democracy needs us, the Jewish community – here and in Israel – need us, and the world needs us, now. As we walk through the archway of the 2016-17 school year, let us remind ourselves that it is through the voices and actions of our students and alumni and the culture of learning that we all create together that we will, indeed, create a vibrant Jewish future and build a better world where human dignity will flourish.