Mazal Tov Class of 2013!
Class of 2003 Representative, Isaac Dayan, and Seniors Leora Balinsky, Mitch Cooper, Matthew Silberman and David Quintas spoke at graduation
When I was asked to speak several months ago, I accepted this role with the same attitude and intensity that the majority of the seniors devote to an important research paper….So late last night, I began…. I drank two cans of red bull… played a few hours of call of duty….and then I opened my word document… AND THEN, I closed it.
How do you describe the three-floored box that we have called home for the last four years? One word –Family.
Only at Ida Crown do you know everyone’s name ….the type of car they drive, and their blood type.
ONLY at Ida Crown do you arrive and leave school when it is still dark out.
ONLY at Ida Crown do you have teachers who have been there since the days of our forefathers….
ONLY at Ida Crown can you leave your backpack and books in the hall without a fear of them being taken.
However, as we quickly learn as freshman, lunch bags left unattended, are up for grabs.
For the younger brothers and sisters here today who will be attending the Academy, let me briefly describe your four years….
Freshman year… petrified, confused, and unsure….. Of course you are having this anxiety because you are still waiting at home for the senior who lives down the block from you and who forgot to pick you up– I’ve done that before.
When you finally do get to school, you are amazed that overhead projectors still exist.
Sophomore year… You are still not cool enough to hang out with the juniors and seniors and the freshman have little respect for you.
Junior year… Time to actually start studying. This is also the year that you realize you will not be receiving an athletic scholarship of any kind – this because you are 5’6 and… Jewish.
Senior year… The year you finally realize that you may never see some of your classmates or teachers ever again –which can actually be a good thing.
Today this is not goodbye. Because we are a family. And even though we may be worlds apart in years to come, we will be bound together by our traditions, our Torah, the land of Israel, and of course the expected alumni donations….
We are thankful to all of our ICJA teachers, Rabbis and administrators. But mostly, we are grateful to our parents. For the love, support and massive debt they have incurred to ensure our success and happiness.
Finally, a word to my fellow graduates and friends…
As we know, there is no greater cliché in a graduation speech than the words “follow your dreams.” Well, what do I know? I’m in the same boat as you guys….I guess all I can really say is good luck out there, and in the words of Mark Twain “Never put off till tomorrow what you can put off till the day AFTER tomorrow.”
Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.
Esteemed Graduates! You made it! Four years go by quickly, don’t they?
10 years go by quickly, too. A lot has changed in 10 years. For example, when I graduated from the Academy, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Gmail did not exist. We had email, but you had to go to a computer to check it, because there were no Smartphones. Which is probably a good thing too, because if we had Smartphones someone probably would have recorded our senior prank and uploaded pictures to Facebook, and then there would be evidence, and I probably wouldn’t have graduated and wouldn’t be speaking here today.
But despite the rapid pace of technological innovation and change, one thing that hasn’t changed is the impact of an Ida Crown Jewish Academy education, and how it inspired me to thrive as a ben torah in the modern world.
When I sat in your seat 10 years ago on graduation day, I did not have a full appreciation of the ways in which my years at the Academy influenced me and shaped who I would become.
But I’ve had time to think about it, so I want to share with you some of the ways that the Academy prepared me, and you, to enter the world as capable, passionate, and engaged contributors to society, future leaders of the Jewish people, and bearers of the flag of our faith.
The most obvious benefit of an ICJA education is the first-class instruction in both Jewish and general studies. I’ll tell you about my own experience, mostly to reassure your parents that their tuition payments were worthwhile.The strong foundation in Hebrew language, Gemara, and Tanach allowed me to excel during my studies in yeshiva, to continue learning throughout college, and to pass the matriculation exam into the smicha program at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, which I briefly attended after college before starting to work. The stellar instruction in mathematics, science, English and history more than adequately prepared me for my studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where the depth and breadth of my high school education rivaled that of my classmates, some of whom had attended the most prestigious private schools in the country.
Some of the other ways the Academy influenced us are not as obvious. Small class sizes and a high level of interaction with faculty and administrators enable every student to receive personal attention, which in high school is helpful for your education and personal growth. For me, those interactions also cultivated a drive to seek out personal attention and guidance, which stuck with me even after I left ICJA – whether I was seeking that guidance from my Rosh Yeshiva in Israel, a tenured professor, or a senior partner at work who manages 3000 people.
The Academy also instills in each student a sense of pride in our shared history and Jewish observance. My time at ICJA taught me that I could faithfully observe mitzvot, and do so openly, and that my commitment to Jewish observance would enhance, rather than hinder, my experience living in the modern world.
Let me give you an example: when I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania, a classmate and I agreed to run together for President and Vice President of our class. He was Sikh, and wore a turban. I am Jewish so I wear a yarmulke.We hung up posters around campus with absurd pictures of us pointing to our headgear. Our slogan was, “We’ve got stuff on our heads, and you on our minds.” And we won.
