The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Eliezer who was so convinced that he was right regarding an issue of Jewish law that he called on various inanimate objects to prove that he was correct. First, the walls of the Beit Midrash, the house of study, shook to demonstrate that his position was right. Then, when his colleagues were unconvinced, he called upon the river to flow backwards, but this did not convince them. Finally, frustrated Eliezer calls upon the heavens to justify him and a bat kol, a voice from above, confirmed that he was correct.

One of his colleagues chastised him, though, quoting a pasuk (line) from this week’s parsha(Torah portion), Nitzavim-Vayelekh, stating that “lo bashamayim hi” (it is not in the heavens). All of sudden, God laughed and agreed with Eliezer’s colleagues that it was up to them to interpret and understand God’s laws. This phrase, through this story, has been used frequently to justify our ability to interpret and bring new understanding to Jewish law. Yet, if you read just a little further, the Torah is trying to tell us even more than that we have the authority to interpret Judaism.

The text continues, saying “It is not over the sea so [that you should] say, ‘Who will cross the sea and get if for us, so that we will be able to hear it and keep it?’ It is something that is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can keep it.” So if we learned from the first story that it is in our hands to interpret our sacred texts, what is our understanding of this next verse?

Judaism is about experiences and using it as the lens through which to view the world. This to me is the essence of what our mission is at Gross Schechter is as a Jewish day school. Within our walls, students engage in their Judaism as a living laboratory – thinking, doing, and feeling. They are acquiring more than just Jewish identity; they are building Jewish literacy.

This morning, I visited with some of our preschool students as they were celebrating Shabbat. Seated in a circle, our four year olds were smiling as several of them were quietly seeing just how much challah they could get into their mouths. As we chatted, they were able to articulately state what was special about Shabbat and how it was different from other days. Some shared about specific foods, challah, grape juice, and, of course, chicken soup. Others talked about having friends and family join their Shabbat table. And, from the enthusiastic way that they greeted me, it is clear that these students understand what hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) is. For our younger students, this is Jewish literacy.

For our older students, through the generosity of the SaltzmanYouth Panel, our students are engaging in learning and doing as they participate in the Middle School Tikkun Olam program. Just this morning, students visited with residents at Menorah Park, helped out at the Ronald McDonald House, and worked to eliminate invasive cattails at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes which will help maintain and preserve the ecosystem and Ohio’s native species. Our students are learning first-hand that Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, has us in a variety of settings. They are taking their understanding of mitzvot and putting them into action.

In our preschool yesterday morning, if you had walked by, you would have found an interesting combination of big and little kids. Middle school students were making the first of many visits to their preschool buddies. They delivered a personalized Shanah Tovah card introducing themselves and then got down on the floor to play. The preschoolers were so excited by the visit that after the middle schoolers left, multiple classes began to draw their own cards to send back to their big buddies. This is the start of a year long relationship. And hopefully many years beyond that too.

Even in the short two months that I have served as Head of School, it is readily apparent that Schechter is about talking, acting, and loving engaging in Jewish life. At the end of Parshat Nitzvavim, we are given a choice. We have heard the blessings that await us if we follow God’s commandments and we have heard the curses if we choose otherwise. We are encouraged, as the Torah states, to choose life. A life that is enriched through mitzvot, connected through community, and embraced in the richness of Judaism.We look forward to seeing you all at Monday’s Totally Kosher Rib Burn Off as we continue our tradition to serve as a gathering place for the entire Cleveland Jewish community.

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