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.

The World’s Shortest and Longest Field Trip

Every year Davis Academy 3rd graders go on the world’s shortest and longest field trip. They boarded busses and head to an amazing organization called The Community Assistance Center. It’s the world’s shortest field trip because the CAC is approximately 1 mile away from The Davis Academy. It’s the world’s longest field trip because the realities that the CAC addresses are very different from the life experience of Davis 3rd graders. Here’s a description of the work of the CAC (taken from their website):

CAC programs are designed to help families and individuals facing emergency situations meet the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing. Our goals are to prevent homelessness, alleviate hunger, promote self-sufficiency and enrich the lives of children whose families are struggling to make ends meet. Since CAC was founded 25 years ago the center has touched 16,000 families in our community. In 2011 we served 5,000 individuals and families.

Our 3rd grade partners with the CAC because their curriculum dedicates time to understanding the history of Georgia and the important concept of “community.” Many of the children are surprised to learn that there are families in their zip code and in their community that do not have enough money for rent, fresh food, or other basic necessities. As we tour the CAC the children see the food pantry– sometimes full, sometimes partially full, and sometimes alarmingly spare. They see shelves dedicated to basic school supplies like paper, pencils, notebooks, and backpacks, and they see the clothing processing facilities with everything from underwear to formal wear. As they tour the CAC they begin to understand the importance of the collections they do at Davis in support of the CAC.


With seeing comes understanding. 3rd graders come to understand that volunteering benefits not only those who receive the toiletries and groceries, but that it also transforms the volunteer into a more loving, more aware, and more thoughtful person. They come to understand that “Thrift Store” isn’t only a song by Macklemore, but a place where people are able to shop with dignity. They come to understand that the world actually is unfair and imbalanced but that it doesn’t have to be.

They come to understand the idea of tzedek— one of The Davis Academy’s menschlichkeit values. At a very young age children are able to understand the idea of tzedakah— charitable giving. Tzedek, meaning “justice” or “righteousness” is a bit harder to understand because it’s much more abstract. Through visits to the CAC and other service learning experiences children understand that tzedakah is one of the ways that Jews strive to create tzedek.

Cac 2


The Davis/ CAC partnership is now several years old. The CAC is blessed to have many partners in the Sandy Springs community (though never enough) and Davis students are blessed to have many opportunities to pursue tzedek. It’s a short drive, but a long journey to the CAC and our students see and understand differently once they’ve been there and back.


Fixing a Hole

Rosh Hashanah came two days after Labor Day. On Labor Day we hosted a little get together. Our little get together coincided with a massive plumbing problem. Pregnant wife, potty-training 2 year old, company, holidays, no flushing toilets– unsustainable.

Fortunately I’d already had a few plumbers come give quotes to fix the problem and I called the one that I thought could get the job done. So today, amidst all the Rosh Hashanah preparations that take place in a two-rabbi household we also had a tractor in our front yard along with an 8 foot deep hole. And then there were Darrell and Cody– fixing the hole.

I came home from work to find Darrell and Cody up to their necks in the hole. I was carrying my shofar, it being Erev Rosh Hashanah. First Darrell tried to pull one on me by telling me he was going to have to rip up my entire driveway. Then I asked Cody about his awesome tattoo– a Gibson guitar with a dove. It was an homage to his grandfather who taught him to play on a Gibson– a Gibson Dove. Then Cody asked me about my shofar. I explained and then gave it a blow– rabbis can’t resist teachable moments. At that point Darrell chimed in that his grandmother had a hollowed out bull’s horn that she used to call in the boys from the farm. Between Cody’s Gibson (I’ve got a Gibson as well) and Darrell’s grandmother’s shofar, I know we all were thinking how much we have in common even though our paths would’ve never crossed if they weren’t there to fix my sewer line. I think I made a comment to Darrell along the lines of, “If you go far enough back all that stuff is connected” by which I meant his grandmother, Cody’s grandfather and all our ancestry. All this with Cody and Darrell down in the hole.

