When God’s “Breath of Life” is Snuffed Out

God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and he became a living soul – Genesis 2:7

I was already contemplating how and whether to step into the emotional minefield of the breath-of-lifeMichael Brown case when news of the grand jury’s decision not to indict in the Eric Garner case broke this week.  And now…

I am not an expert in anything related to this and so I wonder what, if anything, I have to contribute to the conversation.  I am a Jewish educator.  I work with Jewish day schools and do my best to help them they be the best schools they can be.  Is there something I can say or offer that will help them be the best they can be in how they choose to address what is going on in our country right now?  Our schools are led by talented and bright professionals and lay leaders who in this day and age have access to a myriad of resources. Sure, I might be aware of one or two they are not and could help by making them available, but it would be hubris to think that I have an answer to address this that they don’t or that they couldn’t easily find.  And yet…

The Spirit of God has made me and the breath of the Almighty has given me life – Job 33:4

Saying nothing at all doesn’t feel right either.  To say nothing would suggest that I have no stake in this issue, that it neither impacts me nor is incumbent upon me to participate in. Even, if I am unclear as to what “participation” ought to be.  As a citizen and as an educator, I do have a stake, I am impacted and I believe it is incumbent upon me to participate.  And I will, like many others, have to struggle to figure out what participation looks like because I am unwilling to remain forever a bystander.  Are we our brother’s keeper?  What does that keeping look like today?  And so…

All the while my breath is in me, the Spirit of God in my nostrils – Job 27:3

Typically when I prepare to write a blog post, I do a little bit of research. I am very rarely, if ever, writing about something that someone else smarter or more experienced hasn’t already discussed elsewhere. But in light of the onslaught of columns and opinions, I wanted to inoculate myself from outside information and speak purely from the heart about what role I believe all schools, and Jewish day schools in particular, should play in educating our students to appreciate and exercise their civic responsibility as members of a democratic society.

I have lived and worked in so-called “red” and “blue” states and I recognize how passionate people are.  I appreciate how emotionally-laden the conversation can become. It is no surprise with the stakes so high that people can become extremely sensitive. Politics can also be personal and defenses automatically are raised.  Watching the discourse fly back and forth on Facebook or Twitter, even with people I know well, can sometimes be disconcerting.  It doesn’t take much for a conversation to veer off course into unkind territory.  And, thus…

Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. – Ezekiel 37:5

Our responsibility as schools seem simple, straightforward and entirely non-controversial. We should inform our students as to the facts.  We should educate our students as to how our political system works to effect meaningful change. We should teach them the history of American politics. We should instill in them the desire to participate fully in the political process and to proudly exercise their right to vote. We should encourage them to seek truth so that their beliefs and attitudes about how government should work (one of the definitions of “politics”) are rooted in objective reality.  They should learn to be respectful of differing opinions and to always keep an open mind.  I do not believe that we are here to promote a political ideology.  Our students should be largely, if not entirely, unaware of a teacher’s personal political leanings.  We respect that our families represent the full spectrum of political viewpoints.

For me, as an educator, the most difficult trend in political discourse, which impacts our ability to help students “seek truth” is the seeming inability to agree on an objective truth – about just about anything.  This is particularly challenging in schools – like ours – where the ability to develop critical thinking skills is amongst our highest responsibilities.  Facts are facts and opinions are opinions.  Or at least they used to be…

As facts themselves have been called into question, politicized, and debated, it makes it more challenging for schools to play their proper roles.  We want to provide students with the tools and skills they need to discern truth from fiction, fact from opinion.  Armed with facts, they can then form informed opinions.  When we cannot collectively point to a fact and call it “fact”, any hope for intelligent debate fades away.  When we cannot collectively watch a video and agree about what we are seeing, confidence in the system is undermined.  What is a school (or society) to do?

For North American Jewish day schools, current events provide a powerful opportunity to demonstrate how to have complicated and important conversations in accord with our highest values.  We are all made in God’s image, regardless of political affiliation.  At our schools, we will remind our students of that fact while encouraging their informed opinions.

To stay on the sidelines for fear of political correctness would be an abnegation of our responsibility.  So all we can do is our best.  We try to live up to our ideals.  We teach facts. We provide respectful space for opinions.  We encourage civic participation.  We acknowledge that when one of us cannot speak, then none of us can speak.  When one of us cannot vote, then none of us can vote.  And as we learned this week…when one of us cannot breathe, the none of us can easily draw a breath.

For we are all made in the image of “the God in whose hand thy breath is in” (Daniel 5:23).

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon has recently begun his rabbinical school journey at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is thrilled to have joined the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor for Cohort 12. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.