23 May 2014
23 Iyar 5774
What a week this has been! While our upperclassmen enjoyed their junior-senior prom on Sunday night, many of our underclassmen attended the annual AIPAC dinner in Boston. Then on Tuesday night, our Board of Trustees and other members of the community reflected on the school year at our Annual Meeting, at which we heard inspiring words from guest speaker Dr. Alan Morinis about the relationship between academic rigor, character development, and kedushah (holiness). On Wednesday, our boys’ varsity baseball team hosted and played in their league championship game, and that evening student artists and actors displayed their work and performed in their annual Playhem, a collection of one-act shows performed, directed, and produced entirely by students.
In the spirit of Dr. Morinis’s suggestion that we develop our middot (character traits, inner qualities) by pursuing kedushah (holiness), I will share that one of the highlights of my week involved the junior-senior prom. Dr. Morinis explained, as he does in his book Everyday Holiness, which has become a foundational text for so many Gann faculty, staff, and students, that, perhaps, the fundamental goal of Jewish learning and living is the Torah’s command, “kedoshim tihyu – you shall be holy.” We do not pursue holiness, as some other religious traditions suggest, by leaving this world, by going off to a mountain to meditate, or by entering a monastery; instead, we pursue holiness by striving to elevate the ordinary, even mundane, aspects of our daily lives to a higher level. Dr. Morinis suggested that this is the purpose, the “why,” behind character education—we work to develop our personal qualities to live lives of purpose and meaning, to elevate ourselves and the world around us. In the Jewish mystical tradition, we call this work of elevating small, mundane, even problematic aspects of our world “raising the sparks,” and this is how we fulfill our sacred work of tikkun olam, repairing the world—one spark at a time.
Prom is certainly an example of American teenage culture that provides students with many opportunities and responsibilities to reflect on their values, to make choices, and to raise sparks. And this is what our students did at prom. After being with our students and their parents for pre-prom pictures at Gann on Sunday, I then attended the AIPAC dinner. During dinner I received a text message from a teacher-chaperone. I looked at my phone with trepidation but to my delight read the following: “You won’t believe what I am watching right now. For the first time in all of my years chaperoning our prom, I am witnessing our students dance the hora (the traditional, Jewish circle-dance done on celebratory occasions)!” Just picture a group of American teenagers without their parents, grandparents, or rabbis, not at a bar/bat mitzvah but rather at their junior-senior prom, dancing in circles to “Hava Nagilah” and lifting each other on chairs. What a Gann moment!
The next day several of our teachers who chaperoned prom shared some touching news with me. Throughout the evening, as the music blared and the dancing continued, students left the dance floor to thank each of the chaperones for being at their prom. In the midst of what can be a paradigm of teenage narcissism, our students exhibited the middah of hakarat hatov, gratitude. They recognized that even prom is not all about them, that their teachers and school staff helped make the evening possible, and they took the time to express that gratitude.
Knowing that our students found ways to infuse their prom with Jewish spirit, tradition, and values reminds me that, while they are teenagers and, like all of us, do not always make the right choices, they are also extraordinary, they are holy, and they are raising the sparks—of their own lives, of our community, and of the world.
Rabbi Marc Baker