A Rosh Hashana Bracha: With happiness and with goodness of heart

This a Rosh Hashana blessing wrapped around a blog post:

Last weekend over Shabbat, I was part of a panel discussion on the Challenges of Jewish Education, alongside my colleagues from the city’s other Jewish Day Schools, held at the Beth Israel Beth Aaron synagogue in Cote St Luc.

It was a great panel, and the Q & A portion went on for over an hour, well past the food and dessert being served – people did not want to leave, asking question after question and sharing their thoughts and experiences with so much passion. Their questions and comments were wide-ranging, from Judaics curriculum to the use of cell phones in schools, from provincial funding to the struggle with day school affordability.  It reminded me of the beginning of the famous talk Sir Ken Robinson gave at the 2006 TED conference, in which he describes being at dinner parties when the topic turns to education, and he says (at the 01:33 mark):

« But if you ask about their education, they pin you to the wall, because it’s one of those things that goes deep with people, am I right? Like religion and money and other things. So I have a big interest in education, and I think we all do.« 

In my opening remarks, I began by quoting the last verse of  parshat Ki Tavo that was read on Shabbat, in which Moshe tells the Jewish people « And you shall observe the words of this covenant and fulfill them, in order that you will succeed in all that you do. » This verse, I explained, is essentially the encapsulation of the dream and promise of a Jewish Day School education, regardless of the type of school, from the most secular of Jewish schools to the most chareidi of yeshivot. Put simply, learn the traditions and teachings, put them into practice, and then you will be successful in life.

I believe every school sees themselves as fulfilling these holy and aspirational goals, and indeed, many do. However, as I added in my subsequent remarks on Shabbat, there is a qualifier to all of this, a secret ingredient to the Jewish education recipe , which coincidentally is also in the same parsha.  Moshe admonishes the people to remember that:

« … because you did not serve the Lord, your God, with happiness and with goodness of heart, when you had an abundance of everything. »

Over the 40 years in the desert, Am Yisrael, the Jewish People were given so much from God – manna from heaven, miraculous dry cleaning for their clothing (it’s true, look it up), protection from the elements day and night, and God’s presence throughout.  And yet, consistently, stubbornly, they fell down, they failed to recognize the good, and they struggled with the deepest of secrets, which was to serve Hashem with happiness and with gladness of heart. 

Consider this – we live in a time where, relative to so many others in the world, we are blessed with so much, and we use that abundance to try and give our children a great education and the best chance at a successful future.  So much so, that tens of thousands of families the world over invest in sending their children to Jewish Day Schools, families who spend their hard-earned money paying private school fees, all to give their children every advantage possible for success.  However, how many stories do we read about how stressed our system is, how many fundamental challenges our day schools face?  How many stories do we know of Jewish Day School families who, disillusioned, can’t wait for their kids to graduate out of elementary school or high school?  How many students do we know about in Jewish Day Schools, who, after finishing elementary school, or upon becoming bar or bat mitzvah, or on graduating high school, walk away from community, from tradition and practice, and from Jewish life, because their Jewish learning experiences ranged from pareve at best, to negative at worst?

There’s a famous expression that applies here: If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.  If we are going to do this Jewish education thing, in this day and age, then let’s all make sure to do it right and do it b’simcha u’vetuv levav, with happiness and with goodness of heart.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that we be pollyannaish and pretend problems don’t exist.  On the contrary, let’s absolutely acknowledge the challenges we face, and work to make them better. 

However, let us also first recognize the immense good that exists, the opportunities that abound, the unmatched excellence of a strong Jewish Day School education, the passion and dedication of the teachers, the resilience and beauty of our students and children, the innovations and refinements to practice that are constantly being introduced.  Let us recognize the miracle that in 2019 there are more Jewish children studying Torah and doing Jewish today than at any point in our history.  And that this occurs in countries and societies relatively free of religious persecution or coercion, which means we as a people of faith do this as a conscious, positive choice, and not because we are circling the wagons.

So here is my Rosh Hashana blessing and charge for us all, the spiritual heirs and descendants of the Jewish people who spent 40 years in the desert:

Let’s invest in Jewish education b’simcha u’vetuv levav.

Let’s learn about our traditions and values b’simcha u’vetuv levav.

Let’s teach and inspire our students b’simcha u’vetuv levav.

Let’s partner together b’simcha u’vetuv levav.

Let’s build together b’simcha u’vetuv levav.

On behalf of the administration, staff and teaching faculty of Hebrew Foundation School, we want to wish you all a ktiva v’chatima tova, and a gut gebensht yohr.  On vous souhaite une Chana tova oumetouka, Kétiva vé’Hatima Tova à toutes et à tous, et une douce et heureuse année 5780!

 – Mar Abba, Head of School


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