Forty years strong!

Last month, over 200 guests, including current families, alumni, teachers, friends and donors, celebrated our school‘s four decades of impactful education during our Gala. It is not a coincidence that the celebration occurred right before Passover. After all, Passover is a holiday that, perhaps more than any other, reminds us of the importance of education, of peoplehood, and of courage.

I am reminded of a midrash, the People of Israel are standing on the shore of a sea. Water – deep and wide – stretches out before us. Behind us, an army of Egyptian horsemen is advancing quickly. Moses receives the message from God that we are to cross the sea. He urges us forward – but the water is too deep, too rough, too dangerous. Suddenly, we hear a cry and see a man – Nachshon – jump into the water. He stands, starts moving forward . . . and just as the water reaches his neck, the sea parts. For a moment we are stunned – and then in a great rush, we cross over the dry sea bed, leaving the Egyptians to be swallowed by water.

What was it that drove Nachshon into the sea? I think it was his understanding that faith alone – while a profound and powerful force – was not enough to save us. Faith without action can leave us shackled and helpless. That may be why the Hebrew word for courage – ometz – is best translated as a “willingness to take action.”

Nachshon demonstrated ometz even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I am grateful that in every generation, there have been courageous leaders following in Nachshon’s footsteps – including the founding families of our school. Like Nachshon, they worried about their children and their ability to live free, meaningful lives as Jews. Who would become the community’s future leaders, educators and caretakers? How would they teach their children that they were also part of a covenantal community – one that honors our sacred obligations to one another?

Using the model of Nachshon and so many others in our tradition, our founders courageously heeded the call v’sheenantam l’vanecha – teach them to your children. They founded a school: one that would be passionate about Jewish learning, value relationships, engage meaningfully in Jewish life, nurture a connection to Israel, embrace an egalitarian spirit, and commit to tikkun olam – the healing of the world.

JCDSRI still reflects these core values articulated by our founding families 40 years ago. And at the same time that we remember our origins, we also celebrate the ways in which we continue to renew ourselves for every generation. Throughout the years, we have been blessed with hundreds of individuals and families who have supported our school with courage – with ometz – a willingness to take action. This legacy – and our hope for the future – continues to be reflected in the lives of our children. We continue to understand that our future depends on the decisions and commitments we make today. May this exceptional school – founded by courageous families and sustained by all of us – continue ad meah v’esrim – until 120!

Moments of transcendence

Last month, more than 130 people gathered at the Alliance for JCDSRI’s first annual Havdalah celebration in memory of Claudia Yellin. It was a wonderful event – and afterward I thought a lot about what it meant for our community to come together and pray. At JCDSRI, our students engage in prayer regularly. Why? Well, prayer is good for us, according to the scientific research. It helps us stay mindful and practice meditation – and this, in turn, helps us to live happier, healthier and more productive lives. Scientists have discovered that prayer can provide immunity against disease, reduce feelings of resentment, frustration and regret, and can even help us sleep better. Prayer is good for our physical and cognitive health.

Ultimately, however, we don’t just pray at JCDSRI so we can stay healthy. Instead, we create sacred prayer time – z’man kadosh – so that we can explore our spirituality and connection to God. We express gratitude, wonder, forgiveness and love. When we pray at JCDSRI, we remember we are the recipients of many gifts: of life; of love; of a helping hand; of hope. During prayer, we are called to reach out to others and work toward tikkun – toward repair.

As a pluralistic school, however, we also understand that our students and their families have differing ideas about spiritual expression and religious practice. We work hard to expose our students to a diversity of Jewish beliefs and observances and in response, they are encouraged to remain curious, flexible, and respectful. In our role as educators, it is our responsibility to honor familial decisions while introducing our students to the richness and complexity of understanding the Divine presence and the breadth of our liturgy. Even the siddur (prayer book) that our students use reflects our philosophy. It engages both emerging and fluent readers of Hebrew and includes illustrations reflecting the conceptual meanings of prayers. It uses gender neutral language for God and contains empty spaces on many of its pages, thus encouraging questions, contemplation, and personal reflection.

