Weekly Message 1-30-09

30 January 2009 
5 Shevat 5769 

Shalom Chaverim, 

One of the great challenges that all Jewish day schools face is how to make tefillah (morning prayer) educational and meaningful for our students. In some schools, traditional prayer is required five mornings a week, which has the value of creating clear normative expectations, but can make it difficult to reach high school students where they are spiritually and intellectually. Other community or pluralistic schools simply do not require any morning tefillah in order to avoid the complexities of prayer and pluralism and the obvious stumbling blocks created by “forcing” high school students to pray. At Gann, tefillah, or more broadly spirituality and what we call “z’man kodesh – sacred morning time,” is a core pillar of our mission and vision. In order to balance the competing values of education, socialization, spiritual exploration and community- honoring the essential principal “first do no harm,” Gann has developed alternatives to prayer such as sichot (discussion groups). In the past students were expected to attend a combination of minyan (whether mechitza, traditional egalitarian, liberal or other) and sicha. This year, as part of our ongoing efforts to reflect on our program, take risks, and adapt, we are piloting for the ninth and tenth grades what I call “Madrichim Ruchanim – Spiritual Guidance” groups, which combine prayer, learning, spiritual education, and discussion for four days a week, led by a faculty member and student leaders. Two of our goals for this pilot program include: breaking down the dichotomy between tefillah and sicha in order to enhance education and discussion about prayer as well as to encourage discussions to focus more on topics relating to spirituality and Jewish identity; and, maximizing the use of this sacred morning time for educational experiences that are valuable and mission-driven, and that facilitate and nurture the development of students’ hearts,  minds and Jewish identities, rather than offering a purely social outlet.  

Our pilot program is not without its challenges, but thanks to the dedication of our teachers, the spirit and leadership of our students, and our students’ candidness about giving regular feedback, we are learning what works, what doesn’t and how we can improve. This week, I visited one group and observed a meaningful discussion about the purpose of education that shed light for me on our Jewish educational mission and on an essential educational theme of the Passover Seder that originates in this week’s parsha. The students were discussing a January 27th New York Times Op-Ed by David Brooks, in which Brooks quotes from a Harvard University report about the purpose of education and proceeds to contrast what he calls two different approaches to living. Commenting on the Harvard report, Brooks writes: “Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values. This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness.” Brooks contrasts this with what he calls “an older way of living,” and suggests, based on the book, On Thinking Institutionally , by Hugh Heclo, that we are defined by the institutions we pass through in life, and that “[institutional] (or I would add communal) practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before. . .”  

Brooks goes on to argue on behalf of preserving a reverence for institutions that is eroding in the modern world. In our students’ discussion, they focused on questions of adolescent identity development and individuation. It was inspiring to watch boys and girls share openly (first thing in the morning!) about their family “institutions” and values they feel they “revere” and want to transmit, as well as ways they want to question or “break free” from their families’ (really, their parents’) ways of doing things. These questions lie at the heart of students’ self-discovery, their exploration and appreciation of where they come from, and their active construction of the people and the Jews they want to become. And perhaps these questions and these two approaches to life also inform one of the most well-known parts of the Passover Seder, “the four children.” Many of us are familiar with the question of the Rasha (the Wicked Child), which is based on a quote from this week’s parsha (Parshat Bo). The Exodus text predicts that future generations will ask their parents about the Passover rituals, “Mah ha’avodah hazot lachem – What does this (Passover) service mean to you?” (Exodus 12:26) Based on an interpretation of the word “lachem – to you,” the Rabbis in the Passover Haggadah use this quote to build the typology of a wicked child who implicitly excludes himself from and rejects his family and his community, as if to say: “I don’t understand why you care about your rituals and traditions.” The typologies of the four children are not so simple, however. The Chacham (the Wise Child) also asks about the laws and statues that the Lord “has commended you” (Deuteronomy 6:20), yet is portrayed as a hero for reverently inquiring into the traditions of his family, for what Brooks might call his “institutional thinking.” 

I suspect that Rabbis build these two character types upon the same words “to you,” in order to teach us that the dichotomy Brooks sets up is not so stark. In fact, there is a very fine line between rejection and adaptation, between arrogantly writing off our past, our tradition, our family’s values, and reverently individuating by thinking critically, learning to ask hard questions, and taking our place as creative transmitters of timeless values, stories and traditions that now have meaning for our modern lives. To me, what it means to develop knowledgeable, sophisticated and passionate young Jewish adults is to empower and inspire our students to find the balance between these two approaches to life. To break down the dichotomy between Rasha and Chacham, to evolve beyond “take it or leave it” Jewish education, to cultivate in the next generation humility and reverence for things older and greater than ourselves as well as the creativity and self-confidence to be innovators and producers of culture – these are the reasons why Gann Academy – the New Jewish High School exists.  

May we approach the education of our children and the facilitation of their identity development with the same humility and creativity with which we hope they will approach our history and our values; and, may their journeys inspire our own journeys and explorations of our sacred institutions and the future that lies ahead.  

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Marc Baker  

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