Thursday, May 19, 2016

Israel 2016-- Language Acquisition


            Welcome to another installment of The Davis Academy 2016 Israel Trip Blog! If you’re not looking for The Davis Academy 2016 Israel Trip Blog then you’re in the wrong place! If you’re in the wrong place then I feel bad for you, because everything about what’s happening over here in Israel is right on.
            A few years ago we began visiting a place called Yad L’Kashish during the Jerusalem portion of our trip. We visit there because of the unique, inspirational, and holy work that Yad L’Kashish does. More than 30 years ago a former school teacher noticed that there were many elderly men and women in her neighborhood who seemed completely bored and lonely. She also noticed, with her teacher’s sensitivity, that many school children had text books that were in need of repair. She founded Yad L’Kashish (“Lifeline for the Elderly”) when she invited several of those elderly people to take up the vocation of bookbinding. It was a win-win scenario.
            From there Yad L’Kashish has grown and flourished. Hundreds of elderly men and women work there each day. Their daily work keeps them sharp, keeps them active, and most importantly helps them age with dignity. In exchange for their labor they receive a variety of benefits ranging from meals to bus passes and more. Each day, these men and women, many of them Holocaust survivors, create beautiful artwork of all kinds. Handmade greeting cards, journals, tallitot, jewelry, and more fill their gift shop with irresistible items for purchase. The best part is that every purchase goes directly into sustaining this non-profit.
            Last year we began a tradition of using the tzedekah funds we collect in exchange for returning lost property to the kids as the seed money for the graduating class to purchase something for The Davis Academy’s youngest learners. We also started a tradition of making the selection of the object an honor to be bestowed on students who have exhibited exceptional menschlichkeit. This year Sarah M. and Gabriella K. were asked to lead the class gift process. Sarah M. stood out among the group when she was quickly able to explain the Rambam’s “Ladder of Tzedekah”—the Medieval Jewish philosophical framework that informs Yad L’Kashish. Gabriella was selected after she graciously used her Russian language skills to build bridges of understanding between our kids and the workers at Yad L’Kashish, many of whom only speak Russian. With input from their classmates they selected a lovely wall hanging depicting the 7 species of the Land of Israel. It will be presented at Shabbat on 5/27. While everyone loved Yad L’Kashish it was truly heartwarming to see Zoe B. and Mya A. each getting “left behind” because they were so deeply immersed in conversation with the people there.
            After Yad L’Kashish we returned to Mt. Zion. There we visited King David’s Tomb. While visiting that site we encountered the large Muslim group from India. It was very moving to see them remove their shoes before entering the area with the tomb and also to see them kissing the tomb (note to self, do not kiss the tomb).
            What makes King David’s Tomb special is the fact that it is a site that is holy to all three monotheistic faiths. Moreover, as many of you know, the room directly about the Tomb is where Christians believe The Last Supper took place. This room also served for a time as a mosque. Not only does this convergence suggest that Shalom is possible among people with different beliefs, it demonstrates undeniably, that we have much more that unites us than separates us. I believe that we will eventually, albeit gradually, recognize our common humanity. I believe that, in spite of all the signs to the contrary, that we are actually making progress even now and headed in the right direction. I believe that the signs of violence and hatred that are so familiar to all of us are a reflection of peoples fear, desperation, misplaced anger, and inability to envision how much better  the world will be when we tolerate and celebrate one another, when we see ourselves and our loved ones in the faces of strangers as I described a few days ago. If you can’t connect with hope and human potential in Jerusalem then you can’t connect with it anywhere. Jerusalem is and must continue to become the city of peace, the ir shalom that is imbedded in its very name.
            Today marked The Davis Academy’s first ever visit to the Dormission Church on Mt. Zion. At this site, Roman Catholics believe that Jesus carried his mother, Mary, up to heaven where she rests and watches over the world for all eternity. The church is stunningly beautiful and today that beauty was enhanced by thunderous music coming being played on the massive pipe organ. At Dormission Church, Yishay explained something very important—the meaning of Pentecost.  Celebrated last Sunday, Pentecost commemorates the day that the disciples of Jesus experienced a miraculous revelation that allowed them to speak many new and different languages. This ability allowed them to do the work of evangelizing—bringing people into the Christian faith. Again, Roman Catholics believe that this miracle took place at the Dormission Church. We’ll return to the idea of speaking new and different languages later. 
            Eventually we made our way into the Jewish Quarter where the kids spoke a very familiar language—lunch and shopping. These moments of semi-autonomy and spiritual capitalism are important ones for our trip. When you see pictures from later in the day you’ll notice that many boys are wearing Israeli Flags as capes. They bought them during their time in the Jewish Quarter, along with many other gifts. I’ll never forget seeing Adam R. wrapped in his Israeli Flag praying at the Kotel.
            Our return to the Kotel was both more celebratory and emotional than our first visit. While standing on the boys’ side I suddenly heard the words to “Kol Yisrael” rising from the girls’ side. It’s hard to describe the feeling of hearing a song that I wrote suddenly rising from such a profoundly symbolic place and resounding with the beautiful voices of the beautiful souls that you all know so well. To say that I never imagined that I would experience something like that is an understatement. It’s not the first time, but it will be forever humbling. Meanwhile, on the boys’ side, the Chabadniks from yesterday’s post got hold of them and inspired them to sing and dance songs with a very strong Messianic theme. This happens every year and, if you really dig deep, it’s a complicated and potentially problematic phenomenon. But to be honest, the boys don’t dig that deep. They think it’s somewhere between cool, funky, and hysterical. Inevitably a dance-off occurs between our boys and the Chabad guys. I’ll let you guess who wins. 
            Though exhausted, we concluded our time in the Old City with a visit to the Davidson Center. An important archaeological site, the Davidson Center is also home to Robinson’s Arch. That’s the place where many people y’all know have their bar/bat mitzvah because men and women can stand alongside one another and pray without judgment or intrusions. While there, Ms. Kendrick, Mr. O’Dell, Mrs. Ferrar, and I shared a bit about our experience at the Kotel a few years ago. Lauren C., Adam W., Austin M., and Adam P.,  all had siblings with us that year. Without going into all the details, that year we found ourselves at the Kotel along with several thousand other Jews who had strong differences of opinion about whether women should be allowed to wear tallitot and chant Torah at the Kotel. The reason that the Chabad guys can be problematic, when you really get down to it, is because sometimes some of them unapologetically, unrelentingly and condescendingly impose their definition of what it means to be not only a good and authentic Jew, but even what it means to simply be a Jew, on others, including our highly impressionable kids. Last year I faced the very difficult situation of caring for some of our boys who were denied the experience of wrapping Tefilin at the Kotel because there mothers weren’t Jewish which meant that, according to the Chabadniks, the boys weren’t either. Think about how that would've felt in place of the feeling you had when you saw your sons yesterday... Coming back to "Kol Yisrael," this year a small part of me that heard the lyrics as a gentle and loving protest song against Judaism that divides rather unites, that pushes away rather than truly embraces. I heard it as an assertion of authentic Judaism, as an affirmation that the voices of our children, boys and girls, and even my own voice count as much as any other voices when it comes to determining what lies in store for the Jewish people. 
            As for dinner at the mall, I didn’t hear any complaints!
            If someone had told me yesterday that today’s guiding image would’ve been inspired by the meaning and intention of Pentecost, I would’ve been intrigued to say the least. But something about the idea of human beings miraculously discovering the ability to speak new and different languages and then proclaiming their truths to the world really resonates with me. It’s a powerful way to think about what it means to explore our potential as people and to own our emerging identities. It’s a powerful way to express what it means to grow and evolve and journey through life. It’s particularly resonant when I look at our kids and see them struggling to find the words, yearning to express themselves, and trying on different voices, dialects, and idioms here on this trip. This afternoon I overheard Ansley, Madi, and a few other girls chatting about how much they missed Morah Lahav and singing songs that she taught them. It reminded me that these kids are still trying on the many different languages of Judaism. I was honored when Lindy shared with me that she felt, today, that she prayed for the first time with true and powerful intention. I was moved when Evan B. shared that he is interested in possibly studying psychology one day because he wants to be able to help teenagers and when Sarah Sch. shared  how much it means to her to be in Jerusalem. Before words can be uttered there must be thought and feeling. Words are one of the imperfect vessels that we use to convey our deepest truths to the world around us. The depth and breadth of thought and feeling that is churning in these kids is forcing them to find new languages to express themselves. It's a sloppy, fascinating, sacred, and astounding thing to witness and its an honor to serve as a sounding board. 
        It turns out that two weeks in Israel isn’t exactly an immersion in the Hebrew language (what’s called an Ulpan), it’s an immersion in the languages of humanity and the individual soul. When the kids get back next week and eventually start sharing their stories and experiences, listen carefully for new thoughts, feelings, ideas, words, and languages coming from them with all the beautiful imperfections of an unfolding miracle.