Eventually I went inside and greeted my wife, who thought that my shofar demo was just about the funniest thing she’d ever heard. We had a good laugh. Then I accidentally flushed the toilet, flooding the hole in which Cody and Darrell were standing. It’s a good thing Yom Kippur is coming up because I feel pretty bad about that.

Later that evening I made my way to Emory to lead the Reform High Holy Day Services. Before “Shalom Rav,” the evening prayer for peace, I took a moment to reflect on the horrible war in Syria and also told the story of the common humanity I’d found between me, Cody, and Darrell. I also took a moment to dwell on the idea of “roots.” Roots are important– they’re what ground us and make us feel connected to community, faith, tradition and so on. But roots can also cause problems. Cody and Darrell entered my life to remove a root that was clogging my sewer line. Part of the trouble we face as a species has to do with roots. Take Syria– how can we ever get to the root of the conflict there? Short of pulling up the rotting and dangerous roots, how can we ever expect to see meaningful peace, or at least an end to the senseless killing?

Judaism takes roots very seriously. They’re the foundation of our faith and also the building blocks of the Hebrew language. We also take peace very seriously. One of the reasons I’m able to be authentic as a rabbi is because every Jewish communal prayer experience has at least one, if not multiple prayers for peace.

So the image of Cody and Darrell digging up the roots in my front yard, and the little piece of common humanity we found in one another, is an important image for me this High Holy Days. Maybe it’s because I had to deal with a plumbing emergency on Erev Rosh Hashanah. That’s certainly memorable enough.  But maybe it’s because there’s something to the idea of getting to the root of our problems by celebrating the roots of our common humanity.

If you need a plumber let me know. I’ve got a good one I can refer you too…



Davis Goes to Birmingham

Davis Goes to Birmingham

Fifth Grade students at The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School, just returned from our annual day trip to Birmingham, Alabama.  Why does Davis go to Birmingham? The easiest way to answer is by paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who responded to the same question when it was posed to him in 1963, “We go to Birmingham because injustice was there.”  We go to Birmingham to help our students understand the Civil Rights Movement and to reflect on the complicated history of the American South. We go there because, as a Reform Jewish Day School, we are committed to looking at, rather than away from, difficult topics like racism, discrimination, and segregation.

The first stop on our Birmingham trip is in many ways the most compelling and complicated one: Temple Emanu-El. Temple Emanu-El is a synagogue with a rich and celebrated history. We take our students there to reflect on the Jewish experience in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era. Rather than speaking generally about the conflicting forces at play in the Jewish community, we teach them about the extraordinary life of Rabbi Milton Grafman. Rabbi Grafman led Temple Emanu-El from 1941 until his retirement in 1975.

On the Tuesday prior to our trip to Birmingham, students and parents came to The Davis Academy for a family program. Students received name tags that said, “Rabbi Milton Grafman.” That evening we discussed and debated Rabbi Grafman’s  co-authorship of the open letter, “A Call to Unity” in which he and seven other local clergymen called civil rights demonstrations, “unwise and untimely.” We then read excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s response, the famous, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which King criticized Rabbi Grafman and the other clergymen at great length. While the level of discourse was extremely high and the topic deeply nuanced, the adults in the room engaged the children in conversation about the many different factors at play.

Sitting in Temple Emanu-El’s historic sanctuary two days later, our students took a deeper dive into the life of Rabbi Grafman. They recalled that the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed on Sunday, September 15th, 1963 resulting in the tragic death of “four little girls.” They then learned that Erev Rosh Hashanah in 1963 fell on September 27th. Students learned that Rabbi Grafman spoke from the heart that Rosh Hashanah, with notes but not a fully written sermon. They then had a chance to offer suggestions for what Rabbi Grafman might have said to his congregation that evening. After brainstorming suggestions, we listened to an audio recording of Rabbi Grafman delivering the introductory lines of the actual sermon after which some of the students were invited to the very same bimah to read additional excerpts from Rabbi Grafman’s remarks. We processed the experience and concluded with a very special and sacred moment. Thanks to Rabbi Laila Hass of Temple Emanu-El we were able to hear not only Rabbi Grafman’s sermon, but a unique recording of Rabbi Grafman reading the names of the four little girls before the recitation of Kaddish Yatom. We rose as a congregation to recite the words of Kaddish together, not only for the four little girls, but for Rabbi Grafman as well.