One of the added and unique benefits of a JCDSRI education is that our students learn to celebrate the beauty and resilience of the human spirit and experience moments of transcendence.  May we all be blessed with the opportunity to celebrate life with similar joy, gratitude and awe.

Modeling generosity

The first grade student beamed with pride while surveying the 1,000 cans piled in our entryway that we’ve collected for local food banks. Recounting what he’s learned about tzedekah from his teachers, he explained to me that he now feels an obligation to help others. During our conversation, we talked about the many ways people choose to help, including donating to JCDSRI. He took my hand gently, saying:

“Andrea, would you tell all those friends ‘thank you’ from us? Their giving money to JCDSRI means a lot to us. ‘Cause this is my happy place. I want to grow up and help children learn in a school like this. Oh – I am so happy they care for us.”

In that moment, I realized that the impact of our donors goes far beyond supporting our educational program. The people who contribute to our school serve as powerful role models for our young students, demonstrating – in the words of Mister Rogers – that “one of the greatest dignities of humankind is that each successive generation is invested in the welfare of each new generation.”  Our school’s hundreds of graduates carry with them the understanding that they were once beneficiaries of another’s kindness and, in return, they are committed to giving back. They are working hard to make the world a better place: collaborating with locals in developing nations to ensure the accessibility of safe drinking water, founding innovative and thriving centers for Jewish learning, volunteering with young children who are struggling to gain literacy skills, and connecting with others through their humor, music, or athletic skills.

Within the next month, we will kickoff our Annual Campaign. The support of our donors is vital as we continue to enhance our programs, including our security and technology upgrades, our partnerships with Brown University and the Islamic School of RI, the addition of a school social worker and extra reading support personnel, and the opening of the Lillian Denn Newman and Sylvia Vogel Zimet Learning Center. We recognize that this degree of momentum isn’t possible without our partners who know the value of a JCDSRI education.

Each and every gift we receive makes a significant difference. In the Babylonian Talmud, it says that “the world endures only for the sake of the breath of schoolchildren.” Thank you for joining us as we continue our sacred work.

The courage of hope

“I’m learning that I need to ‘walk the walk’ at our school. It’s not enough to talk about changing the world – you have to actually do it.” The fifth grader pauses, and then continues, “I realize that we can’t leave it to other people. We need to be the ones to act. And we need to have hope.”

Hope. In Hebrew, tikvah. The word stems from kavah, a cord made of several individual strands twisted together for strength. Hope, like the strands in a cord, bind us to each other, to our obligations, and to our future. It motivates us to try. It is not an abstract or pollyannaish concept but instead, as the psychologist Charles Snyder explains, one that requires the articulation of specific goals, the ability to imagine the paths forward, and the capacity to persevere – even in the face of challenges. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains: “Hope is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist but it does need courage to hope.”

It also takes courage to acknowledge that our future depends on us. “Sometimes we are afraid to grow because we have more responsibilities,” explains a JCDSRI fourth grader. “But we need to push forward and make the world a better place.” Listening to our students contemplate their responsibilities and the role that hope plays in their lives, I am reminded of the words of Marian Wright Edelson, educator and activist: “Education is for improving the lives of others and leaving your community and your world better than you found it.” I am proud that at JCDSRI our students are learning to “walk the walk” and are motivated by hope.

May we all be inspired by the voices – and actions – of our children and be blessed with the courage to hope.
Andrea Katzman
Head of School

