HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

How Judaism Inspires Us

by Erica Cabag and Alexandra Somers Lahr Issue: Jewish Inspiration Gann Academy, Waltham, MA
TOPICS : Community

We are a math teacher and a development professional, both identified Catholics, who have found our ways to a Jewish high school, Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts. As members of this professional community, we have opportunities to learn about Judaism, to see the ways that being in a Jewish school can enrich our lives as people and professionals, and even to explore our own faiths. This summer, we even travelled to Israel with 23 of our colleagues to experience elements of the new Israel program that is currently being introduced at our school. This is a conversation about what working in a Jewish high school means to us.

When do you feel inspired by Gann’s mission?

Alex: I celebrate being part of a community so deeply focused on and dedicated to fostering human dignity on many levels. As a math teacher, I aim to develop students’ critical thinking skills while honoring the different approaches to problems or solutions that students take. All the while, I encourage students to listen to others, to practice compassion and patience with one another, and to honor the learning process and individual identity of all members of their class. The tail end of Gann’s mission plays out in my classes daily: “Jews who, through critical thinking and the contribution of their unique voices, will create a vibrant Jewish future and build a better world where human dignity will flourish.” Through creating such a space of reflection and respect in my classes, students leave each class meeting feeling good about their learning process, even if they struggle with math generally. By respecting themselves, they more easily and habitually respect others and encourage such a safe space from others around them.

Erica: I’m constantly inspired by Gann’s mission, especially when I interact with the students, which can be harder to do when you’re on the business side of the school. When I first started at Gann, I attended as many student-led club meetings and classes as I could, for all the new-to-the-job reasons but particularly to get a sense of the type of individuals Gann was helping to develop. Not only are these students intelligent, but they are thoughtful and kind. They don’t just sit by and let life happen around them. They are engaged with each other, with their community, and with the world; they are encouraged to have tough conversations and are taught to think critically and reflect constantly.

For example, I chaperoned a group of students to North Carolina for an Exploration Week trip to participate in a Habitat for Humanity building project. Being in development, I had not previously had a role like this, and I was hyperfocused on chaperone duties like lights-out and making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be. About half-way through the trip, I started to remind a small group of students that it was time to go to bed, but I realized quickly that they were having an intense conversation about Israel, much of it so politically astute that some comments flew over my head. I couldn’t shut down the conversation. I was enthralled by their thoughts and emotions and how they were conveyed. It was unbelievably refreshing, and I had to keep reminding myself that they were teenagers.

When do you connect (or feel connection) with the culture and community?

Alex: Though this will feel very strange to Jewish readers, I feel most connected to the culture and community when I attend church. The first reading of a Catholic mass always comes from the Old Testament. Having once shared an office at Gann with a scholar of the early Christian church, I know so much more about the early days of the Catholic Church than I learned in Catholic school or from my very knowledgeable Catholic mother. The biblical stories of the Torah, which I have learned more deeply at Gann, have so much more meaning when I connect them to my experiences in church. Being able to bridge Jewish and Catholic learning is a wonderful intellectual pursuit of mine, and without Gann I would not have the context and would not be able to make the connections that I do.

Erica: Tikkun Olam resonates with me deeply. I believe in the notion that we all have this responsibility to leave this world better than when we entered it. When I learned about it as a Jewish value, a light bulb went off in both my heart and mind. Growing up, I would sometimes have this guilt of wanting to do good, because I had this feeling that I was supposed to do it for ultimately selfish reasons of getting into Heaven. The short statement of “repairing the world,” coupled with the intention that what I was doing would help people beyond my time, was very concrete and provided a beyond that didn’t belong solely to me. I also connect it to the end of the Catholic prayer “Glory Be,” which finishes with “world without end,” and the two statements feel very complete and concrete. So many people I’ve worked with take that value very seriously and explicitly, and it’s really empowered me to do my best to prioritize working and volunteering for organizations that have strong missions that I can support 100%.

In what ways have Jewish teachings inspired you?

Alex: For years before coming to Gann, I felt that I was missing a spiritual practice. That is, I did not feel that attending church connected me to the God of the Bible or made me a more spiritual person. I started a practice of Mussar during my first year at Gann. Mussar looks at ethical decision making through a Jewish lens with a focus on middot, soul traits, that one aims to strengthen through the practice. One thing led to another, and I ended up bringing elements of the practice into some of my math classes. I engage the students in questions and discussion about how choices we make are influenced by our attention to certain middot (savlanut—patience, kavod—honor/respect, anavah—humility). The goal here is to help students be better partners in learning during math class time and even outside of it and to instill the sense that all humans deserve our empathic ear first and our judgment never.

