The Value of Interfaith Dialogue

A remarkable week ended on a remarkable note at The Davis Academy Middle School. We hosted 150 students from The Marist School for a day of interfaith dialogue and relationship building.

It has been a remarkable week. The Jewish community commemorated Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). As Americans we watched in horror as the Boston Marathon bombing took place. As human beings we grieved for the loss of life in West, Texas. It has been a remarkable week.

Since coming to The Davis Academy I have dreamed of creating a context wherein our students could meaningfully explore matters of faith with peers of different faith backgrounds. Several years ago I was invited to be a guest lecturer at The Marist School, a local Catholic middle and high school. Eventually I found a counterpart at Marist, and we assembled a team of educators who were motivated to bring our 7th grade students together. Today we had the privilege of hosting these students and many of their outstanding faculty.

The goals of our interfaith dialogue program at this point are threefold: 1) to build relationships based on mutual respect between adolescents of different faith backgrounds, 2) to teach students how to engage in intentional dialogue on matters of faith, and 3) to partner in faith-based community service. Today we made great strides in actualizing goals 1 and 2.

Davis Academy 7th graders gathered in our gymnasium a few moments before the Marist students arrived. We had been preparing for their visit for several weeks. For example, we asked our students what kinds of questions they thought Marist students might have for their Davis counterparts. We also asked them what questions they had for their Marist counterparts. We also brainstormed different things we hoped to share with our guests and also reviewed what it means to be welcoming and gracious hosts. The energy in the room was palpable.

The centerpieces of today’s program were twofold: 1) we broke into small groups, facilitated by faculty members, to do, “I’ve always wondered.” Students  from both schools had the chance to ask and answer one another’s questions in a safe and respectful environment. When we reflected with our Davis students later in the day they identified this is a highlight. Topics ranged from: kashrut to Santa Claus, Lent to belief in God, Jewish ritual clothing to the Gospels and much more. Without fail, faculty members who facilitated the groups reported great conversations, active listening, and mutual respect. One teacher characterized the meeting in Buberian terms: I-Thou.

The second centerpiece was Kabbalat Shabbat. Since the program was held at The Davis Academy on a Friday morning we felt that we should share a central part of our community’s identity: Kabbalat Shabbat. Almost 1/2 of the grade volunteered to help lead Kabbalat Shabbat. Marist students were given the option of wearing kippot and most chose to do so, and also took them home as a memento of their visit. Davis students shared what Shabbat means to them, we took out our Torah scroll, and recited the Shabbat blessings.  At the end, Marist’s priest and I joined together in offering the Priestly Benediction to a group of Marist and Davis students who were celebrating their birthdays. We all shared challah and grape juice and made promises to reunite in the Fall.

Today the city of Watertown is under siege. Today is also the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing as well as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. For The Davis Academy and the Marist School, today is the beginning of a friendship that we hope will change the world one teenager at a time.

Building a New Society Through Jewish Ed

“Contemporary Jewish education has the task of creating the very society of which it should be the reflection.”

Israel Scheffler, Visions of Jewish Education

 

Contemporary Jewish education is a generative endeavor—it’s about creating something that doesn’t yet exist. The “something” that contemporary Jewish education is tasked with creating is nothing less than a new society, or more simply stated, a better (even ideal) world.

What aren’t we trying to do?

We’re not trying to perpetuate the status quo. We’re not trying to resuscitate an ancient past, nor a mythic one. We’re not trying to impart some specific or esoteric knowledge or dogma to a new generation with the hopes that they too won’t let it fade away. We’re not cultivating a generation of complacent and unquestioning followers of fashion.

What are we trying to do?

We’re trying to build a better world. We’re trying to pour old wine into new bottles, and we’re creating new varietals. We’re innovating, improvising, visioning, challenging, reinventing, discarding, sifting, shifting, and grappling. We’re starting with the end in mind and challenging one another to get there from here.

Mechina kids transform their classroom society into a classroom society of 4 and 5 year old Chanukah candles.

