End of Year Blessing for Teachers

Tel Aviv Heart 2015

 

For all the hours,

all the days,

all the months and years.

 

For all the wisdom,

all the love,

the laughter and the tears.

 

For the goals you set,

The challenges met,

And vision ever clear.

 

For the students,

And the parents,

And the colleagues far and near.

 

 

For the creativity,

The patience,

The teamwork,

The commitment,

The energy,

The unseen and unknown sacrifices,

The immeasurable yet tangible impact,

The countless stories, some forgotten and untold.

 

Because of teachers like you,

It’s abundantly clear,

That teaching is truly the noblest career.

 

With more than great thanks,

For your craft and your art,

We bless you this morning,

With all the love in our hearts.

The Great Migration: Back to School 2015-2016

The month of August ushers in one of the greatest of all human migrations: the migration back to school. It’s a migration not only for students but for parents, teachers, administrators, and the countless other people that make schools come to life each year. As we collectively gear up for this annual journey I want to share a few thoughts that might inspire us to pause and reflect on what this migration is all about. Though I write from a very particular context, that of The Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School, I believe most of these thoughts are relevant for anyone embarking on the great migration back to school.

 

Davis Tree

 

 

1. Old School. Formal education is one of the most ancient of human institutions. There have been societies that didn’t have the wheel or know how to kindle fire, but there has never been nor could there ever be a society without a structure for ensuring that the young learn from the “less young.” Though the aims, content, and structure, necessarily vary, education is one of the roots of human experience. It’s something we do out of biological necessity. Knowing that we are participating in this great and timeless undertaking should be a source of pride, and more importantly, a source of meaning. There is truly no calling more noble than that of teaching and learning.

2. Covenant. Too often we think of the relationship between student and teacher, between teacher and parent, between family and school, as a contractual or worse a transactional one. If we dig a little deeper we’ll discover that these relationships are actually covenants. A covenant is a relationship between equals. It is a relationship that places mutual obligation and mutual promise at its core. It’s a relationship that, by its very nature, cannot be broken (though it can be damaged). It’s a relationship of deep accountability and respect. It’s a relationship built on honesty and dialogue. A relationship where both parties are responsible for teaching and learning.

3. Whole child. We talk about educating the whole child, but too often talk isn’t translated into action. The whole child is mind, heart, body, and spirit. Would any of us really assert that American schooling as it exists today is educating the whole child? From where I sit, the answer is no. One particular area where we could and must do better is nurturing spirituality. The separation of church and state doesn’t mean that we can’t and shouldn’t be helping students cultivate a sense of connectedness, awe, and wonder. The sciences and the humanities provide endless opportunities for awakening and engaging the human spirit.

4. The classroom. The classroom is an undeniably important learning site, but it’s not the only one. Learning doesn’t start and and end in the classroom. When our students come back to school, they are coming from somewhere. When the bell rings they are headed to somewhere. We are all learning all of the time. Students don’t come to class ready to learn, they come to class in the midst of learning. If what we teach them is operative only within the classroom then our students won’t carry their learning with them. If we ask them to disconnect from the natural learning that they’re doing when they enter our classroom then we are inadvertently stunting their learning. We all have the chance to view our classrooms as spaces wherein we can acquire certain skills and knowledge that will help us thrive in the ultimate classroom of human experience: the world.

5. Poetry. There are times in life when prose is insufficient. Wherever we are, whatever we teach, however we fit into the back to school migration, let us find ways to bring poetry into our lives and into the world. Read a poem, write a poem, be a poem. Let us show our students the poetry of the world and let them show us the same.

6. Relationships. Relationships are the core of our humanity. Our existence is meaningful only to the extent that we are connected to one another. That we value other people and are valued by them, that we take an interest in other people and are of interest to them, that we care… This is what gives our life purpose. The relationships between teachers and students, children and parents, teachers and fellow teachers, teachers and administrators– these and other relationships are what make schools work. Good relationships are built on trust. They take time to cultivate. They are simultaneously strong and fragile, dynamic and stable. Growing and sustaining meaningful relationships may be the most important thing to focus on as we head back to school.

