Why I Love Graduation and the End of the School Year

While standing in the hallway waving goodbye to Davis Academy students headed off to enjoy their well-deserved summer vacation I observed a group of 5th grade boys joyfully singing the refrain of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” I figured what the heck and joined with them for a chorus or two as they proudly paraded down the hallway. Many educators greet the end of the school year reluctantly, I think it’s a beautiful and important time. It’s a time that I greet with joy. Here are some of the things I love about graduation and the end of the school year.

1. Summer is to the school year what Shabbat is to the work week. It’s a necessary time that allows children, families, and educators to reflect on what has come before. Everyone involved in full time education– students, parents, teachers, and administrators eventually reach a point during the school year when the pace, the demands, the obligations, and everything that comes with a typical Fall or Spring semester is overwhelming. The fact that our work is sacred and that this sense of overwhelm affirms most educators in the importance and value of our work doesn’t change the fact that time to reflect, read up, and rejuvenate can be scarce at times. Though many of us work during the summer, and many kids and families keep very busy, the arrival of summer offers the possibility of meaningful perspective, truly self-directed personal and professional growth, and a chance to be intentional about our aspirations for the upcoming year.

2. Students  teach us a bold and enduring lesson as they look forward to and embrace summer. It’s not that they don’t love school, their teachers, and their classmates. It’s simply that they resiliently and optimistically look toward the future. They embrace growth and change. We might not be ready (or we might be VERY ready) to let them go, but they’re ready to move on (or at least they think they are). As many adults are both consciously and unconsciously afraid of change we can look to children to find an authentic alternative that embraces change and growth. I asked a group of 5th graders if they were nervous about the transition to middle school —  they said they weren’t and I believe them. In chatting with graduating 8th graders many expressed nervousness about leaving Davis– but they’ll all do it and greet the challenge head on.

3. Educators  need to remember that our task is to inspire and empower students during the time that we have them in our care. Though the “school year” is an artificial construct, it’s one that carries with it a certain measure of wisdom. Judaism teaches, “Who is truly wise? Someone who learns from all people.” Each of us is meant to have many different teachers over the course of our lives. The unique “Torah” that each of us has to teach is meant to be shared with many different people. Stated differently, each of us is meant to have many students. Relationships typically don’t die, they change. Our students of today will become our alumni of tomorrow. They will find new teachers who will give them new insights and present them with new challenges. At the same time we will welcome new students and the “Torah” that we teach will evolve and change as we navigate through our lives and our careers.

Graduation and the end of the school year are unavoidable facts that all educators know well. That they cannot be avoided is a blessing to students and teachers alike. It’s humbling to know that we have one another for a finite period of time, that despite our best efforts our work will remain imperfect and incomplete, and our relationships will grow and evolve. These are existential truths that all people experience. As educators we get to experience them head on and try to glean the wisdom that they offer us.

The Child in Room 18

This week I did something I pray that none of us ever have to do. I visited a child who was actively dying and his family. There is no way to express the feeling of dread that welled up as I navigated the corridors of Scottish Rite. No way to express the rush of tears that were summoned by the sobs of those that stood vigil. No way to express the anger and confusion that come with standing beside a family that has been robbed of hopes and dreams. No way to express the sense of holiness and solemnity that comes with watching a grandmother stroking the hair of the child. No way to express the unpredictable decent of laughter into tears and back to laughter. No way to express what it means to speak to a child not knowing if he can hear. Not knowing what to say. Making promises that I must now pray to be able to honor. Promises to remember, to respect, to celebrate. No way to bracket images of my own children. No way to sidestep the theological implications. No way to empathize with the parents, drowning in the grief of anticipation. No way to assess what Amichai called the diameter of the bomb. No way to process the artwork drawn by the older brother with the caption, “Good luck in heaven!” No way to thank the nurses that patiently and attentively made handprints and footprints for loved ones. No way to express what it means to be able to turn around and walk away. No way to know if my counsel is that of a sage or an idiot. No way to hit send on an email that will wound people that I care about.

It’s not about me. It’s about all of us. Together we make order out of chaos. Together we make meaning out of biology. Together we mourn and eventually celebrate. We cry on one another’s shoulders. We stand behind, beside, and among brokenness. We gather shards, patiently, indignantly, courageously, and reluctantly. We stand within the breach and look toward the light. Sometimes in the light we see the face of a dying child. Sometimes the sun/son shines so brightly we can’t help but cry.

