Life Lessons from the 2013-2014 School Year

Here’s an incomplete list in no particular order…

1) Every moment, every hour, every day, is sacred.

2) As educators we are constantly “on.”

3) Kids notice and learn from everything we do and everything we don’t.

4) The best schools are made up entirely of students. Some of those students are lucky enough to also be teachers.

5) We are all artists. Some of us just don’t have the supplies, the canvas, or the time to make the art.

6) Every school should give kids the aforementioned supplies, canvases, and time. Then we’ll all get to work in museums.

7) The same is true for poetry.

8) Schools that promote teaming function at a higher level than those that don’t. “Team” works better as a verb than as a noun.

9) It’s hard to think 3,5, or 10 years ahead when the present is compelling and both demands and deserves our full attention.

10) Feeling safe and secure (physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually) is what allows everything else to happen.

11) If you listen carefully enough you can hear a school’s heart beat.

12) It’s impossible to truly tell a school’s “story.” The best we can do is pull back the curtain and reveal the complexity and wonder that we see and hope that others are able to see it too.

13) Five minutes on the playground will restore almost anyone’s faith in humanity.

14) Diversity isn’t so much a function of race, ethnicity, or class as much as it is an inherent reality of the human experience. When two people meet there is irreducible and undeniable diversity.

15) Sometimes the story doesn’t make sense until the end. One of life’s beautiful tragedies is that we can’t relive it once we’ve discovered this.

16) A school without core values is like a person without a heart.

17) Engaging open and eager minds is an awesome responsibility.

18) It’s impossible to know the impact we’ve had. Whenever we catch a true glimpse of it we should cherish it.

19) The end of education isn’t to create smart kids or even wise men and women. It’s helping people realize their goodness and their potential.

20) We must humbly embrace our power while simultaneously acknowledging that the home will always be the primary source of learning and instruction, for better or worse.

 

The Davis Academy and the Snow Storm

On Tuesday morning The Davis Academy 8th grade joined with their counterparts at The Marist School for the culmination of a series of meetings focused on interfaith dialogue, understanding, and community service. Blissfully unaware of what Tuesday afternoon would bring to the greater Atlanta area, students from the two schools spent the morning volunteering at Books for Africa, The Atlanta Community Food Bank, Medshare, as well as at The Davis Academy. In a few short hours they processed more than 6,000 pounds of food, 16,000 pounds of books, and 2,500 pounds of medical supplies. They prepared more than 700 sandwiches for Project Open Hand, wrote more than 500 get well, holiday, and birthday cards for area nursing homes, and jointly painted a prayer canvas with both schools’ logos that will help line the route of the upcoming Boston Marathon. It was a typically atypical morning at Davis. A day that engaged students in the kind of learning that, to paraphrase Haim Ginott, makes us ‘more human.’ Or as we put it at Davis, a day of menschlichkeit.

These sandwiches made it to a local shelter by Tuesday night.
These sandwiches made it to a local shelter by Tuesday night.
Davis and Marist students join forces.
Davis and Marist students join forces.

As Marist students boarded their busses the first flurries of snow were falling. Regarding the subsequent hours, each of us has a story. To the best of our knowledge all members of The Davis Academy community found safe haven by Tuesday evening, even if they weren’t in their own homes. Over the last couple of days, members of The Davis Academy administration have been privileged to hear some of the many stories of our community members. We have heard about students helping to warm stranded motorists with cups of tea. Families opening their homes to strangers who simply needed to make a phone call or use the restroom. Alumni who provided emergency medical services to individuals who were cut off from emergency vehicles. Teachers who spent the evening pushing cars up hills. From every corner of our community we have heard tales of selflessness, compassion, and bravery. We have been sacred witnesses to indescribable acts of menschlichkeit.

Davis 8th Graders serve coffee to stranded motorists.
Davis 8th Graders serve coffee to stranded motorists.

