That moment when…

Life is a collection of moments.

Some are sacred, some mundane, some forgettable, some forgotten,

Some unsought, some unavoidable, some profound, some confounding.

Life is a collection of moments.

 

Walking to the park

Typing now, I am trying to capture one of these moments. The moment when Loren and I found out that our beautiful daughter, Hadara, has been accepted to The Davis Academy.

For some parents, the power of this moment comes on the first day of kindergarten.

For me, the power of this moment comes now, knowing that my daughter will be joining me each and every day for the next 9 years, attending the school I so deeply cherish, love, and believe in.

For me, the power of this moment is the fact that Loren and I made a conscious choice to send Hadara to Davis. We agreed that if it wasn’t the right place for her to become the person we hope she will become that we wouldn’t send her there simply because of my passionate love for and belief in Davis.

For me, the power of this moment reminds me how completely blown away both Loren and I were when we visited Davis not as Jewish professionals, but as parents with the singular focus of what Davis would offer to Hadara.

For me, the power of this moment is the fact that every time we visit Davis, Hadara is bursting with excitement, full of questions, and eager to visit the playground.

But even more, the power of this moment is knowing what awaits my daughter, my family, and me.

For starters, how many fathers can say that they’ll get to take their daughter to and from school nearly every day? Sure I’ll miss my quiet car rides, but this alone is a gift beyond measure.

Then I think about Hadara’s teachers, my colleagues. I think about the love, the passion, the humor, the wisdom, the creativity, the innovation, the ceaseless pursuit of new ideas, the advocacy for students, the teamwork, the smiles, the hugs. This moment is overwhelmed with the knowledge that I would entrust Hadara’s education to each and every faculty member at Davis willingly and joyfully.

This moment is overwhelmed with the realization that our family’s journey will be transformed by The Davis Academy. In addition to Hadara’s education, there will be new experiences for all of us, new friends, new adventures, new challenges, new stories, new opportunities.

Along with the potential, excitement, and overwhelming gratitude of this moment comes an interesting challenge. The challenge is that Hadara’s acceptance to Davis enhances my struggle to convey all that The Davis Academy means to me.

For years I’ve explored the fact that few people outside of The Davis Academy can truly appreciate “what I do.” I suppose that would be fine if there wasn’t such a deep connection between what I do and “who I am.” When people think of rabbis they’re generally able to imagine what it is that a rabbi does. When people think of teachers or school administrators they’re able to do the same. The mental picture may not be completely accurate, but at least there’s a mental picture.

When people think of Jewish Day Schools, it’s hard to be able to fully appreciate what a school like The Davis Academy is actually all about. For many, the mental picture isn’t even close to the reality.

So when it comes to being a rabbi and administrator at The Davis Academy, I find, consistently, that it’s difficult to convey the absolutely remarkable fact of my daily existence. It’s hard to explain just how awesome it is to have the honor of doing what I do at Davis. People generally have no point of reference unless they too work at a school like Davis.

Now that I know that Hadara will be joining me at The Davis Academy I can honestly say that our family is blessed beyond measure. If someone had told me that my rabbinate would lead my family to the journey that awaits us, I never would’ve been able to imagine just how lucky and exciting it would be.

I hope that every parent that receives an acceptance letter from a private school in these upcoming weeks is able to feel the same level of joy and exhilaration that we feel today in the Lapidus household.

 

On the Vitality of Spontaneous Judaism

The last couple of Fridays I’ve found myself wandering out to lunch and recess with my guitar. The sun has been shining here in Atlanta and by the time Friday afternoon rolls around the idea of bumping into kids on the playground and lunch room for some casual pre-Shabbat visits and possibly a song or two is, in my humble opinion, an excellent use of a Day School rabbi’s time. The kids’ response is reflected in two spontaneous experiences this past Friday.

First, a small group of 5th graders and I took an excursion to our beautiful outdoor sanctuary. While enjoying having such a special space all to ourselves a gigantic hawk sailed through the sanctuary, landed in a nearby tree, and stared us down. As we stared back, I pointed out that the word “sanctuary” can be looked at in multiple ways– as a nature refuge, as a place for human  reflection and prayer, or as a safe and sacred space more generally. We sang a  version of Mizmor Shir that I wrote a few years ago, danced a bit, and headed off.

From there I headed into the lunch room where 4th graders were wrapping up their lunch period. Since I had my guitar, we decided to sing Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu. The snippet of video below captures the Ruach (spirit) of the moment.