A Wedding and A Funeral

In the last week and change I’ve…

…attended a conference in New York

… co-officiated my youngest brother’s wedding in Los Angeles with my wife, also a rabbi

…watched my daughter walk down the aisle as flower girl

… spent quality time with family that I rarely get to see including cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, parents, and grandparents

…spent time in the recording studio working on an album of original Jewish music

… had the worst case of food poisoning I can remember

… and attended a funeral of a colleague who lost her mother.

Weeks like these have a way of opening our hearts. Conferences remind us how much learning there still is to be done. Food poisoning makes us appreciate health! Creating and recording original music nourishes the soul. Spending time with family helps ground us. And life cycle events bring the past, present, and future into conversation, reminding us how much we all share as human beings.

Most people won’t ever know the feeling of officiating at their youngest brother’s wedding. It’s a profound privilege and deeply moving. To know that he’s found his life partner is really a joy.

I’ve attended a number of funerals in my life but something happened at this funeral that I’ve never experienced. The eulogy was delivered by the deceased’s grandson. And it was delivered entirely in Spanish.

I don’t speak Spanish. But even without speaking the language I felt like I knew exactly what was being said, or at least what emotions were being conveyed. A number of people around me also don’t speak Spanish and many of them were crying along with the bereaved. How can a eulogy in a language I don’t speak for a woman I didn’t know be so powerful and stirring?

On the plane back from Los Angeles I watched “Dallas Buyers Club.” I wasn’t prepared for the power of the narrative– the story of a man, who when faced with death, decided to reject the premise of his diagnosis and live out the rest of his days to the fullest of his being. The lead character was a complicated individual to say the least, but at the end of the day his humanity and his desire to live a meaningful life are the enduring legacy I took from the film. How often do we connect to our purpose(s) as human beings? How often do we look ourselves in the mirror and ask whether we living meaningful, purposeful lives? Do we speak in these terms to others? Do we help others in their quests to live meaningful lives?

In the rabbi’s eulogy he shared a few of the lessons we could all learn from the life and example of the deceased. Honoring tradition, overcoming obstacles and having grit, and others. What are the lessons that others will learn from us?

Why Am I Studying to be a Doctor of Education???????

This is a question I’ve asked myself again and again over the last couple of years. It’s a question that any sane doctoral student asks, again and again. I can almost feel the universe of doctoral students pulsating with the rhythm of this question being repeated over and over again with a mantra-like hypnotism.

My answer(s) are many, ranging from the mystical to the practical, from the inscrutable to the babbling. Let’s start with a few of the “nots.”

1. It’s not because I’d rather be inside clacking away on my keyboard on this beautiful, sunny precursor-to-Spring sort of day.

2. It’s not because I enjoy eavesdropping on the weekly men’s club group that occupies the seminar table at my local Panera.

2a. It’s not because I enjoy the two near deaf folks sitting across the restaurant who are engaging in delightfully banal “small scream” (as opposed to small talk) for the pleasure of all other guests.

2b. It’s not because I like asking strangers to watch my computer when I inevitably need to run to the restroom during my 3-4 hour cafe sagas.

3. It’s not because my vision of good parenting involves entrusting my kids to a legion of fabulous babysitters on Sunday mornings.

4. It’s not because friends and family queue up to hear about my doctoral research at social gatherings.

5. It’s not because I believe the doctoral dissertation is an under appreciated genre of literature in need of a revival.

I’ve entertained all these notions before, and let me assure you, they fall definitively in the “nots” category!

So why AM I studying to be a Doctor of Education??????

Panera JPEG

 

1. I love learning.

2. My work at The Davis Academy warrants more than curiosity, it warrants deep and sustained inquiry.

3. My students at The Davis Academy warrant more than appreciation, they warrant serious study and consideration.

4. My research topic– adolescent spirituality– deserves to be more than a buzzword. It needs academic study to broaden respect and understanding.

5. To be the best practitioner I can be I need to be engaged in ongoing study. I need to force myself into a reflective place, a place of critical inquiry, and a place of ongoing curiosity.

The list goes on…

To my fellow Doctor of Education journey-people, let’s be strong and strengthen one another! Whatever cafe we find ourselves in, whatever conversations we’re overhearing, whatever babysitting fees we’re paying, let’s keep our eyes on the prize and remember that the destination is only as meaningful as the journey.

A Cage Went in Search of a Bird- Revisiting Kafka

 

I first read Franz Kafka in high school. The Trial made a strong impression on me. A nameless person held accountable for an unknown crime, pursued and persecuted by faceless, soulless judges, lawyers, and investigators. The anonymous horror and relentless anxiety stuck with me. Honestly, it felt a lot like high school.

