The past few weeks have been particularly trying ones to be in the field of Jewish day-school leadership. Our usual conversations about curriculum, Yiddishkeit and student achievements have been interspersed with meetings about security measures, new protective drills and emotional wellbeing. Each day’s news seemingly brings fresh reports of hoax threats at our partner institutions or puzzling acts of anti-Semitism around the country. And our professional listservs, typically so vibrant with discussions about school-to-school collaboration and innovations in the practice of Jewish education, have been abuzz with requests for guidance on best practices in safety protocols and tips for helping students navigate disorienting experiences.
Amidst all of these potentially demoralizing emails, however, I received one this past week that has renewed my faith in the work that we do. In particular, this unexpected piece of correspondence reinforced the power of a school’s Jewish values—and specifically those conveyed through our experiential education programs outside the classroom—to transform the world in an immediate, positive and enduring way.
This email was sent to one of our school rabbis, unsolicited. It was from a recent alumna who graduated from our school this past spring and is now in her first year at a major university in a neighboring state. In the letter, she noted that she had been deeply affected by the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in the neighborhood adjacent to her campus, and she immediately signed on to participate in Hillel’s efforts to clean up, identify headstones and help families locate the graves of their loved ones.
This commitment to honoring the dignity of the deceased, one of the most powerful mitzvot in our tradition, was, of course, inspiring. What induced even more pride in us, however, was her statement that her sense of obligation to do so was motivated by our school’s relentless commitment to “take hardships faced by our community and turn them into lessons we should all be learning.”
Reflecting on her ninth- and twelfth-grade trips to aid the Hebrew Free Burial Association, she noted that on two separate occasions during high school, the school “found it important enough to take us out of school for the day to help clean up a Jewish cemetery. We were purposely taken to learn the value of community service, the respect deserved by those in our community who have passed and the importance of maintaining a holy space for them and their grieving families.”
She then went on to recall the time her class had spent in Poland as part of our eight-week Lev v’Nefesh senior experience in Eastern Europe in Israel. The trip is intended to help students understand the vibrant Jewish life that existed in that country for eight centuries, experience firsthand the horrors of the Shoah and bear witness to the small but inspiring renaissance of Jewish commitment that is taking place there now. She remembered our visits to pre-Shoah Jewish cemeteries in Krakow and Warsaw, and the way in which her guides “showed the violence and the hatred used to break the headstones and to take away the names of those who were buried there so that they could not be remembered.” She then stated, in a line that evoked tears from those of us who received this note, that “it is because of what our school taught me through showing me both the destruction and the restoration possible in these holy places that I knew it was my duty as a member of the larger Jewish community to volunteer in any way I can.”
In Jewish day-school communities, we often have completely valid debates about the best uses of our precious instructional time. Should we really dedicate days to chesed activities in the broader community when the math exam is coming up? Is it responsible to spend eight weeks immersed in Jewish history abroad when our students have to learn to write not only the strongest term papers but also the most cogent analyses of rabbinic texts?
As legitimate as these debates are, it is testimonials like the one I received this week that put them to rest. At the end of the day, our ultimate mission is to instill in our students the values/middot that will inspire them to navigate an increasingly complex world with confidence and a moral imperative to make it a better place. And as dispiriting as our day-to-day experience can sometimes be in these trying times, it can also bring unexpected reminders of the power that our programming—both inside and outside the classroom—has to shape young lives and achieve success in this sacred responsibility.
By Michael A. Kay
Dr. Michael Kay is head of school of Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, a K-12 school serving 783 students on campuses located in Hartsdale and White Plains. He holds a BA in religion and history from Harvard University and a PhD in educational leadership and Jewish studies from New York University.