3 December 2010
26 Kislev 5771
Early this week I received a phone call from a new Gann parent, who told me that she had experienced her first “Gann moment.” She shared that she just happened to arrive at school to pick up her son during our fire drill when the entire school had poured into the parking lot. Not knowing whether she meant her “Gann moment” was a good thing or a bad thing, I was prepared to hear how disorganized we were or how this fire drill interrupted an important test in one of her son’s classes. Instead, she described how moved she was when she saw a student who had retrieved a sefer Torah (Torah scroll), and carried it out of school to save it from the “fire.” “I was particularly impressed by the care with which she embraced the Torah, that she knew how to carry it the correct way, and that she took this responsibility so seriously, despite knowing that this was only a drill,” the parent said. “This image reminds me why I send my son to a Jewish high school.”
On one level this story is a symbolic reminder of how our school integrates Judaism and Jewish values into everyday experiences. The “saving of the Torah” makes a Gann fire drill unique, much like our Jewish studies classes, Jewish experiences and values, and role models and community make a Gann high school experience unique.
But on a deeper level, this story is about our children’s identities and could not have come at a more appropriate time than on the eve of Chanukah. The tremendous freedom, choices, and opportunities that we have in our modern world, along with the emphasis on universalism and individualism, can, like a fire, threaten to burn up our particular Jewish identities. And this is not a drill. In the words of Rabbi Donniel Hartman:
A modern Jew is one who has multiple identities and multiple loyalties. He or she is a traveler in an open marketplace of ideas in search of new synergies and meanings. If the real gift of modernity is the moral and spiritual consequences of having a complex identity and living in both the metaphorical Jerusalem and Athens, the challenge is how to sustain all the various features of one’s identity. . . Our enemy is not outside but within.
For Hartman, Chanukah is about the challenges and opportunities of living in a world where our multiple identities, or the multiple facets of our identities, compete, if not collide. He then describes the significance and symbolism of the Chanukah candle lighting:
The purpose of lighting a candle is not to celebrate a miracle of yesteryear but to declare a commitment to ensuring that to maintain a Jewish identity is a part of my being. One is obligated to place the menorah in a window where passersby can see and in so doing, to make space within one’s public persona for Judaism to shine forth. . . To maintain a Jewish commitment within a world in which dichotomies are gone requires a level of Jewish education and knowledge unparalleled in Jewish history. . . (http://www.hartman.org.il/Fellows_View_Eng.asp?Fellows_Id=33)
The image of one of our students respectfully and earnestly “saving” a sefer Torah represents the Jewish lens through which this student sees the world and her internalization of her Jewish values and Jewish heritage as core components of her adolescent identity. Like so many of our students, she “carries Torah” in her life, which, to me, symbolizes the Jewish commitment that Hartman describes. This student is like a Chanukah candle, reminding us of the lasting power of the Jewish spirit and the impact of a Jewish day school education.
As we celebrate Chanukah, I am grateful to this parent for taking the time to share her story with me and for lighting up my week with gratitude and positive energy.
Chag Urim Sameach (Happy Chanukah) and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Marc Baker