End of Year Blessing for Teachers

Tel Aviv Heart 2015

 

For all the hours,

all the days,

all the months and years.

 

For all the wisdom,

all the love,

the laughter and the tears.

 

For the goals you set,

The challenges met,

And vision ever clear.

 

For the students,

And the parents,

And the colleagues far and near.

 

 

For the creativity,

The patience,

The teamwork,

The commitment,

The energy,

The unseen and unknown sacrifices,

The immeasurable yet tangible impact,

The countless stories, some forgotten and untold.

 

Because of teachers like you,

It’s abundantly clear,

That teaching is truly the noblest career.

 

With more than great thanks,

For your craft and your art,

We bless you this morning,

With all the love in our hearts.

That moment when…

Life is a collection of moments.

Some are sacred, some mundane, some forgettable, some forgotten,

Some unsought, some unavoidable, some profound, some confounding.

Life is a collection of moments.

 

Walking to the park

Typing now, I am trying to capture one of these moments. The moment when Loren and I found out that our beautiful daughter, Hadara, has been accepted to The Davis Academy.

For some parents, the power of this moment comes on the first day of kindergarten.

For me, the power of this moment comes now, knowing that my daughter will be joining me each and every day for the next 9 years, attending the school I so deeply cherish, love, and believe in.

For me, the power of this moment is the fact that Loren and I made a conscious choice to send Hadara to Davis. We agreed that if it wasn’t the right place for her to become the person we hope she will become that we wouldn’t send her there simply because of my passionate love for and belief in Davis.

For me, the power of this moment reminds me how completely blown away both Loren and I were when we visited Davis not as Jewish professionals, but as parents with the singular focus of what Davis would offer to Hadara.

For me, the power of this moment is the fact that every time we visit Davis, Hadara is bursting with excitement, full of questions, and eager to visit the playground.

But even more, the power of this moment is knowing what awaits my daughter, my family, and me.

For starters, how many fathers can say that they’ll get to take their daughter to and from school nearly every day? Sure I’ll miss my quiet car rides, but this alone is a gift beyond measure.

Then I think about Hadara’s teachers, my colleagues. I think about the love, the passion, the humor, the wisdom, the creativity, the innovation, the ceaseless pursuit of new ideas, the advocacy for students, the teamwork, the smiles, the hugs. This moment is overwhelmed with the knowledge that I would entrust Hadara’s education to each and every faculty member at Davis willingly and joyfully.

This moment is overwhelmed with the realization that our family’s journey will be transformed by The Davis Academy. In addition to Hadara’s education, there will be new experiences for all of us, new friends, new adventures, new challenges, new stories, new opportunities.

Along with the potential, excitement, and overwhelming gratitude of this moment comes an interesting challenge. The challenge is that Hadara’s acceptance to Davis enhances my struggle to convey all that The Davis Academy means to me.

For years I’ve explored the fact that few people outside of The Davis Academy can truly appreciate “what I do.” I suppose that would be fine if there wasn’t such a deep connection between what I do and “who I am.” When people think of rabbis they’re generally able to imagine what it is that a rabbi does. When people think of teachers or school administrators they’re able to do the same. The mental picture may not be completely accurate, but at least there’s a mental picture.

When people think of Jewish Day Schools, it’s hard to be able to fully appreciate what a school like The Davis Academy is actually all about. For many, the mental picture isn’t even close to the reality.

So when it comes to being a rabbi and administrator at The Davis Academy, I find, consistently, that it’s difficult to convey the absolutely remarkable fact of my daily existence. It’s hard to explain just how awesome it is to have the honor of doing what I do at Davis. People generally have no point of reference unless they too work at a school like Davis.

Now that I know that Hadara will be joining me at The Davis Academy I can honestly say that our family is blessed beyond measure. If someone had told me that my rabbinate would lead my family to the journey that awaits us, I never would’ve been able to imagine just how lucky and exciting it would be.

I hope that every parent that receives an acceptance letter from a private school in these upcoming weeks is able to feel the same level of joy and exhilaration that we feel today in the Lapidus household.

