20 March 2009
24 Adar 5769
As we read and hear stories from our students around the country, on day trips, and here at Exploration University, I am reminded that Exploration Week is much more than a break from our normal routine. This week, our students cooked gourmet food, sewed quilts, played lacrosse; they rebuilt houses in New Orleans and appeared on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, met with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Congressman Barney Frank; they went sledding on the white sand dunes of New Mexico, performed music on Beale Street in Memphis, and won an award at the Jewish-Canadian Youth Model United Nations in Montreal.
As unique and compelling as each of these experiences has been, Exploration Week as a whole reminds us that great educational experiences share certain principles and themes. In the words of one Exploration University teacher, “This week we had the opportunity to witness students learning new arts and skills. We could see them helping each other, guiding with maturity and patience, complimenting successes and achieving goals. They were learning, working, creating, cleaning and sharing with a great attitude and a lot of enthusiasm.” One Gann student and one Gann alumna who travelled to New Mexico reflected on their experience: “We bonded really well, we came together like a community; we got different perspectives from everyone.” “This group has formed a real bond around being in an open space and translating that to open hearts. I’ve grown as a person by seeing people learn about themselves.” And, according to two excerpts from the New Orleans’ group’s blog, “I have listened to the people with these stories, and I have learned so much. I have never heard of or seen such sadness, devastation, and poverty. These people have inspired me to never even think of taking (for granted) the life I have.” “We wear our tzitzit as a reminder of the mitzvot. So the paint on our arms should act as a reminder of the work that needs to be done in New Orleans.”
In this week’s Parshiot, Vayakhel-Pikkudei, we read for the second time the instructions for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The intricate details of the Mishkan remind us that the formation of a spiritual, ethical, purposeful community does not simply happen naturally. God does not dwell in the center of a people or in the hearts of individuals by default. The Mishkan is built with the donations of the entire kehillah (community) and by chachmei lev (skilled) craftsmen whose hearts moved them and whose “chochma, tevuna, u’da’at – skill, ability and knowledge” inspired them. The Mishkan reminds us that we can create the conditions for sacred space and sacred time in our lives and our community if we pay attention to detail, commit to our craft, open our hearts, and work together.
So too does Exploration Week remind us that we can create the conditions for deep and transformational learning experiences. When we witness these moments or experience them ourselves, we should pay close attention to why and how that learning took place. The comments of our students and teachers illustrate some of these conditions. Our students have opportunities to learn and practice new skills, and to help and guide each other in the process. The freedom to choose activities and adventures that speak to them, as well as the goal-oriented nature of hands on, project-based learning inspire “great attitudes and enthusiasm.” The intensity of travelling, volunteering, working and learning together for extended periods of time creates lasting bonds that make sharing and learning about each other and themselves possible. Hearing and seeing real life stories expose students to people and the world, and put their lives in a new perspective. The opportunity to get paint on their arms, to roll up their sleeves and physically live out our commitments to chesed and tikkun olam put their Jewish learning and values into action and remind them that mitzvot are more than rituals; in fact, they can be the details, the building blocks, of a better world.
Exploration Week at its core is about much more than a week. It is about relationships and community, experimental education, transformational learning, and identity development that create the conditions for our students to grow into knowledgeable, sophisticated and passionate Jewish human beings. May these conditions for learning and growth not be limited to one week, but rather overflow into the rest of the year, into every aspect of the Gann experience, and into all of our lives.
Rabbi Marc Baker