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The Intelligent Educator: Teaching, Advocating, and Leading
This past spring, I spoke at the commencement at the University of Michigan's joint School of Social Work and The Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies program. As an educator, I urged these newly minted professionals to believe in themselves and to encourage them not to stand on the sidelines, but to feel confident in their ability to succeed as Jewish communal leaders, to use their voices, to act, and to lead.
My remarks focused on three words: Jewish, communal, and leaders. What do they mean practically and philosophically in today's chaotic environment? Marian Wright Edelman, one of my heroes and someone whom I had the privilege of hearing address a graduating class a few years back, summed up a broad sense of community with several astute observations.
"We are living in a time of unbearable dissonance between promise and performance; between good politics and good policy; between professed and practiced family values; between racial creed and racial deed; between calls for community and rampant individualism and greed; and between our capacity to prevent and alleviate human deprivation and disease and our political and spiritual will to do so. The challenge of social justice is to evoke a sense of community so that we transcend the dissonance and make our nation a better place."
Clearly, we can agree with her observations. But we know that it’s easy - when you are out in the world passionately fighting for what you think is right and getting push back from all corners - to become discouraged. And, we know, too, what it's like to be a flea against injustice. However, enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.
On a local and more immediate communal level, I urged the graduates, to learn, think, work and play together because as a group they embody community. Today, supple, creative minds have the opportunity to solve problems and even change the world, but only if they can overcome the common obstacles that plague the creative psyche, such as disorganization and perfectionism. Collaborative work is essential to achieving common goals.
In our current economically distressed environment, the challenges we face as advocates and activists augur for strong collegial relationships and innovative approaches. We can't be stuck in traditional narratives. Yes, every once in a while the story needs to be retold and recast. I believe that we must learn from past mistakes and successes and seek new ways to solve our communal problems, based on strong ideas and the passion to move forward.
This instructive comment about the Jewish community also hits home. Right before World War II, the renowned Rabbi Morris Shapiro delivered this verdict on American Jewry: "It has learned to make Kiddush, but it has not yet learned to make havdalah."
In his comments on Rabbi Shapiro’s observation, Rabbi David Wolpe suggests that the American Jewish community understands the blessing over the wine, the Kiddush, the blessing of abundance, but the blessing for the end of Sabbath, havdalah, the blessing of limitation, of distinction, is not yet understood.
The verdict still stands. We live with astonishing abundance. But, the presence of so much has blinded us. Although we as a community can celebrate abundance, we need to lead the community in havdalah - the separation, by maintaining boundaries and respecting the fact that limits or frames are what create the distinction so that picture remains clear.
Turning to the critical notion of leadership, according to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a renowned 20th century leader in both the Jewish and secular worlds, “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought." And, according to Heschel's teachings on leadership, "Life without commitment is not worth living."
Heschel believed that self-respect is the fruit of discipline, the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself. Basically, the sense of meaning grows not by spectacular acts but by quiet deeds day by day. However, one's innate ability to act and lead skillfully also involves creative dissent, not simply repudiation or raising doubts. That’s too easy.
Creative dissent comes out of love and faith, offering positive alternatives, deep caring, concern, and radical thinking informed by rich learning. Leadership, indeed, involves a degree of audacity and courage, and the power of the word.
In the timeless wisdom and words expressed in the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot): "Who is wise? One who learns from every person!" Thus, the Jewish perspective of communal leadership: Both practically and philosophically, we know that each person has some quality or characteristic that can be instructive, and the wise man knows that wisdom resides everywhere.
Moreover, the wise man's insatiable thirst for wisdom is the surest sign of the wisdom that resides within him. Only the fool is content with his understanding of the world around him.
In our daily lives, we must remind ourselves to view each encounter as an opportunity to learn the Jewish part of what it means to be a Jewish communal leader.
All of us - teaching, advocating, counseling, and leading - need to remember that there is something to learn from each and every person, each and every encounter, and each and every opportunity, if we are only willing to take the time. We need to remember to say both Kiddush and havdalah and to celebrate abundance, as well as acknowledge and understand the power of limitations.
Harlene Winnick Appelman