Israel 2014- A Man of Life

Written for The Davis Academy Menschlichkeit blog and cross posted here.
5/16/14
The following is a poem written by Mitchell A. this evening just before Shabbat that he read aloud in front of the entire class at a reflective session at the Menorah in front of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament). It is published here with his permission.
I Am a Man of Life
I am not a man of religion,
I am not a man of fiction,
I am not a man of myth,
I am not a man of fact,
I am not a man of history.
I am a man of life.
But life is weird.
Life is made up
Of all these things.
History becomes fact,
Fact becomes fiction,
Fiction becomes myth,
Myth becomes religion.
Then all those factors live
In harmony and war
All at once.
All until there is only ash.
Then history rises from that ash
And the cycle continues.
Just as life does.
I could stop writing now, but I feel like I have to try to answer the question— what is it about the human spirit that enables us to create such beautiful poetry?
Friday is a crazy day in Jerusalem. Thousands of Muslims ascend the Temple Mount to offer their prayers, Jews hustle and bustle to prepare for Shabbat, tourists squeeze in a few extra visits before the entire city takes a day of rest and renewal. Today we contributed to the craziness of Jerusalem by participating in an archeological dig and going on a culinary tour of Machane Yehudah—Jerusalem’s central market place.
Approximately 10 years ago an illegal building project was undertaken at the Temple Mount. In order to create a entrance to one of the Mosques there, thousands of pounds of debris were removed from the Temple Mount. Rather than consulting with archeologists the debris was removed without any foresight or concern for preservation. It was rescued by a group of archeologists who recognized the irreparable loss that would’ve occurred if the debris had simply been discarded. As we sifted through buckets of debris we found artifacts dating from the First Temple Period (approximately 800-500 BCE) all the way through the modern era. We found two coins, the dates of which we don’t yet know, as well as many pieces of pottery, animal bones, and mosaic tiles. We literally sifted through history. Did one of us uncover an artifact that would turn fiction into myth? What about myth into religion? We made history rise from that ash.
After reviewing the day’s key archeological discoveries and washing up we headed to Machane Yehudah. Machane Yehudah is such a multisensory, multicultural, vibrant place it’s virtually impossible to describe. This year we were privileged to receive tickets that allowed (and required) us to try food or drink from 6 of the hundreds of vendors in the marketplace. We tasted food and drink unlike anything we’ve ever had before. And we loved it. All of us. Stuffing grape leaves into our mouths, olive oil dripping onto our shoes—you might say we were all “men of life.” The one thing that unites the chaotic bustle of Machane Yehudah is that everyone there is trying to feed his or her family. In that respect, Machane Yehudah just might be one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites.
After a few hours rest we set out for our first Shabbat in Jerusalem and the last Shabbat of our trip. Shabbat in Jerusalem means slowing down, digging deep, connecting, and opening our hearts and minds to the possibility that our spirit has something to teach us and something to offer the world.
To help get us into the spirit of Shabbat we decided to have our first “Spiritual Check In” of the trip. Spiritual Check Ins are opportunities to cultivate the reflective aspect of the Israel trip. Our spiritual check in this evening was literally miraculous. Here’s why…
The Menorah opposite the Knesset is one of the most visited sites in Jerusalem. We’re never been able to stay at the Menorah for very long because there are constantly groups lining up to see it. Tonight we were able to sit at the foot of the Menorah for the entire duration of our spiritual check in—45 minutes. Our tour guides were literally in shock that our session remained undisturbed. Just as we began to “close” the spiritual check in a group of tourists arrived. It’s as if an invisible barrier had been erected to protect the sacred sharing that took place tonight—sharing that broke down some of the remaining barriers among the grade and lead to many tears, laughs, and insights.
Aside from Mitchell’s poem I’m not at liberty to share the contents of the spiritual check in. Confidentiality is part of the protocol. But what I can tell you is that we used a quote attributed to Albert Einstein as our starting off point. The quote was, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” It really got the kids thinking. After briefly discussing the quote we gave the kids individual time to reflect. They could write, contemplate, or do whatever they wanted with the time we gave them. When they returned to the group they were welcome to share or not, depending on how their heart moved them. The most important part of the sharing is that it was meant to help the sharer arrive at greater clarity for themselves, to listen to what Parker Palmer calls, “The Inner Teacher.” For that reason we asked kids to focus on active listening and not to clap or respond in any other way to what was shared. Mitchell was the first to share. When we heard his poem it was clear that the spiritual check in was going to be a profound point of connection for the kids. As I said, there was much laughter, many tears, and a strong desire to continue to conversation at a later time.
Having grown even closer through mutual sharing we headed to the Kotel for what ended up being a remarkable Shabbat. The outcome of the courageous struggles of the Women of the Wall is that there is a new section of the Kotel called, “Ezrat Yisrael.” At “Ezrat Yisrael” women and men are allowed to pray together. That’s exactly what we did. Our ruach was so inspiring that others came to join us. As we sung and stamped our feet, the platform beneath us was literally shaking. At multiple points during our song session/ Shabbat service we all traded places to stand next to different people. At the end we sang the Mishebeirach and also recited Mourner’s Kaddish. I made sure to impress upon the kids that the tefilah we experienced at Ezrat Yisrael, and the Torah that our children carry in their hearts as is as legitimate as what they would experience when we ascended to the main Kotel plaza where men and women continue to be segregated. In the past I’ve felt a slight tinge of envy that the Orthodox prayer services had more ruach than our own. Don’t get me wrong, I am a proud and devoted liberal Jew. For the first time, tonight, I felt that our prayer experience actually had greater beauty, integrity, ruach, and impact than what was taking place at the main Kotel. Our kids got to experience both, so it’s up to them to decide.
Last but not least, we had a delicious dinner. We wished Sam B. a happy birthday once more and even gave him a few more random gifts (I forgot to mention that his friends bought him all sorts of random chazerai at Machane Yehudah such as bathroom soap dispensers, high heels, a book in Greek, and other random items from the flea market section). I presented him with a gift from the school—a keychain size version of the Book of Psalms. In presenting it to him, right after the conclusion of our spiritual check in, I reminded everyone that the Book of Psalms gives voice to many of the emotions that were shared during the check in—joy, sadness, confusion, yearning, regret, hope, humility, pride and more. I told Sam that I prayed that he and all of us would experience the deep humanity that was felt by the Psalmist.

