As we near the conclusion of our academic year, the celebrations, reflections, and gratitude continue. This morning we had our closing assembly, and last night we saw three powerful and moving student music and theater performances created and directed by seniors as independent projects. This past Wednesday morning we hosted a Founders’ Breakfast honoring our founding headmaster, Rabbi Danny Lehmann, as well as many of the founding lay leaders, educators, students, and community supporters who helped to create Gann and sustain our school over the past 18 years.
At the breakfast I spoke about Gann’s pluralistic educational mission and vision and about Danny, the leader and teacher, whose unique vision made this school possible and continues to animate our work. As we reflect on another year of extraordinary learning and growth and in celebration of our 18th year, I am sharing my words of tribute to Gann and to Danny.
Rabbi Marc Baker
Remarks by Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of School, Gann Academy
June 3, 2015
Every day as I walk this incredible campus, I am inspired by the teaching and learning that go on here in and out of the classroom. I also have many opportunities to get out into the community—locally, nationally, in Israel; out there, I am inspired by the fact that we are a national and international model of pluralistic Jewish education, since our founding, we have had a bold vision of education and of the Jewish future, and others look to us to lead and light the way.
I am equally inspired to be in this room with so many founders and to know where we came from. The strength of a school starts from the strength of its vision from the creativity and imagination of its founders and leaders. Gann is able to be the leader it is because of the strong foundation of mission and vision that all of you helped to create and that continues to evolve and unfold today.
I want to say a few words about the dream of pluralistic Jewish education and what makes Rabbi Danny Lehmann, our teacher and our leader, uniquely qualified to have created this school.
Pluralism was and still is an experiment, a work in progress.
I remember the early years of the original experiment—the conversations about how to create a pluralistic Shabbaton, the controversial speakers, the seminar-style learning, not to mention the buses to the Brandeis athletic facility, the Rosh Chodesh donuts, the yellow heifer (a semi-broken down little yellow school bus that the school used to own and use).
And the experiment continues today—from cutting edge approaches of growing and developing teachers to reimagining Israel and its place in 21st century Jewish life, including Israel as its own laboratory for Jewish pluralism to inspiring teenagers from every Jewish background to find their own, unique meaning in our shared tradition to empowering our students to become not mere consumers but rather independent, critical analyzers and creative contributors to the ever-developing 3000-year-old conversation that is Torah to wrestling with race, diversity, and privilege in America in 2015.
This is our oral Torah of pluralism and Jewish education, and in our 18th year, new generations of teachers, students, and leaders continue to write the story of Gann.
When I look at our Jewish community, American society, and the world we are living in today, I am convinced we are in as great a need of this educational mission as ever. We need to develop young people who feel empowered and inspired and responsible for building a civil society and a better world. We are graduating our 16th class, with over 1000 alumni who understand that they can go out into the world knowing who they are for whom Judaism is a compelling voice in their lives of both inspiration and responsibility. They possess confidence and conviction, holding strongly and passionately to their viewpoints, and they are open, empathic, humble, curious enough to make room for the other, and even willing to be moved, compelled, changed by their interactions with the other. We are challenging our students to be pursuers of truth and a better world rather than just defenders of their perspectives and the status quo.
What kind of school is hospitable to and actively cultivates these habits of mind and heart in its students, teachers, and all of its inhabitants? Let me share the words of Parker Palmer, whom I first encountered in 1998 during a learning with Danny at a faculty in-service. In To Know As We Are Known – Education as a Spiritual Journey, Palmer writes:
To be inhospitable to strangers or strange ideas, however unsettling they may be, is to be hostile to the possibility of truth; hospitality is not only an ethical virtue but an epistemological one as well. So the classroom (the school) where truth is central will be a place where every stranger and every strange utterance is met with welcome. This may suggest a classroom lacking in essential rigor, a place where questions of true and false, right and wrong are subordinated to making sure that everyone “has a nice day.” But . . . hospitality is not an end in itself. . . a learning space needs to be hospitable not to make learning painless but to make the painful things possible, things without which no learning can occur – things like exposing ignorance, testing tentative hypotheses, challenging false or partial information, and mutual criticism of thought. Each of these is essential to obedience to truth.
This is the kind of space and the kind of school Danny created because this is who Danny is—a passionate pursuer of truth and wrestler with big ideas, a believer that learning and transformation happen when we embrace makhloket l’shem shamayim – debate for the sake of heaven (Pirkei Avot 5:17), rather than avoid it. Danny not only tolerates but also seeks out and thrives in a world where these and these are the words of a living God (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13b), where one says pure and one says impure, one prohibits and one permits (Tosefta Sotah 7:7); where there might be multiple versions of even our people’s most fundamental symbols, like the tablets on which the 10 Commandments are written.
Danny, you a seeker of encounters with other people and experiences because,, while you have as much passion and conviction as anyone I know, you also have made your ear a hopper and you have a heart of many rooms (Tosefta Sotah 7:7); you are a person who, in your pursuit of truth, is always learning, growing, and open to being moved and changed by texts, people, experiences, the world. Danny, not only are you our founding visionary, but the way you live your life every day bears witness to our pluralistic mission. Thank you for being our teacher and for inspiring all of us.
As we celebrate our 18th year with bold ideas and dreams for our future, we move forward with the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that is your legacy, and we do so with a humble appreciation for our past, with a sense of responsibility to live out Gann’s mission and vision for generations to come. Working together, I know we will continue to take this school from strength to strength.