 

 

Though this post is based on an experience that I had, and in some respects facilitated, it isn’t a post about me. It’s a post about Jewish Day Schools and the importance of spontaneous Judaism. Where else in North America could a group of 60 4th graders possibly find themselves in the midst of an impromptu Jewish song session during lunch on a Friday afternoon in the middle of February? Seriously, where else? And where else would such an occurrence be experienced as a unexpected delight but also as something completely within the realm of possibility for a typical day at school?

Then multiply these experiences– the hawk and the song session, by, I don’t know, a thousand? Every day, every hour, every moment that a Jewish Day School like The Davis Academy is open for business there exists a unique and compelling potential– the potential for spontaneous Judaism.

One of the unintended (and I think detrimental) consequences of being in the Diaspora is that Judaism is something that gets scheduled rather than being something that just naturally occurs. We wait until Friday night, Saturday morning, or some other time to allow ourselves to enter into a Jewish state of mind or to be in the midst of a Jewish community. Even if someone were to find him or herself unexpectedly yearning for a Jewish experience in the middle of a random day, the likelihood of being able to honor that yearning is unfortunately minimal. I don’t think this is a controversial observation.

The hawk, the song session, the ability to recite Kaddish on a regular basis for a grandparent that has recently passed away, the casual and unplanned theological conversation with the rabbi or Jewish studies teacher, hearing Hebrew spoken in the hallways… The power in each of these is their authentic spontaneity. More than merely episodic, this spontaneity is essential if we’re going to embed Judaism in our lives in compelling and meaningful ways.

I hope I’m describing a phenomenon that many Jews value. If authentic, spontaneous, contextual, informed, substantive, and meaningful Jewish experiences are still of value to the Jewish people, then Jewish Day Schools offer the greatest likelihood of providing them on a random Friday afternoon in February.

Thou Shalt Create

This week I’ve been making the case to 5th graders that creativity is the one of (if not THE) most important characteristic of the Jewish people. Were it not for remarkable and visionary creativity I truly believe that the Jewish people would’ve ceased to exist long ago. What’s been most inspiring is their response. They have responded to this idea with tremendous enthusiasm and creativity.

Rather than simply lecturing on the creative spark within Judaism, we’ve been working collaboratively to think creatively about challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish world today. In the course of a 50 minute class period they have demonstrated, consistently, the radical creativity necessary to ensure a vibrant Jewish future.

Working in teams, the students have followed a protocol very loosely based on design thinking. They’ve come up with initiatives, organizations, projects, and websites designed to address challenges and opportunities that exist in the Jewish world today. And their ideas have been truly inspiring. So inspiring that I’ll leave you guessing and encourage you to undertake a similar thought experiment with the young people in your community.

I told the 5th graders that there are many individuals in the Jewish community today that have tremendous capacity and desire to support creative projects that will strengthen the Jewish future. I believe it’s only a matter of time before such an individual finds their appetite whetted by one of the creative ideas my students quickly identified today.

“A Palace in Time” – TMI/ Liner Notes

It’s Shabbat, what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called both a “cathedral” and a “palace” in time. My daughter’s eating raspberries and watching Beauty and the Beast and I’m seizing a few moments while the rest of the family is napping to jot down some thoughts and recollections about the 2nd album of original Jewish music I wrote and created for The Davis Academy, A Palace in Time.

Let’s start with the basics– A Palace in Time is a musical exploration of the psalms and other liturgy that make up the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service. Kabbalat Shabbat is the portion of the Friday evening service that precedes Maariv. It’s a time when we focus on opening our hearts, minds, and souls to the possibility of Shabbat. Kabbalat Shabbat is about creating within ourselves the capacity for active receptivity. It’s about fine tuning our ears, our eyes, and all of our senses so that we might behold the beautiful imperfection of our lives and our world, all with God’s blessing.

Pretty much every contemporary Jewish songwriter/composer has set pieces of Kabbalat Shabbat to music. Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat generally are the anchor of the Jewish people– a weekly reminder of the core values of our people and a  time to be together in sacred community. I am drawn to Kabbalat Shabbat for these reasons and because Kabbalat Shabbat is both well-known and shrouded in mystery for many Jews. Some liturgical passages are sung weekly, others remain whispered. There are recurring themes such as God’s sovereignty and creation’s collective praise and affirmation of God and many others. It’s ripe for musical exploration.