From Temple Emanu-El we went to the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Museum. At each step of our journey we helped our students look at, rather than away from, the complex topics of racism, discrimination, and segregation. Together we thought about our obligation as Jews to help build the kind of world in which we want to live, rather than accepting the world as it is.

We went to Birmingham to learn about the injustice that had so deeply defined the city for much of its history. Along the way we learned a deeply moving Jewish story, the story of Rabbi Grafman and Temple Emanu-El. We left Birmingham with a renewed appreciation of the challenges and opportunities that we have as Jews and as Americans.

The Davis Academy’s annual trip to Birmingham is an experience that encapsulates some of the essence of what it means to be a Reform Jewish Day School. We look forward to next year’s trip when an additional seventy students will meet Rabbi Grafman and the congregation that he so courageously shepherded.

A Moment of Connection Amidst a Pillar of Defense

 The following is a guest post from Leah Zigmund. Leah is the Academic Director for the Center for Creative Ecology, at Kibbutz Lotan in Israel’s Southern Arava desert.


I’ve just returned from a week at the Bedouin village of Qasr a Sir with our semester abroad students. The week was very moving for me, and truly a cross-cultural experience. I wanted to share with you some of what I saw there. These are crazy times here in Israel, and my week in the Beer Sheva region did coincide with some of the bombings. But in spite of it all it is so important to keep these ‘connections with the other’ alive…

I spent the last week with my semester abroad students at the Bedouin village of Qasr a Sir, about 10 km from Dimona, in Israel’s Negev region. We spent the week working with an aid organization called Bustan. Bustan has a camp set up in the village and does various projects there, the most successful projects so far are a women’s catering business that they are helping to establish and an educational tour of Bedouin settlements in the Negev that they run called the “Negev unplugged tour”.  In particular my students and I were helping with some earth plaster construction of an eco-tourism site that Bustan and some of the villagers are trying to create. We lived on the site of this future tourism area together with a few of Bustan’s interns for the week.

We spent the week working; learning about Bedouin history and culture; getting to know some of the villagers; and drinking a lot of very sweet tea. One of the most consistent things about all of our interactions with the Bedouin over the course of the week was what everyone said at the end of any formal conversation with our group. Every single time we finished a conversation about culture or politics or history we were told, “Thank you for coming to visit us, we are so glad that you are here. Please tell people about our lives, about who we are, about how we live and what we are going through.”  So, friends and family, I write this post in an attempt to do just that—to describe for you these wonderful people that I spent a week with, and to share with you a little slice of the enormous human tapestry of this world that you might not know of otherwise. Below I give you a very brief glimpse into just a few of the people who became our friends last week.

Tanwa is a woman who lives just up the hill from where we stayed; we went to her house several times to watch her make fresh pitta bread. She adds the water very slowly to the flour and kneads it for a long time until the dough is very elastic. Then she twists the balls of dough like a pizza maker until it is nearly paper-thin and cooks it on a steaming hot metal oven called a saj. Whenever we went she fed us fresh hot pitta, and then we bought a few to take back to our place to eat later.

Anwar is a young man, just married a few years ago with two children. We did not meet his wife but throughout the week Anwar was our main connection to the village. He came by often, helped us get things that we might need like tools and other supplies, he figured out  why our drinking water had been disconnected at one point and took care of that too.  Anwar took us on a tour of the village a few days after we arrived and besides giving us a history of the village (which dates back at least 300 years, in this exact spot), and pointing out the ancient spice route which runs right through the middle of the village, he also told us why he is so glad that we are here. “I am a man of peace,” he said. “I believe that we will make the peace, the simple people, not the men who wear the ties. When you come here, when people come here, and we sit together and we talk, we are learning about each other.  Tell our story when you leave here. Tell people about our lives here in the village. This is what will bring peace one day. And if I come to America I will visit you, and I will learn about your lives, and I will be making peace too.”

