25 March 2016
15 Adar 2, 5776
Yesterday we celebrated the holiday of Purim together with festive song and food, costumes and activities, witty and humorous shpiels poking fun at the school, teachers, and administration, and reading the Megillah, the Book of Esther. The Megillah is a brilliant literary satire about many things, including Jewish life in the diaspora, gender, God’s presence or lack-thereof in the world, human initiative, frivolity, and materialism—the list goes on. Particularly poignant during this unique election year, the story is also about the good, the bad, and the ugly of power, politics, and leadership.
This was the perfect week and the perfect year to attend my first AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, with over 20 Gann students and two of my colleagues. To be in Washington with over 18,000 people and over 4,000 college and high school students all there to learn, to act, and to show support for Israel and the US-Israel relationship was awesome. What an opportunity for our students to see the intersection of Israel advocacy, Jewish Peoplehood, Tikkun Olam, civic engagement and the democratic process, and a presidential election!
Highlights for the students included learning about Israeli innovation, evangelical Christians’ relationship with Israel, and challenges and opportunities of the college campus; seeing what some found to be a pleasantly surprising range of viewpoints and perspectives on US and Israeli politics; meeting Congressman Joe Kennedy; and, of course, hearing the presidential candidates speak live in the Verizon Center arena.
Two moments particularly stood out for me. On Monday night, after a long day of sessions and candidate speeches, all the students were invited to the arena stage for a rock concert. Seeing our students with peers from the Maimonides School and from all over the country dancing to a modern Israeli band’s rock version of a Psalm 128, “Shir L’Maalot,” gave me a deep sense of hope for our future. The next day, toward the end of our lobbying session with Congressman Kennedy, at which he gave a warm shout-out to all of the students, the congressman was asked why it is important that the students were there. His response was a beautiful articulation of the democratic process, the meaning of elected leadership, and our students’ civic responsibilities. “I have been elected,” he said, “to serve and to represent you and the people of my district. If I don’t hear from you, if I don’t understand what really matters to you, I can’t do my job. You being here helps me learn about the issues that you care about, and this helps me to work on your behalf.”
Perhaps, the most controversial and complicated aspect of the conference was Donald Trump’s speech on Monday night. While it did not overshadow the entire three days, it certainly created a powerful Jewish, ethical, and political educational opportunity. So much has been written and continues to be written about the decision to invite him, the implications of his speech, and the audience’s response—I encourage us all to read as many perspectives as possible. Our goal was to process the experience with our students before, during, and after to help them unpack, understand, and make meaning of the experience on as many levels as possible. This was a case study in leadership and democracy for AIPAC and for everyone in that arena.
Before Trump’s speech, we asked them to consider and discuss questions such as:
Do you agree with AIPAC’s decision to invite Trump to speak? Many have called for people to leave or not attend the speech. Do you think you should attend or not? If you stay for the speech (which almost the entire Gann group chose to do), will you clap during the speech? If you clap, will you do so in a subdued and respectful way or with enthusiasm? If you intend not to clap enthusiastically, what will you do if and when most of the people around you roar with applause? Most importantly, what are the different value dilemmas behind each of these bechira (choice) points, and why do you intend to respond the way you do?
After the speech, reflecting on the experience: What did you actually do? What did you observe? How did it feel? What have you learned? What questions are you left with? As David Horovitz, the editor of The Times of Israel concluded in one of his many pieces about this, “What should we make of that?”
This question is at the heart of an educational experience and helps turn what might already be an extraordinary experience into one of real learning and character formation. As I told our students after their fabulous performance of the musical “Grease”, to live and learn mindfully is to both be in and inspired by the moment as well as be on or outside the moment, unpacking it for deeper meaning, and all it has to teach us about our world, our values, and the people we want to be.
Next week I will share some of my reflections and learnings from this experience. For now, let us continue to read, reflect, and wrestle with these questions and dilemmas: What should we make of that?
Rabbi Marc Baker