Here are some things to I want to remember about the process of creating A Palace in Time:

1. The title of the album was never a question in my mind.

2. Will Robertson, my musical chevruta and the album’s producer, remarked that he’d never started a project knowing in advance the entire track list, track order, and album title.

3. Many of the initial seeds of the melodies came to me all at once– I’m talking about 10-15 songs in a single sitting. I remember in those moments a profound sense of feeling that I was discovering rather than writing music. I continue to believe, perhaps foolishly, that “discovering” is more accurate a way of thinking about my role in creating this music than “writing.”

4. Initially I wanted and continue to want the music to feel instantly familiar and author less. Those who know Jewish music know that there are many melodies whose composers names are unknown or meaningless to us as the melodies are a part of soul. That’s my dream. My dream is that when people hear these songs they’ll feel like they’ve heard them before, like they’ve always been there, like they’re old friends.

5. Initially I envisioned very simple instrumentation for the album so that congregations would instantly be able to hear how the songs could live in their worship services. Though the recording studio seduced me into pursuing more dynamic arrangements the fact remains that every song could be rendered a cappella or with whatever instrumentation a congregation has available. The songs are meant for Jewish congregations across the religious spectrum and could easily be sung in Orthodox shuls.

6. In a similar spirit to the aforementioned musical simplicity the songs were originally intended to be only in Hebrew. I chose to include English because I felt like I wanted to participate in the poetry of Kabbalat Shabbat by interpreting the words in ways that reflected my understanding. All the English is optional. Some people really don’t like English in their Jewish music and I totally understand this. In the end I feel very strongly that the English lyrics are really quite beautiful and remain very true to the spirit of the liturgy.

7. The L’chah Dodi on the album was “discovered” (i.e. written) in the city of S’fat– the mystical city where the original words of this prayer were written in the 15th century. The melody came to me as I was chaperoning a group of Davis Academy students on our 8th grade Israel trip. We happened to be in S’fat on Erev Shavuot (the day leading up to Shavuot). The fact that Shavuot commemorates the giving of Torah and the revelation at Sinai isn’t lost on me. Another way of saying that I want these songs to sound familiar or that I “found” them is to say that the melodies are “mi-Sinai” from Sinai. That’s a Jewish way of saying that they’ve always been here, waiting for us to find them.

8. The percussion on the song Mizmor Shir is comprised entirely of things you’d find at or around a Shabbat table– candlesticks, spoons, a challah plate, bread knife, and trash can.

9. Even if no one else likes this music my daughter loves it and has learned much of the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy by singing along.

10. The first couple of tracks on the album aren’t actually from the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy. They’re included as “opening songs” in the siddur of the Reform Movement, Mishkan T’fila. For the song Hineih Mah Tov I reached out to the faculty and students of the Marist School, a local Catholic school with which we have an interfaith partnership. The message of Hineih Mah Tov– that it’s good for brothers and sisters to dwell together in peace– is a perfect message for Jewish and Catholic teens to share with the world. There’s a deeper story here but it will be told elsewhere.

11. The student artwork is incredible. Rebecca Ganz, Davis’ visual arts teacher and I together came up with the idea of merging the traditional Hebrew Illuminated Manuscript with 1960s psychedelic music poster art. The cover, which she created with some input from me, captures one of Shabbat’s key ideas: the dual remembrance of the original act of creation and the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. Shabbat is fundamentally an affirmation of creation and liberation. Rebecca’s profoundly beautiful cover tells this story. I’m sure many people will be drawn to this incredible artwork and the cover in particular without ever noticing the fact that Rebecca hid the word “Shabbat” in the candles flames.

12. The closing song, Bar’chu, is what’s traditionally known as the call to prayer. It typically comes towards the beginning part of the worship service. That the Bar’chu is the closing song on this album symbolizes a couple of things. First, it reinforces the fact that A Palace in Time is truly focused on Kabbalat Shabbat– the beginning of the Friday night prayer service. Second, it subtly implies that, having taken this musical journey, whatever you do once you’ve listened to the Bar’chu has the potential to be a form of worship or devotion. Typically the Bar’chu is followed by specific liturgical passages. On this album it’s an invitation to think differently about what you’re about to do next.

13. One tough part of this album is the fact that many melodies I “discovered” for Kabbalat Shabbat didn’t make the final cut. 18 songs is more than any album really should have. God willing there will be future opportunities to bring even more Jewish music into the world.

