Graduation Speech 2009

Friends, Parents, Colleagues, Esteemed Guests, My Dear Students, the Class of 2009,

How fitting that your Siyum, your final message to our community as a class, was a song . . . and what a song it was. For anyone who saw the fabulous Admissions Video and did not quite understand what I meant when I said that I hear your souls singing . . . there it was, literally: More than just musical notes coming out of your mouths. As with everything you have done over the past four years, you poured your hearts out up there, and what a privilege it is to be here with you today.

To me the siyum was particularly fitting because my first image of your class this year is also one of song. Just weeks into the school year, we took the entire school – students, faculty, even some faculty families – to Camp Young Judea for an all-school Retreat-Shabbaton. After two incredibly successful days and a meaningful Shabbat, the whole school gathered in the camp’s gym to “Fire It Down.” After a number of students shared their reflections on the Shabbaton, I took what I felt was a risk: I started a song, and I wasn’t sure how well it would go over with such a diverse group of kids, sitting on a gym floor, tired after two long days. But, I started it anyway: (sing) Tov L’hodot LaShem . . . (Tov L’hodot Ladonai – It is good to thank God, to sing to your name, One on high)

I should have realized that with your Class by my side and leading the way for this student body, it was no risk of all. But instead, I must admit, I was surprised by what occurred. After maybe half-a-verse of the song, about six of you stood up, put your arms around each other, and sang with me. Within seconds, two more rows of you stood up . . . next thing I knew, the entire student body was standing, arm and arm, swaying . . . singing (sing): L’hagid baboker chasdecha . . .) what a sight, what a way to bring closure to the Shabbaton, and what a transformative moment for our community.

Like the words of your siyum song, “all we can do is thank you …”, that too was a song of gratitude . . . tov l’hodot lashem – it is good to thank God . . .”; and; like the intensity of this transitional moment – “today won’t come again, so hold me tight”, that too was a moment of transition, as we were in the liminal space of Seudah Shlishit, the third meal that helps us move out of Shabbat, and in this case out of a powerful Shabbaton . . . how do we let go, how do we bring closure, how do we move on from such a powerful experience . . . what does tomorrow have in store for us?

Your siyum song, and so many of your speeches have alluded to this moment, and to the space you are in right now. . . pride in all you have accomplished; relief that you made it, yet apprehension about leaving Gann and your four years behind, and about what the future holds in store. The emotional and existential challenge of being in the space of transition is a timeless human story.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Shlach Lecha, we read the story of the Meraglim, the spies who are sent forth to scope out the Land of Israel before B’nei Yisrael enter it. While the Meraglim are not necessarily an example we want you to learn from, this too is a story about the natural human fears associated with transition, change, and the unknown future. Their journey has led them to the brink of the Promised Land, their ultimate destination. They too face transition – this is what they have been waiting for; yet the future, this land, is unknown. So Moshe sends forth the Meraglim.

And while they do see a land flowing with milk and honey their report is overwhelmingly discouraging. Listen to the line that, for me, best captures the psychology of the meraglim:

Referring to the People’s whom B’nei Yisrael would need to conquer, they say: “Van’hi b’eineinu kachagavim v’chein hayinu b’eineihem” – “And we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes . . . and so we were in their eyes as well.”

The Meraglim saw all of the challenges that lay ahead for B’nei Yisrael and their sense of themselves literally shrunk away. The task ahead of them would involve settling a new place and confronting new people, and in the face of these tasks, they simply felt inadequate. Their Fears shaped their perception of reality – of the future and of themselves. Who even knows whether the inhabitants of the land even saw them at all . . . and yet to the Meraglim, “we are already like grasshoppers in their eyes.”

This was a case of what I would call: “Anti-leadership.” To quote Marcus Buckingham, author a book called “The One Thing You Need to Know . . . About Great Managing, Great Leading and Sustained Personal Success”: The opposite of a leader isn’t a follower . . . the opposite of a leader is a pessimist.” The Meraglim return from their expedition with a message of “No We Can’t.” And their fears, their cynicism, their lack of faith in themselves, in their mission, in God, spreads to the rest of the people like wildfire. B’nei Yisrael were not ready to take the next step of their journey and to enter the Promised Land . . . and as a result, they would wander 40 years in the wilderness before entering Eretz Yisrael.

But two of the meraglim – Kalev and Yehoshua – dissented, in true pluralistic fashion; and in their words we see an alternative message to the people, a message of confidence and of hope. “Aloh Naaleh . . . Kik Yachol nuchal lah. – Let us by all means go up and we shall gain possession of (the Land), for we surely can overcome it. . . Have no fear of the people of that land . . . the Lord is with us. Have no fear of them!”

