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.

A typical Friday for a Jewish Day School

First Friday of 09. During Kabbalat Shabbat Rabbi Peter Berg from the Temple charmed our children, transforming them into crying babies, snoring grandparents, lowing cows, doodling rosters, and quacking ducks. Message: let us bless the noise that tells us we are home. We made sure to think of Israel today by singing Kahol v’lavan, Hatikvah and also offering the traditional prayer Avinu sh’bashamayim (Mishkan T’filah, p. 113). We also did “Can you shake it better than a fifth grader during the micamocha.” The answer appears to be: ehhh.

Tefillah was funky at the middle school today. Science fair has taken over the gym! While it would have been nice to have had Kabbalat Shabbat there (to reflect on the false dichotomy between science and religion) we decided to split into grades. During tefillah Mr. Kudlats and I opened a dialogue on Israel with the 8th grade since we’re headed there in May. After reading an interesting article from the New York Times about the Israel Consulate’s attempts to do media coverage of the war via the web service “Twitter” (which allows positings up to 140 chrctrs) we made sure to leave time to welcome Shabbat by lighting candles, blessing juice, and sharing Challah. One face of Shabbat is setting aside our worldly concerns to embrace something eternal: joy, shalom, family, rest, Shabbat. The contrast between our Israel discussion and our Shabbat singing was a bit abrupt, but necessarily so as our students had a lot to say.

This Shabbat we finish reading the book of Bereishit. It seems like only yesterday that we celebrated Simchat Torah by unrolling our Torah scrolls and surrounding our students in the sacred words of Jewish tradition. In this week’s parsha, a dying Jacob blesses his children with the following words, “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day– The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm– Bless the lads…”(Genesis 48:15-16). My prayer this Shabbat is that God protect the citizens of Israel, all the innocent civilians of that sad and troubled region, and all of us. May this Shabbat be full of peace, rest, and joy.