To be sure Davis Academy students, families, alumni, and teachers weren’t the only heroes on the streets in recent days. But upon reflection, it cannot be denied that our kehilah instinctively knew that action was required and responded in kind. We knew that the extraordinary circumstances required us to think not only of ourselves, but also of others. We answered Rabbi Hillel’s two thousand year old question, “If I am only for myself, what I am?”

A recent survey of Davis Academy alumni confirms something we are very proud of here at Davis—that our graduates thrive at the high school of their choice and that they leave Davis ready for the next step. The stories you’ve shared, and the stories we hope that you will share in response to this note, help us understand what the “Davis Journey” is all about. We are helping children become mensches. It’s not just smart people, not just well-prepared people, not just well-rounded people, all of which might lead us to say ‘dayeinu’ . We are helping our children become more fully human, to become mensches. We are helping them to become leaders and mensches who see in their fellow human beings an ethical obligation—to care, to help, and to honor.

Help us understand the story of The Davis Academy in response to this week’s snowstorm by hitting reply and sharing your story. Please let us know if we have your permission to use your name in subsequent communications.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Micah

“MLK: Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” Beit Midrash

Regrettably I did not have time to correctly identify the images I used in this PowToon.

The following “text sheet” contains more expanded versions of some of the quotes/commentaries from the PowToon. I am grateful to Rabbi Peter Berg, Rabbi Brad Levenberg, Rabbi Jan Katzew, and Rabbi Michael Shire for their contributions. Rabbi Katzew and Rabbi Shire’s quotes aren’t in the PowToon because they were a bit beyond what I thought our Middle School students could tackle in the short time we had for this lesson!

I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

–      Martin Luther King Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Rabbi Peter Berg from The Temple in Atlanta writes:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…The Torah teaches lo tuchal l’hitaleim – you shall not remain indifferent.  Literally translated it means do not hide yourself.  Our Jewish values teach us to face the world head on, to engage in study and moral debate, to raise questions about the world and about ourselves, to enhance life, and to struggle to repair that which is broken an incomplete.

 

Rabbi Levenberg from Temple Sinai in Atlanta writes:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… Jewish tradition compels us to protect the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable among us.  Among us… among us.  That’s the challenge, is it not?  There are those who firmly believe that we must care for the Jews first and, if we have time and resources, to care for others.  I disagree.  As long as anyone is homeless, we can be homeless.  As long as anyone is hungry, we can go hungry.  And as long as anyone is subject to another’s ill treatment, we need only look at our tragic history to realize that, in fact, Jewish tradition compels us to protect the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.  Everywhere.

Rabbi Michael Shire from Hebrew College writes:

I just watched the movie ‘Mandela; Long Walk to Freedom’ and was struck that Nelson Mandela was in prison throughout the time that Martin Luther King was also fighting for civil rights. I don’t know if they corresponded or knew about each other but how fascinating to compare the situations of the two men. One, starting an epic struggle of a black majority violently fighting against an apartheid Government and military that was increasingly vulnerable to world wide condemnation. The other, bringing to an end 100 years of a process of Black emancipation in a society built on the values of equality and universal suffrage. It is definitely the case that there was ‘a network of mutuality’ where the nature of just being of a black colour demanded a new perception by others and by blacks. People of colour had been considered inferior, infantile, slovenly, ignorant and lazy. In South Africa, it took the nobility of men like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko (murdered in prison) to demonstrate that blackness was nothing to do with character. In fact they had also to prove it to their own people that had so long been downtrodden. Steve Biko’s work on ‘black consciousness’ echoed a similar attempt by Theodore Herzl to do the same thing for the Jewish People. In his writings about early Zionism, Herzl declared that the Jews were proper and fit to have their own land like any other people. At the time, this was considered inconceivable by most people including Jews themselves. Jews were  considered inferior, miserly, dirty and shifty. What does it take for a people to learn not only that they can be free but that all deserve to be free? At Pesach we say, if not all are free, then none are free’. Do we have responsibility for the freedom of other peoples? And for their self-worth as well?

