This time of year is full of transitions and change, endings and new beginnings. For many in our community, it is also the start of a new school year, which comes with excitement about potential and possibilities, as well as nervousness or even trepidation.
As the Jewish High Holidays approach, we have opportunities to reflect on the past year and look forward to the year ahead. What have I accomplished and where have I fallen short? Of what am I proud and what do I regret? What do I want to bring with me into this new year and what do I want to leave behind? These are Elul (the Jewish month before the High Holidays) questions and they are also back-to-school questions.
Earlier this week, CJP was proud to co-sponsor — together with Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools and The Beker Foundation — perhaps the largest gathering of Jewish day school educators in the history of our community. As part of our Stronger Together initiative aimed at strengthening our schools through collaboration, over 300 educators gathered for a workshop about Artificial Intelligence and education.
When I walked into the Solomon Schechter gym and saw so many friends, colleagues, and former students of mine (now teachers), I felt overwhelmed with emotion — pride, awe, and deep appreciation for the people who are shaping the hearts and minds of our next generation. It was a privilege to welcome and thank them on behalf of CJP and our whole community, and to share a few reflections on the importance of education.
The strength and the character of a people, a community, and a culture are measured in large part by the strength and the character of their schools and of their educators. Learning has been the lifeblood of the Jewish People because it is in large part through learning and teaching that we transmit our stories, values, wisdom, and traditions. Through both formal and informal education of all kinds, we inspire and empower our children with a sense of who they are, where they come from, and how the voices of Judaism might speak to them.
I reminded the educators this week that this is as true for our country as it is for the Jewish community. Parker Palmer writes beautifully about the role that schools play in sustaining a healthy and vibrant democracy:
“A good education is intentional and thoughtful about helping students find an inner orientation toward what is ‘out there’ that will be life-giving for them and the world . . . As we [educate], we will be shaping some of the habits of heart that make democracy possible. . . Inner life questions are the kind that our students (and their teachers and parents) ask regularly (such as) . . . ‘Do I have the gifts that the world wants and needs?’ ‘Does my life have meaning and purpose?’ . . . ‘How can I rise above my fears?’ . . . It means helping students learn how to ask questions that are worth asking because they are worth living, questions one can fruitfully hold at the center of one’s life.”
While Palmer is writing about schools more broadly, he makes a powerful case for the value of Jewish day schools and of Jewish education. In our schools, these kinds of questions are woven organically into everything our children learn and do. Our schools are preparing our next generation of citizens and leaders to wrestle with profound human questions and to navigate the complexity of our world, informed and inspired by Jewish wisdom and values.
In doing so, our educators are not only helping to shape their students’ character and identities; they are also helping to shape the Jewish future and the future of our country and our world. As I looked out at that room of talented, passionate educators, I could not have felt more confident that our future is in good hands.
As another school year begins, I am so grateful to every teacher, educator, staff member, and school leader in our community for their sacred work.
Rabbi Marc Baker