An attitude of gratitude

“I have an attitude of gratitude,” a beaming student exclaims. As I watch her dance her way toward her classroom, I turn to a colleague and remark that every day feels like “Thanksgiving Day” at JCDSRI.
Gratitude is a core Jewish value and it permeates our school. During all-school morning assemblies, we often sing Birchot ha-Shachar, ‘the Dawn Blessings,’ that reflect the abundance of gratitude we feel when greeting a new day. The joyful sound of children singing the Birkat ha-Mazon, the blessings after meals, echoes daily throughout our building at the end of lunchtime. Our halls and classroom walls are often papered with post-it notes expressing thankfulness, written by students, teachers and staff. Students eagerly decorate the sidewalks in front of school with expressions of gratitude, which can also be found in one of our student’s haikus, written during a poetry unit:
It’s great to have life
fresh air, water,  crunchy leaves
fit peace in your life
The name “Jew” – Yehudi – comes from the same Hebrew root as the word “to thank.” This reminds me that gratitude is woven into the very fabric of our identity. Recent scientific research reinforces the wisdom of our tradition: that an attitude of gratitude helps us to live happier, healthier and more productive lives. It can help to provide immunity against disease, reduce feelings of resentment, frustration and regret, and can even help us sleep better. We are more likely to react toward others with patience, kindness, and compassion. It even can help us fly! (Just kidding. But it does help our hearts soar.)
I am grateful to spend every day in a place that so thoughtfully and intentionally cultivates this essential value. Ultimately, however, I see gratitude’s power manifest far beyond our own personal health or feelings of happiness. Instead, I believe its strength lies in reminding us that who we are, what we have, and what we do is not a result of our efforts alone. No – we are the recipients of many gifts: of life; of another’s love and affection; of acceptance; of a helping hand; of hope. In expressing our gratitude, we are humbled and called toward action: we are to multiply our blessings by reaching out to others and working toward tikkun – toward repair. I wish all those in our community – both near and far, known and unknown – the strength to cultivate gratitude and to participate in healing our world.
Wishing all of you a wonderful Thanksgiving,
Andrea Katzman
Head of School

Be the change you wish to see in the world

Everyone around me was as surprised by the power of her words as I was. Standing in our beautifully decorated and colorful school sukkah with community members, current families, and alumni parents, we were moved by the powerful call to action. Our speaker that morning- despite her novice role as teacher – demonstrated emotional awareness and intellectual depth.

Our JCDSRI fifth grader was articulate and poised throughout her talk. Oh – did I not mention that our teacher was all of 10 years old?!

Yes – this student offered us an accurate description of some of the laws relating to the building of sukkot and a sophisticated analysis of the Rabbinic texts. But what was most impressive was how she used her understandings to frame an ethical approach to a complex social issue – in this case housing insecurity. Explaining that the laws of the holiday of Sukkot direct us to “build something that makes us feel a bit vulnerable,” she asserted that these mitzvot “remind us that there are some people today that don’t have houses or any shelter at all.” Her message was clear: experiencing the vulnerability of temporarily residing in a sukkah ensures that we remember that there are “people in the past and in the present who need our sensitivity and understanding.”

As I listened with pride to this student enjoin her audience toward greater self-awareness and empathy, I was reminded of the clarion call of our ancient prophets, urging us toward tzedek u-mishpat, righteousness and justice, and hesed ve-rahamim, kindness and compassion. They asked us – like this JCDSRI student – to embrace our vulnerabilities as a lens through which we can see other people’s suffering, as well as their inestimable value. And she used our sacred texts to help her respond to the world as it is with a vision for what it might become.

I also heard the echo of her words – and those of the prophets – in the writings of John Dewey, the father of progressive education. He explained that education “represents not only the development of children and youth, but also the future of the society of which they will be constituents.” At JCDSRI, our mission is essential — to give our students the skills, values and the charge to make a difference today and in the future. I invite you to come see for yourself the impact our students are making.  

Welcome back letter from Andrea

Dear Families,

Hiney ma tov umah na’im . . . . how good and delightful it is for people to dwell in unity.”