Rabbi Jan Katzew from Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion writes:

“I cannot sit idly by” – ‘לא תעמוד על דם רעיך אני ה
– Leviticus 19:16 – You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor; I am Adonai. Martin Luther King’s words echoed a מצוה, and not just any מצוה, but one embedded in the very heart of Torah, the Holiness Code. Standing idly by would be a sin, and not just in the eyes of Martin, but also in the eyes of God. Elie Wiesel noted that rather than use the word אחיך – your brothers, Torah teaches רעיך – your neighbors, thereby making the מצוה apply to humanity as
a whole rather than to a particular family or people. Finally, the words אני ה – make it clear that this מצוה to confront the oppression of any person or people not only involves human dignity and compassion but also divine dignity and compassion.

Rabbi Micah Lapidus from The Davis Academy writes:”It’s not enough for a Jewish person to be smart. It’s not enough to be talented or successful. It’s not enough to be HAPPY. A Jew needs to be righteous. We need to do the RIGHT thing, the HARD thing, the JUST thing.”

Drew Frank from The Davis Academy shared the following quote from Haim Ginott: “I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become more human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”

Lech Lecha– a unique perspective

The following D’var Torah was prepared by Todd Williamson, a member of The Davis Academy faculty. It was shared at one of our weekly Middle School tefilah services in honor of a student that is becoming bat mitzvah this Shabbat and is published here with his permission. Todd has asked me to note that he did not write this D’var Torah expecting that it would be “published” on a blog and therefore did not include citations. He notes that Bruce Feiler’s work on Abraham was very influential in his thinking along with many additional resources.

In addition to being a wonderful D’var Torah in its own right, this post demonstrates part of the unique potential within a Jewish Day School such as The Davis Academy. Consider the following: a D’var Torah lovingly and thoughtfully prepared by a non-Jewish faculty member, presented in front of several hundred early adolescent Jewish kids– an exchange of ideas characterized by great thoughtfulness, tolerance, and pluralism. Some critics argue that Jewish day schools are not diverse. I’d be eager to hear about other Jewish organizations where it would be commonplace for profound words of Torah to be shared by someone of a different faith. The exchange of ideas, the diversity of life experience, and the sharing of Torah that this guest post reflects is truly unique. Todd can be followed on Twitter @Bookman30022. When Todd isn’t writing Divrei Torah he is immersed in technology, teaching, and literature. 

 

Lech Lecha:  Genesis 12: 1: 17-27

God instructs Abram to leave his father’s house and set off to the “Promised land” G_d will reveal to him.  G_d promises Abram that this land will be set aside for him and his descendants and that Abram will be the father of a great nation.  Abram, Sarai and Lot(Abram’s nephew)  travel to Canaan.

A famine in Canaan forces Abram to seek provisions in Egypt where Abram declares Sarai to be his sister, not his wife.  Abram and his family receive good fortune, while Pharaoh receives plagues.  Pharaoh realizes Abram’s deception and sends Abram, his wife and their possessions out of Egypt.

Abram and Lot separate and live separate lives and soon Lot is taken away as a hostage in a tribal war.  Abram and his men free Lot from his captors and G_d reappears to Abram and promises progeny and land.  Abram confirms G_d’s covenant and then G_d fortells the Israelite bondage in Egypt.  During this time Sarai gives her handmaid, Hagar, to Abram and she bears Abram a son, Ishmael.

G_d once again repeats his covenant to Abram, but requires all males to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant.  Upon this sign, G_d changes Abram and Sarai names to Abraham and Sarah.

Thousands of years ago Abram was called by G_d, just like you are being called to the Torah this Shabbat.  You are a direct lineage to Abraham:  a memory you should be proud to share with our ancestor.   One thing we can certainly learn from Abraham is that G_d listens when we as humans yearn, or cry out for his guidance.  God hears Abraham’s plea for help, but we first must believe G_d.  Abraham does not believe in God, he believes God.  This is a huge difference, so I’ll say it again:  Abraham does not believe in God, he believes God and thus fulfills the covenant promised to him and his descendants, which leads to the original Kehillah of Jews on Earth

Could you follow in Abraham’s footsteps, could you have the faith he had to leave his father’s home and follow G_d’s instructions?  Despite being a believer, I’m not sure if I could…so perhaps I don’t really have the gift of faith: I certainly know I don’t have the faith Abraham had, but I don’t have to:  Abraham had faith for all of us.

