6 November 2009
19 Cheshvan 5770
“Every choice to be somewhere is also a choice not to be somewhere else. So why would a person choose to teach in a Jewish High School? How do our teachers’ decisions to teach at Gann fit into their understanding of their obligations to the world? And how, through these decisions, do they fulfill God’s promise to Avraham (Genesis 12:2), ‘v’heye bracha – and you shall be a blessing’?”
These were the questions addressed to a panel of Gann teachers, including an Orthodox Rabbi, a Reconstructionist Rabbi, two first-year Jewish teachers of Tanach and History, and one non-Jewish teacher during this Wednesday’s Limmud Clali (community learning session). The panel discussion concluded a multi-week series of Advisor Group discussions and Shiurim Clalim (Friday morning all-school learnings about the weekly Torah portion) designed in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves, which asked students to reflect on their “universe of obligation,” their concentric circles of belonging and responsibility to themselves, families, community, and the world. In the words of one of our veteran educators who did not sit on the panel, “This was one of the most amazing things I have seen in my thirty years of teaching.”
All five teachers on the panel reflected on their life’s journeys and modeled what it means to be what I call an identity-in-process, a human being who wrestles with important life choices in conversation with faith, values, a sense of obligation to the world as well as pursuit of personal meaning and fulfillment. Several of the teachers’ journeys included years of teaching underprivileged children in the inner-city or, in one case, working to alleviate homelessness. They spoke candidly of their passion to serve the world on a more global, universal scale, and how this reconciles with their decision to teach in a Jewish high school. In the words of one teacher, “(Through teaching Torah) you get to do social justice work but also be connected to your own people. It is my sense of acharayut (responsibility) for my own people that led me here (to Gann).” Another shared, “This (Gann) is a place where I feel like I can make a difference. I feel like I know you (my students).”
The openness, honesty, and personal authenticity that these teachers displayed, as well as their deep sense of calling to serve – both the Jewish People and the world – were moving and inspiring. And, in addition to modeling personal journeys, this panel and the programs leading up to it conveyed a broader message to our students about their own lives and personal identities: the obligations you feel and the choices you make shape the human being and the Jew who you are and who you will become.
This message could not be more timely as we read the well-known stories of this week’s Torah Portion (Vayera), including Avraham’s argument with God about destroying Sodom and Gomorrah as well as the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac). According to our tradition, Avraham was faced with 10 trials/tests in his life, which ultimately proved his faith in God. On one level, this teaches us that Avraham was the ultimate man of faith,- tried and true. But for me and, I believe, for our students, the more profound message Avraham teaches us is about life itself: life is a series of trials and tests that both reflect and shape our character and define who we are. While it is important to reflect on whether Avraham and we pass or fail each individual test, it is even more important to acknowledge the tests themselves, to recognize that each of us makes significant decisions and choices on a regular basis and takes ownership of and responsibility for ourselves and our identities as Jews and as human beings.
The Torah is teaching us a timeless lesson, which our panel of teachers conveyed to our students this week in such a personal and powerful way: we are all Avraham. What a blessing it is for me to be on this journey with such a passionate and reflective community of colleagues, students, and all of you.
Rabbi Marc Baker