These words, joyfully sung by your children while they swayed in unison during our first all-school assembly, marked the beginning of our new school year at JCDSRI. The words aptly expressed how grateful we were to be together, old and new friends alike, celebrating the opportunity to be a part of this unique community.
Believe it or not, this year marks the 40th anniversary of this special school. For the Jewish people the number 40 represents transition and change – an opportunity for reflection and renewal. In the story of Noah, the rain poured for 40 days, submerging the earth before the promise of rebirth; the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai as a nation of Egyptian slaves but were transformed after Moses descended from Mt. Sinai after 40 days; and there are 40 days between the first day of the Jewish month of Elul, when we begin to blow the shofar to prepare for Rosh Hashanah, until Yom Kippur, the end of the annual teshuva (repentance) period.
Certainly this school has encountered significant transition and renewal during its 40 years. Hundreds of children have walked through the very same hallways in this building over the last four decades, including this year when we welcomed eight students whose parents are alumni. I am humbled to be part of an institution that has nurtured so many and has contributed so much over the last 40 years. The Rhode Island Jewish community has sustained this school for four decades, a commitment worthy of great celebration. Our school‘s roots have continued to strengthen, allowing for new and vibrant growth every year. I am thankful to our exceptional faculty, staff, students – and especially all of you – whom engage in sacred work and enable us to move from strength to strength. Thank you for trusting us.
May this new year be filled with hope for our future, an appreciation for our past, and heartfelt attention to our present.
Wishing you a Shanah Tovah Umetukah – a happy and sweet New Year.
Andrea Katzman
Head of School

Breakfast with our graduates

“At JCDSRI, I learned how to make friends,” one student says in-between sips of hot chocolate and bites of a donut (I notice my half-hearted entreaties to eat some fruit are subtly ignored by her and her friends.) “I now know what it means to be in a community.” Heads nod in agreement as her friend explains, “You feel safe at JCDSRI because everyone is aware of you and is making sure to protect you. It’s really special.” Even more donuts are consumed while others continue to talk.

I am sitting at breakfast with our graduating 5th graders as they share their reflections with me during their last days at JCDSRI. I am grateful to discover that their assessments of school align with our mission and our purpose. Listening to our graduates, it strikes me that they are prepared to enter the larger world of middle school beyond our cozy building with confidence and a clear sense of their own strengths. They are reflective,  skilled at critical thinking and they approach challenging learning opportunities with tenacity, curiosity and confidence. “I learned to ask questions in this school, even if I was uncomfortable,” explains one student. “I learned that I need to ask questions in order to truly understand.” Says another, “I feel prepared for future interactions in life. And learning Torah helped because it is very meaningful and teaches us how to be good people.” “I learned that even if I don’t know something, I can always work hard and improve,” adds his friend.

Our 5th graders talk about how the school reflects the values and ethics of our engaged and diverse Jewish community. “We’ve been taught to take responsibility and show respect and kindness to all the students in the school. At the same time, we are given lots of opportunities for decision making and room to express ourselves.” Students say they feel nurtured and encouraged by teachers who “are nice and supportive and flexible. They pay attention to every student and really know all of us. And they’ve also taught us to push ourselves.”

As I listen closely to their feedback, I suddenly notice that I have a lump in my throat. I’ve known these thoughtful and wise graduates since they were (very) small. They have been an enormous presence in our school and it is hard to imagine not seeing them every day. I will miss them so much: the assemblies that they led with quiet strength and purpose; the ways in which they gently reassured younger students during times of uncertainty or sadness; their thoughtful and complex intellectual conversations; their heartfelt “compliment circles;” their capacity to stay in relationships even when it would have been easier to leave, reflecting their genuine understanding of what it means to be part of a covenantal community – and so much more. I am soothed, however, with the knowledge that their gifts will contribute to healing the wider world and that their extraordinary families will continue to visit and will always be a part of our special community.

Finally, I will carry with me one 5th grader’s midrash that she shared when explaining why JCDSRI is such a special place: “This school is like a plant. The roots always stay in the ground; they keep growing stronger and go deeper. The branches of the plant might break and the leaves will fall and new blossoms will open – but the roots remain. They are our values and they always stay the same. And the plant will continue to grow.”

May our JCDSRI graduates – and all of us in our community – be blessed with healthy and deep roots and new growth.

