24 April 2009
Rosh Chodesh Iyar, 5769
Three events punctuated this week, each of which highlighted aspects of Gann’s educational mission and vision. On Tuesday, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), three different Holocaust survivors came to speak to our student body. I sometimes worry whether Jewish high school students, who have heard these kinds of talks so many times, will be able to appreciate their unique opportunity and responsibility as the last generation who will hear these stories directly from survivors. But watching our students listen to the survivors’ stories attentively and respectfully, asking questions with open hearts and minds, reassured me. As one of the survivors told his story, the power of his spirit filled the room, almost mesmerizing our students. After the talk, an entire grade of students could not tear themselves away. Imagine the crowd of eleventh grade students circled around him, wanting to learn more, wanting to get to know him and to hear more of his stories. I sensed that they just wanted to be close to him and to absorb the radiance of his neshama (soul).
On Wednesday, our guest speaker, Ruth Wisse, renowned scholar, author and Harvard professor, spoke to our community about “why Jews matter.” Inspiring and provocative, she discussed how and why the Jewish People have survived and thrived throughout history even without a land, without political sovereignty and without the ability to defend ourselves militarily. She also discussed anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the world and challenged our students to get involved in educating about and advocating for Israel. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of her talk took place after she spoke, when our students, one after another, respectfully challenged many of her points. With confidence, articulateness and depth, our students asked probing questions and more than held their own in a vibrant dialogue with Professor Wisse. This give-and-take was both a shining example of pluralism in action, as well as an indication that our students are indeed developing into “knowledgeable, sophisticated, passionate” young Jewish Americans.
But Professor Wisse was not our only visitor on Wednesday, which was Grandparents and Special Friends Day at Gann. Over 100 grandparents and special friends filled our building, visited classes, listened to Professor Wisse’s talk, and ate lunch with our students, their grandchildren and relatives. As I said to our grandparents, they transformed our building into an intergenerational campus for the day. For me, the presence of grandparents – the ways our students relate to them with such love, care and admiration, and the visible naches that they feel from spending the morning with their grandchildren – closes the loop on what truly is an intergenerational educational mission. I am reminded of the first mishnah of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which customarily is studied, one chapter per week, during the time period between Passover and Shavuot. In this famous first mishnah, we learn that “Moshe kibel Torah misinai, u’mesarah l’Yehoshua, v’Yehoshua l’zekainim . . . Moses received the Torah from (God at) Mount Sinai, and passed it on to Joshua, who passed it on to the elders, who passed it on . . . who passed it on . . .” all the way down to our rabbis and to us. The Mishnah presents our Torah and our tradition as an unbroken chain of transmission, in which we are the next link.
From a legal and a spiritual perspective, this mishnah suggests that the traditions, the laws, the teachings that we have inherited derive from, and thus link us to, the original revelation at Mount Sinai. From an existential or experiential perspective, the mishnah also introduces the powerful concept of mesorah, a word that is translated as tradition but that means so much more. Mesorah is the notion that we are an integral part of something much larger than ourselves – history, tradition, culture, values, teachings – that has been passed down from mouth to mouth, from experience to experience, family to family, and generation to generation. Our students develop the capacity and the desire to live engaged, meaningful Jewish lives and to give back to the Jewish community, the Jewish people and the world precisely because, even in the midst of our fast-paced, forward-looking, technological world, they know who they are and where they come from. This is the power of mesorah, the purpose of Jewish education, and this is what Grandparents and Special Friends Day brings to life so beautifully.
We deeply appreciate all of the special guests who visited our community this week – they have added meaningfully to our students’ experiences and have helped us fulfill our spiritual and educational mission. Thank you.
Chodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Marc Baker