How to Make “Back to School” Sacred Time

In the beginning of one of my favorite books, The Sabbath, by one of my favorite Jewish thinkers Abraham Joshua Heschel, we are reminded that, “Judaism is a religion of time (emphasis in original) aiming at the sanctification of time.”  Later on, Heschel 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 itself can be sacred and holy. For the purpose of his book, it is the Sabbath under consideration.  For the purpose of this blog post, 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, each year, but this year in particular, is simply the start of school.

This has been a month of firsts.  First days of school for our junior kindergartners.  First days of a last year for our eighth graders.  First days in a new school for teachers.  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 dreaming bold dreams.  First successes. First failures which are really first steps towards success.

First steps to an unlimited future.

I believe in the religiosity of teaching and the teacher-student relationship.  And as I have shared in a prior post about how to best approach Parent-Teacher Conferences, to both 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 a metaphor, but as an existential fact.

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

Our first opportunity to put these ideas into practice will come at Virtual Back to School Night on Tuesday, October 12th (schedule and links coming soon).  It may not seem appropriate to deem something like that as “sacred time”, but how else to describe the coming together of teachers and parents in the service of educating children?

So congratulations to the teachers, staff, lay leaders and volunteers who contributed to our successful opening of the 2021-2022 school year!  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 first weeks into the routines of first months, 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.)

I will be taking next week off from blogging, as it is the week of my younger daughter, Matyal’s, Bat Mitzvah and we have a busy and exciting week!

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.

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