As another example: at ICJA we interrupted our afternoon at 3:23pm each day for mincha. At work I also interrupt my afternoon to attend mincha, and help organize the daily minyan in the building.
I may never have had these opportunities, and my life may have gone in a different direction. It is interesting that I am speaking to you in the auditorium at Niles North High School. When I enrolled at the Academy as a freshman, I was nervous whether it would be the best place for me, so I concurrently enrolled at Niles North. I was attracted to Niles North by the theater program and sports teams, though I of course had reservations about how I could observe Shabbat while participating. Obviously, I decided to stay at ICJA, and I’m happy with how it worked out. I got to wrestle on a national championship team, and in the end, I still get to perform on the stage at Niles North.
I had the privilege of attending the conference of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries as a guest in 2011, where Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, delivered the keynote address. The timing of the conference was near Chanukah, and so his message was connected. But I found the message to be very powerful, and I want to share it with you; adjusted, of course, for a slightly different audience:
There is a famous dispute in the Talmud, Masechet Shabbat, daf chaf bet, with regard to question: madlikin mi’ner l’ner o’lo? – can you take a Chanukah candle and use it to light another Chanukah candle? Yes or no? On this, there is a machloket, a dispute, between Rav and Shmuel. Rav says no, Shmuel says yes. Rav says no because ka machish mitzvah– you diminish the mitzvah. If I take a light to light another light, then I’m going to spill a little of the oil, or a little of the wax and the result is that I will diminish the first light. Shmuel doesn’t worry about this. We know in general, that any machloket Rav and Shmuel, Halacha k’Rav– the law always follows Rav against Shmuel. There are with only three exceptions, and this is one of them.
What is at stake? What were they arguing about? And why in this case is the law not like Rav but like Shmuel?
You will find the answer in today’s Jewish world. Take two Jews, both religious, both keeping all the mitzvot. But there’s a big difference between them; one of them says “I have to look after my light, and if I get involved with the outside world, or with less-observant Jews who have not had the experience of formal Jewish education, ka machish mitzvah– my yiddishkeit, my observance,will be diminished.” That is the view of Rav, and Rav was a spiritual giant. But Shmuel dared to say otherwise. He said “when I take my light to set another Jewish soul on fire, or when I engage with the world and live as a glowing example of our values to inspire others, then I don’t have less light, I have more! Because while there was once one light, now there are two, and maybe from those two will come more!” And here, the Halacha follows Shmuel.
Graduates, this is what it means to be a Jew with an ICJA education, to maintain the opinion of Shmuel, to know that when we go out into the world and engage with Jews who have not had the benefit of a rigorous Jewish education, or go to college or work and openly demonstrate our commitment to Shabbat, to kashrut, to chesed, then our light is not diminished; the result is we create more light in the world.
If you light with your candle and kindle the flame in the heart of another, your light will not be diminished, you will be lifted; your light will be double.
You won’t believe what or where you will be in 10 years. If my own class is any indication, then sitting in this crowd right now are future community leaders, caring mothers and fathers, doctors of medicine, dentistry, psychology and history; rabbis, lawyers, MBAs, teachers, artists, writers, engineers, and computer programmers. Some of you may make Aliyah, others may live in cities across America, or even in Berlin.
Along the way, you may experience failure. Failure is often a blessing in disguise. As I approached the end of college and began thinking about full time jobs, a friend of mine recommended that I meet people at the company where he had worked the previous summer. He introduced me, and I spent time visiting the company, meeting more people, and reading about its history and values. I concluded that I had to work there, it was the perfect fit. I expressed to my contacts at the company that I would love to work there. There was just one small obstacle, and that was the on-campus interview process for all candidates. I thought the interviews would be no problem, after all – I had already met a dozen people from the company and made what I thought was a great impression. However, I never made it past the first round of interviews. I was very upset, but continued interviewing with other companies in the same industry and ultimately found another job, which I really enjoyed, at a company that was probably an even better fit. Two months after I started working, I realized how lucky I was that the first company rejected me. That first company was Lehman Brothers, and in September 2008 it went bankrupt. Often failure is a blessing in disguise.
Along the way you might also decide that you want to change paths. That’s fine too. Just few weeks ago, I left my job after five years to pursue a new one, which will hopefully be a source of opportunity for my continued growth and development.
Regardless of where you go, remember this: Ida Crown Jewish Academy is more than a high school; it is a family. It is a place where everyone knows everyone else, where the teachers and students share a close bond that transcends the traditional student-teacher relationships, and where a sense of community proliferates. The Academy instills in each student a sense of love, respect, pride, and sensitivity toward others. Each graduate is aware of our responsibilities as Jews, as members of our community, and as human beings.