The story of Lech Lecha beckons us, as humans and as Jews, to take risks and travel into the unknown in pursuit of our true purposes in life. It encourages us to listen to our intuitions, to pay attention to the inner voice that more often directs our heart than our head. It teaches us that we may have to leave what we know and move away from areas of comfort, in order to develop our potential.  One day, years down the road, you too, like Abraham will leave your father’s home: which invariably will bring you closer to your family you just left behind. Like Abraham, if we hear the call, we must remember to put our faith in that inner voice that guides us along the way and trust in our strength, ability, creativity and talents that when we make the journey, we too, may find our own personal “promised land” and that you personally will become the wonderful, brilliant and beautiful young lady you are destined to become.

G-d promised Abraham, and in turn promised us, that, if we become leaders and initiators, our initial efforts will never be forgotten.  Have faith and believe G-d and you too, just like Abraham will always be remembered as a blessing!

On behalf of the students, faculty and staff of The Davis Academy, we wish you Mazel Tov.

Life Lessons from Rosh Hashanah Services at Emory

It’s my 5th year leading Reform High Holy Day services at Emory. It’s an honor and something that I really look forward to even as there’s always a small part of me that longs to be “just” a congregant during this sacred season. Here are a few life lessons that I offer as a reflection on the Rosh Hashanah services that have just concluded.

1. Whitney Houston got it right: “Children are our future.” When we “teach them well” then they “will lead the way.”

It’s become an annual tradition to invite Davis Academy students to join me in leading a portion of the service including the Shema and the Shofar Blessings. This year Davis students played an extended role helping with a variety of prayers and readings as well as creating a reading of their own (on the spot). Featuring Davis Academy students helps everyone feel a sense of hope, community, and connection.

2. “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Either by chance or by fate this quote from Susan Sontag was hanging on a poster directly behind me on the bimah at the beautiful Marcus Hillel Center . As a rabbi I’m favorably disposed to the idea that words carry great power. Yet one of the things I most enjoy about leading services at Emory is that I don’t give a single sermon. Instead, I demand that Emory students give the sermons. My silence elicits their words and their words (invariably) elicit deep reflection for everyone in the congregation. One of the great blessings of my rabbinate is getting to hear the wisdom of Emory students that is vocalized as a result of my silence.

3. Building kehillah is hard. The Davis Academy is a very vibrant kehillah, a true community. On my annual pilgrimage to Emory for the High Holy Days I face a challenge that I don’t face in my role at Davis– the challenge of building kehillah. At Davis, kehillah is evident in all that we do. Kehillah can’t be suppressed and the power of kehillah sustains and strengthens us. During the High Holy Days at Emory we have to build kehillah. We have undergrads, grad students, professors, Davis families, community members, out of town visitors and more. On an annual basis only about 50% of the congregation are “repeat offenders.” Everyone else is new– freshman, new professors, folks who have relocated to Atlanta, and so on. Our task over the course of the High Holy Days is to build a sense of kehillah. It isn’t easy. The amazing staff of Hillels of Georgia does a great job of laying the foundation for this work but it’s still a challenge at the High Holy Days.

4. The fate of Judaism is directly tied to Judaism’s relevance to modern life. If Judaism doesn’t speak to the challenges we face as individuals, as a community, and as the human race in modern times then Judaism should probably just go away. If Judaism can’t help us navigate the horrors of Syria, the complexities of genetic coding, the human rights of gay marriage, and other societal and geopolitical issues than Judaism has no place being a part of our public discourse. I’m convinced that Judaism is more relevant than ever and that Jewish tradition, in its multivocality, does speak to these and other issues. But it’s clear to me that if rabbis aren’t able to make this relevance undeniably manifest than we are doing a disservice to our congregants and our tradition. Similarly, it’s the responsibility of every professing Jew to bring Judaism to bear on the issues that define our world.

