By Judd Kruger Levingston
As school leaders, we have an opportunity to use the inauguration of the President of the United States to model civil discourse, citizenship, and moral education. We are in an ideal position to affirm that the most remarkable thing about a presidential inauguration is that it is peaceful and not remarkable.
As President John F. Kennedy intoned at his own inauguration 56 years ago, “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
How should school leaders look at this month’s inauguration? What are we beginning? When we compare our responsibilities as school leaders to the responsibilities of the president of the United States, we can make light that it’s “a matter of a few extra zeroes.” While the American president has responsibility for the lives of more than 320 million people, most of us who work in Jewish day or synagogue religious schools are only responsible for about 320 students and teachers, give or take a few.
Despite this vast difference in numbers, I would argue that we have some characteristics in common:
We are responsible for the safety of others;
We serve as moral role models;
We negotiate and propose policies;
We seek to have an impact on our institutions that may last long beyond our own time;
People love to disagree with us and sometimes lampoon us;
We have to work every day to promote civil discourse, even when passions run high.
In these weeks leading up to the January 20th inauguration of President-Elect Donald J. Trump, some of our students are feeling their passions running especially high, some from a position of great disappointment, and some from a position of great excitement. Several of our 7th graders got into a wrestling match on the day after the election and several of our 9th graders have told me that they are avoiding some topics of conversation with their friends because their views on politics are so different. They didn’t realize how liberal or how conservative they were until this election. Further, many of our 12th graders are looking at issues such as immigration, foreign relations and foreign wars with new eyes as they approach their 18th birthdays.
At Barrack Hebrew Academy, a community day school in the Philadelphia area where I serve as Director of Jewish studies, heated discussion took place among members of the administrative team in December about whether and how to observe the January 20th, 2017 inauguration of President-Elect Donald J. Trump, and most of the comments addressed the experiences anticipated by the adults. As one colleague put it succinctly: some might want to watch the inauguration to celebrate; some to witness; and some to prepare for dissent.
The administrative team looked to me, as faculty chairman of the Derekh Eretz Honor Council, to find ways to ground our experience of the inauguration in Jewish values. The Council is a student-faculty committee charged with promoting integrity and, as the term “Derekh Eretz” translates, “The Way of the Land.” Among its many activities, the Council promotes our honor code for tests and quizzes, plays a judiciary role when major disciplinary issues arise, and recognizes acts of kindness, decency and derekh eretz through weekly nominations and selections for “Honorable Menschen.”
The Council agreed to let our six Derech Eretz values frame dialogue around the inauguration in several stages:
First, in advisory groups a few days prior to the inauguration, we will share Jewish and non-sectarian resources to ask the students to appreciate the Jewish concept of constructive disagreement in the spirit of teachings about “Disagreements for the sake of heaven” – “מחלוקות לשם שמיים”. People may disagree about the role of taxes, health care, and about a wide range of other political and social issues, but we have to hold the value of a shared community above all.
Second, our advisors will then ask students how their experience can be informed by our school’s six Derekh Eretz values:
We will prompt the students in our advisory groups to think ahead to how they wish to behave before, during and after the inauguration – should clapping, booing or even walking out be allowed?
While we are in our advisory groups, advisors will help students to articulate the civic values we share: an appreciation for democracy and majority rule; an appreciation for the rights given to us in our Constitution; and a recognition of our shared history as Jews and as Americans who came to North America in search of safety, freedom and opportunity.
Third, in viewing the inauguration, we will have smaller grade-based groups of 6th-7th graders, 8th-9th graders, 10th-11th graders and 12th graders who will go to different spaces. Students and teachers who choose not to view the inauguration live will go to designated spaces, where they will be shown excerpts from past presidential inauguration speeches or a film about the institution of the presidency.
Our work as educators is to help our students to find the words and actions to affirm, criticize, protest, praise or merely wait for the new government to take shape. As each new generation of students comes through our doors, our work will continue to take shape and we can look at each new cohort of students as giving us an opportunity for a fresh start while we know full well that our work may well remain incomplete.
Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston, Ph.D., serves as Director of Jewish Studies at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, a 6th-12th grade community day school in the Philadelphia area. He is the author of Sowing the Seeds of Character: The Moral Education of Adolescents in Public and Private Schools; he also is a graduate of Cohort 1 of the Day School Leadership Training Institute, a part of the Leadership Commons of the Davidson School of JTS.