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Remarks from the CESJDS Class of 2017 Graduation Ceremony
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
CESJDS Head of School: Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

Read the remarks below that Rabbi Malkus delivered to the CESJDS Class of 2017 at their commencement on Sunday, February 12, 2017 at Washington Hebrew Congregation.


Class of 2017—congratulations! Mazal tov. You have officially turned in your last final, filled out your last college application, dominated your last game against the Hebrew Academy, won your last zimriah. It feels pretty good, doesn't it? Parents—I think congratulations are in order as well. I know it took a lot of schlepping... and early morning wake-ups... but you've raised some extraordinary young people. Let's hear it for your parents! And to the two thirds of you watching your last JDSer leave the nest, I'm pleased to thank you for having made your final JDS tuition payment.

Today is a special moment for your teachers as well—and for me especially. This is my fourth year at CESJDS. I joined this community when you were 9th graders, and I've been privileged to watch you grow, from your first Shabbaton to walking the halls of the Lower School a few weeks ago. Seeing you here is perhaps the highlight of my year. Which is really saying something, since this year my beloved Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series. (Go, Cubs, Go!)

In a little while, you'll get your diplomas. But first, I want to take a moment to reflect on the significance of this ceremony. What does this milestone—your graduation—mean? Yesterday, in Parashat Beshalach, we read the story of the Israelites escaping from bondage and making their way to Eretz Yisrael. Hopefully, the seniors don't take that as metaphor. In fact, if your senior capstone trip takes 40 years, I'd ask El Al for a refund. Appropriately enough, Beshalach means "letting go." It's about passing from one phase of life to another, from structure and certainty to freedom and the unknown. Like the people of Israel, the time has come for you to wade into the waters and begin a new adventure. The Promised Land—with no parental supervision—lies ahead of you. It's tremendously exciting... It's nostalgic... It's maybe a little bit scary.

Believe me, I know. I went from a Jewish day school of 45 graduates to a huge public high school with 1,000 students per grade, to an even larger university. During orientation at Columbia, some classmates and I stumbled upon police breaking up a card game in the Village—definitely not something I often saw in the Chicago suburbs where I grew up. It took me about three months to spend all of my money for the year on Broadway shows. My parents told me "tough luck"... but then relented and sent some more. I hope your parents are as forgiving.

You, too, will encounter different and likely challenging environments—whether in college, or in Israel, or during a gap year. You'll confront new ideas. You'll wrestle with questions about your personal relationships, about honesty and academic integrity, about who you are as Jews and as Americans. As dizzying as I found life after graduation, the world you're about to enter is filled with even more complexity... more shades of gray... and more contradictions.

It is easier than ever, for instance, to connect across nationalities and religions ... but fear of that openness is leading many people to turn inward and seek the comfort of their own tribes. We can access entire libraries worth of information in the palm of our hands ... but the cacophony on our TV and computer screens makes it harder than ever to discern the truth. Jews are more woven into the fabric of American life than ever before ... yet we've seen acts of vandalism and hateful messages appear... even in our own communities.

Faced with this reality, some of you may be inclined to turn around and seek the safety of Ms. Dagony's Hebrew class. Others of you may be wondering: How will you navigate the world beyond JDS? As you cross the metaphorical Red Sea mentioned in this week's parashah, will you sink or swim? Do you have what it takes to make it? The answer is: "Absolutely." You have what it takes. You're ready. You've got this. And the reason I'm so confident is because of what you have learned here... at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.

Now, I don't just mean the classes you've taken or the accomplishments you've racked up—learning how to sequence DNA ... publishing award-winning newspapers ... even how to make the perfect cake to win Color War. You're prepared because at JDS you've completed more than an exemplary general and Jewish studies education. You've also received a first-rate moral education. I think of it like the midrash of the convert, the Gentile who goes to Hillel and Shammai and promises to become a Jew if they can teach him the whole Torah while he stands on one foot. Shammai, you may recall, chases the man away. But Hillel accepts the challenge and replies with the essence of Judaism, in words short enough to Tweet: "Don't do to others what would be hateful to you. That is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary." You may not fully realize it yet...but the core values you've absorbed here... over the past four years or fourteen years... that's the whole Torah. The rest, with all due respect to your other studies, is commentary.