If the Hebrew cannon hadn’t been sealed thousands of years ago I’d make a strong argument for adding Mitchell’s poem to it. Perhaps it will appear in a book of poetry one day, or as a creative reading in a siddur. The power of having our spiritual check in at the foot of the Menorah is that it allowed us to join our personal stories with the communal stories of the Jewish people. The Menorah granted legitimacy to our various narratives by serving as a silent witness from our Jewish past. It was truly a fitting place for our check in because, after all, “life is made up of all these things.”

 

The Truth About Children

“3 Minute Poet” is exactly what it sounds like– a non-threatening way to get kids writing. The teacher provides the title (in this case “your name”) and starts the timer. The rest is up to the students. Here’s a wonderful piece by a Davis Academy 5th grader (now rising 6th grader), Isabella McCullough. It’s reprinted here with parental consent.

Isabella McCullough

creatively weird

undefined

haven’t opened the door,

but I’ve freed my mind.

clash with the heart,

the true me is still there.

If you’re looking for me

I’ll be anywhere

I’m an unfinished

book

an open-ended fairy tale

I am who I am

Isabella’s poem and the context in which it was written (“3 minute poet”) illustrates a simple but important point:

Every child is a poet.

“I know I saw that book in here somewhere!”

 

When it comes to kids it can be hard to make sweeping generalizations. Not every kid is a math whiz, or a polyglot, or an app developer, or competent with a hair brush. But I do think there are some things we can say about “every child.”

Every child is an artist.

Every child is a philosopher.

Every child is a theologian.

Every child is an actor.

Every child is a dancer.

Every child is a nature-lover.

Every child is an explorer.

