Forging School Memories

I confess that for most of my 15 years as a Jewish educator, I found Yom HaAtzma‘ut (Israel Independence Day) programming to be underwhelming and educationally reductive. That changed three years ago. I challenged my faculty to think beyond the blue and white decorations, the falafel lunches, and instead reimagine Yom HaAtzma‘ut at our school as a transformative experience to impact our students’ Jewish identity for years to come. What emerged from that meeting was the NYHS Masa: a schoolwide, multiday experience, which, despite challenges posed by the pandemic, endures as a signature school tradition and continues to evolve and enrich our school culture in countless ways.

Hebrew for “journey,” the NYHS Masa is intentionally modeled after the trek that thousands of Israeli high school students share each year. It’s an annual Zionist tradition dating back to the early chalutzim, pioneers. The program is designed around a holistic construct of avodah atzma‘it, independent work. These tasks require planning, focus, persistence and chavayot, authentic experiences. A primary goal is the development of chevratut, the deep, meaningful bonds borne of powerful shared experiences.

Leadership and interdependence are central to the Masa experience. Months before the actual journey, student-leaders and faculty advisors plan every detail. Countless tasks are then delegated to smaller working committees made up of students and staff. The initial planning creates gradewide engagement and ignites a sense of early excitement that grows as we approach Yom HaAtzma‘ut.

The NYHS Masa formally begins with a student-led, citywide ceremony. The event transitions our Seattle Jewish community from Yom Hazikaron, the memorial day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, to the joy of Yom HaAtzma‘ut. Through these leadership roles, students learn to act with confidence and competence. They experience the solemnity and sanctity of these modern Jewish holidays, as well as value newfound skills to serve their community.

Following the ceremony, the focus turns to the outdoors, daring us to leave our comfort zones. The daily routine of most high school students is confined to due dates, grades and screens. The vast beauty of nature inculcates a sense of awe often absent from modern daily life. Activities such as hiking, rafting, setting up camp, preparing meals and sleeping under the stars establish a relationship of mutual trust amid the beauty of Washington’s wilderness and, in a social context, free from preconceived dynamics and norms.

As the journey continues, the school community shares spiritual meaning and a very practical need for sustained cooperation. The Masa introduces us to the realm of the sacred, where the ego succumbs to a unique space of collective interests not only in survival, but absorbing the vast beauty of nature. These shared experiences can create a momentary glimpse of what our ideal chevrah could be. This collectively experienced inspiration becomes a motivating vision for establishing a stronger and more meaningful school culture, building a brighter future.

Upon our return home, everyone is inevitably quite dirty and beyond tired. But beyond that, there is a feeling of intense joy. Such feelings of accomplishment are made all the more meaningful because of the unspoken bonds of being part of a true chevrah. It is in these moments where our best selves find our most potent expressions. This enduring legacy of the Zionist spirit will surely continue to nourish and strengthen our small Jewish high school nestled in the upper reaches of the Pacific Northwest.

Author
Jason Feld, Head of School, Northwest Yeshiva High School, Seattle, Washington
Issue
Organizational Memory
Published: Fall 2021