14. A Palace in Time is inspired by a quote attributed to musician Mickey Hart who said of The Grateful Dead, “We aren’t in the entertainment business, we are in the transportation business.” Hopefully this music will transport the listener spiritually and emotionally.

The album will be available for complimentary download on all major music sites.

 

Know

One of my favorite monthly responsibilities is teaching the 5th graders at The Davis Academy. During our first meeting we typically play a “4 corners” activity. I present a series of prompts and they place themselves in whichever corner best describes their response. Invariably, one the prompts I ask them to respond to is: “Sometimes other people know us better than we know ourselves.”

Having done this activity for several years now I feel like I can say with something approaching certainty, that most 5th graders haven’t really thought about what it means to “know thyself.” My goal in presenting them with the prompt is to destabilize them a bit– to open them to the possibility that there are aspects of the “self” that they haven’t explored. I want them to be able to encounter and experience themselves and one another in new ways, to disrupt some of the patterns that have formed even at this early age. I want them to arrive at a deeper knowing of themselves, one another, and the world around them.

What I want for them in terms of “knowing” I want for myself and others as well.

Ruth, Friendship, and Spirituality– Thoughts on Shavuot (on Shavuot)

 

Apologies for the pseudo-Shakespearian translation but here’s a familiar passage from the first chapter of the Book of Ruth:

16 And Ruth said: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; 17 where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.’

I have a confession to make. It’s Shavuot, and I didn’t go to Shul today.  Even though it’s Shavuot– one of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals. Instead, I met with and interviewed a recent alum of The Davis Academy as part of my doctoral research on adolescent spirituality. (Incidentally this is the 2nd year in a row that I didn’t go to shul. Last year I spent Shavuot at K’far Yehezkel, a moshav in the Southern Galilee. It was an incredible experience and you can read about it here.)

Though I didn’t go to shul, it turns out that I learned an incredible lesson about at least one aspect of Shavuot during my interview today…

My doctoral research is on the topic of adolescent spirituality. My goal is to advance both the academic and colloquial understanding of the phenomenon of spirituality as it is experienced by adolescents. I come to this topic not as an “objective” researcher, but as a rabbi and educator who works with adolescents and cares deeply about this aspect of their lives and their development. I also believe that this is a largely neglected area and that most educational contexts fail to protect, nurture and celebrate adolescent spirituality. Rather than circulating a questionnaire or survey I’ve chosen to conduct in depth interviews with a small cohort of recent Davis Academy alumni. Today I conducted an interview with one of my research participants. And yet again I was blown away by the depth of thought, the depth of caring, and the depth of insight that I witnessed in the adolescent sitting across from me.

As the interview unfolded both the participant and I developed a deeper understanding of what spirituality meant to him. Toward the end of the interview I attempted to summarize his definition of spirituality as he understands it:

Spirituality is about realizing our potential as human beings. It starts with self-knowledge and self-awareness but quickly extends to our relationships with other people. We realize our potential when we connect with other human beings in meaningful and socially redemptive ways. Spirituality is the foundation of the connection that we make with others, particularly when this connection is deep and true. All true friendships have a spiritual component. 

I’ve conducted several interviews, and the theme of “connection” has been present in each. But no other research participant has more emphatically emphasized that his/her definition of spirituality is so firmly rooted in the act of connecting with other people, in forging relationships of various kinds, and friendship in particular. When I asked him directly whether all of his friendships had a spiritual component he thoughtfully and unabashedly said yes.

On Shavuot we read the book of Ruth. Ruth is all about relationships, human connection, and friendship. The connection between the name Ruth and the Hebrew word for friendship/companionship Reut has been noted by others. Ruth chooses to cast her lot not only with Naomi, her mother in law, but with Naomi’s people– the Jewish people. At the beginning of this post you’ll find the most famous passage from the book of Ruth. Ruth’s words to Naomi when Naomi implores her to return to the Moabites.

While I didn’t go to shul today I do feel that I encountered holiness. I’m motivated to do my doctoral research because I believe in the importance of the topic. I think we all need to develop a more nuanced and respectful vocabulary for thinking about and discussing adolescent spirituality. I’ve conducted 4 in depth interviews and, while each participant has experienced spirituality slightly (or very) differently, if at all, they’ve all been incredibly reflective, generous in sharing their experiences, and appreciative to have been given a voice. Collectively and individually, they’ve reaffirmed my belief that JFK got it right when he said, “Man is still the most extraordinary computer of all.”