Since that initial reading Kafka has occupied a small but special place in my heart. Prior to the start of rabbinical school I took a family vacation to Europe. We visited Prague and I broke off to go in search of any Kafka related sights. When I finally found a bookshop dedicated to his writings I was shocked to discover that I was in Prague on what would have been Kafka’s 120th birthday. In Judaism we say, “May you live to 120” (as Moses did). I took this as a sign that it was my duty to make sure that Kafka’s voice inform my emerging rabbinate.

In rabbinical school I gave a sermon on the Kafkaesque and the Torahesque. It triggered an interesting conversation in my homiletics class. The main takeaway was that most congregants probably weren’t interested in wondering what would happen if they awoke one morning to discover they’d been transformed into a giant insect.

For a short time I considered the parable known as “Before the Law” to be an honest depiction of how most people relate to organized religion, spirituality, and their relationship with God. Basically, we seek to enter, the door is sealed, the guard is uncompromising, and, only once life has passed us by and we’ve reached the end, does the guard tell us that we screwed it all up. I even went so far as to inflict this parable on a group of unwitting college kids who stuck around for a Yom Kippur afternoon study session.

Being the parent of a 2 year old, I hadn’t given Kafka much thought recently until I was trying to make room on my bookshelf and discovered I had duplicate copies of The Trial and The Castle. That’s no longer the case.

All of this mundane preamble leads me to the (mundane?) point: Joseph Epstein has convinced me that my love affair with Kafka is part of a broader cultural phenomenon that rests on a very shaky foundation.

In an article entitled “Is Kafka Overrated?” written for The Atlantic Epstein argues convincingly that our ongoing esteem and veneration of Kafka is basically silly. His argument is summed up (fittingly) in the concluding paragraph of his essay:

All of which brings up the question of whether Franz Kafka is truly a major writer. His greatest proponents, insisting that he is, cannot say why, and ask for a permanent moratorium on conventional criticism of his writing. His detractors, a distinct minority, feel that what he left us is the sad story of a lost soul destroyed by modern life. In the end, Henry James wrote in an essay on Turgenev, what we want to know about a writer is, “How does he feel about life?” Kafka found it unbearably complicated, altogether daunting, and for the most part joyless, and so described it in his fiction. This is not, let us agree, the best outlook for a great writer. Great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.

 

The idea that great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life rather than crushed by them is one that I embrace. That the majority of Kafka’s works were never completed, that the majority were never intended for publication, that he wrote letters that were never delivered, pursued relationships with women that were left unfulfilled—these and other examples led me to feel a sense of defeat rather than resistance, of hopelessness rather than striving. At this point in my life, when the mysteries and simplicities of life are deeply impressive, when being crushed is in no way an option, I think I’m prepared to dedicate my precious reading time to other authors and new ideas. It’s still a Kafkaesque world out there, but I still plan on finishing this blog (and maybe even my doctorate).

The Face of God, Other, and Self: A Purim Reflection

“When You hid Your face, I was terrified.”

— Psalm 30:8

“The presence of the face is precisely the very possibility of understanding one another.”

 –Emmanuel Levinas, 1952

            Purim is once again at hand. In addition to the costume pageants, carnivals, school dance, school-wide scavenger hunt, and frozen yogurt cart, Purim also has a serious side. Consider the idea of Hester Panim (literally “Hidden Face”). Hester Panim refers to the fact that there is no explicit reference to God in the Megillah. It raises the theologically challenging idea that there have been times in Jewish history when God has hidden God’s face, or maybe even looked the other way. 

            The Jewish-French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, has an interesting take on Hester Panim and on the idea of the “face” in general. Levinas believed that seeing the face of another human being was always a transformational experience. Once we’ve looked into the eyes of another person, noticed the creases of their brow, and the slight asymmetry of their features, we immediately find ourselves ethically (and infinitely) obligated to them.  The face, more than anything, conveys both the uniqueness and the universality of what it means to be human.

           Through the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor), Purim reminds us of our ethical obligation to see the many faces that comprise our community. On the other hand, Hester Panim reminds us of what happens when we hide from ourselves and others, when we look the other way, and when we mask our humanity. As we put on our Purim masks let’s take a moment to look in the mirror. As we see ourselves reflected in that image, so too may we see our shared humanity reflected in the faces of those who surround us. When we truly see our face and the face of the Other, we counteract the terrifying notion that God may, at times, be looking the other way.

