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.”

Leadership at the Water’s Edge

When the fleeing Israelites reached the shores of the Red Sea they found themselves trapped between the vast waters and the Egyptian army. According to midrash one Israelite, Nachson ben Aminadav, had the faith and courage to step into the raging sea when all the rest were paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. Rather than waiting for a miracle, Nachshon dove in. He forced the issue and, in part because of him, the waters split and revealed a path to freedom and liberation.

Torah is overflowing with examples of different types of leaders and modalities of leadership. Here are a few lessons communal leaders can learn from the example of Nachson ben Aminadav.

Good leaders…

  1. lead when leadership is needed
  2. are emotionally intelligent and understand the needs, fears, hopes, and feelings of their communities
  3. set a personal example
  4. embrace change
  5. are willing to take risks
  6. bring others with them
  7. have faith in themselves, others, and the bigger picture
  8. are able to be decisive when decisiveness is called for
  9. leave a legacy and inspire others
  10. look to the future with optimism and hope

Opening the Eyes of the Blind

I started my day praying with 4th graders. Fortunately a colleague stepped outside to gather a rain-measuring device and encouraged me to take the kids outside because there was a beautiful mist resting on our baseball field. Going outside changed everything. The typical prayer routine was tossed aside and the 4th grade and I engaged in a moment of quiet mindfulness and appreciation:

“What did you notice or appreciate?”

“There’s a bird sitting on top of the fence.”

“The grass is sparkling.”

“The concrete is cold.”

“I’m sitting in front of a pole.”

“The sun is powerful.”

We then opened our prayerbooks to a series of prayers that thanks God for some of the daily basics that we often take for granted.

“Which do you think we should recite after taking some time to notice and appreciate?”

“Thank you God for opening the eyes of the blind.”

“I agree. Most people think that our eyesight just gets worse and worse as we grow, but maybe we actually can get better at seeing as we grow and take time to notice and appreciate.”

It’s wonderful when experience and tradition are in harmony. I spent the rest of my day with that prayer in mind: thank you God for opening the eyes of the blind. Then I was blindsided.

——

My day ended in a meeting with a small group of  colleagues. During the course of the meeting one of them shared a concern with me about something I occasionally (or maybe even often) do while leading prayers with our middle school students– calling students out by name, particularly if they’re talking out of turn.

The content of the conversation isn’t as important as the process. I quickly realized that something I considered a benign, even affectionate gesture, was being perceived differently. In calling out students by name I thought I was saying, “I know who you really are. I know that you want to contribute rather than detract from our community during this time.” Regardless of my intentions, rabbis and the rest of us must strive to never shame another person, especially a child or adolescent. Unintentional shaming is even worse because it often goes unnamed and unexpressed possibly causing resentment down the road.

It’s not easy to share a piece of feedback that we know might upset someone. But the strength of our communities, the functionality of our teams, and, ultimately, the spiritual well-being of those we serve demands that we share our perspectives. We have to demand of one another and ourselves that we open our eyes to things we might not see.

One of the greatest ironies of sharing feedback is that relationships sometimes cloud rather than clarify the process. We don’t want to hurt, offend, alienate, turn off, or otherwise damage the precious ties that we share with students, colleagues, and friends. Sharing, like my colleague did today, requires vulnerability and risks hurt. But the truth is that sharing feedback actually strengthens these ties and brings meaning to terms like collegiality and community.

Last week a parent shared with me that he felt naive in discussing God and theology. I suggested that naivety might not be a bad thing. Naivety brings with it the capacity for openness which in turns brings the capacity to see with new eyes and acquire new insights. We can help one another celebrate our naivety, see differently, and deepen our understanding.

I’ll admit that when my colleague mentioned that he had feedback to share I got nervous. As I listened and reflected my nervousness turned to embarrassment that I hadn’t seen this myself. Embarrassment quickly gave way to understanding and appreciation. It all brought to mind the 4th graders I spent the morning “enlightening.” All I can pray is that the more we help one another notice and appreciate, the more compassionate and vibrant our world will be.

The Davis Academy/ Marist School Interfaith Dialogue Partnership

This week saw the second of four planned meetings between middle school students from The Davis Academy and The Marist School. Initiated last year, The Davis Academy and The Marist School have made a commitment to instilling the value of interfaith partnership and dialogue in students during their 7th and 8th grade years.

