Our Messy Democracy

4 November 2016 
3 Marcheshvan 5777 
 

Shalom Chaverim,  

With this election finally coming to an end next week, many of us are feeling a great deal of anxiety, both about the outcome and about what feels like the fragile, if not damaged, state of our country and our democracy. As a high school, we certainly feel the urgency of our mission to raise up a new generation of leaders and citizens who will build a better world where human dignity will flourish.  

Recently, veteran Gann teacher Dr. Jonathan Golden reflected on Gann’s approach to democratic education, and I continue to read emails and Facebook posts about alumni and Gann families who are canvassing, volunteering at polls, and actively engaged with the election. One of the ways we have tried to help our students navigate the uniqueness and ugliness of this election has been to focus on the ideas and issues at stake and on the moral and intellectual capacities they need to develop in order to take responsibility for the character and future of our community and our country.  

This morning our Junior State of America (JSA) Club hosted a “Debate Midrash” (school-wide debate) on two of the four ballot questions in Massachusetts, and next week they will lead the school through a post-processing of the election through the lens of technology (our community learning theme this year).  

Recently, I visited our senior history elective on the Supreme Court and observed a robust debate about one of Justice John Marshall’s rulings. Citing evidence from the Constitution, carefully reading and interpreting its words, students argued about whether Marshall’s ruling was, indeed, constitutional. They practiced disagreeing, even arguing, with one another respectfully. At one point a student suggested that the ruling reflected not only a particular reading of the Constitution but also Marshall’s point of view on Federalism and the vision of American democracy. The students are learning that to read, interpret, and live out the laws and principles of our Constitution is to participate in the vital conversation that our Founders began and that has played out in every generation (including this current election) about a core vision for our country, the role of government, the nature of our democracy, and the character and core values of our society.  

Last Friday we hosted Eric Fingerhut, President and CEO of Hillel International and former State Senator and US Congressman, who spoke with our students about the college campus and life after high school. I found many aspects of his talk inspiring, but, as is often the case, it was our students’ questions that, like our JSA leaders and the Supreme Court class I observed, gave me great faith in our next generation.  

For example, a traditionally observant African American student asked a question that brought tears to my eyes: “How do I stand with my fellow African Americans and with Black Lives Matter and with Israel and the Jewish community (when this seems as if it has to be an either-or choice)?” I was moved by his willingness to be so honest and vulnerable—what a gift he gave our community by even asking this question. And he was voicing something that so many of our students and their generation are wondering: How can I hold on to my values of social justice and caring for all human beings while also holding on to my particular Jewish identity and concern for the Jewish people? 

Another student asked a question about leadership in a world that feels increasingly, harshly divided. “What is the role of leaders in creating a rhetoric that enables us to hold our differences and stay in relationship with one another rather than be torn apart by them?”  

Obviously, there are no simple answers to these questions, but these are the questions with which our students need to engage if they are going to stay in the messy experiments of building a just society and of living out our Jewish and democratic values. We need not look any further than the opening Torah portions of Genesis, which we are reading right now, to see just how messy the process of creating a world and a society can be. Even the original Founder (with a capital “F”) tried and failed several times before realizing this humble truth: the best we can do if we are going to embrace (rather than destroy) our imperfect selves and our not-yet-redeemed world is to create a covenant of shared values and aspirations and to slowly, sometimes painstakingly, yet compassionately, work together to heal ourselves and our world.  

I personally find comfort and inspiration in knowing that we are part of a Jewish, human, American process that has been going on for a long, long time. Sometimes it’s not clear how to translate these ideals into practice. However, next Tuesday we will experience one of the ways that our democracy concretizes our ideals and enables us to live out our covenant—it gives us the sacred right and responsibility of voting. I encourage all of us who can vote to do so.  

Shabbat Shalom,  

Rabbi Marc Baker   

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