HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Olami / Personal Essay: Why I Teach in a Jewish School
Ten years ago I made a risky career move. Leaving the public school where my reputation as a teacher was secure, I came to the newly-forming American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina. A pluralistic Jewish boarding school erected on a suburban campus in a southern city—as if this was not enough of a venture, one additional consideration gave me great pause: I am not a Jew.
Growing up in Greensboro, I understood the deep and rich heritage of Jewish business acumen and philanthropy in this city. This was the place, after all, given international standing over a century ago by the Cone brothers and their cotton mills. Greensboro elected a Jewish mayor nearly two generations before choosing one who was African-American. Two vibrant congregations continue to contribute in outsized ways to the community.
All things Jewish, however, I knew only from a distance, which is to say I did not know them very well. For me, “Jewish” was embodied in learning to dance “Hava nagila” in elementary school and listening with a child’s amusement to the arguments over politics between my father and our neighbor, a Jewish refugee from Germany, which often ended with the two of them sharing a beer.
Jews were also few and far between at the school where I had made my career. One happy exception was a rabbi’s daughter, who introduced me to the warmth of her synagogue’s congregational life by inviting me to a Shabbat service at which she read Torah. As I walked into the sanctuary, an unseen hand clapped a kippah on my head; I had no idea I should be wearing one! My student also introduced me and my history classes to a survivor of the Holocaust and an army veteran who helped liberate a concentration camp.
When, therefore, many years later, a colleague called to say he had taken a position at the Academy, I thought I was prepared to consider submitting my own application, but uncertainty over how I would fit into such an environment nearly overwhelmed me. Here was a school, after all, dedicated to the idea of raising up youths to be the next generation’s leaders in ways that reflected their heartfelt Judaism. The school’s founder—Maurice “Chico” Sabbah (z”l)—had poured a fortune into making this dream a reality. What could I contribute, even if my place was simply to teach history in the secular division of the school’s curriculum? Perhaps even my presence in a community literally bounded by a green fence would be problematic.
So why do it? There was no denying the attractiveness of the opportunity to help create a new school with a level of resources rarely available to a classroom teacher. But I found myself drawn to something more intangible than classrooms equipped with computer technology and outfitted with learning tables. Just as real and much more significant was Mr. Sabbah’s dream that Jewish adolescents should pursue their own intellectual and moral development while simultaneously creating a community in which to learn from those who understandings of Jewishness were different. The dream gained potency from the hope that in learning these things young people would help repair the world, fulfilling the promise made first to Abraham that in his family all the families of the earth would be blessed.
Dreams are full of risks because they take us to unfamiliar places. Those brave enough to share theirs risk being labeled as cranks, and yet a dream dies with its dreamer unless it is shared. Mr. Sabbah lived long enough to hear from those who regarded his idea for this school as preposterous and to witness how his vision inspired others to dare new things. What he did reminds me of what Tom Paine, pamphleteer of the Revolution, famously declared in Common Sense: “We have the power to begin the world over again.” Now, writing these lines in the midst of the Days of Awe, I am struck anew by how the school’s mission speaks a prophetic voice that can attract us all.♦
Do you have a special story to tell about your experience in day schools? Share it with the field! Send an essay of 600 words to Haydion@ravsak.org. Submissions from all stakeholders welcome.
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