In more secular terms, consider the two types of virtues identified by New York Times columnist—and former JDS parent—David Brooks, in his recent book, The Road to Character, which I read this summer. Brooks distinguishes between what he calls "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." Resume virtues are "the skills that you bring to the job market and that represent external success"... Eulogy virtues are ones "that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful; what kinds of relationships you formed."

Judging from the colleges you've heard from and will hear from, you have resume virtues in spades. But your eulogy virtues are, if possible, even more impressive. In the School's halls and in your homes, in big ways and small ways, you've discovered what it means to be a good Jew ... a good citizen ... and a good person. You haven't just learned strong values; you've lived strong values. You've studied Dickens and written code for robots—in Hebrew.

That's the lifelong love of learning and Torah, of mastering our oldest traditions and newest technologies, that you will draw on in the years ahead as curious, holistic learners. You've created an anonymous compliment system, posting encouraging notes on your classmates' lockers just to make sure everyone felt noticed and appreciated and included. That's the kehillah—the diverse, welcoming, inclusive community—you'll take with you and will always be a part of at JDS. You've inaugurated our new gender-neutral bathroom. That's v'ahavta l'reyecha, the love for your neighbor, that you will continue to demonstrate. You've passionately debated policies toward Israel, even as you join together to sing and dance on Yom Ha'atzma'ut. That's the profound love of Israel that I know will only grow deeper in the coming months and years. You've joined the Women's March to fight for your rights and volunteered to help feed the homeless. That's the enduring commitment to tikun olam that I know will drive so many of you to work to repair our broken world.

Sooner or later, in that complicated world out there, these values will be tested. By new and competing convictions ... By the demands of daily life ... By a desire to fit in. My wish for you as you cross over into this brave new world ... is that you hold fast to your values—the Torah of Hillel—even as you grow and mature as individuals. Cherish the convictions you've nurtured here at JDS. Look to them for answers and let them be guideposts on your journey through life. If you do that, you won't just survive in the years ahead, you will thrive in the years ahead.

In Beshallach we are told that ... as the Israelites wandered the desert ... "the Lord went before them by day in a cloud to lead them along the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light." In your own travels, I wish that you, like the children of Israel, are protected and sustained by the pillars of our faith and the light of our teachings. Class of 2017, we are so proud of you. We're inspired by you. And we can't wait to see what you'll do see next. Mazal tov, and good luck.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus

Struggling to Engage Students in Civic Discourse
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
CESJDS Head of School: Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
The temporary immigration ban that President Trump issued as an executive order has raised strong opinions and feelings across the country and among educators struggling to address current events in school. How should teachers and school leaders address the concerns, and, in some cases, fears felt by so many students? How can educators help all students understand these unfolding events, examine the motivations behind different policy proposals, and reflect on America's stance towards immigrants and refugees? It is a challenge, to say the least, to develop an approach in an educational institution.

One Jewish day school I am familiar with wrote to their families on Monday noting that each of the four major Jewish denominations and countless other Jewish organizations had been critical of the executive order. That school expressed that "while it is difficult to reconcile recent actions with the lessons and values that we teach our students, we pray that we will find another path that will keep us secure, while providing a safe haven to those in dire need regardless of nationality or religion." This statement was seen by many families as overtly political, and, the following day, the school apologized for the statement and attempted to clarify its intent.

My view is that schools are not advocacy organizations and are not in the business of making statements on political issues. We are educational institutions and, while each school has a set of values that define the context in which teaching and learning take place, schools must remain non-partisan. As an educator, the question for me is "how can schools prepare students to become knowledgeable and engaged citizens of the United States and of the world?"

In practical terms, CESJDS did share guidelines with our faculty on how to address the conversations that would unfold this week. Here are some excerpts of the email that we sent.

While the School is not partisan, we welcome and expect students to engage in political discussions on a daily basis as they grapple with issues affecting our nation.

There is evidence from educational research that when young people engage in political discourse in school that they are really learning about the process of deliberation. Students in such classrooms learn how to form arguments and how to weigh evidence. In the practice of political conversation, the skills that are being learned are the skills of living in a democracy and understanding the common good.

A fundamental value of a classroom that engages in political discussion is that teachers create a culture of fairness for all viewpoints. Teachers ought to maintain their partisan neutrality in their classrooms even as they either open their classrooms to these discussions or engage in discussions that begin with student questions. When teachers share their partisan preferences they establish unfair classroom cultures and, despite their best intentions, may influence their students' thinking. If we are truly interested in developing students who are passionate about American civic life and have the ability to think for themselves, we must create classrooms that fairly entertain different viewpoints.

