9 May 2014
9 Iyar 5774
This past week Gann Academy beat to the rhythm of Israeli society as we commemorated Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism, and celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. On Monday our community, dressed in black and white, gathered at the flagpole in the morning to ceremonially lower the flags and recite the traditional memorial prayer. The silence and attention bore witness to our students’ reverence and respect for the solemnity of the day and for the sacrifices that our brothers and sisters have made in the name of the creation and protection of our Jewish homeland. The next morning, with streamers and Israeli flags decorating the campus, we dressed in blue and white and re-gathered at the same flagpole for the raising of the flag and the singing of Hatikva. However, there was a different kind of silence and attention, one filled with anticipation, excitement, and joy.
Thanks to the hard work of our Hebrew Department and the leadership of our department chair, Ayelet Ganani, these were days of both celebration and emotion and learning and deepening our connection to Israel. On Yom HaZikaron our students met and heard from two speakers, one American and one Israeli, who shared their personal journeys and relationships with Israel and talked about what it might mean for American Jews to honor a memorial day that is so deeply personal to Israelis.
On Tuesday we honored Yom HaAtzmaut in a different way than ever before at Gann Academy. We invited 24 Israelis who are living in the Boston area to visit Gann and speak in small, intimate groups with our students. I had the pleasure of welcoming the group and speaking with them before they met our students. Sitting in a large circle in the dining hall, they introduced themselves to each other, and then we discussed the importance and centrality of Israel for Gann and in the lives of American Jewish teenagers. Our guests included doctors, musicians, scholars, engineers, and others, many of whom had never visited our campus before. One of the things that amazed me was the gratitude they expressed to us for giving them the opportunity to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut here in America. For many of them, this encounter with our community and our students was an opportunity to reflect on the role that Israel and Judaism play in their lives in Boston.
After our opening meeting, our guests split up and spread throughout the school to meet with student advisory groups. As I walked the building, I felt moved and inspired by the looks in our students’ eyes as they listened attentively to our guests’ stories.
But it wasn’t until yesterday that I understood what made our Yom HaAtzmaut celebration so meaningful. I attended a beautiful event celebrating the founder of Brandeis University’s Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, professor Sharon Feiman-Nemser. My colleague, friend, and Gann parent, Brandeis professor Jon Levisohn, who is succeeding Sharon as director of the center, introduced the program. He framed the speeches to be given by her colleagues and friends with a quote from the psychologist and philosopher William James. In the preface to his book Varieties of Religious Experience, James writes that “a large acquaintance with particulars often makes us wiser than the possession of abstract formulas, however deep.”
Jon used this quote to explain how he hoped we would come to know and appreciate Sharon and her work (which we did!), but, the moment I heard it, I realized it applied to our students’ relationship with Israel, as well. Israel—the land, the State, the People—is, in fact, an extraordinary idea, a concept, a pillar of Jewish tradition, history, thought, and culture that we want our students to understand and with which we hope they will live in meaningful relationship, whatever that looks like for each of them. At the same time, Israel is more than an abstract notion, a far-away place, a mythic homeland. As I told our students at the flagpole this week and as I shared with our guests, Israel is the stage on which the drama of our people is playing out, a drama full of particulars and details that, when encountered in their full nuance and complexity—do not detract from the grandeur of the idea but, rather, illuminate it.
At a time when so many in the North American Jewish community are debating what it means to be “pro-Israel” or how to educate the next generation about Israel, our students simply sat face-to-face with real people, with particular Israelis who love their country and, yet, who have chosen, at least for now, to live here in Boston. As a result of these encounters and as a result of the humanization of what can sometimes seem like an abstract formula, they become not only wiser but also more committed and connected to Israel and to the Jewish People.
Rabbi Marc Baker