I recently picked up a copy of the book, “Teachings on Love,” by Thich Nhat Hanh. In the opening pages he says something that I’ve long thought but never been able to articulate quite so succinctly:
“If you are cut off from your roots, you cannot be happy.”
For me, one of the most compelling and subtle reasons why Jewish Day Schools are essential not only to the future thriving of the Jewish people, but to the happiness of every single Jew is expressed in this quote.
Too many Jews are disconnected from our roots. The way I’ve always thought about it is in terms of feeling at home within Judaism and not encountering your own heritage, faith tradition, and religion as if a stranger.
There’s wisdom here. I think the concept of not being able to be happy if cut off from our roots applies no matter what those roots are. The roots can be family, faith, culture… anything that is core to how a person has arrived in the world with their unique signature and stamp.
Jewish people didn’t ask to be born as Jews. But here we are! Judaism is a root in the life of every Jew whether we like it or not. I wonder if Jews whose families long ago severed those roots feel some sort of unhappiness or lack of wholeness even if they don’t know their family’s story. As I reflect on my childhood and adolescence growing up in Los Angeles I can anachronistically project the kind of unhappiness I’m thinking of onto several dear friends from those days. In contrast, I know several people who discovered Jewish heritage in their family and were profoundly transformed by this awareness and reconnecting. Those people are, as far as I can tell, happier for having reconnected.
So here’s my claim: For the North American Jewish community of 2016, Jewish Day Schools, more than any other institutions in Jewish life, can help Jewish children and families experience the profound happiness that comes with being connected to our roots. That’s because, if we extend the metaphor of roots, we see that Judaism is so vast, expansive, and all-encompassing that it’s much more than roots, even more than a tree. Judaism is a forest. An ecosystem. Jews who aren’t connected to their roots still end up navigating this forest, but without any sense of place, and, I suspect, not as happily as those that are connected. A forest can be a wonderful and nurturing space or a terrifying space depending on what you’re doing there.
One thing I hear from Jewish Day School colleagues across North America is that the children in our schools exude a profound happiness. It’s not the happiness of being given a new gadget or of being the best at everything they do. Instead it’s the happiness with knowing that you are connected to your roots, and that your connection is real, strong, and evolving. In the terms that I used to think of it before I happily stumbled upon Thich Nhat Hanh, it’s the happiness of the deepest homecoming infused with the knowledge that you will be welcomed home not as a stranger, but as part of the family.