1 May 2009
7 Iyar 5769
Yesterday morning I had the pleasure of starting my day as the visiting co-leader of the liberal minyan. What this really means is that I stood in front of the room and tried to add meaning to some of the prayers, while two musically gifted students, one of whom is a charismatic and inspiring leader of Reform prayer and song, led the service. While I cannot say that every student in the minyan was having an ecstatic prayer experience, the overall energy in the room was positive and at some point during the service I caught nearly every student singing the words to Mah tovu, Mi Camocha, or Shema, even sometimes despite themselves.
But then something occurred that shed light for me on the rest of the week, on our school’s mission, and on the opening line of the second parsha of this week’s double-parsha (Acharei Mot-Kedoshim). As I joyously sang along with one of the prayers, I noticed that what looked like laminated index cards were circulating among a few of the students. Upon closer inspection yet still from afar, I realized that these were AP study cards, and that the students were in fact sneak-reviewing AP terms during minyan. One might call this disrespectful, but I prefer to think of it as spiritual-intellectual multitasking. Shaking my head in semi-disappointment and semi-wonder, I stopped the minyan to point this out to the rest of the group and to explain that I was not shaking my head at the students themselves, but rather at the phenomenon I was observing: our students’ unwillingness or inability to set down their schoolwork and to allow themselves to begin the day with z’man kadosh – sacred/holy time, intentionally set apart from the academic day. This moment helped me realize the powerful countercultural statement that Judaism makes and that Gann makes by punctuating the rhythm of daily life with z’man kadosh, whether morning tefillah or holiday commemorations and celebrations.
And this week highlighted this sacred counterculture. For me and for some of our students, it began Saturday night with a song-filled havdalah at the conclusion of an inspiring Junior-Shabbaton. The rest of the week beat to the rhythm of the State and people of Israel. On Tuesday, we marked Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) with ceremony, prayer for fallen soldiers of Israel, and a symbolic lowering of the Israeli flag. True to the emotional rollercoaster of Jewish time, this led into Wednesday’s celebration of Yom Haatzmaut, which included personal stories by Israeli and American teachers about their relationships with Israel, and performances by our Israeli Dance and a capella groups, as well as a student band, during a community falafel lunch. Each of these days required us to separate time during our “normal” day in order to come together as a community in identification with the losses and the triumphs, the sadness and the joys of the Jewish People and the State of Israel.
These are some of the ways in which our Jewish high school strengthens our students’ Jewish identities and shapes the Jewish lens through which they see and interpret the world. But perhaps they are also how we fulfill the opening mitzvah of Parshat Kedoshim: “Kedoshim tihyu . . . You shall be holy . . .” (Leviticus 19:2) The word “kadosh,” which we translate as holy, prompts our rabbis to offer various explanations and interpretations of what exactly it means to be kadosh. For me, reflecting on the seemingly unavoidable AP cards in minyan, I realize that this word kadosh captures the essence of what makes the rhythm of our school so unique. This mitzvah teaches us that as ordinary people – not necessarily rabbis, priests, or people dedicate their lives to learning, prayer or spirituality – we can be counter-mundane, which in our society is often countercultural. To be holy is to pause precisely during times when we feel we cannot – when we must study for that test, rush off to work, finish that project – to raise our consciousness, to differentiate, to elevate our time, our actions, our speech, ourselves and our community.
This value and aspiration of “kedoshim tihyu” so often competes with the rhythms of and societal demands on our lives and on the normal routines of American teenagers – it seems impossible to put down those AP cards, even for some moments of quiet reflection. But this is Gann’s aspiration and our mission: to build a kehillah kedosha (a sacred community) – one person, one communal celebration, one minyan, and one moment at a time.
Rabbi Marc Baker