Every child is a comedian.

Every child is a skeptic.

Every child is a teacher.

Every child is a boundary pusher.

Every child is a truth speaker.

The Talmud teaches that the world is sustained by the breath of schoolchildren. When we pause and consider the wonderful qualities and traits of our children, it’s hard to disagree.

Whether we live out our responsibilities towards children as parents, teachers, school administrators, or simply as caring adults who look to future generations to make the world a better place, we should ask how we are helping cultivate these characteristics and traits in our children.

Better than Talent

Every week The Davis Academy transitions from the busyness of school to the restfulness of Shabbat with a Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony. It’s invariably a joyful affair full of singing, skits, stories, and blessings. Our whole community looks forward to Kabbalat Shabbat and many students, teachers, and parents point to Kabbalat Shabbat as an example of the “Davis Spirit.” Last week’s Kabbalat Shabbat made a huge impression on me, so I’ll share my “takeaway” from the experience.

Lately we’ve experienced a palpable surge in student and teacher creativity when it comes to planning and leading Kabbalat Shabbat. A few months ago our 3rd grade teachers and students choreographed a Micamocha flashmob. There’s been an increase in student iyyunim, supplementary songs, and themed services. Kabbalat Shabbat is no longer just about the 45 minutes of communal togetherness. It’s being integrated into class meeting time, technology lessons, recess, and other areas of the school as students and teachers are coming to expect creativity, innovation, and inspiration from one another. It’s spilling over from school into the home, where kids are rehearsing their lines, sewing their costumes, and invited grandparents and cousins to attend. Writing now, I’m stuck again by how remarkably vibrant it has become.

Which brings me to last week. A visitor to our school could have made the statement: ‘There’s a lot of talent at The Davis Academy.’ This last week the 2nd grade class that led Kabbalat Shabbat prepared a series of riddles on Jewish heroes and leaders and came dressed in full costume. A group of 5th grade students called the “Musical Mentsches” songlead most of the prayers with their guitars and drums. We enjoyed a Tubishevat skit written and directed by a 3rd grader and ‘starring’ her entire class. Additionally we heard an inspiring Dvar Torah by an 8th grader. Lastly, we were treated to a special ‘mini-concert’ by The Davis Decibelles, our middle school female vocal ensemble. You could call that a lot of talent, but I think it’s something different and better.

Talent is a tricky thing. Embedded in the notion of talent is the idea that it’s either something you’re blessed with or something you lack. While talent can be cultivated and discovered, there’s something elusive and decidedly undemocratic about talent.

What I and others experienced at Kabbalat Shabbat last week is something better than talent. We experienced creativity, imagination, passion, joy, team work, empowerment, engagement, and spirituality. Unlike talent, I believe that these capacities are precisely the kinds of things that can and should be among the most important aims of Jewish education.

Lately a few of us at Davis have been revisiting the question of what it means to be a Reform Jewish Day School (after all, there aren’t that many out there). Last Friday I was convinced that The Davis Academy is a school that inspires students to take ownership of the Jewish story– through skits, song leading, costuming, and interpreting Torah. Our students and teachers have assumed the responsibility for keeping Judaism fresh, vibrant, honest, and relevant. They’ve assumed the responsibility not only for transmitting, but for teaching, reinterpreting, and reinvigorating the broader Jewish community. While this isn’t the only answer to the question of what it means to be a Reform JDS I think it’s a key component.