Atia is an elder of the section of the village where Bustan has its base. The village is made up of one extended family, and is organized into neighborhoods by smaller branches of that family tree. They can trace back 300 years to a common ancestor and most of the people here know exactly how they are related to everyone else. If is confusing for us to understand, however, because when the men have multiple wives the distinctions between brother and cousin get blurred. Everyone there has the same last name.  Our second night in the village we had a small bonfire and one of the other visiting Israelis had a guitar. We were singing a combination of Hebrew and English songs, when someone asked for a Bedouin song. At first the men were very reluctant to sing for us but then Atia said that he would sing, if one of my students, Laura, played with him. They were already sitting next to each other and so he told Laura to watch him and somehow he managed to teach her the song with music as the only common language between them. Watching her play with him was one of the sweetest moments of the week for me.

After about 5 days in the village I left my students in the hands of the wonderful staff of Bustan for a few hours and went into Beer Sheva to make some connections for the coming spring semester.  I came “home” to the village to the news that the girls had been invited to a birthday party. Shaima was turning 23. This made her not too much older than the students themselves, about the age of their older sisters. We met Shaima a few times already over the course of our week. Her Hebrew was very good and I talked with her a lot one day about her experiences since leaving school and before getting married. Shaima is the second wife to Atia, they were married about a year and a half ago and have a baby who I about six months old.

When we were getting ready to go I thought that we were going to a traditional Bedouin party, and I was very excited. I hadn’t brought any skirts, and was hoping that I wouldn’t offend anyone in my jeans. We arrived at Shaima’s house and were welcomed into her guest living room. This is a separate room from the rest of the house; it had a large television even though they don’t have any electricity. I asked about this and was told that it just “looks good”. The room was lit with candles and there were plates of food on tables—the kinds of things that I would expect to find at any birthday party—pretzels, cookies, nuts, other snacks. Shaima was wearing jeans and a tight fitting shirt, and she was showing her hair—this was very very different from the last times I had seen her with her traditional loose black dress and her head covering. The other surprising thing was that we were the only guests. I asked about this. It turns out that Bedouin adults don’t have birthday parties, but she had been to one of the international volunteer’s birthdays a few weeks ago and really wanted to have one. So this was our present to Shaima—we were throwing her a birthday party. Well, we quickly organized some party games—we played “broken telephone” in 5 languages such that no phrase ever made it around the circle. We played “keep the balloon up in the air”; we danced;  we took photos of each other with our cell phones and then looked at them; and then we lit candles and sang happy birthday in Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

I haven’t said anything here about Bedouin history, or what is happening with Bedouin land rights here in Israel. If you want to find out more about the Bedouin or about the organization Bustan and the wonderful work they are doing you can check out this website,

Leah Zigmond grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and is the Academic Director for the Center for Creative Ecology, at Kibbutz Lotan in Israel’s Southern Arava desert where she has been a resident since 1999. When Leah is not in the classroom, the garden, her office, or on a trip with her students she enjoys baking, reading, and hiking with her husband and two kids.




The Long Walk

Recently The Davis Academy Middle School community had the honor and privilege of hosting MK Shlomo Molla. Molla, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent, is only the second Ethiopian Jew to serve in the Knesset. He visited us as a guest of the Israeli Consulate of the Southeast and the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

MK Molla and Davis Academy Students

MK Molla’s remarks focused on his personal journey from a small village in Ethiopia, to a prison and then a refugee camp in Sudan, and finally, to his Jewish homeland: Israel. He described the moment he told his mother that he intended to walk from Ethiopia to Israel, having never seen a map, a car, or an airplane. Eventually he and a small group of Ethiopian Jewish friends would walk more than 700 kilometers in 8 days from Ethiopia to Sudan. In Sudan they were tortured, imprisoned, and a member of their group was killed. After spending time in a refugee camp they were eventually part of an Israeli air force rescue operation that saw them safely to Israel.