 

An Awesome Day School Rabbi Day

 

 

Hadar Noiberg Trio, AJMF Opening Night, Steve's Live Music, 3/10/16
Hadar Noiberg Trio, AJMF Opening Night, Steve’s Live Music, 3/10/16

Today was one of those days that was so remarkable and yet so commonplace that if I don’t capture a few experiences I know the memory will fade and merge with all the other amazing days that I’ve had as a Day School rabbi at The Davis Academy. Here are some quick notes (because it was also a LONG day).

7:30am. Strumming guitar in the gym and waiting for 4th graders to bring their “reimagined Shabbat rituals” to the gym stage in anticipation of tomorrow night’s 4th grade Shabbat. The kids are so proud of their work, curious and supportive of one another, and generally awesome. The project is a great example of what you can do with kids who are home in Judaism.

8:00. Led a Tefilah session for 3rd grade where we did some creative writing around Ashrei. Specifically, I asked 3rd graders to think about the first line of the prayer, “Happy are those who dwell in Your house.” What did they think this meant? Did God have a house? If so, what do you think that house was/is? What does it mean to dwell inside. Their responses were, almost without fail, both honest and profound.

9:10 Middle School Tefilah. 3 totally awesome and completely different kids chanted Torah in front of the Kehillah in advance of their b’nai mitzvah this weekend. Then my colleague, Missy Stein, gave an incredible D’var Torah about the idea that, in parshat Pekudei, Moses blesses the people who made the Mishkan/Ohel Moed rather than the objects that they created. She went on to share beautiful words about the children on behalf of the faculty.

10:00 5 minute phone call with Ulpan Or to coordinate an exciting professional development program that I was able to arrange for our Hebrew faculty next week.

10:30-12:30 A rare couple of hours off campus at an Atlanta Rabbinical Association study session with Dr. Ron Wolfson and many area colleagues.

In the afternoon I was able to run out and get chicken soup for a colleague that’s been sick. Then I stumbled upon 6th graders in Jewish Studies singing the Ashrei (it was an Ashrei day). Seeing their pride in learning the prayer was truly heartwarming.

Later that afternoon Rich O’Dell and I got into a deep and meaningful conversation about a blog post that I wrote on this page last night. Eventually we found ourselves in the Media Center where our conversation expanded to include 1 very engaged 8th graders and a small audience of other kids who were really curious to know what was going on. The conversation basically focused on what it means to own one’s religious and spiritual journey.

At the end of the day I had a chance to meet with a few students who wanted to share some feedback. Listening to their feedback I couldn’t help but delight in their emerging leadership qualities. They were articulate, thoughtful, helpful, and so much more. It was actually a really impactful interaction for me and the other staff person that was there.

7:30 Davis Academy had an extra set of tickets to the opening night of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival. Listening to the Hadar Noiberg Trio at Steve’s Live Music was a great way to transition out of this totally awesome day school rabbi day.

 

Why Jewish Day Schools? Ask Thich Nhat Hanh

Torat Ahavah, Davis Academy

 

I recently picked up a copy of the book, “Teachings on Love,” by Thich Nhat Hanh. In the opening pages he says something that I’ve long thought but never been able to articulate quite so succinctly:

“If you are cut off from your roots, you cannot be happy.”

For me, one of the most compelling and subtle reasons why Jewish Day Schools are essential not only to the future thriving of the Jewish people, but to the happiness of every single Jew is expressed in this quote.

Too many Jews are disconnected from our roots. The way I’ve always thought about it is in terms of feeling at home within Judaism and not encountering your own heritage, faith tradition, and religion as if a stranger.

There’s wisdom here. I think the concept of not being able to be happy if cut off from our roots applies no matter what those roots are. The roots can be family, faith, culture… anything that is core to how a person has arrived in the world with their unique signature and stamp.

Jewish people didn’t ask to be born as Jews. But here we are!  Judaism is a root in the life of every Jew whether we like it or not. I wonder if Jews whose families long ago severed those roots feel some sort of unhappiness or lack of wholeness even if they don’t know their family’s story. As I reflect on my childhood and adolescence growing up in Los Angeles I can anachronistically project the kind of unhappiness I’m thinking of onto several dear friends from those days. In contrast, I know several people who discovered Jewish heritage in their family and were profoundly transformed by this awareness and reconnecting. Those people are, as far as I can tell, happier for having reconnected.

