A few months ago, your classmate, Rebecca Weiss, wrote a wonderful perspective piece in the Washington Post sharing her very personal experience of putting on t’fillin. I encourage you all to read it. Becca writes, “When I take off my father’s t’fillin, I like to rub the strap lines. It’s an imprint that I carry for an hour or two. It fades, although until it does, the mark of tradition feels good.”
Even after you unwind yourselves from your lives here at JDS, the imprint of what you’ve experienced in our halls will linger—and you will carry that imprint with you far longer than an hour or two. Whether you find yourself at college across the country, taking a gap year, or [serving in the IDF], you will continue to be wrapped in our Jewish tradition and embraced by family, friends, and faculty.
You’ll remember the thrill of performing onstage in Chicago. You’ll feel the pride of winning the PVAC cross-country championship and participating in a JDS hackathon. You’ll remember the sounds of Shir Madness singing at the Kennedy Center… and the “Acafellas” singing at the Shabbaton. You may be leaving us. But JDS will always be with you.
You will carry the experiences you have had and the values you have learned here with you wherever you go next. One of those core values that you will carry with you is K’dushah. We translate this to mean “holiness,” defined in our mission statement as the “perception of God’s presence in the awe and wonder of our world and how we can sanctify our lives through the practice and experience of the mitzvot.”
These days, it can sometimes be difficult to see God’s presence in the world around us. There is a constant struggle between the holy and the broken. And so much of what we are seeing in the country today is profane. We see it in the toxic way our politicians divide our nation and shout each other down. We see it in the way that celebrities—quite literally—speak profanity. We even see it seeping into our own lives. The harsher language that makes its way into the emails we send. How much more readily we believe the worst in someone we barely know. How quick we are to lean on the horn on Rockville Pike.
Being guided by K’dushah is an opportunity to push back on that creeping profanity. I said we define K’dushah as “holiness.” The truth is, I am not certain what K’dushah actually means. The Hebrew root word of K’dushah is Kuf-Dalet-Shin, Kadosh. Traditional Jewish commentators and biblical scholars translate this to mean “separate,” or “distinct.” Often, we make things holy by making them separate from the mundane or profane. Things that are profane are irreverent, ungodly, disrespectful. At JDS we seek to foster environments that are respectful, sacred, special.
At our welcome assembly on the first day of school this year, I shared this meaning of K’dushah and asked everyone to consider how we might make what goes on in school different than what we see out in the world. How when we enter school each day we can speak to each other, construct our relationships, and act in a way that is holy, that is different than what we see in the world around us. And here at JDS, I have seen you cultivate that community of k’dushah in so many ways. For instance, I don’t have to tell those of you going through it that the college process is very stressful and competition for spots is fierce.
But when one student got into his early decision college, his first thought was his friend who had not. He went to his college counselor and said his friend “is one of the best academic students in our whole class, I can’t believe he did not get into his ED choice.” That’s k’dushah. Another small example was the first Hebrew Academy basketball games a few weeks ago, when I saw a senior bring a younger student into the cheering section. For those of you who know teenagers, this type of inclusiveness is… not necessarily typical. But it is for you. Or I think about how you held a raffle to raise money for disaster relief after Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas. That is an expression not only of tikkun olam, but also of k’dushah… though I don’t know how much relief Mr. Shorr got out of the possibility of being duct taped to the wall as a raffle prize. Caring about each other—and caring about others—sets your class apart, makes you different, makes you holy.
To truly realize the full potential of k’dushah though, we need to not just differentiate what happens in our own learning community, but to bring this approach to the world beyond the four walls of school. Talmud Menachot (86b) teaches us how King Solomon made windows for the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple.
In the ancient world, they did not have these big, beautiful stained glass windows over there. And obviously they did not have electricity to create light inside. So windows were generally made with the wide part facing in and the narrow part facing out, to better bring light from the outside to the inside. However, the windows in the Beit Hamikdash were built the opposite way—with the narrow part facing inward and the wide part facing out. The paradoxical shape of the windows communicated the message that the House of God provided light for the outside.
In that same way, you will now be called upon to bring the light of learning, the light of your Jewish values, to make holy the wider world. When you meet people with different attitudes towards Israel or confront BDS supporters, you will be able to illuminate their views with your own, soon to be informed even further by your senior capstone trip. If you encounter anti-Semitism on campus, you will be fortified by what you have learned in studying Jewish history and your experience hearing from Holocaust survivors. When you are faced with profanity in our politics or in daily life, you will enlighten everyone you meet with your deep commitment to k’dushah.
Fittingly, in a few hours, we will usher in Tu b’shvat. It’s a time for planting seeds and saplings that will one day grow into mighty forests. In your years at JDS, you have put down deep roots and drunk deeply from wellsprings of Jewish and general studies knowledge. You have created a community apart, a community of k’dushah. You have made memories and friends that will last a lifetime. Now, you are ready to blossom into the magnificent young people you are, to take the light out into the broader world.
Mazel tov, good luck—and don’t forget to call your parents once in a while.