18 January 2008
11 Shevat 5768
Yesterday I ate lunch with five students who requested to meet with me about their desire to start – actually, to restart – a minyan (morning prayer group) that no longer meets this year. As we discussed their vision for this minyan, they were receptive to my expectation that it would incorporate many of the core components of a “traditional” Jewish prayer service (such as Shema and some form of Amidah), but they shared with me their hopes for an experience that would consist primarily of students singing songs together. We agreed that it can be difficult to motivate high school students to pray, let alone sing, early on a weekday morning; nonetheless they assured me that this is how they, and a significant number of their friends, want to start their day – in song. Song, after all, is an integral part of prayer, as we see in this week’s Torah portion, B’shalach. Imagine the joy and elation that B’nei Yisrael feel as they finally escape the Egyptians, as they leave Egypt and slavery behind, and as they march miraculously through the parted waters of the sea. Even the typeset of the Biblical text visually conveys the power of the people’s elation; the moment they actually realize what has happened and that God has saved them . . . “Az Yashir Moshe u’B’nei Yisrael . . . (Then did Moses sing, and all of the Israelites with him . . .). Song is and has always been intimately linked to prayer, for it is the primal expression of gratitude and faith that transcends the intellect. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “the wave of song carries the soul to heights which utterable meanings can never reach.” How appropriate that our students chose this week to initiate the revival of their song-filled morning minyan.
This meeting was one of the highlights of my week. There are few things more rewarding to me and more affirming of our culture and our mission than when students come to me with the ideas and the energy to build community and to help our school provide Jewish experiences that will engage them in meaningful ways. I often speak to our students about empowerment and responsibility. In fact, I was interviewed on our new student-run radio program this week, and I shared the first of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (a teaser for my Exploration Week Program): Be Proactive – rather than complain about problems, try to be part of the solution. This is exactly what these students did in our lunch meeting. Instead of coming into my office to tell me about problems with their current minyan, they chose to be proactive and to take responsibility for their and their classmates’ experiences. Whether or not they succeed in revamping and sustaining their vision of a morning minyan, they should be proud of themselves for trying.
Another striking example of student empowerment and responsibility made a significant impact on our community this week. Months ago, I wrote about our documentary film class’s transformative experience of meeting with a group of homeless people. This week, as a result of their passion and hard work, the documentary film students brought representatives from the National Coalition for the Homeless to speak to our entire school community. Faculty, students and staff sat in total silence as we heard from a 31 year-old man, a mother of three, and a 13 year old girl talk about their experiences of being homeless. We listened to their stories, and in doing so came face to face with the other whom we so rarely have to see. How sobering it can be to reflect on notions of empowerment and responsibility as we confront the harsh realities of our broken world. Yet how inspiring it was – tears came to my eyes – when the 31 year old man who battled schizophrenia and homelessness for years reached into his pocket and took out the keys to what now is his home, proudly showing us a symbol of his will and spirit to take responsibility and turn his life around. On behalf of our community, I applaud and thank the students of our documentary film class for their persistence and their commitment to bringing these important guests into our school, our home.
As we make our way through the ups and downs of the school year, may we learn from our students’ examples. May we take responsibility for our community and our world by staying empowered and proactive, even in the face of frustration and challenges. And may we remember the importance of feeling and expressing gratitude, and the power of song as a timeless vehicle of human expression.
Rabbi Marc Baker