Erica: In a past job, we rotated the responsibility of giving a dvar Torah during weekly staff meetings. While we were welcome to focus on other topics outside of the current parashah, I cannot stress enough how daunting this task was for me. The thought of me teaching something remotely religious was absurd—who am I to give a dvar Torah? I also would wrestle the importance of this activity within the context of the setting. On the other side of the coin, I often enjoyed hearing from other colleagues during this exercise, so I chalked it up to participating in the full experience (while simultaneously trying not to let the anxiety of the activity get to me).

Having this experience of sharing a dvar Torah allowed me to reflect on several things that I connected with my own Catholic practice. How am I hearing the homily—or am I even listening? What may the priest have done in preparation for this week? What is happening in the world today that brings me back into this ancient text? If I hear the same story again, do I come to the same conclusion? It was a very introspective practice for me, and I feel fortunate that I still work in the Jewish community where I am regularly exposed to the divrei Torah given by many inspirational colleagues. I have a deep appreciation for them and listen with intent more than ever before.

Can a non-Jew have a Jewish journey?

Alex: In a sense, yes, a non-Jew can have a Jewish journey. As I described above, Mussar, and its roots in Jewish texts broadly speaking, have brought a spirituality back into my life that I had lost for a while. By engaging with the practice of Mussar, I am brought into the fabric of Judaism in a very tangential way, but it is a Jewish journey of sorts nonetheless. In another sense, I have been brought into exploring Judaism and coming to a deeper understanding of traditions, practices and rituals. My Jewish friends jokingly comment that my learning has surpassed theirs to some extent. Whereas I’m not always sure that is true, I do have some nuanced knowledge that others who are not daily immersed in this community do not. That is another way I am on a journey: by educating others to what I have learned by being at Gann, and by constantly asking questions when I do not know something I see or hear.

I also have my own Jewish heritage that I have explored as much as I can. Though I identify as Polish-Catholic, my paternal grandfather was Jewish and became a bar mitzvah. His great-grandfather established an Orthodox synagogue in my hometown of South Orange, New Jersey, in 1874. I have looked into his past but have not found much. I would like to learn more.

Erica: It didn’t occur to me as a possibility until a couple of colleagues separately mentioned that I could be on a Jewish journey. By chance, I’ve spent about two-thirds of my professional life working in the Jewish community or through a strong Jewish lens. Gann is the third Jewish organization where I’ve worked, so I can’t help but see it as a journey now. Colleagues have commented along the way on my strong curiosity about Judaism and have listed it as a major strength in how I approach my work. It has also been personally enriching, as I’ve identified with certain elements like Tikkun Olam, and it provides me with new ways to reflect on Catholicism and how I practice it.

Has there ever been a time where your identity is in tension with some aspect of your role at the school?

Alex: I am a cook and baker at home. Every time kashrut comes up at Gann, I feel separated from some students and colleagues. Not being able to share food I produce from my kitchen with others saddens me, as it is a key part of my identity. There is no compromise here. Despite offers to cook in kosher kitchens of others, one’s kitchen is deeply personal. This is acutely an issue at Christmas when I bake up a storm to share with family during the holiday.

Erica: Being a Filipina-American Catholic working in the Jewish community does elicit that questioning look on people’s faces when they first meet me. I often self-reveal quickly that I am not Jewish just so they don’t have to ask me—and sometimes it feels like they want to ask me. However, working in a pluralistic day school with a diverse Jewish community, I am challenged to revisit my own preconceived notions of who is or looks Jewish, or who can support and/or work within the Jewish community. This has helped me become more comfortable in my own skin and owning my identity of being a minority within a minority.

In closing, we both find value in these conversations because it helps us find our place in the community that isn’t inherently our own. We imagine that other Jewish day schools also have non-Jewish faculty and staff, and encourage everyone to also engage in this type of discussion. We believe it can strengthen the school community and lead to greater understanding and connection to colleagues, as we are all collectively responsible for accomplishing our schools’ missions.

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Jewish Inspiration

Day schools aim to transmit a passion for Judaism to their students. Parents send their children to day school because they want them to cultivate a love of Judaism in all its dimensions. The articles in this issue explore the vital but elusive notion of Jewish inspiration from various angles. How do we define it, measure it, and recognize when we've achieved it? What does a school need to do to become a place that inspires students, faculty and all who work there? In what ways can schools undertake a process of change to improve in their work of inspiring students? And what do students and alumni tell us inspired them? Come to read, learn and be inspired for your work in Jewish education. 

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