14 March 2014
12 Adar II 5774
On Wednesday night we had our second annual Nitzanim event, a gathering of Gann supporters that included Gann parents and grandparents, founders of the school, friends and community members, and a significant number of Gann alumni. The main event of the evening was a model history class taught by Gann history teacher and department chair, Yoni Kadden, whose passion and pedagogy left many in the room wishing we could go back to high school.
Sharing parts of his college-level 12th grade course on the Supreme Court, Yoni regaled the guests with stories about the early years of the Unites States government and the formation of our nation. He illustrated the kind of critical thinking and intellectual heavy lifting that he expects of his Gann students, as we read and analyzed early Supreme Court decisions and debated the essential question: “Are we one country, or are we 50 different “countries”? History came to life as it became clear that the very same policies and philosophical questions debated by our founding fathers are still alive and animating so many of our social and political debates today.
Most inspiring was the moving and memorable introduction of Yoni by one of his senior students, as she beautifully described the extraordinary impact he has had on her as a learner and a person. Reflecting on her experiences in his class, she articulated the power of history education at Gann: “He frames history with an eye toward our future, using the past as a tool to teach us how to live in the present…He has helped me to learn from the choices of those who came before me so that I can create positive change going forward.”
Great history education and great education, in general, are not about the mere transmission of facts and figures. Instead, great teachers bring the past to life in ways that both sharpen students’ intellectual skills and shape their memories and identities, giving them a profound sense of rootedness—a sense of where they come from and where they are going and an understanding that they are part of something larger than themselves. They cultivate habits of mind and heart that both prepare and inspire our students to become engaged citizens of a healthy, vibrant, democratic society: empathy and humility, openness to others’ experiences and points of view, passionate conviction about their values and beliefs, and a deep commitment to act, to make their voices heard, and to improve the world.
Wednesday’s event and Yoni’s teaching came at an appropriate time as we prepare for the upcoming Purim holiday and for tomorrow’s Shabbat Zachor, the special Shabbat on which we fulfill the mitzvah to remember Amalek. A beautiful teaching about the mitzvot of Purim by the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847–1905), connects powerfully to the vision of history education that both Yoni and his student conveyed.
The Sefat Emet asks why we do not fulfill the mitvot of the festive meal—nor giving matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) and mishloach manot (gifts of food to friends)—on the night of Purim. Why, according to Jewish Law, do these need to be fulfilled on Purim day? He explains that the essential mitzvah of reading the megillah is during the day and that “action (in the form of these mitzvot) comes only after remembering.” We have to move from kriyah (קריאה)—reading and retelling, to zechirah (זכירה)—remembering, to asiyah (עשייה)—acting.”
This formula is so simple, yet it captures so profoundly Judaism’s educational and spiritual approach to the formation of character and identity. The stories of our past move from history (this happened to them), to memory (this happened to me, to us), to action, and, as a result of feeling more connected to my people and my story, I feel compelled to do something to better the world.
May this Purim be filled with joy and celebration, and may our remembering inspire us to moral action.
Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach,
Rabbi Marc Baker