Seeing Differently

8 April 2016
29 Adar 2, 5776

Shalom Chaverim,

Yesterday I met with an educator from another high school who asked me a question:

“What connection, if any, do you see between educating toward innovation and creativity (two principles of 21st century learning) and Jewish spiritual education or nurturing the hearts and souls of our students?”

I immediately thought of the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who describes what he calls “prophetic thinking”:

What impairs our sight are habits of seeing as well as the mental concomitants of seeing. Our sight is suffused with knowing, instead of feeling painfully the lack of knowing what we see. . . One must forget many clichés in order to behold a single image. Insight is the beginning of perceptions to come rather than the extension of perceptions gone by. Conventional seeing, operating as it does with patterns and coherences, is a way of seeing the present in the past tense. Insight is an attempt to think in the present. Insight is a breakthrough, requiring much intellectual dismantling and dislocation. It begins with . . . a feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible. . . . He who thinks that we can see the same object twice has never seen.

This quote from the introduction to Heschel’s The Prophets suggests a way of seeing and experiencing the world that, I believe, lies at the heart of both Jewish spirituality and creativity and innovation. The ability to lift ourselves out of the status quo, to break through current or previous ways of thinking, to be fully present to the current moment or to a problem or question at hand—these and other habits of mind and heart—opens us up to the possibility of seeing reality, others, and ourselves in new ways. This capacity to see anew, which Heschel calls insight, affirms a belief that people, the world, and we, ourselves, can change; renewal and genuine newness are possible. And, in turn, this belief generates the spiritual and moral responsibility to participate in the sacred work of being an active part of that change and renewal of ourselves and the world for the good. This connection between spirituality, creativity, and innovation explains our passionate commitment to Tikkun Olam, the notion that we, as human beings created in the Image of God and endowed with God-like creative capacities, are partners and active agents in the ongoing creation and repair of our world.

This connection also explains why Gann strives to create a high school experience that intentionally integrates outstanding academic preparation with our students’ moral, spiritual, and Jewish development. Even more than what they know and are able to do, who they are and how they see themselves and the world will determine how ready our graduates are to face a beautiful yet changing and challenging world.

This vision of education has inspired Gann’s commitment to experiential learning and Exploration Week, which took place this week. With the world as their campus, students engaged in out-of-the box, self-driven learning experiences that pushed them out of their comfort zones, created opportunities to see, learn, and do new things in new ways, and to broaden and deepen their capacities to make meaning of their world and their place in it. Through experiences like Coding Boot Camp and the Epicurean Expedition here at Gann, cleaning out Boston’s Charles River or Rebuilding New Orleans, journeying through the South on the Civil Rights trip, or learning about poetry as activism in San Francisco, our students gave back in ways large and small and cultivated their “feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible.” You can read more about our students’ Exploration Week experiences here.

Tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Nisan, which we celebrate both as Rosh Chodesh and as one of the special Shabbatot in anticipation of the upcoming Passover holiday. The Hebrew word for month, chodesh, comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for new, chadash, because the moon renews itself and reminds us, as we remind ourselves each day, that seeing and being anew are possible. As the people who were taken out of slavery—the epitome of physical, intellectual, and spiritual stuck-ness—especially during this Passover season, we bear witness to the miracle of possibility and change and to the extraordinary opportunities and responsibilities that come with it.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,

Rabbi Marc Baker

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