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Davis Academy students  arrived at The Marist School where we were greeted by the now familiar faces of Marist students, faculty, and administration. Given that this meeting took place during the intermediate days of the festival of Sukkot, we focused on the themes of hospitality and “sukkat shalom” or “shelters of peace and understanding.” Of particular interest to Davis students was the connection between hospitality and “The Marist Way.” Davis and Marist students symbolically made a “sukkat shalom” together on Marist’s football field, and then took a few moments to think about what it means to build something together. Afterwards we spent time in small group discussion, completed a scavenger hunt on the Marist campus, and participated in an interfaith worship service in the Marist chapel that included readings from the Torah as well as the New Testament and 12 petitions in honor of the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 apostles, as well as the joint singing of the song “Zeh HaYom” (a song based on Psalm 118 from The Davis Academy’s CD of original Jewish music: Be a Blessing). Members of both faculties helped students navigate the unfamiliar territory of interfaith dialogue and understanding.

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One of the core competencies that is lacking in the broader world and that is at the center of the Davis/Marist partnership is that of interfaith dialogue. Unlike casual conversation, interfaith dialogue requires a different set of skills and different expectations. The goal of interfaith dialogue is not only to find common ground but also to celebrate difference. Unlike casual conversation where awkward pauses and misunderstandings are to be avoided at all cost, interfaith dialogue both can and sometimes should be a bit uncomfortable or feel a bit forced. Middle school students (and the rest of us) need to be warned and reminded that interfaith dialogue is different from casual conversation. They need to be taught certain techniques such as rephrasing, checking for understanding, asking clarifying and probing questions, and deep listening. They also need ample opportunities to practice these skills in safe environments where they can get feedback and become comfortable.

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My personal belief that interfaith dialogue is critical toward creating a more peaceful and understanding world was 100% reinforced in this most recent meeting between Davis and Marist. I’m proud to work at a Jewish day school like Davis that sees this work as central to our mission, vision, and purpose. And I’m grateful to our friends and colleagues at Marist for partnering in this work with us.

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Lollipops, Light, and Leadership

I recently had the pleasure of watching this TED Talk by Drew Dudley with a group of 30+ middle school students who both applied to and were accepted for The Davis Academy’s Middle School Leadership Training Institute (MSLTI):

 

 

 

In his talk Dudley emphasizes the often overlooked low- hanging fruit of leadership which, for him, is the simple truth that most of us continually do things great and small that impact people’s lives for the better.

Too many of us unconsciously cling to the false notion that “leader” is a special title granted only to certain individuals like elected officials, captains of sports teams, or school administrators.  We think that in order to truly qualify as a leader our actions have to have some sort of cosmic importance or shape the course of world events. We dare not call ourselves leaders on the basis of such an absurdly limited definition.

At its core leadership is about daring to make the world a better place. The good news is that, when simplified and demystified, we can start to see continual leadership opportunities, often in the smallest of moments. With the recognition of unlimited potential and possibility for leadership comes humbling awareness that we let many, maybe even most, of these opportunities slip through our fingers.  Marianne Williamson (who is quoted in Durley’s TED) names the anxiety that many of us feel:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Our leadership development work with middle school students is geared toward helping them learn to channel their “power beyond measure” toward legitimate ends.

We dare our students to encounter their brilliant light from a place of joy and appreciation rather than a place of fear.

We dare our students to shine in ways that inspire, encourage, and lead their peers, teachers, and others to shine along with them.

How fortunate we are that our work in this area can draw inspiration from Drew Durley and others who have elevated “leadership” to the highest pillar of the “everyday.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leading by Slowing Down

Society today places a very high premium on “getting things done.” We like to “see results” and tend to be very happy with “quick turnarounds.” We like our leaders to “deliver” and try to fill our teams and departments with “can do” people. Empowered by our various devices that are all about “immediacy” it’s hard not to get swept up in the rush. We run the risk of appearing “wishy washy,” “indecisive,” “lackadaisical,” or “aloof.” Fortunately there’s a competing narrative out there that, while countercultural, is supported by a growing body of research.

If educational leaders really want to guide schools through meaningful change and growth we need to slow down.

Before we can intervene and alter the status quo we have to really understand it. Before we can get to answers we need to dwell a bit with our questions. We need to remain curious. Before we jump to solutions we need to make sure we understand the nature of the challenge or problem at hand. We need to remain curious so that we can correctly diagnose what’s going on. The first step in our diagnosis is determining whether the presenting problem can be solved with existing knowledge and resources or whether new learning is required. In order to make a correct diagnosis we need not only to dwell with our curiosity, but we need to leave the “dance floor” and get up on the “balcony” to get a different view of what’s going on.

For those who are familiar with the concept of “Adaptive Leadership” developed by Ron Heifetz and others, this should sound familiar. Familiar or not, here’s Heifetz providing an overview of adaptive leadership. If, as an educational leader, you find yourself dissatisfied with the narrative that says that leading is about immediacy, radical intervention, and proving worth through a list of accomplishments, adaptive leadership is a solid counter narrative.

In an adaptive leadership mindset we don’t abandon interventions and results, instead we ground them in the kind of analytical thinking that, when we dig a little deeper, we all want from our leaders.