So here’s my claim: For the North American Jewish community of 2016, Jewish Day Schools, more than any other institutions in Jewish life, can help Jewish children and families experience the profound happiness that comes with being connected to our roots. That’s because, if we extend the metaphor of roots, we see that Judaism is so vast, expansive, and all-encompassing that it’s much more than roots, even more than a tree. Judaism is a forest. An ecosystem. Jews who aren’t connected to their roots still end up navigating this forest, but without any sense of place, and, I suspect, not as happily as those that are connected. A forest can be a wonderful and nurturing space or a terrifying space depending on what you’re doing there.

One thing I hear from Jewish Day School colleagues across North America is that the children in our schools exude a profound happiness. It’s not the happiness of being given a new gadget or of being the best at everything they do. Instead it’s the happiness with knowing that you are connected to your roots, and that your connection is real, strong, and evolving. In the terms that I used to think of it before I happily stumbled upon Thich Nhat Hanh, it’s the happiness of the deepest homecoming infused with the knowledge that you will be welcomed home not as a stranger, but as part of the family.

Teaching Jewish History

This is something of a rant. But it’s not truly a rant because I do try to arrive at some resolution by the end. Still, I need your help.

Jewish History.

mosaic Yishay
Tzipori Mosaic, photograph courtesy of Yishay Shavit.

Hertzl Cut Out

Israel Museum, photograph courtesy of Yishay Shavit.
Israel Museum, photograph courtesy of Yishay Shavit.

Part I: The Challenge

Teaching it is MUCH more complicated than I ever imagined. And yet those of us who care deeply about Jewish education need to figure out how to teach it. Do we teach it through TANAKH? Do we teach it in our general studies curriculum? Is it a strand in our Jewish Studies curriculum or a stand alone class? Do we put character cartoon timelines above our whiteboards and hope that they do or don’t ask us when Noah actually lived and whether he has any connection to other Ancient Near Eastern flood based heroes? Do we teach it through the Jewish holidays (which by the way, often have multiple historical resonances)? How do we teach Jewish history???

And in particular, how do we teach Jewish history to elementary and middle school aged children? As one of my Davis Academy colleagues pointed out, her kindergarten students think she’s 50 years old. She’s definitely not 50. Is it realistic to expect a young child or even an early adolescent to be able to fully appreciate a subject as vast and complicated as the history of the Jewish people? Do they have the synapses to put it all together? Is there a cognitive developmental theorist in the house who can advise?

And here are some more complicating factors. My milieu (and probably your milieu) is distinctively American. There’s NOTHING old in America. Nothing ANCIENT. Everything is NEW here. At least in Israel you can take kids to Canaanite and Roman ruins and show them something that is clearly much older than the house they live in. America’s lack of ANCIENT has implications for the teaching of Jewish history I think.

And now for the subject itself. Jewish history. When does it actually start? Is the TANAKH a purely historical document? I’m guessing most of us would say not, and yet it tells us important things about what came before us. Here’s a micro-example: This week our 5th graders chanted Shlach L’cha. There’s a reference to Hebron in one of the passukim. It says that Hebrew was built 7 years before the Egyptian city of Zoar. What on earth do we expect a 5th grader to do with a piece of information like that? How does it impact the narrative of the Scouts? What is it doing there and do any of the Jewish Studies teachers out there relish teaching Shlach L’cha so they can point out this passuk to the students?  Is that how we teach what Hebron was and is? It seems to me that you could teach an entire college level course on the history of Hebron and end up with more questions than answers. And Hebrew is only 1 of the 4 holy cities of Eretz Yisrael!

So remind me, when did Abraham live exactly? How long were the Israelites in Egypt? How many Israelites crossed the Red Sea? Obviously things come into greater focus based on archaeology and as Jewish history progresses, but there are still scholars of Jewish history that question whether there’s even such a thing. Yerushalmi comes to mind. Are we teaching Jewish history or Jewish memory?

