The Bewildering Journey of the Wilderness Class of 2022

[Please find here an adapted version of the words I shared at last night’s Ottawa Jewish Community School Graduation:]

We are currently in the middle of Sefer Ba-Midbar, the Book of Numbers, on our annual journey of Torah.  “Ba-Midbar” is usually translated as “in the desert” but is more accurately understood to be “in the wilderness”, and the narrative action describes the wilderness generation who wandered from Revelation at Sinai to the brink of Redemption on the border to Eretz Yisrael.  This is the generation who stood at Sinai and built a Golden Calf.  This is the generation who received mannah from heaven and suffered the bad report of those chosen to spy out the land of “milk and honey”.  This is the generation whose relationship to God was the most intimate, who experienced miracles both daily and regularly, but who could not maintain their faith, and ultimately, were forced to wander for forty years until the next generation was ready to continue the journey to the Promised Land.  This was a generation that saw and experienced things like no other before or since.  Their wandering was both in wilderness and bewildering.  They went through some things.

Rabbinic commentators offer various explanations for why this needed to be true.  God could simply have completed the three-or-so day journey from Sinai to Israel without putting the People through a generation of wilderness.  Divine punishment for the many sins of faithlessness and complaining is the most common response.  These focus on the negative aspects of wilderness.  But there has always been a line of thought that viewed the wandering, not as punishment, but as preparation.  That the experience of wilderness – with all its challenges – was in some ways a final time to benefit from the intimacy of a small and powerful community – a family of tribes – before, say, graduating into Eretz Yisrael and, although forever remaining a family, heading out on new adventures.  Two and a third years of COVID does not forty years in a desert make.  And we have not lived through COVID as any kind of divine punishment.  But.  It sure has been bewildering.

Parents Lead the Way

Our collective journey through the wilderness would have not reached this threshold without the perseverance of parents and all that they were asked to do without time, training or support to facilitate at-home learning during these middle school years of pandemic learning.  What I have come to realize more and more each year is how much parents and parenting matters.  And I don’t mean from a COVID-specific perspective, although that is obviously true.  And I don’t mean from a generic school-home partnership lens, although that is absolutely critical.  No, even as a parent myself, I don’t think I realized just how important parents and parenting truly are to supporting a child’s journey through adolescence towards young adulthood.

The path of small Jewish day schools is not always an easy one to tread.  Parents find their way into Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons – personalized attention, family atmosphere, a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, legacy, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that year.  Jewish day school comes at a high price, and that price is not just financial.  There are many in this room who have sacrificed luxuries and necessities to reach this day.  All in this room have sacrificed their most precious gift – time – in service of their children’s academic and Jewish journeys.  Years like these last three sharpen both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with semi-self-directed Grade 8 students, the transitions to and from distance learning strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention Wi-Fi!).

Like Moshe, all we can do as parents is guide our children along the journey – sometimes as bewildered as they are from all it entails – until we reach a point where they start to move forward on their own journeys.  We believe that a night like tonight serves as a meaningful way-station along that path, that it validates parental choices and sacrifices, and proves the power of parenting.  On a personal note, let me just thank you as a fellow parent in this class.  There is nothing as bewildering as being both parent and principal and I thank you for letting me wear both hats as we co-parented this group through the wilderness.

Teachers Who Illuminate

In Parashat Be’ha’lotekhah we get the description of the seven lamps that light up the sanctuary.  One way to read the “lamps” is for them to stand in for “education”, and the way teachers light up the minds and hearts of others.  Education is not only a matter of mastering information; it’s about questioning and exploring.  Teachers make a school and we have never seen greater proof of that than during these last three years.  I believe that teaching at its highest form is about unleashing the passion and talents of students.  During these dark wilderness days of pandemic learning, when you are forced to fly the plane while you are building it, when you have to teach from home with your life on display in the background, when you have to use new skills and new platforms without having had adequate time to learn, let alone practice, when you are willing to publicly acknowledge to your students what you don’t know, when you show up as you are and not, perhaps, as you would like to be – could there be more powerful role modeling for our children than this?

This desire to create space for students to shine is what lets our teachers know our children like no other school can.  This soft glow of vulnerability is what gives permission to our students to be who they most authentically are without fear of judgement.  The ceding of the spotlight to our students is exactly why at graduation we pause for an opportunity to acknowledge not only the Grade 8 Teachers, but to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time shone together to create a class.

Finding Your Voice

With all our complicated personalities and unique experiences, just showing up can sometimes be a genuine act of courage, a way of giving voice.  But when showing up has meant sometimes being at home, or sometimes being at school, or trying to create new or maintain old relationships from inside a Google Meet, dealing with unusual safety protocols and sacrificing much-anticipated experiences – what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you have each started to find your voices, each one unique and worthy.  You bring your voice to your individual work, your group projects and your class commitments.  You bring it to your academic challenges, and you bring it to your extracurricular opportunities

The stories from our wilderness journey are filled with examples of people finding their voice, displaying courage, and standing up for what is right.  From Caleb and Yehoshua who broke with the Ten Spies and vouched for the Land’s goodness to the Five Daughters of Zelophehad who stood up to Moshe and influenced the making of a new law by God to allow women to own land, our time in the wilderness inspired people to find their voices, show courage and stand up for what is right and what is just.  I have seen that spark of righteous justice from this class in recent years.  Perhaps it was not always channeled as constructively as it could be, but we believe that the instinct to fight for what you believe is right is to be nourished and to be celebrated.  Graduates of OJCS leave having spent years honing their presentation skills, speaking in public, and engaging in many acts of social action and tikkun olam.  We know that you will walk into your high schools of choice as nascent leaders who are prepared to advocate for yourselves and the voiceless.  We know that you will bring your voices to your varying Jewish commitments and to many expressions of community service and social justice. 

Our OJCS “North Stars” Prayer

Our prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars; that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

  • “Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.
  • “Ruach” – be joyful. School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments, like a global pandemic.  We hope you had many moments of joy at OJCS and that you have many more moments of joy in the years to come.
  • “We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.
  • “We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place. Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do (these) great deeds and be inspired to learn more.
  • “We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone. Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous but required.
  • “We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish. One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight.

In closing, know that you each are blessed more than you realize.  But do not ever be content to merely count your blessings.  Be someone who makes their blessings count.”

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.