What's in a Namesake? Putting the "Heschel" Back in Heschel Day School
In a recent article in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, editor Rob Eshman remarked on the attitude of the Jewish establishment regarding Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s activism in the Civil Rights era. We take pride in Rabbi Heschel’s stance, even as we find ourselves lethargic compared to his activity. Eshman continues that “we become self-satisfied, as if the miles Heschel walked with King count on our own Fitbits. They don’t. In congratulating ourselves on our past, we neglect the work that must be done in the present.” When you work at a school with Rabbi Heschel’s name attached to it, you simply cannot afford to let the life he lived and the Judaism he taught be mere lip service. Rather, it has to serve as a mission statement.
It is why one of the main goals of our school this year has been to put more Heschel in Heschel.
Rabbi Heschel has had a prominent space in our schoolwide educational plan this year. During our staff week in the fall, our entire faculty learned about Heschel’s life and aspects of his personal philosophy. We learned about his stance on educators (“What we need more than anything else is not text-books but text-people”) and “radical amazement” (“What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder”). During a family shabbaton at a local Jewish summer camp in October, I taught parents the value of slowing down for a day and the power of enjoying others’ presence, in conjunction with Heschel’s ideas from his book The Sabbath.
As we built our communal “palace in time,” we came to understand with fuller hearts Heschel’s concept that “the higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” For many in our community, that weekend represented firsts: a first Shabbat, a first havdallah, a first time engaging in text study. There was no better context for why Shabbat matters than to teach in honor of the name, Heschel, that brought us all together.
Of course, as a school, the education of our students is the top priority. Teaching radical amazement to students is actually a lot simpler than teaching it to adults; simply look into their eyes as they experience the world. At Heschel, radical amazement happens daily. From our innovation lab and STEAM approach, from eighth grade interviews with Holocaust survivors, to a kindergarten hospitality tent where they welcome family and friends just like another famous Jewish Abraham, our students are challenged every day to connect their hearts and minds.
I have seen second graders draw pictures of Rabbi Heschel, fourth graders discuss his activism, and middle schoolers assess his Torah by way of philosophy, theology and his writings on the prophetic calling. If Heschel’s thought thrived here, that would be a victory unto itself, but that is not our whole story. Our students, and larger community as well, are inspired to “pray with our legs” too. We teach Heschel’s words at our communal events and especially when we engage in mitzvot and community service. The ethos of Heschel is alive and well as we get our own hands dirty in the hard work of shaping the world that ought to be, together.
It is a joy to teach in a school that has Heschel as a name. His life constantly inspires our community, and we in turn, keep his memory alive, through our learning, teaching and deeds. We are not merely satisfied with what Heschel did; we take it upon ourselves to talk his talk and walk his walk. It’s a radically amazing way to educate the hearts and minds of our entire community.