After sharing his personal story of faith, courage, and survival, Molla shared about his work in Israel. He emphasized that the focus of his work is to close the gap between rich and poor in Israel, as well as to work on behalf of minorities, like Ethiopian Jews, Reform and Conservative Jews, and Israeli Arabs. He also emphasized that the international community must stand with Israel in opposition to Iranian nuclear weapons, as well as the important relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. He stressed the importance of learning Hebrew, of visiting Israel, and of caring about what happens in Israeli society.

At the outset MK Molla shared that he is the proud father of four children, and that he misses his children tremendously when he is traveling around the world on behalf of Israel. Our hope at Davis is that he felt a connection to our children, future leaders of the Jewish community and passionate supporters of Israel.

There were many lessons our students and faculty could’ve reflected on while listening to MK Molla. A few that endure for me are:

1) The power of an idea, the hold of a dream.

2) That to be proud of your country and critical of your country is not oxy moronic.

3) The conditions of our station in life are arbitrary, but what we do within the context of those conditions should be deliberate.

4) If we can respond to brutality with a renewed commitment to compassion and righteousness then we have triumphed over those who would beat us down.

5) Humanity is logically prior and ethically superior to race and nationality.

Holy Ground

The opening pages of the book of Exodus, which Jews worldwide are reading this week, recall the mystical moment when Moses encounters the Burning Bush. Among the many details conveyed in the passage is the following:

God said to Moses, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” 

As I go about my days at The Davis Academy I am blessed to work with many amazing people of all ages. One of my colleagues, our 8th grade Jewish Studies teacher, has a spiritual practice that I truly admire: Whenever a student shares in a way that creates a feeling of holiness in the classroom, my colleague removes his shoes. This simple gesture acknowledges that mundane physical space can be transformed into sacred space through acts of sharing, connection, and vulnerability.

Imagine if we all removed our shoes whenever we felt that one of our students, children, friends, loved ones, or colleagues had either spoken or acted with kedusha (holiness). If we took this idea seriously many of us might end up spending most of the day in our socks– not a terrible prospect! Surely it would deepen our appreciation of the immeasurable enrichment that exists when sharing our lives with others.

Recently I received an email from a parent. Another colleague had asked this parent to reflect on the question of diversity at a Jewish day school. The question was prompted by the recognition that many prospective parents question whether Jewish day schools can have true diversity and prepare children to live in our blessedly diverse world. Her response, which I quote below, left me contemplating my socks:

         On the subject of diversity: every child is unique!  This uniqueness is not established by skin color, religious beliefs or by clothing, but by what comes from inside them.  Originally this was something that was said to me regarding uniforms. How can the kids express who they are if they all dress the same? Realizing that kids at Davis learn how to express themselves by words and actions, and cannot depend on an article of clothing to do so was very enlightening!  Most people/children seek out others like themselves when forming relationships.  At Davis, my children have found friends that are like them because of similarities in personality, not the fact that they are the same in a sea of external differences or diversity… If anyone is hesitant [to send their children to Davis] because of diversity or focus on religion, I would say then that is exactly why they should send their children.  Where diversity is something the children create from within, without losing what connects them to each other, it prepares them for whatever challenges- academic or social- they may eventually encounter.  

Each of us is daily inundated with emails, phone calls, and conversations; we’re participants in an endless social process. Hopefully amidst the ever flowing current of communication that washes over us, we can all pause to acknowledge the moments when we receive something truly special and holy. Attuning ourselves to these daily glimpses of sacred light might even make our favorite pair of shoes last a little longer. 

Shabbat Shalom!