8 April 2011
4 Nisan 5771
It has been an eventful week here at Gann. Yesterday, professional jazz musician and Orthodox rabbi Greg Wall and his band, The Later Prophets, brought to life the poetry and ideas of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, through originally composed, interpretive music. On Wednesday, we hosted a visiting delegation of six members of Israel’s Knesset (Parliament). As part of a week-long visit to Boston and New York sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation, Members of the Knesset spent one of their days at Gann to learn firsthand about pluralistic Jewish education and the next generation of American Jews.
We began the week on Monday morning with an inspiring guest speaker, Dr. Leon Bass, who captured the hearts and minds of our whole community with his personal journey. Dr. Bass, who came to Gann through our partnership with Facing History and Ourselves, grew up as an African American in Philadelphia and, as a soldier in World War II, witnessed the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. He captivated our audience with stories of his pre-war experiences of racism and his post-war journey to becoming an educator and high school principal. Both Dr. Bass’s message and his passionate delivery reminded us of the ways that our stories and experiences shape our lives today and our decisions about tomorrow, two important messages as we prepare to tell our story on Passover.
Dr. Bass shared that, as an African American, he was sent the message both explicitly and implicitly that “you’re not good enough.”—not good enough to drink from our water fountain, not good enough to eat in our restaurants, not good enough to sit next to us on a bus. Even after he fought for our country and our freedom, he, himself, continued to be denied the very freedoms that he defended as a soldier in World War II.
Perhaps, the most powerful moment in Dr. Bass’s story was his experience at Buchenwald, when he came face to face with the suffering of others. In his words, “I realized that suffering was not just for me, it was universal.” As I understand his story, it was in that moment, in seeing and realizing the suffering of others and seeing the connections between racism and anti-Semitism, that Dr. Bass transformed from a victim of others’ perpetrations of injustice to an agent of change and a voice of values and hope. He challenged our students to “dare to be a Daniel,” referring to the Biblical story of Daniel. “I don’t expect you to go into the lion’s den,” he said, “but I do expect you to stand up to your friends when they say or do something that is wrong.”
Dr. Bass’s message came across as authentic and compelling because the moral and the story were so beautifully and powerfully intertwined. Dr. Bass’s values emerged from profound personal experiences that shaped the way he sees the world, and he was able to reflect on and name the personal transformation that he experienced.
This is what Facing History is all about, and this is what our Passover Seder is meant to be, as well. How do our stories shape our character, and how do our experiences generate a set of values and aspirations by which we want to live our lives? The Torah understood this concept clearly: “Do not oppress the stranger because you yourselves were slaves in Egypt.”
We tell and retell our stories not only to preserve our memory of the past but also to generate meaning and purpose for our future. Let us learn from Dr. Bass to translate our stories into values and our words into actions, and let us take responsibility for shaping the character of our community and for becoming the Jews and human beings we aspire to be.
Rabbi Marc Baker