27 April 2012
5 Iyar 5772
This week is always one of the most emotional weeks of the year. On Wednesday, after a moving Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) ceremony highlighting individuals who lost their lives defending Israel or in terrorist attacks, we walked in silence from the Beit Midrash outside to the flagpole, where we lowered the flag to half-mast as a symbol of our communal mourning and memory. I was moved by the seriousness and reverence with which our students conducted themselves on such a heavy day.
On Thursday, Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day), faculty and students arrived at school dressed in blue and white. The energy of the day felt like a pep rally for Israel with streamers, Israeli music and dance, and a ceremony that began with a communal flag-raising, the symbol of our two-day (or should I say two thousand year?) journey from sadness and mourning to celebration and joy.
One of yesterday’s more powerful moments came during my alternative morning minyan. The students engaged in a “silent conversation” about three different texts relating to Israel. These three texts included: an excerpt from Gann’s Mission Statement that refers to the centrality of the State of Israel, Hatikva (Israel’s national anthem), and the tenth blessing of the Amidah (the heart of the Jewish prayer service), known as “kibbutz galuyot (ingathering of the exiles),” in which we ask God to return all our exiles to the land of Israel. In small groups they read each text and commented in writing on and around the text. Without speaking, they responded in writing to each other’s comments until everyone had read all of the texts and everyone’s commentary.
It was in response to the third text that one student raised several important questions: “Do we think of the Jews outside of Israel as ‘in exile’? Is there anything wrong with living outside of Israel, in America, for example? What does it mean for us to ask God to return us to Israel now that we have a State?” “And what does it mean,” I asked, “for us to ask God to return us when we can get on a plane and fly there?”
This student’s heightened sensitivity to a bracha (blessing) that we say in the Amidah every day touched upon some of the essential questions about American Jewish identity, Jewish Peoplehood, and Israel education. Some of these include: What is the relationship between Israel and the diaspora, and how should Jews around the world relate to Israel? For thousands of years the return to Israel was a longing, a hope, a prayer – now, the State of Israel is a reality. So, what is our kavannah (intention) if and when we pray for the ingathering of the exiles? How do we instill in our children and ourselves a sense of longing that is, as I said to our community at the flag raising ceremony, part of our people’s DNA, while also instilling a sense of empowerment and responsibility for the State of Israel and the Jewish future? How can Israel unite our community and Jews around the world rather than divide us?
One of the ways Gann helps students to answer these questions is by striving to balance what I would call Israel “education” with Israel “celebration.” We give students the tools and critical thinking skills to wrestle with in-depth questions like these about their relationship with Israel and the role it plays in their lives. And we also affirm in words and actions that our love of and connection to Israel transcends “issues” and “questions.”
As with other areas of their lives, our students learn and live with both their heads and their hearts. They analyze critically and objectively and engage passionately and emotionally. On days like Yom Ha’Atzmaut, when our students can begin their day asking questions like the ones raised in my minyan while proudly wearing blue and white, cheering in celebration of Israel’s “birthday” and singing Hatikvah, I see our complex Jewish educational vision becoming a reality.
Rabbi Marc Baker