As each school year nears its end, I generally find myself in a pretty contemplative head space. It has been a wonderful year at Richmond Jewish Day School, on so many levels. We are meeting our educational goals and requirements and providing a meaningful educational experience at the same time. The school has dedicated teachers and staff, and a wonderful group of parent volunteers. Retention is solid, and many new families are joining the school – student enrollment is set to rise considerably, for the fourth year in a row. RJDS is a happy, healthy, warm place – an environment ideally conducive to learning and growing. We are proud of our accomplishments and our successes.
And yet… I want to challenge all of us to consider what real success should mean in a Jewish educational context. To be sure, increasing enrollments, strong fundraising, capital campaigns and new buildings are tangible indicators of what we all would widely consider success on a communal level. But there’s something deeper that I want to get at, and it relates to a part of the liturgy in the weekly Kabbalat Shabbat service.
The second psalm sung in the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday nights is psalm 96. If you mumble your way through it by rote (or fall asleep during it, as I sometimes do), you might miss its amazing message and directive…
“…שִׁירוּ לַיהוָה, שִׁיר חָדָשׁ; שִׁירוּ לַיהוָה”
“Shiru, Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord…”
What does it mean to sing to the Lord a new song? If you continue along with the rest of the psalm, there is no directive on just how to do that. To be sure, we can all learn, and be taught a lot about how to sing to God, how, what and when to pray, why, what and how to learn Torah. But how to sing a new song to Hashem? That’s the challenge. And as educators, that’s what we need to keep in mind at all times. So how do we get there?
If I can offer a moment in time as a partial answer, I think the way forward becomes slightly clearer. There was a moment (which also happens to be my favourite moment of the entire school year!) during the Yom Ha’atzmaut 2015 celebrations at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, when our school choir was asked to perform along with Sderot’s Micha Biton. Micha, a traditionally secular Israeli, opened his show before the Jewish community with his cover of Yosef Karduner’s take on psalm 121, Shir La’ma’alot.
The power of his performance hit me like a ton of bricks, and the words moved me in a way that I have never been moved in all my 40+ years of going to shul on Shabbat morning, when psalm 121 is said as part of the shacharit prayers, each and every Shabbat. Biton took Karduner’s tune to Shir La’ma’alot, and not only did he sing the hell out of it, he sung a new song to Hashem. And I can promise you that every one of the more than 1,100 Jews in attendance understood that truth on an instinctive level. I can tell you that I have never had a spiritual and communal experience as powerful as Biton’s concern that night – it was more of a religious revival than anything else. And why? Because he took the words right out of the siddur and the Torah and he breathed new life into them, and in doing so, made it all the more accessible and powerful.
There’s an article by Yossi Klein Halevi in the June 12th edition of the Wall Street Journal titled Israeli Rock Music’s Spiritual New Sound that has captured my imagination, about a “growing movement of Israeli rock musicians who are turning to Judaism for inspiration, fusing tradition with contemporary Israel to find a voice that is both Middle Eastern and Jewish”.
Halevi profiles a number of major Israeli artists (like Meir Banai, above) who are part of a trend that is fusing devotional music with rock which “has become perhaps the most creative force in Israeli music. In recent months, collaborations among leading musicians have produced albums featuring the songs of Eastern European Jewish mysticism, the prayer poems of Libyan Jews, religious hymns sung by European Jews during the Holocaust and several versions of Yemenite prayer. Israeli musicians are also composing their own prayers. For the most part, the new songs provide a landscape of inner struggle and longing, not a soundtrack of religious triumphalism. Israeli musicians are creating a contemporary spiritual language that is about doubt as well as faith, of searching no less than finding.”
These musicians are in many respects leading the way, and reclaiming traditions and words and prayers that have grown dangerously stale and soulless for so many of us, locked up in siddurim or synagogues on the rare occasion that we happen to go for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or the High Holidays. They are showing us how much vitality and beauty can be found in our traditions, but only if we see it with fresh eyes, and claim it as our own. Not the Judaism of our parents, of the Israeli Rabbinate, of our rabbis or our communal leaders. But ours. It may be messy and chaotic and complicated, but like modern Israel, it is oh so alive – and relevant. It is a Judaism that can only be lived with a song in our hearts, and it has to be a new song – no one else can sing it for you.
So to our students and our families, in returning to the challenge of considering what real success should mean in a Jewish educational context, a school can teach children and students the notes and the sheet music and the musical theory of Judaism as it were. We as educators can even suggest which songs to sing. We can do it all with love and caring and thoughtfulness and creativity. At yet, at the end of the day, every one of us has to find our own songs or compose our own songs, claim them as our own, and in doing so, bring something new and meaningful to the Jewish conversation.
“Shiru, Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord…”
On a final note, thank you to all of you for another great year. To the students and families, teachers, staff and administration, volunteers and Board of Directors, donors, community partners and the the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, thank you all – we make beautiful music together.