Graduation Address, By Chaim Heller, Head of School
Dear Class of 2015,
I’d like to begin by thanking you for the gracious gift you have given to the school, a token of your trip to Israel earlier this month. The artistic rendition of the line from ancient teachings, “Ki Hadam Etz HaSadeh,” A person is like a tree in the field, is quite lovely, thank you. Lovely too is the class photo taken with everyone smiling and a big Heineken sign looming behind, symbolizing I’m not sure I want to know what.
You stand here today for one final time together as a class and as a community, poised to leave San Diego Jewish Academy and to explore the world beyond. Whether you are going to college, university, a gap year program, the Israel Defense Forces or the US military, each of you will enter the beginning of your life’s journey towards whatever the future holds in store for you. Truth is your class is on a very different path than all those preceding it, and that’s not of your doing. Two events, one that was literally earthshaking and the other actually silent and unheralded have accompanied you on your journey.
On September 10, 2001 you were all enjoying your very first days of kindergarten. One day later the world changed and became a much different place. Al Qaeda, WMDs, increased airport security, Gitmo, the Taliban – all were now part of your lives. Physical safety and security were no longer a given for those of us in the West. Your parents responded by protecting and overprotecting you, and becoming skeptical of all bland assurances that things are going to be all right. The phrase “helicopter parents” was coined, as parents hovered over you to try to protect you as best they could. There has been an overall increase in societal anxiety, and we can pinpoint the date that it all began, when you were in your first weeks of kindergarten…
A much quieter revolution also took place during your kindergarten year: Wikipedia was published as an outlet for mediated, but non-controlled information. If you wanted to know something, there was now a source that could get it to you, often within five seconds or less. Who would have believed that in a battle between Microsoft’s billions and Encarta Encyclopedia, it would be the non-profit-mass produced start-up Wiki that would come to dominate disseminated information.
So, your education was different. Knowledge was no longer the central organizing principle for a well-educated person. After all, what can’t we ultimately find on Wikipedia/Google/other sources and agglomerated apps… What became critical were skills. At SDJA we worked on skill building. How to understand what’s real and what’s fake in the world, that’s a real skill, and it takes time. It is the skill of thinking critically, curiously, passionately that we have valued most of all here. Hopefully you leave and will look at every axiom, postulate and so called truth and say; “Really? How do we know this?” And most importantly, “to what end?”
The other critical component of an SDJA education for you, class of 2015, is ethical behavior. It is so easy to cheat. In school and in life there are always opportunities to act within your integrity and out of your integrity. I’m not saying don’t make mistakes. We all do. I’ve made five or six today and it’s barely 2pm. What I am saying is do what you think is the right thing to do, even when it’s hard.
This week’s Torah portion has a really complex example that I think we can learn from. This week, Miriam and Aaron criticize Moshe for his marriage to a Cushite woman. Now, on the face of it, Moshe’s siblings are acting with complete integrity, right? They are telling their brother that he made a mistake and why couldn’t he marry someone from the tribes of Israel instead. In fact, I think I’ve heard that discussion a few times in my own life. So why then does God punish Miriam immediately afterwards with leprosy?
Well, the great modern commentator Nechama Leibowitz argues that that this was not an incident of integrity, but rather jealousy. Had the siblings rebuked Moshe privately, it would have been one thing. But going public with their critiques was designed to raise their own status at Moshe’s expense, and that’s not integrity at all. Motives matter, argues Leibowitz, and they too must be ethical.
So, be ethical, act with integrity, and always check your motives.
Take your Jewish education and use it well as you make life decisions. If you leave us and live an ethical, Jewishly-involved life, we will forever be proud of you. And if you don’t always, well, remember how bad it feels to be out of your integrity and get back in. It’s never too soon, never too late. And either way, we love you unconditionally, you, the class of 2015, will always be part of our SDJA family.