Introducing The Davis Academy Beit Midrash

This morning the Judaic Studies team at Davis studied the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa as it appears in Lamentations Rabbah 4:3. For those who aren’t familiar the story is about… well that’s the thing. It’s a story that is connected in the “rabbinic imagination” to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. The story serves as a kind of proof text or explanation for why the Temple was destroyed: baseless hatred and excessive piety.
There’s enduring wisdom in the recognition that the fusion of baseless hatred ande excessive piety is a truly toxic combination. While Tisha b’Av mourns the physical destruction of the Jewish community in Ancient Palestine (and a host of other historical maladies) it also calls upon each of us to participate in the positive destruction of unchecked emotions that detract from rather than contribute to the social good.
This morning’s conversation quickly diverged from a discussion of the moral dimensions of the story into a meta-conversation (I can just see you losing interest). The story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa is, like many rabbinic texts, an elliptical story. It leaves out plenty of details, raises issues pertaining to narrative plausability, and requires a certain amount of familiarity with Jewish history. Because these are ancient/ classical texts and we are modern/ postmodern readers there are translation issues. These issues range from making sense of the Aramaic to trying to develop an appreciation of whatever genre restraints may be dictating both the content and form of any given story. In the case of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa one’s sense of the text is determined as much by what you bring to the text as what you find there. Is this making sense?
Ultimately our conversation became about the act of reading itself. By the time we wrapped things up the five of us had spent about an hour engrossed in a dialogue that was brought into being by a Jewish text. Our activity connected us to countless people throughout history who had previously studied and discussed the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. Our conversation also connected us with all those who study it today in relation to Tisha b’Av, and to some extent to those who study it in the future as well. In other words through engaged reading we became part of a community and a conversation that transcends time, geography, and ideology.
But at the same time as our conversation connected us with a kind of virtual community, it also forged a much more intimate community– the five of us. The conversation that we had about Kamsa and Bar Kamsa was unique. While probably not unprecedented, it was our own conversation. In addition to mining a variety of messages from the text we also learned about one another– what we see in the text, what we notice, how we analyze, how we think, how we question, what gets us intellectually excited, what Tisha b’Av means to each of us. All of this emerged through the act of reading and is a reflection of the powerful impact that reading can have.
I love reading. I especially love reading Jewish texts because they demand that I be an active, creative, and engaged reader. Jewish texts teach me how to read and enrich the many other readings I am engaged in.
While meta-conversations generally tend to resist pragmatic applications there is a very practical dimension to what I’m describing. At The Davis Academy we are going to be implementing a new initiative– The Davis Academy Beit Midrash. At various times in the year the entire middle school will be coming together to study certain Jewish texts. One goal of the Beit Midrash is to expose students to classical Jewish texts that they might otherwise not encounter in the course of the regular Judaic curriculum and to teach them how to read these texts in the way I describe above. While reading Jewish texts to life we will simultaneously be fostering the kind of community that can only emerge through the kind of reading that Jewish texts invite– a community that is based on shared conversations, dialogues, and ideas. A community of listening and speaking, of debating and relating. A community where teachers are learners and students are teachers. A community dedicated to the exploration of self and tradition, and critical reflection. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Love Your Neighbor

This week’s Torah portion contains the oft-recited verse, “V’ahavta l’reacha camocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). Not bad as far as Leviticus goes! During tefillah with our kindergarteners I asked them who their neighbor was? As usual hands went straight up and I started calling on children:

“The person who lives next door to me.”
“The person on my street.”
“Mr. Raymond my neighbor.”

But it wasn’t long before they arrived at a deeper understanding of the concept of “neighbor”:

“The person sitting next to me.”
“Someone who is close to your heart.”

And then most profound:

“God, because God is all around us.”

I was reminded of our recent 7th grade trip to Washington DC. Sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall spread out before us, we read the words spoken by Rabbi Joachim Prinz who spoke these words in his speech at the March on Washington in 1963:

“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”

I’m no longer surprised (and haven’t been for some time now) that I probably (dare I say definitely) learn more from the children I teach than they learn from me. To what can the matter be compared? To the following parable told by the Maggid of Dubno, an 18th century rabbi and teacher (retold by Rabbi David Wolpe in his book Floating Takes Faith):

“Once a father traveled for miles with his son to reach a castle. Whenever they encountered a river or mountain, the father lifted his son on his shoulders and carried him. Finally they came to the castle, but its gate was shut, and there were only narrow windows along the sides. The father said, “my son, up until now I have carried you. Now the only way we can reach our destination is if you will climb through the windows and open the gate for me from within.”

It occurs to me that if “neighbor” is indeed a moral concept, so too are “father” and “son.”