Let’s be modest and say that there are at least 3,000 years of solid Jewish backstory for us to think about when it comes to teaching our kids where they came from. Then let’s layer in the fact that much of this backstory happens synchronously all over the globe. And then let’s at least acknowledge that there are both Jewish and non-Jewish sources that weigh in on the subject (sometimes with competing narratives). And then let’s celebrate the fact that we are blessed to have a tremendous amount of primary source material due to the efforts of those that came before us. And then let’s state unequivocally that much of this backstory is hard for elementary and middle school aged kids to relate to and/or incredibly painful and difficult to teach. Again, there are entire college majors and more than a few libraries worth of material on the Shoah, or is it the Holocaust? What do we even call that chapter of our history (and how, if at all, does it integrate with the history of Israel and American Jewish history)? And can you find me two museums that teach the Shoah in the exact same way? And don’t even get me started on the complexities of teaching the history of Israel with the insane amount of revisionism and the unavoidable politicization. Does the state of Israel even have a history is it all just one complex and unending present?

So yes, I think teaching Jewish history is harder than it seems.

Part II: One Idea.

The phrase, L’dor V’dor, is a powerful one in the minds of the children at The Davis Academy. L’dor V’dor directs the mind of the child first and foremost to the immediate past– the generations that they know and that helped create the world they live in. But L’dor V’dor can and probably should extend much further into the past (and the future– a different subject). Rather than lament the fact that many of our students think that Abraham, Moses, Esther, and Hertzl were contemporaries, maybe we can elevate and honor one of the reasons that they might seem so confused on the topic. Maybe, from a Jewish perspective, those 4 luminaries were, always have been, and always will be contemporaries insofar as they remain living, generative, paradigmatic, archetypal, and didactic figures L’dor V’dor, from generation to generation. Did Moses ever sail from Mt. Nebo across the Atlantic to the USA (thank you Book of Mormon for prodding me to ask such a question!)? Obviously not, but plenty of people understood Abraham Lincoln as the American Moses.  So maybe he did.

Here’s how I’m thinking about L’dor V’dor now– Abraham lived (or didn’t) at some specified point in time. From generation to generation Jews have viewed our life experience and historical circumstances in the light of Avraham (AVINU– really???). For that reason Abraham and all the rest have not only survived, but have had additional layers of meaning heaped upon them to the point where they’re almost metaphysical. At the very least they’re more than flesh and blood, more than a set of dates on a historical record.

L’dor V’dor typically means “from generation to generation.” Maybe it is a way to break through some of the potentially paralyzing complexity of teaching kids just how unlikely, miraculous, and truly astounding the fact of our existence here and now actually is.

What do you think?

On the Vitality of Spontaneous Judaism

The last couple of Fridays I’ve found myself wandering out to lunch and recess with my guitar. The sun has been shining here in Atlanta and by the time Friday afternoon rolls around the idea of bumping into kids on the playground and lunch room for some casual pre-Shabbat visits and possibly a song or two is, in my humble opinion, an excellent use of a Day School rabbi’s time. The kids’ response is reflected in two spontaneous experiences this past Friday.

First, a small group of 5th graders and I took an excursion to our beautiful outdoor sanctuary. While enjoying having such a special space all to ourselves a gigantic hawk sailed through the sanctuary, landed in a nearby tree, and stared us down. As we stared back, I pointed out that the word “sanctuary” can be looked at in multiple ways– as a nature refuge, as a place for human  reflection and prayer, or as a safe and sacred space more generally. We sang a  version of Mizmor Shir that I wrote a few years ago, danced a bit, and headed off.

From there I headed into the lunch room where 4th graders were wrapping up their lunch period. Since I had my guitar, we decided to sing Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu. The snippet of video below captures the Ruach (spirit) of the moment.

 

 

Though this post is based on an experience that I had, and in some respects facilitated, it isn’t a post about me. It’s a post about Jewish Day Schools and the importance of spontaneous Judaism. Where else in North America could a group of 60 4th graders possibly find themselves in the midst of an impromptu Jewish song session during lunch on a Friday afternoon in the middle of February? Seriously, where else? And where else would such an occurrence be experienced as a unexpected delight but also as something completely within the realm of possibility for a typical day at school?

