Returning with Purpose
September 9th, 2022 | 13th of Elul, 5782 פָּרָשַׁת כִּי־תֵצֵא
Dear Beit Rabban Community,
We begin each school year with new teacher orientation before the full staff returns for faculty weeks and before we welcome back our marvelous students. I love new staff orientation because it always redirects me toward our overarching purpose, no matter how deep I might be in the weeds of reopening school. Our faculty guidelines start with a quote from our founder, Devora Steinmetz, on the goal of education: “[The] education of children ought to do more than socialize children to be full participants in the society as it is, [...] schools can and should teach children to participate in and be shapers of a better society. “ (Dr. Devora Steinmetz, Founder of Beit Rabban, School and Society). This is our north star.
Before joining Beit Rabban I spent time working in both for-profit and non-profit organizations on issues of importance to me, from housing equity to human rights, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I loved each of these jobs, and I remain passionate about all those issues. Nonetheless, I was drawn back into education in no small part because I choose a form of activism that is about setting children on a path to be “shapers of a better society.” This is about helping kids nurture an obligation to act for good and helping to equip them with the skills to do so. Doing this requires all the strategies - everything from working on independence when zipping jackets, to decoding words, to focusing on the why not just the what of learning, to engaging in meaningful service learning, to instilling values through communal moments of commemoration and celebration.
September 11 is one of those moments that we engage our children in our values and mission through shared communal experiences.
I joined the Chativah (middle school students) today for a program commemorating September 11. Together as a middle school community, we remembered those who were lost, we remembered the countless who remain traumatized, we remembered the unimaginable hate that caused this tragedy, and we remembered the helpers who rose to the occasion.
After the opening program, we were divided into three conversation groups. Sitting in a circle together, listening to each other, and overhearing conversations of other groups, I felt deeply moved by our students’ reflections and questions. They are empathic, and they ask what that empathy requires of them. At one point, I shared with the children Mr. Rogers’ famous advice (actually from his mom) that whenever there is a catastrophe, “always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers. Because if you look for the helpers you’ll know there is hope.”
Then a staff member unexpectedly shared that her beloved cousin was a firefighter who perished in the Twin Towers on 9/11. He had recently been promoted to a position that would not have had him on the scene, but as soon as he heard what was happening he rushed back to his prior firehouse, picked up a helmet, and ran into hell to save others. Unfortunately, he did not make it out himself. His name was Captain Martin J. Egan Jr. of the 36 Fire Department. We remembered him today as a helper, and as an inspiration. His memory is a blessing.
There has been some controversy over the sharing of the “look for the helpers” quote after mass tragedies. The critique is that it is not enough to look for helpers, we have to step up and be the helpers. This controversy does not resonate at all with me. I believe that when we look for helpers it not only gives us hope, but it inspires us to act as helpers ourselves.
At graduation in June (the first eighth-grade graduation in the history of Beit Rabban!) we held a pre-ceremony for our graduates. We read a famous speech from Amos Oz, where he described what people should do in the face of tragedy, using the metaphor of a house fire: “Bring a bucket of water and throw it on the fire, and if you don’t have a bucket, bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, use a teaspoon, everyone has a teaspoon. And yes, I know a teaspoon is little and the fire is huge but there are millions of us and each one of us has a teaspoon.” We then bestowed upon each graduate a teaspoon engraved with the words “Order of the Teaspoon.” Our goal is for each of our children to voluntarily sign on to The Order of the Teaspoon, to intuitively act as a helper when you are needed.
Commemorating September 11 with our Chativah students on this last day of our first week gave me the sort of grounding in purpose that I and all our faculty try to achieve when starting a new school year. It also made me feel that we have gotten off to a great start this school year in terms of our grand mission (note we have also done a lot of dancing and learning). All of us on Team Beit Rabban feel privileged and excited to work toward this goal of cultivating “participants and shapers of society” every day. We delight in the holy work of employing all the strategies it takes to get there, the lofty ones alongside the technical ones.
Wishing you all a restful and rejuvenating Shabbat,