 

Israel 2014- Am Yisrael Chai

As Shabbat approaches in Jerusalem I feel truly blessed to be leading the Davis Academy’s 2014 Israel Trip. It’s been an amazing journey with an amazing group of students and chaperones. I’ve been blogging each day on a Google Blog that helps chronicle how we live our menschlichkeit values at The Davis Academy, but wanted to copy yesterday’s post here so I could revisit it in the future. As I don’t know how to cross post I’m simply cutting and pasting and hoping that works!

 

5/15/14

 

[It’s almost 10pm on a typical Thursday and we are stuck in an epic Jerusalem traffic jam right outside the walls of the Old City. How did we end up here??? It’s a good story.]

 

We started our day with a visit to a very unique place—Yad L’Kashish (“Lifeline for the Elderly”). Yad L’Kashish employs more than 300 Israeli senior citizens, many of them Holocaust survivors. These senior citizens work as artisans, carefully creating beautiful pieces of art ranging from simple greeting cards to magnificent tallitot, from elaborate pottery to adorable stuffed animals.  Prior to entering Yad L’Kashish Morah Sigal shared that when she was a graduate student she worked in a home for the elderly in Beersheva. In spite of her loving and dedicated spirit she reported that the residents in the home suffered not only from the typical ailments of old age, but from severe neglect, boredom, and a sense of irrelevance. They’d been forgotten. Little did we know that “memory and forgetting” would be one of our day’s themes.  She was particularly moved by the sense of meaning and purpose that comes with working at Yad L’Kashish. As we watched an elderly man carefully sand and dust a dreidel we spontaneously burst into the song, “Sevivon.” If your child brings home a souvenir from Yad L’Kashish you will know that it was made with love and care by a truly special person at a truly special place.

 

[FYI—we are about to drive our 50 passenger bus on the opposite side of the street to circumvent this traffic jam!]

 

After Yad L’Kashish we visited Yad V’shem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. As has been the case for the last couple of years the kids were not only engaged but profoundly knowledgeable about the Shoah, due primarily to Ms. Schwartz’s exceptional teaching on this topic. We receive many compliments as we travel through Israel, but the compliment we received from our Yad V’Shem tour guide—that we were the finest group of middle school students she had ever toured—that means a lot. The trick at Yad V’shem is knowing how deeply to dive into the horrific events of the Shoah and the implications of the Shoah. Ms. Scwhartz’s devotion to teaching the Shoah helps ensure that the kids know how to respond to the experience of touring this sacred site.

 

[And magically the traffic has eased up. NO, we didn’t have to drive on the wrong side of the road.]

 

Yad V’shem sits at the foot of Mt. Herzl, Israel’s most revered military cemetery. It has become a Davis tradition to ascend from Yad V’shem to Mt. Herzl. In so doing we reenact the journey from the darkest chapter of Jewish history to the brightest. But we don’t fully reach the light, because Mt. Herzl further reinforces the fact that Israel was not established and is not protected without great cost. Among the tens of thousands of graves, we always visit the newest section of the cemetery. There we saw several graves that weren’t there just last year.

 

While standing on Mt. Herzl we had a fascinating discussion. The graves from earlier eras are all uniformly adorned. They have identical inscriptions and all look the same. Soldiers are not buried according to rank and the feeling is one of equality and dignity. On the other hand, newer graves are adorned with various types of shrines, pictures, and artifacts. Many of the newer graves give you a sense of who the fallen soldier was—what he or she looked like, words he or she lived by, favorite objects, pieces of their uniform, banners or postcards from favorite places, sports jerseys, and so on. Our tour guides asked us to consider which we thought was more appropriate for Mt. Herzl– uniformity or individuality. They shared that this issue had stirred great controversy. The kids spoke beautifully in defense of their various positions, most of them dwelling in the grey, rather than black or white. Later, standing at the grave of Theodor Herzl, Mr. O’Dell offered the idea that it is the life we lead, rather than our headstone, that is the truest and most important monument/testament to our existence. Instead of staring at Herzl’s tomb he asked us to turn around and look at the country that Herzl dreamt.

 

The Hebrew word cavod (“respect”) comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for “heavy” (ca-ved). Cavod was another of the day’s themes.