Then multiply these experiences– the hawk and the song session, by, I don’t know, a thousand? Every day, every hour, every moment that a Jewish Day School like The Davis Academy is open for business there exists a unique and compelling potential– the potential for spontaneous Judaism.

One of the unintended (and I think detrimental) consequences of being in the Diaspora is that Judaism is something that gets scheduled rather than being something that just naturally occurs. We wait until Friday night, Saturday morning, or some other time to allow ourselves to enter into a Jewish state of mind or to be in the midst of a Jewish community. Even if someone were to find him or herself unexpectedly yearning for a Jewish experience in the middle of a random day, the likelihood of being able to honor that yearning is unfortunately minimal. I don’t think this is a controversial observation.

The hawk, the song session, the ability to recite Kaddish on a regular basis for a grandparent that has recently passed away, the casual and unplanned theological conversation with the rabbi or Jewish studies teacher, hearing Hebrew spoken in the hallways… The power in each of these is their authentic spontaneity. More than merely episodic, this spontaneity is essential if we’re going to embed Judaism in our lives in compelling and meaningful ways.

I hope I’m describing a phenomenon that many Jews value. If authentic, spontaneous, contextual, informed, substantive, and meaningful Jewish experiences are still of value to the Jewish people, then Jewish Day Schools offer the greatest likelihood of providing them on a random Friday afternoon in February.

Thoughts on Teaching and Learning

One of the many blessings of being the rabbi at The Davis Academy is that I’m afforded daily opportunities to reflect on the most basic components of education: teaching and learning. Here are a few gleanings from my day (in no particular order).

  1. True learning is, by necessity, transformational. If we’re truly learning then our future self will, by necessity, differ from the person we are today.
  2. Classroom learning is most impactful and exciting when students are able to connect their learning to real life.
  3. Two people can look at the exact same thing and see completely different things.
  4. In all great classrooms there are multiple lessons being taught at the same time.
  5. You can’t bake bread without flour.
  6. Growth is wonderful, healthy, necessary, and beautiful. And sometimes it’s also painful.
  7. Teaching in the absence of learning is not an absurdity, but rather an impossibility.
  8. We all connect to passion and do our best when our motivation is sincere and compelling.
  9. It only takes a moment or two to know when you’re in the presence of a master educator.
  10. The sound of deep learning is as glorious as any symphony and in many respects more redemptive.
  11. Thoughtful, respectful, and authentic dialogue and conversation are cornerstones of teaching and learning.
  12. Children have many teachers and are constantly learning.
  13. Reflection is that set of activities, skills, dispositions, and capacities that allows any learner to become his or her own teacher.
  14. Teaching and learning are not only about imparting knowledge, but also about helping one another to encounter the wisdom within.

It was a great day! So was yesterday. And I’ve got a pretty good feeling about tomorrow! Educator friends: what did y’all reflect on about teaching and learning today?

Thou Shalt Create

This week I’ve been making the case to 5th graders that creativity is the one of (if not THE) most important characteristic of the Jewish people. Were it not for remarkable and visionary creativity I truly believe that the Jewish people would’ve ceased to exist long ago. What’s been most inspiring is their response. They have responded to this idea with tremendous enthusiasm and creativity.

Rather than simply lecturing on the creative spark within Judaism, we’ve been working collaboratively to think creatively about challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish world today. In the course of a 50 minute class period they have demonstrated, consistently, the radical creativity necessary to ensure a vibrant Jewish future.

Working in teams, the students have followed a protocol very loosely based on design thinking. They’ve come up with initiatives, organizations, projects, and websites designed to address challenges and opportunities that exist in the Jewish world today. And their ideas have been truly inspiring. So inspiring that I’ll leave you guessing and encourage you to undertake a similar thought experiment with the young people in your community.

I told the 5th graders that there are many individuals in the Jewish community today that have tremendous capacity and desire to support creative projects that will strengthen the Jewish future. I believe it’s only a matter of time before such an individual finds their appetite whetted by one of the creative ideas my students quickly identified today.