  1. Reading your blog each day brings tears to my eyes. Anyone who knows me would say it doesn't take much to make me cry, which is true, but these are tears of pride and gratitude. I feel so lucky that our children get to experience Israel together. I have loved reading the blog posts, sharing the pictures with family and friends and with my fourth grade class. Somehow, this act of sharing even feels holy and spiritual; connected to all of you, your daily travels and to the history and future of our people. Thank you Rabbi Micah! I can't wait to see what's in store for tomorrow!

  2. As always, thank you for not only capturing the day's events, but making us really think about what our children are experiencing.

    It’s funny you mentioned last year’s incident with the Tefilin. That’s exactly what I thought of yesterday when I saw the photos of the boys praying. The good news is that Elliott says that event didn’t ruin any part of his trip last year. The better news is that he was there with you, Rabbi Micah. He got to see that you had his back and then sit and chat with you afterwards and get your words of wisdom. I think Elliott’s takeaway was that his spiritual journey, while it might not be exactly the same as his friends', is just as important as anyone else's.

    Thanks again to all of the chaperones for the photos and updates. We appreciate each and every one. You'd be amazed how many times we parents can refresh our Twitter feed.

  3. I too, think we are very lucky and am very appreciative that all of the chaperones are sharing, caring and having an amazing experience along side our kids. I cannot wait to hear their stories and even better is seeing the excitement in their faces. Truly a blessing to be there with you Rabbi Micah and all thier friends. Jerusalem seems like the holiest place on earth and no matter what you believe or don't- your heart is filled with hope and being there is powerful. I know Davis class of 2016 is forever grateful and so am I.

  4. I too, think we are very lucky and am very appreciative that all of the chaperones are sharing, caring and having an amazing experience along side our kids. I cannot wait to hear their stories and even better is seeing the excitement in their faces. Truly a blessing to be there with you Rabbi Micah and all thier friends. Jerusalem seems like the holiest place on earth and no matter what you believe or don't- your heart is filled with hope and being there is powerful. I know Davis class of 2016 is forever grateful and so am I.

  5. One of my favorite stories from that trip 3 years ago! Hannah tells us of how Morah Segal took some girls as close as they could get to the wall on that momentus Rosh Chodesh. What a moving experience it was.

  6. Thank you all for taking the time to share your thoughts and reactions!