 

After another pizur meal we headed back to the Kotel for a tour of the underground tunnels there. It was a beautiful evening and we expected the Kotel to be relatively tranquil, allowing our kids additional time to be in a reflective, spiritual space. Instead we arrived 25 minutes before a Swearing In Ceremony for a squadron of several hundred Israeli Paratroopers. Together we toured the tunnels and then joined with thousands of Israelis of all stripes for the swearing in ceremony during which each paratrooper received two items: a gun and a Tanach. Afterward we celebrated with the soldiers and their families. We sang, “Am Yisrael Chai” and shared in the many feasts that were taking place all around us. Grandmothers and mothers of soldiers offered our kids home baked delicacies and our kids gracefully and gratefully accepted. It was a unique celebration—the type of celebration that is, in essence, a prayer. Watching grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers and fathers cry with joy, younger siblings look up with admiration, boyfriends and girlfriends hug and take “selfies”—knowing that to be a guardian of Israel is to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice if that is what it takes. Surely there was someone in attendance who had lost a child, a relative, a friend, a neighbor, or a classmate, in service of the State of Israel. The seamless merger of deep joy and honest emotion made it  a truly Jewish celebration. Menawhile, as “Am Yisrael” celebrated we could see fireworks coming from East Jerusalem—the sign of a Muslim wedding celebration. Jerusalem is a place where all people come to celebrate.

 

We had intended to conclude our day at the Kotel with the prayer for the State of Israel and the Mishebeirach for the soldiers of the IDF. Instead we got to witness this incredible ceremony—a living testament that the lives that were sacrificed, both during the Shoah and in defense of the State of Israel—that they were not lost in vain.

 

Here’s a shot video of the singing of Hatikvah at the IDF Ceremony:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eekh2CvInkM

 

 

 

 

[And now we just passed a motorcade that was CLEARLY carrying the Prime Minister or some government official of equal status.]

 

 

So that’s the story of how we ended up in the epic Jerusalem traffic jam and almost had to drive down the wrong side of the road. I love Jerusalem. I met my wife here and began my formal rabbinical studies here. I even lived in an orthodox yeshiva in the Old City for a summer while translating a Hebrew book from 1809 called “Characteristics of the Rabbinate”. In spite of this deep connection, in my heart of hearts I’m glad I don’t live in Jerusalem. There are just too many stray cats. But it sure is a great place to call home. If they didn’t understand what our tour guides meant when they greeted us at the airport with the words, “Welcome Home!” They definitely get it now.

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.

Three Steps Back and Three Steps Forward

At (or near) the center of any Jewish prayer service is a series of prayers known as the “Amidah” or “standing prayer.” The Amidah is a time when we express, both communally and individually, our most heartfelt prayers. We praise God, ask God to grant us wisdom, strength, forgiveness, and justice, and then thank God for the countless miracles we experience on a daily basis. Prior to beginning the Amidah it’s customary to take three steps backward and three steps forward.

Recently I participated in a prayer service where we set aside the heavy themes of the Amidah prayer and focused instead on the three steps backward and three steps forward.

We asked our middle school students– “If you take three steps backward and three steps forward, where do you end up?”

To which they answered–  “Exactly where you started.”

We pushed a little harder– “Do you end up exactly where you started or close to where you started?”

And a little harder– “If you end up exactly where you started then what’s the point of stepping back and stepping forward?”

Together we realized that taking three steps back means creating enough distance to gain perspective. Taking three steps back means entering a reflective space. It’s a purposeful transition from a state of “doing” to a state of “being” and “reflecting.”

As human beings it’s important to take three steps back. It’s particularly important if we are interested in gaining perspective on our lives.

While Judaism encourages taking three steps back, that’s not the end of the journey. Having taken time to pause, gain perspective, and reflect, we are supposed to take three steps forward. We are supposed to immerse ourselves in the daily business of living life to the fullest. We are supposed to act, to serve, and bring the fullness of our being to everything we do.

As school leaders who are interested in understanding and nurturing school culture we need to make sure that we remember the importance of taking three steps back and not just the importance of taking three steps forward.

Part of our mandate as school leaders is to make sure that our actions are informed by the perspective and insight that can only be achieved by stepping back on a regular basis.

If we can model the balance between stepping back and stepping forward for our faculty and our students then we can help promote a school culture that is mindful, purposeful, and even prayerful.

 

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