Wishing everyone a restful and wonderful summer!
Andrea Katzman

The stories that bind us together

After a delightful morning watching JCDSRI kindergarteners theatrically reinterpret the Passover story and observing third graders refer to ancient Jewish texts as they create original (and delicious!) recipes for charoset, I return to my office. In the quiet, I reflect on the central role storytelling plays in our students experiences – and in defining and sustaining Jewish life. Stories are foundational to our learning at JCDSRI – and no more so than during our preparation for Passover. Beginning in Kindergarten, each of our students contributes to her/his personal Haggadah – the book that serves as a guide for our seder meals. The pages created by the children reflect the Haggadah’s demand that “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.”

In retelling the story – in their own ways – our students imagine what once was and what might become. They are provided with a structure in which to place their hopes, fears, and dreams. Hannah Arendt reminds us that the power of storytelling lies in its capacity to “reveal meaning without committing the error of defining it.” In each retelling, we discover new understandings – as when one of our youngest students explains that Pharaoh was incapable of showing compassion to the Jewish people because he never personally experienced love. Or when a fifth grader thoughtfully considers the differences (and similarities) between physical and spiritual slavery – and the impact of injustice on people today.

Indeed, our rabbis have always insisted that halachah (Jewish law – with its defined path and structure) is incomplete without aggadah (literally “telling” or “story” – a form that is expansive, aspirational and imaginative ). As Rav A.J. Heschel wrote in Between God and Man, “aggadah deals with the whole of life . . . [it] introduces us to the realm that lies beyond the range of expression . . . and tells us how to participate in the eternal drama.” I am reminded that stories shape us as individuals and as a Jewish people.

We tell stories as an act of transformation. We tell our history in order to see ourselves in that time and place  . . . and then to move beyond its limits. We use stories to make a difference in the world: to broaden our perspective, to embolden us to take actions previously unconsidered, and to expand our capacity to see, act and feel differently. The stories we tell help us to feel connected to those who lived many generations before us and also with those who will live many generation after us.

Stories have the capacity to bind us together. During this season of rebirth and renewal, I hope we all create the space and time to tell – and listen to – each other’s stories.


Creating a Welcoming Community

It’s cold. The sun struggles to make itself known, weakly shining through the gray clouds. It’s another early morning in February. On this particular morning, there is a tug on my coat. I turn and a student shyly reaches for my hand. Taking it in his, he says: “Thank you for always saying ‘hi’ to me in the morning. It makes me feel special.”
Despite the gray, despite the cold, and despite the early hour, this is the favorite part of my day. Standing outside to greet JCDSRI students, parents and faculty (and even neighbors walking their dogs), I hope that my waves, high fives, and smiles communicate how genuinely happy I am to see each member of our community. Moreover, I am grateful to have the opportunity to practice, and to model, hachnasat orchim.
This value of hachnasat orchim – welcoming guests – animates much of our school culture. It is evident in the way every classroom’s student “greeter” warmly welcomes visitors, in the hugs older students give to their younger “buddies,” and in the stories and lessons our teachers construct with their students.
Beginning in PreK, JCDSRI students are introduced to the concept of hachnasat orchim when they hear the story of Avraham and Sarah who demonstrated great compassion and generosity when they invited three guests (who turned out to be angels) into their tent. This example inspires us at JCDSRI, as it did the medieval rabbi Rashi, who explained that Avraham’s commitment to hachnasat orchim was so great that he refused to leave the entrance of his tent so that he would not miss the opportunity to greet every traveler walking past!
What is it about this Torah story that we continue to find so compelling? Perhaps because it is tied to the exhortation that appears in the Torah: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34) Our unsettling experiences as outsiders, the rabbis suggest, compel us to follow the model of Avraham and Sarah. We should open the entrances to our “tents” and seek out the “strangers” in our midst.
This value of hospitality, as well as our awareness that we once were strangers in a strange land, is woven into the fabric of our Jewish identities. It reminds us at JCDSRI that we are to construct an authentically welcoming community, one that not only embraces the familiar (the “insider”), but also warmly invites those not yet known into our embrace.

So – I invite you to stop by early any school day morning; I would love to greet you! Better yet, come visit JCDSRI and experience the warmth and generosity of our extraordinary students who reflect the value – and the power – of hachnasat orchim.