The Spirituality of “Back to School”

Hopefully your summer has been all you wanted it to be and that whatever your goals were for the summer – professional development, vacation, relaxation, rejuvenation, reconnection, spending time with family, etc. – you accomplished them and more.  But as August heads towards September and our earliest schools have already begun to welcome teachers and parents back to school, it seems appropriate to mark the occasion.

In the beginning of one of my favorite books, The Sabbath, by one of my favorite Jewish Open Doorsthinkers Abraham Joshua Heschel, he says, “Judaism is a religion of time (emphasis in original) aiming at the sanctification of time.  Later on, he refers to Shabbat using a similar metaphor – “a palace in time”.

Among the many things Heschel is describing is the value of celebrating and cherishing moments in time. That time can be sacred and holy. For the purpose of his book, it is the Sabbath under consideration.  For the purpose of this blog, it is the idea of how important it is to stop and appreciate the everyday miracles of time all around us.

One of those miracles, to me, is the start of school.

This was a week of firsts for many in our schools, a week of firsts that will be be repeated as schools open their doors across the continent.  First days of school for our kindergartners.  First days of a last year for our eighth graders or twelfth graders.  First days in a new school for teachers and heads (and board members).  First days for new families.  First echoes of laughter and rolling backpacks in hallways that were still and empty just a few weeks ago.  First lessons brought to life from planning and imagination. First hiccups of schools in transition.  First successes.  First mishaps.

First steps to an unlimited future.

I believe in the religiosity of teaching and the teacher-student relationship.  To borrow and butcher Martin Buber, I believe that when we treat others as objects, we are in an “I-It” relationship; when we treat others with recognition of the divine within them – when we acknowledge that we are all created in God’s image and treat each other as such, we are in an “I-Thou” relationship.  Taking a deeper step (according to this idea) would be to say that when we treat each other with love, we invite God’s presence into our relationships. Not merely as metaphor, but as an existential fact.

One way to measure school success, I would suggest, will be determined by whether or not paper-chain-in-the-dark-1215912-mthose engaged in the sacred work of schooling see each other as “Thou’s” and not “It’s”.   Will we do the work necessary from the start of school to develop “Thou” relationships with our students?  With their parents?

We’ll know if we are able to identify the good that comes with each student and share it with his or her parents. We’ll know if we are able to share the difficult truths which are our responsibility to share and have them received in the spirit in which we will surely wish it to be received.  We’ll know if we are able to hear difficult truths about ourselves in the spirit in which they will surely be given.  The spirit of genuine partnership where only the wellbeing of the child is important.  The spirit of seeing the best in each other, even when it takes a little more energy.

The spirit that exists when we see each other as a “Thou” and not an “It”.

And so…congratulations to the teachers, heads, staff, lay leaders and volunteers who worked so hard for a successful start.  Thank you to all the parents who trust us with your children.  Thank you to the students for your smiles and eagerness.  And as we move from the excitement of the first week into the routines of the first month, let us all cherish the everyday moments too often overlooked – a new skill mastered, a new friend made, a new year begun.

Ken yehi ratzon (May it be God’s will.)

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. 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.

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