21 November 2014
28 Marcheshvan 5775
I have just returned from a visit to Israel where I escorted home members of our junior class who have spent the last several months living and learning there. My days there were busy and productive, from enjoying Shabbat in Yerushalayim to leading a session about Jewish identity for 90 students from the Ironi Hey High School in Haifa to our students’ final hours on Har Herzl (Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery) and at the Kotel (the Western Wall). I also experienced with Israeli society the gruesome, distressing, and sad events of Tuesday morning. I learned of the attack just as I walked out of morning prayers in a different synagogue in another part of Israel. Tuesday’s events sent a chill through the country, and, while the Gann Academy community paused for a moment of silence and prayer here in Waltham, our students in Israel began their celebratory closing ceremony with a psalm and prayer, as well. The poignancy was not lost on anyone: this courageous and passionate group of Gann students left their own homes to travel to Israel while Israel was at war this summer; now, they were ending their Israel experience among increasing tension and national mourning.
As I walked around Har Herzl on Wednesday, I was touched by how the stories of the individual political leaders and soldiers and the symbolism of the place itself speak so powerfully to Jewish and human values and aspirations. Watching our students and my 12-year-old son place rocks on the graves of Theodore Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin gave me the distinct sense that they were personally touching a profound piece of the history of the modern State of Israel and the story of the Jewish people.
When we walked just a few feet away from the graves of Israel’s prime ministers and other political leaders to the nearby graves of soldiers who died in the line of duty, the proximity of the two was unmistakable, and the message was clear: This State was built not only by political visionaries but also by “common” people, teenagers not much older than our students, who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country and their people. While it was not said aloud, I am sure that most of us were asking ourselves, “What sacrifices do I make in my life? Where, if anywhere, do I put my people, my country, the needs, and best interests of others ahead of myself?”
Standing by the grave of Yoni Netanyahu, one of Israel’s more well-known fallen soldiers, Akiva, our students’ teacher and guide, read an excerpt from one of Yoni’s letters:
Man does not live forever. He should put the days of his life to the best possible use. How to do this I can’t tell you. I only know that I don’t want to reach a certain age, look around me and suddenly discover that I’ve created nothing. I must feel certain that, not only at the moment of my death shall I be able to account for the time I have lived, I ought to be ready at every moment of my life to confront myself and say—this is what I’ve done.
This quote is about more than what it means to be Jewish. It is about what it means to be human and to live life to its fullest.
People often ask me how an American high school can avoid or, at least, mitigate the “race to nowhere” culture and the stress and anxiety about grades and college that plague so many teenagers in this country. While I would not claim that Gann has all of the answers, I do believe that this moment and this Israel experience reflect one crucial contribution we can make to the conversation.
We need to teach our next generation of Jews and Americans the core Jewish values of acharyut and areyvut—of responsibility and belonging. We need to give them a deep sense of connectedness to something larger than themselves, a sense of rootedness in a story or stories that began long before them and that will continue, God willing, for long after them. And we need to teach them to ask questions of themselves, of each other, and of us that have far more meaning and significance than “Will this be on the test?”
Seeing the tears in our students’ eyes at the gravesites, I sensed that they understood that our ultimate tests will be ones of character and conscience, of the choices we make, and of what we do with our blessed lives. This is the power of Har Herzl, of the Israel experience, and of a Gann education.
Rabbi Marc Baker