Creating a society requires chutzpah. It also requires patience, humor, grit, and teamwork. The good news is that each step we take toward our goal strengthens us to take subsequent steps. The students we are challenging today will be the parents we are partnering with tomorrow. The required “long view” in such boundless and invigorating work must achieved through many incremental steps. Eventually the world we are trying to create and the world in which we live will start to resemble one another. At that point we can truly point to Jewish education and say, “That’s tikkun olam.”

Chanukkah: The Educator’s Holiday

       Chanukkah is an educator’s holiday. How so? It’s been noted many times that the Hebrew word “Chanukkah” is derived from the same Hebrew “root” as the word for education: “Chinuch” (apologies for the abysmal transliteration). The three letter Hebrew shoresh of chet– nun– chaf has a double meaning: “dedication” and “education.” Here are a couple of ways that Jewish educators might make the link between dedication and education in honor of Chanukkah.

1. Facilitate a conversation with our students by asking them “Why do we dedicate so much time and energy to studying Hebrew and Judaism?” While it’s a simple question many of us will agree with the simple truth that many of our students haven’t actually thought this one through. For those of us who are meshugah l’davar for Jewish education, the answers to this question might be so obvious that we’ve skipped the critical step of having the conversation with our students. “I don’t know” isn’t an acceptable answer to the question of: “Why do we dedicate ourselves to studying Hebrew?” Every student should be able to answer this question authentically and compellingly. Moreover, their answers should mature as they grow into their Jewish identities. If we fail to make this an explicit conversation with our students then we run the risk of having students who don’t ever confront the importance of their Judaic and Hebraic education and end up going through the motions without understanding why.

2. Let’s facilitate the same conversation with our colleagues and fellow educators. While it might seem unnecessary, it can be invigorating for a group of educators to revisit the basic conversation of motives and aims in our teaching. Why do we have a burning passion for teaching Hebrew? Why have we spent years training to be a Jewish educator? Why are we living out our teaching careers at Jewish schools even if we’re teaching general studies rather than Jewish studies? Hearing what inspires others to dedicate their lives to Jewish education strengthen our ties with our colleagues. It’s a safe way of moving beyond the small talk that often fills the pockets of our days. Also, we may have colleagues who honestly don’t have compelling answers to this question, or may be looking for new ways of expressing long held commitments. Like our students, some of our colleagues may not have had the chance to really reflect on their commitment to Jewish education. Many of us work in schools that have a wide spectrum of Jewish knowledge and observance. Engaging our diverse faculty in the conversation can be truly educational and promote synergy among the faculty.

3. Go for gelt. At our weekly Jewish and Hebrew studies department meeting today we stumbled upon the fact that each of the educators at the table had a different explanation of where the tradition of Chanukkah gelt comes from. We laughed as we shared our varying interpretations. Rather than pretending that we knew the absolutely correct answer to what seemed like a simple question, we got on the computer and did some research. Laughing, we realized that, to a certain extent, we were all correct. What I’m calling “going for gelt” refers to the fact that, in spite of the many years of accumulated wisdom and knowledge at the table, there’s always the possibility of learning something new. It’s a wonderful feeling to be thrust into a place of uncertainty. It is great to realize that “I don’t know” can lead to new knowledge. Everyone at the table today felt comfortable exploring the gelt question together. It was a simple reminder that learning is fun and that being a part of a learning community is rich and rewarding.

So there you have it. My 1/2 shekel on some of the many possible intersections of dedication and education that Chanukkah begs us to consider as Jewish educators.

Chag Sameach! 

 

OY Chanukkah

“10” Hanukkah Helpers® magically visit children during the Festival of Lights and enrich their lives with a timeless Hanukkah tradition. An embroidered snowflake over their heart is the mark of an authentic Hanukkah Helper. With their companionship, hugs, adventures and love, Hanukkah Helpers create memories the whole family will cherish for a lifetime.



The plush 10-inch Helpers are great companions during the day and often surprise the children during the night with mysterious and unpredictable adventures. When Hanukkah is over, the Helper must return home and prepare for the next year’s visit. The tradition continues year after year, and each time the Hanukkah Helper visits, children (and even adults) experience the same sense of playful suspense, excitement and friendship.”
Excerpted from the Hanukkah Helper website.
Allow me to quote the great Seth Meyers:
 “Really? Really?? Really???”  
Seems like a B-Horror movie waiting to happen…