6 May 2011
2 Iyar 5771
These final weeks of school are filled with special days, programs, and events, including holidays, guest visits, Rosh Chodesh, and even AP exams. On Monday we commemorated Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) with a moving tekes (ceremony) planned and carried out by our students, which was then followed by meetings with first and second generation Holocaust survivors. Their stories linked us to the tragic past of our people and inspired us by the power and resiliency of the human spirit.
On Tuesday we hosted a delegation of Israeli soldiers from Haifa, part of CJP’s Hatikvah Soldiers Mission, who were here to learn more about American Jewish identity and the relationship between Americans and Israelis. They shared with us their experiences serving in the Israeli military and how that service has shaped their Israeli and Jewish identities. When I met with them afterwards, I asked whether anything surprised them about Gann or their visit to Boston. One of the soldiers responded, “I am struck by the range of ways that students can express themselves Jewishly and by the way that your school weaves Judaism so meaningfully into the rhythms of students’ lives. You appear to be building a powerful connection between past, present, and future.”
As I listened to this soldier’s observations, I remembered the great opportunity I had to learn from Rabbi Jan Katzew, Director of the Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning at the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Katzew, a deeply knowledgeable and inspiring Jewish educator and leader, spoke to our Board of Trustees and Leadership Team about Jewish identity in the 21st century. He suggested that, in previous generations, the challenge for American Jews was to learn how to excel at being Americans in American society, and it seems we have accomplished this. The challenge for our generation and the next is how to excel at Judaism and Jewish identity now that we are fully integrated Americans. “Our challenge and opportunity,” he suggested, “is to reclaim our uniqueness.”
In his commentary on the Torah called Meshech Chochma, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926) explains the mitzvah of sefirat ha’omer (the counting of the omer), which is found in this week’s parsha (Leviticus 23:15) and which takes place during the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. He suggests that sefirah (counting), which is associated with other mitzvot, as well, is a process that always marks a separation, a difference between one thing and another. According to our tradition, the sefirah is also a hachanah (preparation) for receiving the Torah, and, as part of that preparation, just as we distinguish each day from the previous day, so, too, must we preserve our unique identity, distinguishing ourselves and our community from the other cultures in which we live.
One of the most powerful ways we can honor our history and identity as Jewish individuals, as a community, and as a school is by beating to a Jewish rhythm even as we live in a non-Jewish world. We rise to Rabbi Katzew’s challenge and fulfill the Meschech Chochma’s interpretation of sefirah by marking time by celebrating and commemorating our past and by living out our hopes and aspirations for our future.
Rabbi Marc Baker