There’s much more that could be extrapolated from the last 24 hours at Emory, but one of the highlights of Rosh Hashanah is the unique chance it provides for the ever elusive “nap” that comes with parenting a 2 year old.

Shanah Tovah!

In Support of Core Values

I predict that this post will be fairly self-evident.

Here’s my thesis:

Schools need core values.

Here are a few arguments in favor of core values…

1) Core values create shared language. Imagine student, parents, faculty, staff, and administration all having a shared language to describe the kind of learning community we both are and aspire to be. Core values are this shared language.

2) Core values clarify mission and purpose. Mission statements often live on walls and websites. Core values live in hearts and minds. Mission statements tend to be descriptive or philosophical. Core values are prescriptive and pragmatic– they tell us what we are trying to accomplish in a jargon free way.

3) Core values promote mindfulness. As we navigate the many competing claims on our time– whether in the classroom or the office, core values helps us establish our priorities and remain aware of our primary aspirations and responsibilities.

4) Core values are a great reading strategy. It is possible to read any story book, view any television show, listen to any song, or read any situation in terms of core values. When we model this for our students we ensure that they are able to view life through the lens of core values.

Does your school have core values? If so, how are the relevant in the daily life of various stakeholders? How do they impact school culture? How do they affect the way that your school is perceived in the wider community?

The Davis Academy has five core values.

They are: Kavod (honor), Ruach (spirit/spirituality), Tzedek (righteousness), Kehillah (community), and Chochmah (wisdom).

During the previous school year we undertook an extensive deliberative process to re-articulate our core values, growing from three core values to the five listed above. Already our new core values have had cultural and programmatic impact. They provided a framework for our staff week, will be the subject of parent education classes, will be incorporated into lesson plans for students, used to help frame discipline, and much more.

Having core values that live only on a wall or a website might actually be worse than having no core values at all. If that’s the case at your school consider raising the topic with the relevant members of the administration. Make an impassioned case for living core values at your school. Period.

Tzedek and Non-Acceptance

One of the core menschlichkeit values at my school, The Davis Academy, is tzedek (“righteousness”). Tzedek means living a morally upright life. Ideally we’d all embody tzedek  but this is obviously not the case. The disconnect between what we know is right(eous) and what we often find, in our own lives and certainly in the world around us, is often very stark. It turns out that living morally and ethically is much harder than it seems. It turns out that human beings might intellectually grasp the importance of moral and ethical excellence but we generally don’t yearn to do the good. If we are passionately committed to living righteously the world arounds us presents many stumbling blocks to thwart us. It’s not enough to be intellectually committed to tzedek. Both as educators and as individuals we need to feel emotionally and spiritually stirred to pursue tzedek in our daily lives. That’s why I think non-acceptance is vitally important.

Non-acceptance, outrage, and spiritual indignation are powerful motivators. Abraham felt these emotions when he argued with God against destroying Sodom and Gemorrah. Moses felt these emotions when saw an Egyptian slavedriver beating a helpless Israelite.

Non-acceptance arises when we are able to see the abyss between the world as it is and the world as it should be. Outrage arises when we realize that the status quo, so deeply entrenched and ingrained, reinforces iniquity and injustice. Spiritual indignation bubbles up when we taste the disconnect between our principles, our potential, and our personal power, and the hypocrisy, inertia, and excuses that come too easily.

The cognitive and emotional dissonance captured by non-acceptance, outrage, and spiritual indignation can propel us towards tzedek. It can help us push through the malaise and complacency that keep tzedek just beyond the brink of consciousness. When we come home to tzedek we can confront the dizzying notion that each of us has the power to make a difference.

If you’ve read this far you might enjoy the song Rise Up from my CD: Be a Blessing. It features the Mt. Zion Second Baptist Church Gospel Choir. Click here to download the song or the entire album for free from CD Baby.