21 October 2016
19 Tishrei 5777
I have recently been reminded why Gann Academy chose to build its culture and community on a foundation of Jewish pluralism, a commitment to diversity and engagement with the “other” that is too rare in the Jewish community and that, while a hallmark of American democracy, seems to be growing more rare in American society.
At a recent Hakhel (Friday morning student assembly), when students make announcements about events and student club meetings, a boy stood up and announced that Gann’s Conservative Club will be meeting at lunchtime on Monday in Room 101. The club was created by students who identify with conservative ideology, politics, philosophy, or worldview to explore, discuss, and promote these ideas. (I would say that this is a “safe space” for conservatives in an environment—a pluralistic Jewish school located in the liberal Northeast—where political conservatives tend to be in the minority, but the group itself might be philosophically opposed to “safe spaces”!) Just as the boy was finishing his announcement, a girl across the room stood up and announced, “Wait a minute, Femininjas, Gann’s feminism club (created by students who identify with feminist ideology, politics, philosophy, or worldview to explore, discuss, and promote these ideas) is meeting at the same time in the same place!” For a moment this felt like an awkward, public conflict between two clubs with opposing ideologies. However, it quickly became clear that the students had planned this cute mock-argument, as one said, “You know what? Let’s meet together. Conservative Club and Femininjas are having a joint meeting on Monday to discuss and debate affirmative action.” Only at Gann, I thought. At a time when Americans from different political parties and with different worldviews can barely refrain from insulting one another, let alone engage civilly with one another, and when most people’s social media feeds only reinforce their own perspectives, our students are choosing to engage about matters of consequence with peers with whom they know they disagree.
And just yesterday, perhaps not coincidentally on the holiday of Sukkot, I met several colleagues from the community who were visiting Gann. They were here representing two different synagogues from two different Jewish denominations located in the same town, just down the street from one another. They were discussing Jewish education, shared values and visions of Jewish community, and opportunities for connections and collaborations with Gann and the broader community. After a few minutes of our catching up, one of them commented that they have never really spent time talking with one another. “It took Gann to bring us together!” he semi-joked. Because we educate students from so many different communities and see our Gann community extending beyond the walls of our campus, we have a role to play in bringing together members of our broader Jewish community with different backgrounds, commitments, and perspectives. Something unique happens when people come together under our roof.
Next week we will welcome a new cohort of Israeli students from Ironi Hey High School in Haifa, a public, secular school in Israel, who will spend time learning and building relationships with our Gann juniors who are not currently in Israel. They will have fun together and will explore important questions about Jewish identity and Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st century. The Israeli teens will learn about Boston and the American Jewish community, and, in turn, our students will learn more about Israel and Israeli Jewish identity. As a part of this interactive program, we are excited to welcome to Gann next Friday Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, who will share with the students his perspectives on Jewish life on the college campus. At a time when many people see the two great centers of Jewish life—Israel and North America—growing apart, we are “leaning in” to our mifgash (encounter), engaging even more deeply with one another. We are reimagining and investing in what these relationships can and should look like as we raise up the next generation of global Jewish citizens and leaders.
These examples remind me of a 1999 article about Sukkot entitled “From Tolerance to Pluralism,” published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. It cites well known interpretations of the mitzvah of the arba minim (four species—lulav, etrog, hadas, and arava), which we shake on Sukkot. Sitting in the sukkah, we are reminded of the sukkat shalom, the “canopy of peace” that we ask God to spread out over us and that represents the hope that we can and will someday come together from every corner of the Jewish world, every nation, and every walk of life under one roof. This vision is of a peace that does not ignore or whitewash our differences; instead, we come together in a sukkah of relationships, communities, societies, and a world where these very differences make each of us stronger, smarter, and better, and our world more beautiful and more just.
Ufros aleinu sukkat shlomeicha—May You spread Your sukkah of peace over us.
Shabbat Shalom and Moadim L’simcha (Happy Festival of Sukkot),
Rabbi Marc Baker