18 September 2015
5 Tishrei 5776
Today is #CharacterDay. This morning many of our students joined thousands of schools and communities in over 40 countries to watch a new 10-minute film called “The Making of a Mensch”, which explores the science of character through the lens of the Jewish Mussar tradition. In addition to the film, there is an all-day conversation through Global Google Hangout with scholars, rabbis, and other experts to discuss different perspectives on the formation of character and its importance today.
The timing of this movie release is not coincidental, as we are in what is traditionally known as the Aseret Yamei HaTeshuva (10 Days of Repentance), a period leading up to Yom Kippur, a time of heightened personal introspection about who we have been over the past year and who we aspire to be in the coming year.
This movie and, more broadly, this conversation are not only happening among Jews and not only about the Jewish high holidays. More and more people are talking about character these days and its importance for our society and our world. With films like this, the Positive Psychology movement, or David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character, scholars, thought leaders, spiritual teachers, and educators are obviously wrestling with fundamental questions about how to develop in ourselves and our children the capacities to live a good life.
My sense is that this heightened awareness about the importance of character is part of our collective waking up as a society to the notion that there is more to life than material success and external achievements. Our increased dependency on technology as a mode of communication has only fueled our insanely fast pace and obsession with productivity, all of which can cause us to become, perhaps ironically, more disconnected from one another and ourselves. Many who are leading the conversation about character recognize that this disconnection poses serious threats to our personal well-being, our families, and the entire fabric of our society.
One of the things that I love about Gann and Jewish high school education is that we strive to help our students see that their pursuit of academic excellence and their extraordinary achievements in so many arenas should be embedded in and inspired by a greater sense of purpose and pursuit of meaning. We strive to create a culture in which Jewish values are not merely words on a wall and in which our students develop AP-level Emotional Intelligence.
Ultimately, high school is about preparing students to go off to college and out into a changing, global world and to lead successful, confident lives of moral purpose and consequence. At Gann, we do this in part by rooting our students and their learning in the depth, wisdom, and universal relevance of our shared, Jewish tradition.
Thanks to generous philanthropic support and the bold leadership of Rabbi David Jaffe, Gann has become a leading Jewish voice in a much broader, human conversation about what it means to intentionally and systematically pursue character formation and moral development in our students.*
As we reflect on what this means for each of us this coming year, I will share one quote from David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character, that speaks powerfully to a first principle of character education: personal agency. Brooks writes, “Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action. The agency moment can happen at any age, or never.”
This sacred work begins with a community of adults – teachers, administrators, parents – who are willing to commit to our own personal and professional growth and to model for our children the willingness to be vulnerable and take risks in the name of self-improvement.
What is one area of your life in which you want to develop a greater sense of agency this year?
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah,
Rabbi Marc Baker
*If you are interested in learning more about Gann’s unique approach to character and leadership development, here is a link to a talk I was privileged to give several years ago called “Jewish Educational Leadership with Soul,” as one of the inaugural ELI Talks (essentially, TED talks for Jewish education). In addition, Rabbi Jaffe and I were later interviewed on video in greater depth about Gann’s program and character education in general.