Class of 2019 Graduation Remarks
We’ve had an amazing academic year here at Gesher JDS! We were re-accredited by the Virginia Association of Independent Schools (VAIS), we honored educators at our 36th Anniversary Gala, and our students and educators made great strides along our ongoing path towards increased organizational and educational excellence. Most recently, we were proud to graduate an outstanding group of young Jewish leaders who we know will join their fellow alumni in making meaningful relationships and improving the world. I’m pleased to share my remarks from the Class of 2019 Graduation ceremony in this week’s blog:
Welcome Gesher professionals, parents, students, community partners, alumni, and family members. I’m honored to be sharing this celebration of achievement together with you.
Class of 2019 – you made it! When I sat down to consider what I’d like to say to you, I realized that among my very first memories of working with your class ended with you asking me to have a whole bunch of pies thrown at my face.
For those of you who don’t know about this, let me share this brief story. Once upon a time, a bunch of energetic 5th graders read a book about Malala Yusefzai, and got inspired to raise money to support education for underprivileged girls. These students had a great teacher named Mrs. Halpern, who invited their brand new Head of School to meet with the class and help them develop a reasonable fundraising plan. He was very impressed with their enthusiasm for improving the world in this way.
A few weeks after our conversation, a note arrived in my mailbox from the 5th grade. They had a great idea for raising the money! Would I consider, they asked, the idea of having pies thrown at my face to raise money to support their cause? What could I say? I agreed.
I’m proud to say that together we raised over $600 that went towards multiple “school-in-a-box” programs, providing educational resources to girls in need. That was my first “taste” of what it would be like to work with this group of young men and women.
I wanted to begin my remarks with a story for two reasons. First, our brains are designed to see the world in narrative terms. Second, to be Jewish is to be part of one of the most ancient, interesting, powerful stories in the world. Let me add some evidence to the idea that Jews and stories are inherently connected.
Raise your hand if you know who Stanley Martin Leiber was. Perhaps you know him better by his professional name: Stan Lee. How about Yakov Kurtsberg? His pen name is Jack Kirby. Together they are responsible for Fantastic Four, Spiderman, X-men, Hulk, Ironman, Thor, Thanos, Magneto, etc.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two Jewish kids from Cleveland
Bob Kane and Bill Finger (Robert Kahn and Milton Finger) created Batman.
Joseph Henry Simon (born Hymie Simon) created Captain America.
There are lots of reasons Jewish men went into the comic book world to tell their stories, including anti-semitism that prevented talented writers and artists from being hired at more traditional and respected published outlets. I bet none of them imagined that their characters would ever hold the social and societal imagination and attention that these recent movie versions hold – these recent comic book movies are by far the most watched movies ever.
I’m not going to go too far down the road of reading Jewish themes in their stories – you can read about this yourselves if you are interested. But it isn’t a huge leap to understand that these men who changed their Jewish names to succeed professionally could identify with the idea of someone who looks normal or meek on the outside, but carries a deep, powerful, secret identity with them everywhere they go.
Our ancestors understood that it was stories, passed from generation to generation, that would keep our identity intact and keep our relationships strong. In one of our central prayers, the Shema, we are told וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ – we
translate this “teach them to your children” but you guys know the Hebrew word for teach is a different root – Lamed/Mem/Daled. Shinantem means to teach it until the student knows it thoroughly. This commandment, to teach your children, was originally considered the responsibility of the parent, until a Takkanah, an amendment, was made by Yehoshua ben Gamla in which the responsibility to teach children Torah shifted to the entire community. His innovation was basically the invention of publicly funded religious schools.
Back to stories. A psychology professor from Emory University named Dr. Marshall Duke researched resilience in children – he wanted to know what factors in a child’s life would give them the best chance to bounce back from the periodic challenges we each face as we move through the world. The most important factor he found in his early research that predicted resilience was whether or not a child’s family ate dinner together. This means that regardless of income, ethnic background, geography, or any of a hundred other possible predictors, if a child ate dinner once a week or more with their family, this correlated with high levels of resilience.
Why? What could this possibly have to with anything? He conducted further research to address this question, and found that it wasn’t family dinners per se – it was stories. Family dinners were just the venue in which family stories were most often shared. What he found was that children who know their family stories, particularly the kinds of stories that make it clear that there are ups and downs in life, were more resilient. They understood that they were part of something larger than themselves, that they had people in the world to connect with, and that everyone goes through good and bad times.
Jews have known this to be true for millenia. וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ is a core commandment for parents, and became a communal responsibility because our people have a beautiful, empowering story to offer our children. Gesher graduates like you own that story far more thoroughly than the vast majority of Jews in the world today, and of course our expectation is that it will help make you ethical leaders. It will be yours to pass on some day too. There are plenty of ways to do this.
Stanley Martin Lieber did it with comic book characters who embodied deep ethical values while facing persecution in a hostile world. You’ll do it your way. I know this because you already began when I first met you and you asked me to help you fight injustice with pie.
Talmidim Yekarim, our precious students, please know that Gesher remains your home no matter how old you get or how far your travels take you – we want to hear about your adventures, both the ups and the downs, and we want you to visit often. May the stories you now own support you in your journeys. I ask you now to please stand – ladies and gentlemen, please join me in congratulating the Class of 2019!