Taking a Lap for the Jews: Pluralism at a Community Jewish High School

Bruce Powell

As a tenth grader, Roee could sprint 800 meters (the metric half mile) in about two minutes. Some of us remember Glenn Cunningham who is regarded by many as the greatest of early American runners. Glenn ran the mile in about 4 minutes. Roee was about that fast at the age of fifteen.

Roee entered New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in the tenth grade. He had originally enrolled for grade 9 in a local public high school where he knew he could run for a serious high school track team. By the end of ninth grade, he realized that the public school might have a great track program, but he needed something more; he needed a place of Jewish community, Jewish values, and solid academics. He also knew that not only did NCJHS lack a track team, but that all meets took place on Shabbat and that it would be impossible for him to continue his track career as a representative of our school, even if we were to field a team.

Tenth grade went very well for Roee. He earned top grades, blended beautifully into the culture and values at NCJHS, and made some life-long friends. Roee had asked us if he could run for our school on Shabbat, and our answer at that time was no. He accepted the decision. Yet, something was still missing. After all, Roee still loved to run. He joined our cross country team—we won the league title that year. But, as wonderful as the team was, it still did not match the thrill of seriously tough competition in his main sport, the 800 meter sprint.

By eleventh grade, Roee had grown into a thoughtful, insightful young man with a continued passion both for running and for Judaism. In the early fall of his eleventh grade year, Roee approached me and asked if we might consider allowing him to pioneer our first-ever track team. Of course, the challenge of Shabbat remained, but I agreed to consider his request. Following our meeting, Roee’s father called and suggested a meeting to discuss Roee’s request. His father is a passionate, pluralistic Jew, and a professor of education at a major university in Los Angeles. This was beginning to get very interesting.

I decided to query the three rabbis on our staff (trained as Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) about the idea of convening a rabbinic council to hear Roee’s case and allowing him to bring his father as “special counsel.” Our rabbis thought this was a fabulous opportunity to teach the halachic process as it might evolve at a Jewish community high school, and to engage a serious student and serious Jew in an important discussion about life, Judaism, ritual observance, and values.

What the rabbis could not know was how this meeting would change all of our lives.

A week later the meeting was set.

Roee’s father, Dr. Ron Astor, opened the meeting with an eloquent statement of Jewish pluralism. He outlined for our council that, as a community school, we have an obligation to serve all of our Jewish students and to engage all of their views into our decision-making process. He asked pointed questions as to why his family’s Jewish choices were any less “Jewish” than those made by more Jewishly traditional students. He outlined the Jewish identification of his family through day-school attendance, synagogue affiliation, support for Israel, engagement in the Maccabiah Games, careful attention to the laws of leshon hara, and their general commitment to mitzvoth bein adam l’chaveiro. He even suggested that non-halakhic Jewish observance is no less Jewish than those who select halakhic practice. And, if we are true to our pluralistic ideals, shouldn’t those ideals embrace Reform practice and its vision of choice, as well? Aren’t we imposing an Orthodox halakhic position within the context of a pluralistic Jewish high school? As a knowledgeable Jew, Dr. Astor cited sources, Jewish history, and the evolution of Jewish culture and civilization to strengthen his points.

Roee spoke next.

He explained that on a recent trip to Europe, he and his family stopped in Munich. He had learned of the massacre of our eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games and this history engendered in him a deep need to reach out over time to those murdered by the terrorists. He was allowed to enter the Olympic track stadium where he decided to run around the track in memory of the eleven fallen athletes. Roee explained that, as he ran, he developed a strong kavanah, almost prayer-like in its intensity, repeating to himself as he ran, “I am here; I am strong; I am a Jew; I am running for my fellow athletes; and we cannot be defeated.” Roee ran eleven laps, one for each of the fallen. He explained that, even after lap eleven, he could not stop. He ran for two hours. He told the rabbis, “That day, I ran for the Jewish people.”

Roee continued. The family trip included stops at several former Nazi concentration camps. At each camp, Roee described a similar scene. He ran around each camp with complete kavanah, remembering the six million, and repeating his mantra, “I am here; I am strong; I am a Jew; I am running for those who perished; and we cannot be defeated.”

Once again, Roee had taken a lap for the Jews.

Finally, Roee explained that sometimes running on Shabbat is how he “does Jewish.” It is both for memory and for focused intentionality.

At the end of Roee’s centered and self-reflective oration, there was a sacred silence in my office. The rabbis were silent; Roee’s father was silent; and within that silence one could hear the movement of boundaries. Jewish pluralism at New Community Jewish High School was, within that silence, defined anew.

Roee and his father left the office. The rabbis, athletic director, and I remained. Unanimously, the rabbis voted to allow Roee to “take a lap” as a representative of our Jewish high school. Roee and his family agreed to take lodging near the site of track meets, move in on Friday afternoons, celebrate Shabbat in their family’s tradition, walk to the track stadium on Shabbat, and remain until after three stars on Saturday night.

The rabbis reasoned that, whereas competition might be antithetical to celebrating a halachic Shabbat, once the technical/objective aspects of observing Shabbat were worked out (staying on-site, pre-registration, walking to the field), all that remained was the subjective spirit of Shabbat. Roee’s kavanah was clearly not one of competition, but rather one of spiritual connectedness and identification with the Jewish people.

They were clear that Roee was, indeed, “taking a lap for the Jews,” and upon that lap, the Shekhinah certainly rested.

As a community Jewish high school, did we fulfill our Jewish mandate? Or, did we create a “slippery slope” so often cited by our more traditional colleagues and leaders? Did we expand the boundaries and application of pluralism too far? Or, did we remain true to the spirit of a non-judgmental, pluralistic Jewish high school in the United States? And will the Shekhinah, over time, find a mekom kodesh within our tent? I, for one, am comforted that Roee continues to “take a lap” for those living and dead unable to run, and continues to engage in acts of G-dliness.

Today, Roee attends the University of Southern California in its special BA / MD program. As a future physician, we know that Roee will continue to “take a lap for the Jews.” ♦

Dr. Bruce Powell is Head of School at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, California. He can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion Pluralism Winter 2009
Winter 2009