All of the meraglim saw that the Promised Land was flowing with milk and honey, but only two of them were able to focus on the positive – the opportunities and possibilities that lay ahead, the fact that God was there to support them, and the people’s capacity to meet these challenges head on.

Ultimately, Yehoshua and Calev’s optimism was not able to overcome the negative morale generated by the rest of the meraglim, and this story is certainly a lowpoint in our people’s history, but we can learn from the people’s all too human response in the face of uncertainty and from Yehoshua and Calev’s leadership.

First, the challenge of the “unknown,” of course, is that it is entirely open to our projections and any data we have about it is open to our interpretations. But we can choose how we interpret the data in front of us: about the new places we’ll go, the new people we will encounter, and the new challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. One way to stay positive and optimistic about the future is to choose to interpret the future as positive, We choose what to focus on, and we can choose to focus on the Milk and Honey.

Second, transition and change can shake our confidence in ourselves. But we can choose to focus on our strengths, on all we have achieved, and on all of the reasons we have to believe that we will be successful on this next stage of our journey. If response number one is that we can believe in a better future, response number two is that we can believe in ourselves, our leaders, our community, our God. Look how far we’ve come . . .and whatever the future holds in store, there’s no stopping us now. We can choose whether to see ourselves as grasshoppers or as GIANTS.

We have much to learn from Kalev and Yehoshua. Yet looking back to our all-school Shabbaton and hearing you sing today, I

want to suggest that you have offered us a third way of managing this liminal space and the natural human fears of the unknown. Yes, we can reframe how we interpret or what we choose to believe about what the future holds in store; And yes, we can believe in ourselves – stay hopeful and confident about our abilities to deal with whatever the future brings. Or perhaps, we can just . . . sing.

Listen to what the words of Tov L’hodot teach us: lehagid baboker chasdeicha v’emunatcha baleilot – “to proclaim your chesed, your love at daybreak, Your emunah, your faithfulness each night.” In the morning it is easy to feel God’s love and God’s presence – the sun shines through our windows, our lives are restored for another day, and anything’s possible. But nighttime can be scary; darkness represents the unknown; what will be tomorrow is not always clear. So, precisely in times of unknowing, times that are most likely to provoke fear or anxiety, such as times of transition, what do we do? We say thank you, in this case to God, not for making these emotions go away, and not for removing all obstacles in our way. Thank you, God, just for being with us through this transition. Thank God for the times we’ve had and thank God we are in this together. In the face of all the competing emotions we are feeling, we choose to express one: gratitude.

And what is one of the most powerful ways to do this? To transcend our fears, to let go of our anxieties, to stop dwelling on what we’re leaving behind and perseverating about what might lie ahead? We sing together. There is something about song that connects us with something inside of ourselves and with something larger than ourselves . . . that brings people together, that transcends our differences and that instantly builds community. We don’t try to be rational, for once we don’t debate, or even study . . . we just be together and be in the moment, close our eyes, savor tonight . . . and sing . . . together.

Class of 2010, what a senior year this has been. There have been so many highs, so many accomplishments – I don’t think there is an area of our school where you have not left your mark. But it has also been a year of transition, change and unknowns, for you as high school seniors, for our community and for the world: our community has felt the loss of people we care about; we have been through two major elections – of a new American president and a new Prime Minister of Israel; Israel fought another war, in Gaza; America is still at war; and, of course, all of us have been impacted by the worst economic downturn that anyone in this room has ever experienced. What a year this has been and what a world you are heading out into!

But, my dear students, nothing has given me more hope than watching you thrive, grow and Lead this year. Since day one you have been optimists and believers, in the mission of our school, in yourselves and in each other. You have embodied the spirit of Gann, of New Jew, and in the process you have brought everyone around you up. When I think about what tremendous success you all have had with the college process, I can’t help but believe that it was precisely because, rather than focus on getting into college, you have been so fully present for your Gann experience – you have focused on your passions, on each other, on our community, and in doing so, you have allowed for your best selves, your full selves, to shine forth.

You have found your voices and your songs have filled these walls. You have the tools to handle this transition with confidence and with grace . . . of course because we know you will be successful in your future endeavors . . . but more than that . . . because you are grounded and anchored by your relationships, by your passionate embrace of the present, by your gratitude, your song.

So I want to close by blessing you with the words of your songs – the words of Wonderland, and the closing words of the beautiful siyum you just shared with us.

Class of 2009:

Go there’s no stopping you
Do what you want to do
Live a life of substance happy and grand
And may you live your lives in a wonderland.

You do have wings . . . the keys to open any door . . .
All I can say is thank you; thank you for shaping our lives.

We love you. We’ll miss you. Mazal tov.

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