7. Optimism. There’s a great debate out there. Sometimes it takes the form of an obscure argument about whether human nature is good or evil. Sometimes it focuses on whether human beings will eventually destroy or save the planet. It’s basically a debate between people who think things inevitably (if sometimes slowly) get better and people who think things inevitably (and sometimes rapidly) go down the toilet. If you’re headed back to school then you are, by definition, an optimist. Even if you don’t think so. If you’re headed back to school and you’re not an optimist then you should consider taking an eternal summer or reconsider your self-assessment. Optimism, a belief in progress and human potential, is a non-negotiable for education. If we believe in the human capacity to learn and grow then we inherently also believe in the human capacity to become more compassionate, thoughtful, loving, gentle, and interested in advancing not only our own betterment but the betterment of all.

As we flock to gather our school supplies and migrate back to school I want to wish all of my fellow teachers and learners a meaningful and memorable school year.

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.”

 

Be a Blessing

In parshat Lech L’cha God commanded Abraham to leave his home, his father’s house, and the land of his birth. He also commanded Abraham: v’heyeh bracha (“Be a Blessing). Here’s a song and a poem. The song is from my album, “Be a Blessing” and the poem was just easier to write than prose.

Here’s the song: V’heyeh Bracha

Be a Blessing

All the rest is commentary.

You could go and study it or you could,

be a blessing.

(I guess you could be a blessing while studying all that commentary but I digress.)

Wherever you’re from, wherever you’re going,

be a blessing.

The voices you hear, the drive that propels you,

be a blessing.

The people you collect, the flock you shepherd,

be a blessing.

When you get there, when you build your home,

be a blessing.

When you greet your neighbor, when you greet your friend,

be a blessing.

When you raise your children, when faced with impossible demands,

when being in the moment, when making plans of plans,

be a blessing.

When you doubt, when you tire

When you stray, when you forget

When you return, when you recall

When you respond, when you restore

when you-

be a blessing

the rest is truly commentary.

 

 

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.

On Israel- Ankur Shah

Here’s a different perspective on Israel from the mind of Ankur Shah. As you’ll see from the “bio” he provided me, Ankur is a unique individual. He’s a close personal friend and someone I believe is doing things great and small to change the world. Thank you, Ank!

  

this little guy, <, means: “i depend on you”

 

bobby marley once told me about tzion.

 

well, tzion abounds and

abundance < relaxation

(the deep kind)

 

relaxation < everybody fed

healthy farms < stable climate

climate < trees

trees < well-managed water

water < sharing

 

let’s do the math,

together

——

ankur delight eats croissants for breakfast, salutes the sun, smiles at strangers, plays with numbers, digs trenches, plants trees, devours mangos, and plays the flute. as the evening fades into shadow, he prostrates his weary bones on hallowed ground and sings back to the foreign saints, “whosoever has brought me here, is going to have to take me home”

On Israel- Rich O’Dell

The following is a “mini-saga” (literary piece no longer than 50 words in length) on the topic “What Israel Means to Me.”

The author is Rich O’Dell, 8th Grade Jewish Studies teacher at The Davis Academy.

As Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut approach I look forward to receiving and sharing other mini-sagas on the topic of Israel.

 

Chagall, Marc, La lutte du Jacob et du l’Ange (The Fight Between Jacob & the Angel), 1967

 

 

 

Yisrael sheli

God-wrestler
Fighting to better myself
Mishpacha
Father, children
Link in the chain

Homeland
Heartache, hummus
Schnitzel, Simcha
Yarden, Sachneh, Arba’ah Yamim
Phoenix reborn
in precious waters

Am Echad
Goy kadosh
Apart
Unique
Blessing and Curse before me
L’Chaim

Living major and minor keys
Always performing
Just keep practicing, keep practicing