At the same time, we want student discussions to be informed by history and Jewish history. As Americans teaching at a Jewish school, we are keenly aware that in 1939, that the transatlantic ocean liner St. Louis left Germany carrying 937 Jewish refugees escaping Nazi oppression and seeking refuge in Cuba. As the boat neared Cuba, president Federico Laredo Brú suddenly canceled the landing permits of the Jewish passengers. Desperate, the boat went up the U.S. coast and people on the shore could often see passenger's faces through the porthole windows. The refugees were denied entry in the United States.

What is our responsibility to refugees fleeing war? Do Jews, seventy years removed from the horrors of the Shoah have a different obligation? What can we learn from the past to inform these decisions? History should inform our conversation today about the immigration ban and its potential implications.

The full communication made clear that the School encourages conversation about current events in classrooms. We asked teachers to foster an environment that nurtures pluralism, promotes and teaches civil discourse, and places history at the center of how we seek to understand today's events. This last point is critical. As an educational organization, we insist that history be used as a lens for understanding contemporary society and as a basis for developing a student's personal opinion.

Helping students develop their ability to deliberate political questions is an essential component of democratic education. Introducing controversial topics and current events into the classroom and into schools is a challenge. As an educator who practices in a pluralistic Jewish day school, I feel there is imperative to remain non-partisan, to empower students to engage in open conversation, and to insist on teaching history to inform these discussions.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus

Where are the future educators?
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

In a few weeks, I will be participating in the Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools' first ever conference. Prizmah is a new organization that emerged from the merger of five previous day school networks. This conference represents its first convening.

In thinking about the conference and the future of day schools, I have also been thinking about the educators the field will need to recruit to sustain and grow our schools. The workforce is changing rapidly as outlined in the work of The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at Harvard University. What are the attributes of NextGen teachers?

According to the Project, the generation of teachers now retiring is perhaps the last to make teaching a lifelong career. Today's new educators compare a teaching career with many other opportunities; nearly one-third of today's teachers have worked in another field first and may have prepared for teaching in nontraditional training programs.

As we recruit the next generation of school educators, we need to ask what motivates teachers to practice their craft in private independent schools in general. We know from the National Association of Independent Schools research that the top five reasons for teaching in independent schools Instead of public school are:

  1. Small class size
  2. More autonomy
  3. Don't have to teach to the test
  4. Students are more engaged
  5. Less administrative red tape

Will these factors attract millennials to our teaching ranks? It is not clear. Today, millennials make up roughly 38% of the workforce and, by 2020, it is projected that they will account for 46% of workers. Millennials, as reported by Millennial Compass are ambitious. More than 40% expect to be in a management position within two years of their employment. Loyalty, however, is not a particularly strong value as nearly 50% say they plan to leave their employer after two years.

All of this matters because evidence suggests that the number of years of teaching experience may be positively related to student achievement. In addition, research shows that teachers who receive "substantial" professional development can increase their students' achievement by about 21 percentage points. Millennials, as a group, plan to move from position to position and we may not be able to attract, retain, and grow the generation of day school teachers.

Yet, there is one characteristic of the Millennial Generation that aligns closely with Jewish day schools. In their book Millennial Momentum, Winograd and Hais suggest that because of the way this generation was raised, they are highly values-driven and look to express their ideals in everything they do. This may be the key to attracting the next wave of school educators. A career in Jewish day schools can be presented as an opportunity to both live your values and foster them in future generations. Our schools have work to do as we recruit new teachers and our values-based education will be key to addressing this challenge.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus

Combatting Hatred and Anti-Semitism
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

American society is changing. There has been an election-year surge in the number of anti-Semitic incidents and crimes that we have not seen in a decade. In fact though, the ADL reports that already in 2015, there was a 3% increase in overall incidents and a dramatic 50% increase in assaults, the most violent anti-Semitic category it tracks. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there has been a significant rise in hate crimes overall, with anti-immigrant incidents being the most prevalent. While the election year rhetoric clearly has had an impact, the statistics over a two-year period reflect a larger trend.

