Even on Zoom, with everyone snuggled in their respective squares, it was a welcome, moving (virtual) reunion. It had been a bit over fifteen years since we spent two very – very – intense years together of study and leadership training and mentoring; five national mentors, fifteen “mentees” (three apiece), two two-week summer seminars, Shabatonim sandwiched between them. Along with the leadership development, there were classes on Jewish history, Text study, meals, davening, singing. Community.
I was privileged to have been one of the mentor/teachers in this extraordinary experience, and true to form – and true to our Sages’ wisdom – I’m sure that I received more than I gave (the Talmud quotes Rabbi Chanina: “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues and most from my students.”)
As I anticipate our building The Oasis School, I’ve been reflecting on Project Sulam, the Avi Chai Foundation-funded program that transformed not only institutions, but individuals. The recollection from participants – all of whom were sitting Heads of Jewish Day Schools – was powerful evidence of the impact of collective learning. In the West, “studying” is often a singular pursuit – students hunched over laptops, or in the day, huddled in “cubicles” in libraries, intent on focusing and memorizing. Traditional Jewish “learning” (note the difference in verb choice) is often based on a chevruta model – that raucous, noisy and messy jumble of challenging questions and meandering responses (rarely clean and tidy answers). If you haven’t experienced chevruta learning, you’re missing something.
Like Oasis, Project Sulam was predicated on a pluralist model – itself a complicated environment. Teachers and students representing a genuinely wide swath of the Jewish community – self-identified “Charedi” and modern and centrist Orthodox; Conservative and Reform and traditional and, my personal favorite – “just Jewish.” Where there were differences, they weren’t hidden away; we discussed them, argued (now there’s a Jewish verb) and shared. What we discovered – what we celebrated – was the vast commonality between us – and Oasis will do the same. Torah and history and Israel and Hebrew and and and – there is so much that we share. Of course there are interpretations and nuances and even translations that are different, but we can’t allow them to separate us. The goal is unity, not conformity. Years from now, I expect that our students will reflect back on their own experience in our school, and appreciate the lessons learned, about their community, their fellow students and themselves.
I look forward to meeting you (in person!), and creating something extraordinary – together.
שבת שלום – Shabbat shalom