How will we use our power?
This week I was inspired by attending a kick-off gathering of our Gesher Parent Ambassadors. Among those asked to speak were a number of Gesher alumni parents, including a parent who had a child in the founding kindergarten in 1982. As we are celebrating our 36th Anniversary this year, hearing from this parent was particularly appropriate and poignant. Because I am also a current parent at Gesher, it was heartening to hear these parents describe the ways in which the school partnered with them to give their children the skills they would need to engage in the journeys that have led them to their current meaning-filled lives.
Also at the table, by complete coincidence, were a couple whose grandchild recently entered Gesher in our 2018-2019 Gan (kindergarten). This couple were beaming throughout the speakers and presentations, and then decided to introduce themselves to the group towards the end of the program. The grandfather, with tears in his eyes, shared that he and his wife grew up in the former Soviet Union, where not only were they not allowed to practice Judaism, but they are also brutally persecuted for simply being Jewish despite having little real connection with the religion.
For this couple, beginning to understand the philosophy and mission of a school like ours is a combination of bewilderment and joy. Before learning about Gesher, they would have not been able to even imagine or conceive of an institution in which Jewish and secular learning are integrated, and in which nurturing and rigorous pedagogy are individualized to such an outstanding extent. The idea that their grandchild would speak Hebrew, be deeply connected with Israel, and learn to live and lead ethically with a Jewish lens was completely foreign. Their excitement at the kind of Jewish identity their children would emerge with was palpable, particularly after a personal tour during which they saw firsthand how we work.
I know I take my religious freedom for granted most of the time, and so do most of us. With the recent vandalism at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, we received a stark reminder not to take it for granted, but that we must stand proudly together to insist on our rights as Jewish Americans. Thank G-d we live in a society in which that behavior is illegal and is taken seriously by law enforcement. I can’t really imagine what it must have been like for these grandparents to grow up in a world in which being born Jewish was all it took for them to be regularly degraded by neighbors and peers.
Jewish Americans are generally blessed to live in a time and place in which we are accepted and empowered. Many of us have experienced significant financial success, enough to ensure that a private Jewish day school like Gesher has grown to sustainability in Northern Virginia over the past 36 years. My big question is: what we are going to do with this unique opportunity? It is a relative rarity in Jewish history for our people to have political influence, socio-economic health, and the general acceptance of those around us. I believe the answer that Gesher offers our community is that we plan to use our resources to build children who will engage in the mission of the Jewish people – to improve the world. They will have the tools and the skills they will need to engage wholeheartedly in that pursuit, thanks to the commitments of current and alumni parents, an outstanding professional team, and lay leaders and communal supporters who give energy and financial resources with grace and strategic intent.
This Shabbat, I encourage you to have a conversation with your loved ones about what it would feel like to not have the acceptance of your neighbors. What do you think would be different about your daily life? We can take that conversation and let it move us to think about who lacks power and acceptance around us today, and what we can do to make their lives better.