HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Beyond the School House: Applying Jewish Values to Social Action

by Clara Gaba and Ilana Gaba-Maine Issue: The Whole Student

A mother and daughter who both teach in Jewish day schools show how social action can enlist student passion for causes that exemplify their Jewish values.

“Bowe who?

The English words, transliterated into Hebrew, were the headline of a mainstream Israeli newspaper article and caught our attention. Thus began a journey that would not only impact us but would also mark a special moment of change for our community.

The article noted the great number of Americans unfamiliar with the name Bowe Bergdahl. The year was 2010, the first anniversary of an event that changed the lives of an Idaho family forever. In June 2009, Bergdahl, serving in the United States Army in Afghanistan, was kidnapped. At the time of his capture he held the rank of private first class, and he has since been promoted to sergeant. Several videos of Bergdahl were released, and it appeared that his captors were from the Haqqani Network, an insurgent group affiliated with the Taliban. He is still being held by his kidnappers; his true condition and his whereabouts are unknown.

Across the world from Bowe’s hometown, another soldier was being held captive. On the streets of his country, one would never hear the words, “Gilad who?”

The newspaper article questioned why Gilad Shalit, held captive at that point by Hamas, was a household name in Israel, yet relatively few Americans knew of Bowe’s plight. During the years of his captivity, Shalit became everyone’s son, a part of the Israeli collective identity. Bergdahl, on the other hand, rarely moved beyond the local news of his hometown.

Both of us, a mother and daughter who are teachers at Jewish day schools in Detroit, recognized the importance of sharing this article with our students. We took the story of Bowe to our students, fifth graders at Hillel Day School and ninth graders at Frankel Jewish Academy. This was an opportunity to look at a real situation that could elicit conversations about multiple core values of our schools. In schools we focus on our teaching practice but we must also remember to educate. We must present the youth with junctures in their learning to put the tools that they have acquired to good use.

In this situation, we analyzed the Jewish perspective on redemption of hostages and we compared Bergdahl to Shalit. We compared the policies of the United States and Israel in cases such as these. We considered the cultural factors at play in both countries. The goal here was not political nor intended towards any end other than to familiarize students with Bowe’s story. His story, it must be mentioned, is not entirely clear. While there is speculation over where Bowe was when he was captured (some suggest that he may have left his post), this possibility only adds to the moral dilemma of the situation. Our hope was to raise awareness, but today’s generation of youth is far more ambitious than ever before.

Students in both schools took on Bowe’s cause as their own. On their own initiative, they created hallway displays about Bowe, noting the number of days he had spent in captivity. They educated the school communities on a weekly basis and were determined to educate the local community as well. They acquired and distributed “Bowe packages” to the student body. Besides a pocket sized flyer telling Bowe’s story, the packages contained a yellow “Bowe bracelet,” a yellow ribbon in order to participate in the national campaign “Bows for Bowe.”

Student leaders guided their peers to participate in “Bowe Tuesdays,” an international campaign encouraging Facebook members to change their profile picture each Tuesday to one that would draw attention to Bowe’s cause (he was taken hostage on a Tuesday). The students, themselves too young to be registered voters, participated in a national petition aimed at raising governmental awareness by soliciting signatures from adults in their lives. Through their connections, the students made the names of their schools and their efforts known to Jani and Bob Bergdahl, Bowe’s parents.

What is most amazing to us as teachers is the long-term commitment that our students have forged with Bowe’s cause. We often lament that the rapid pace of the world, coupled with technology, has made for a generation of youth that lacks commitment. We complain that they seek instant gratification, that they lack perseverance. The Bowe Kids, as we have affectionately nicknamed them, demonstrate just the opposite.

One young boy learned of Bowe as he transitioned from elementary to middle school. This year he has committed his bar mitzvah project to Bowe; he is raising awareness for Bowe’s cause during his own moment to shine. Another student has single-handedly been responsible for keeping tabs on the daily count of Bowe’s days in captivity for the last three years.

A young woman in the 12th grade was just a high school freshman when she learned of Bowe. Bowe’s story touched her so deeply as a 9th grader that as she applies to universities, Bowe is the subject of her application essays. This young woman recently was asked during school minyan to describe a holy object that she possesses. She pointed to her yellow “Bowe bracelet” and shared with her peers how her commitment to Bowe has brought holiness to her life. Minyan is often described by facilitators as the most difficult part of a school day, as it takes a tremendous amount of energy and talent to engage many of today’s youth in a meaningful way. How interesting that Bowe’s story has infiltrated into daily minyan.

At day schools we teach big ideas: tikkun olam, gemilut chasadim, compassion and responsibility. We encourage students to take these lessons to heart, to be tomorrow’s leaders. We pray that they will internalize lessons of character and step up when their time comes. We forget, occasionally, that we must show the students how to find these opportunities beyond the realm of the classroom or the hallways of the school. Jewish values must be taught as the lens through which we view the world, and the world does not have a distinct division between Judaic studies and “everything else.”

The individual elements of our school mission statements often bear tension when viewed together; we have multiple national allegiances, we celebrate the individual and the community, we hold to Jewish identity and values of the Western world. When given this message, that these tensions are healthy and beg for discussion, young minds can allow the divisions between these elements to blur. Our historic traditions should not be learned only as a part of the past, they are more needed now than ever before, even as the world progresses before our eyes. Ancient Jewish values can guide us in a modern, technology-based world and allow students to view Bowe Bergdahl not only as an American hostage but as a human being in crisis.

Armed with the astonishing powers of connectivity in modern technology, the youth of today has literally a world of opportunity ahead of them. Through their iPads and tablets, students have the ability not to just learn of great Jewish values but to act on them quickly and effectively. Their classroom is virtually the world, and their power to change it should not be underestimated.

Our students have already made marks on our nation’s map and in the Bergdahl home. We can’t wait to see how their future unfolds.♦

Clara Gaba teaches at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit (cgaba@hillelday.org) and Ilana Gaba-Maine teaches at Frankel Jewish Academy (igabamaine@frankelja.org).

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