“Meaning Questions” or “Why Education is Awesome”

Consider the following excerpt from Max Van Manen’s book, Researching Lived Experience:

          Meaning questions cannot be “solved” and thus done away with. Meaning questions can be better or more deeply understood, so that, on the basis of this understanding I may be able to act more thoughtfully and more tactfully in certain situations. But in some sense meaning questions can never be closed down… (Van Manen, 1990, p. 23)
 
Passages like this should make all educators smile. If we haven’t already, we need to liberate ourselves and our students from the notion that all questions have answers. Instead, we need to implant the understanding, deep within our students minds and our own, that meaning questions aren’t meant to be answered; instead they are the vehicle for cultivating more empathic, thoughtful, and ethical individuals. 
 
The notion that meaning questions, “can never be closed down,” is one that should give us pause. I know that there have been times when I’ve responded to a meaning question in a fashion that either consciously or unconsciously attempted “close down.” In the name of expediency, fatigue, insecurity, or frustration we run the risk of telling our students that their meaning questions won’t be celebrated in our classrooms and institutions. This is sad and all too common. The opposite: celebrating, nurturing, and giving voice to meaning questions is the hallmark of transformative education. 
 

In the Grave

First Clown:
A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! ‘a pour’d a flagon
of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was, sir,
Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester.

Hamlet:
This? [Takes the skull]

First Clown:
E’en that.

Hamlet:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite
jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a
thousand times, and now how abhorr’d in my imagination it is!
My gorge rises at it.

Hamlet Act 5, scene 1, 179–188

Rabbi:

Where do you find God?

Kindergartener: 

In the grave.

Davis Academy Kabbalat Shabbat 

           One of the greatest joys of working with children is you never (yes, NEVER), know what they’re going to say. Early this week a 3rd grader shared with me that, “God created life by creating love.” Then, later that day, a 7th grader asked me if he could donate a portion of his bar mitzvah money to The Davis Academy as a way of “thanking the school for making him who he is.” And then, there’s the wonderfully macabre statement of the kindergartener shared above. When I say that there was a collective gasp from the 300+ adults that were present when this remarked was made, I mean it.

          Imagine the scene, a visiting rabbi, Rick Jacobs, the new president of the URJ, no less, asked the question: “Where can I find God?” Responses, “In the sky”; “In your heart”; “Everywhere”; “In the sky”; and then, “In the grave.” Followed by collective gasp.

         I couldn’t help but smile. Now I happen to know that this particular kindergartener has been curious about death lately. Thankfully he hasn’t suffered a recent personal loss or anything like that. Rather, he’s very curious about death and his parents have very open conversations on the topic. But I couldn’t help but smile because he’s absolutely right.

         When Hamlet confronted the skull of his old comrade, Yorick, his imagination was “abhorr’d”. He can’t grasp that something so vital could cease to be. It’s an affront to his desire to dwell in a meaningful and compassionate universe.

          When our kindergarten student thinks of death he, knowingly or not, is expressing his belief that death is a part of life. He’s expressing the belief that as God gives us life, so too God is present with us when the light of life is extinguished. He’s paraphrasing the traditional Jewish blessing, recited upon learning of someone’s death: Baruch Dayan Ha-emet, Blessed is the True Judge. He may even be making the point made by many an existentialist philosopher that the awareness of our mortality is the key fact that compels us to make the most of each day.

          How blessed we are to have children to teach us life’s most profound lessons!

The Unbearable Lightness of Judaism

For a more fully developed exploration of this idea click here.
“The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.”
“Before the beginning of the nineteenth century all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden.”
    How does Kundera’s notion of “the heaviest of burdens” as “an image of life’s most intense fulfillment” influence our reading of the opening line of Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization (above)? How can Jewish educators transform the feeling of burden that Kaplan describes, with its negative connotations, into the burden that Kundera describes?
     Kundera’s burden is one that connects the bearer with the earth, with reality, and with truth. It is the burden that leads to fulfillment and happiness. The heavier the burden the greater the reward.
     Kaplan’s burden is one that keeps the bearer bent, buckled and ultimately broken. It’s a burden that oppresses, defeats, and distracts.
    I believe that the burden of Judaism can be Kundera’s burden rather than Kaplan’s burden.  For starters, to speak of Jewish commitment is to speak of a life that is grounded in Judaism. To speak of Jewish commitment is to speak on one’s ability to take a stand with both feet planted firmly on Jewish soil. Judaism is a burden that should ground us, thrust us into reality, and make us feel like our actions and decisions have weight and impact.
    When Moses approached the burning bush and found his life’s destiny he was told, “remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Just as the bowler hat floating in midair is a central image for Kundera’s novel so too should be the bare foot planted firmly on the earth a metaphor for Jewish commitment. Jewish education that seeks to instill a sense of commitment must accustom students to “taking a stand” for what they believe in and a willingness to get their feet and hands dirty.