And this is not just occurring in rural communities or parts of the country with few Jews or minorities, it is happening in our community. Last week at the community forum held at CESJDS, Montgomery County officials shared that there has been a spike in the number of hate crimes in our local area. County Executive Ike Leggett and Police Chief Tom Manger condemned these acts and noted that they were incredulous that this is taking place in our community. A parent in one of our local public middle schools reported that anti-Semitic incidents are rampant in her child's school, which is located in Bethesda.

As I listened to the speakers and attendees at the event last week, I reflected that I have not experienced this level of hate and anti-Semitism in my lifetime. I may have been naïve (as some have expressed), or optimistic that the United States had essentially moved beyond the historical discrimination that Jewish communities have lived with for centuries. Today, I am much more clear-eyed that there is a very real threat to our community. To be sure, Jews as a whole remain safer, more well-organized as a community, and respected in American society than in any other country in the world outside Israel. The Jewish community is politically significant beyond our numbers and integrated into American society well ahead of most other minority groups, yet we must remain vigilant to the growing hatred and sentiments towards Jews and other minority groups.

As an educator, I wonder about the impact this environment has on students and whether the curriculum of schools and other educational settings is positioned to address the current reality. Jewish history and the lessons of Jews who lived in overtly hostile countries is an essential component for students. The value of studying history as a core subject is critical, and, unfortunately, few Jewish day schools have a significant scope and sequence in this area or a department dedicated to this discipline. At the same time, Jewish educators must consider how the learners we work with are prepared to address the current reality they face beyond the sacred and safe communities in our own schools. Are graduates prepared to face the onslaught of anti-Semitism on college campuses and are our students ready for the comments they may experience walking in their neighborhoods or when participating in activities in the larger community?

I, personally, am also committed to being more involved and vocal regarding all reports of racism, hate-speech, and anti-Semitism. I have signed onto more open letters and written my elected officials more often recently to respond to these events and to express my outrage when any leaders express views that are hateful or decline to forcefully condemn racism when it occurs. CESJDS has positioned itself as a leader in facilitating forums like the one we held last week to highlight and combat the threats to our community and other minority groups. I urge you to consider how you will respond too.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus

Can Broadway Musicals Help Us Engage Students and Children in Difficult Conversations?
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

I had the wonderful opportunity to see Dear Evan Hansen recently. This Broadway show depicts what happens after the title character, Evan, writes a letter to himself that falls into the hands of a school stoner and bully, Connor, who subsequently commits suicide. Evan, who exhibits high levels of anxiety and other spectrum-related social disorders, ends up generating a series of lies in the wake of Connor's death. A relationship develops between Evan and Connor's sister Zoe and Evan's actions and words go viral through social media. The show concludes with Evan having to decide whether to continue living a lie or face the consequences of his actions.

Beyond being a spectacular piece of musical theater, I was captivated as an educator that the writer would choose a musical as the vehicle to raise questions around teenage suicide and supporting students with significant social disorders. These topics are serious ones and not given to the blunt plot and character development that generally characterizes musicals. In discussing the show, I realized that, in fact, there have been a number of musicals in recent years that address weighty issues. One is Fun Home, that shares the overlapping stories of a dysfunctional family with a closeted gay father whose daughter reveals to him that she is a lesbian.

So why have the writers of these shows chosen to set their narratives to music? From my perspective, it is often easier to delve into extremely difficult topics when they are presented in a more digestible form. The musical nature of the shows invites the audience gently into the heavy subject. The lighter environment also enables the writers to interject humor into the scripts, disarming those who are watching at their own discomfort about such important topics. The implicit lesson is that life is filled with both serious and lighter moments, even in the most difficult situations it is okay to be amused. Last, because the shows feel more accessible, they easily open up the important discussions that will ensue during the post-theater conversations. The implicit message is that while the discussion may be serious, nevertheless, it is a conversation we can participate in.

Even today, a week removed from seeing Dear Evan Hansen, the show's themes resonate deeply for the work I do as an educator. In addition to the everyday experience of working with teens, the show confronted me with the hard reality that the world has become a difficult place for adolescents who often feel alone and who confront their emotional lives within the unforgiving social media "communities" that both distract and often confuse their lives. Just as the issues of social media demand new approaches to education, the medium of using musical shows to address the most pressing issues of the day teaches us that an unlikely method can be marshalled for teaching difficult subjects. I recommend that both educators and parents consider seeing these two musical shows to access a window into the harsh realities of teenage life and as an opportunity to consider the methods we use to engage the adolescents who are our children and students.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus

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