As you go forth into the world, be confident that your ICJA education has prepared you. Remember that you are lucky to have received such a fine education. Remember that you have a responsibility to use your background to light more flames, and that by doing so you will not diminish your own, but instead help it burn brighter. Remember that there may be detours along the way, but ultimately it will all work out for the best. Remember that the Academy is a family, and that you can always count on your Academy family.
Good afternoon. I’m honored to stand here today before amazing teachers, administrators, friends, family, and alumni. Each one of you is a pillar in the lasting foundation we have built at Ida Crown Jewish Academy.
I’ve been asked to give a speech about “Finding One’s Place in the World.” At first thought, there are a lot of things I could say about how Ida Crown has prepared us to enter the wider world, about my personal aspirations, or what I wish for my classmates. But instead, I challenge my classmates to consider these things for themselves. As we go out into the world, on gap years, to college, maybe to graduate school, and finally settle into our professional lives, we, as individuals, must constantly re-evaluate our time at the Academy, and its unique imprint on each of us. Whether it’s a particular lesson, challenge, friendship, teacher quote, or funny moment, each of us has our own takeaway, our own memories that define our four years here.
My takeaway was found in a Chumash class with Rabbi Myers, studying what was my Bar Mitzvah parsha of Kedoshim and, at the same time, Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative. When we began the unit, I couldn’t imagine learning anything I hadn’t years earlier while preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. Yet Rabbi Myers elegantly analyzed a secular philosopher in the context of the Torah, and made me realize that whatever I learn in the future, I can connect it to my religious education at Ida Crown.
Friends, I urge you to look back on the memories of our years here, to answer on your own how you, equipped with the tools we’ve gained, will find your place in the world. I believe that each of you has an answer, and with thought, you may realize that Ida Crown really wasn’t just our school for four years, but also a source of growth and inspiration.
What matters today is not that four years have passed; what matters today is what we’ve learned and experienced in the past four years, and how we can build on it. Just as we’ve hopefully made the most of high school, we must make the most of the opportunities that await us. Just as we reflect on what we’ve done in the past, we must decide what we will do in the future.
The author and poet Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” When I first encountered this quote, I assumed it was just a creative way of expressing the cliché that you can do anything if you just believe. But, with Ms. Goldstein’s help, I realized I was ignoring the most important part of the quote: “now put the foundations under them.” Ida Crown has given us a strong foundation, yet between that foundation and our castles in the sky, there is still a wide gap. So we must keep working hard. Time won’t wait for us. It’s time again to build.
All four of my grandparents, aleihem hashalom, survived the Holocaust, and though in many ways they were lucky, they also survived because they found skills that made them useful, rather than expendable, to the Nazis. My grandparents and parents taught me that I can do anything, but first I need to gain a skill. So, once again, I challenge my classmates to find their skills, to make themselves useful and their futures productive, always reflecting on the values of our Ida Crown education. In the vein of Thoreau, my grandmother always encouraged me to reach for the highest star, and to climb the highest mountain. If each of us reaches for our own star, climbs our own mountain, and builds our own castle, imagine the good we can do for the world, and, perhaps most importantly, the naches we can bring to our parents and grandparents.
Speaking of parents and grandparents, please allow me a moment to thank those who came before me. I’d first like to thank my grandparents, who, though they are no longer with me, are a daily inspiration and reminder of the strength of the human spirit. I’d like to thank Marisia Szul, the Catholic woman who protected my grandmother during the Holocaust, and who is a reminder of the immense courage and kindness people can show in the very worst of times. And finally, I’d like to thank my parents. My three older brothers and I have all graduated from the Academy within the past five years. Our parents never once hesitated to provide us with a Jewish education, or to allow us to attend the best universities we could. Our grandparents set the example of hard work and being good to others and to G-d, but our parents gave us the tools to strive for the utmost in our lives.
I suppose I should also thank my brothers. Thanks for being good students; you gave me a good reputation with teachers before I even came to the Academy. But even without the help of my brothers, with amazing teachers like Ms. Goldstein, Rabbi Myers, Ms. Sennett, Profesora Nitekman, and so many more, it was easy to become passionate about my studies. In college, I may never have the opportunity to connect with teachers the same way I’ve connected with all of you. You are always so dedicated to your classes and your students, and we all appreciate that. We hope you’ll remember us as much as we’ll remember you and the countless lessons you taught us in and out of the classroom.
A few words to my classmates. In so many ways, we’ve served as enablers for one another; we’ve inspired each other to achieve our potential as individuals and as one community. Whether hanging out on the benches during breakfast, raising serious or not-so-serious questions during Ask the Rabbi sessions, or using Facebook to study (yes, study, we promise!) late at night (or what could be called very early in the morning), we’ve spent so much time together in so many settings. I know our friendships will stand the test of time. Thanks to our special camaraderie, learning at the Academy has been even more enlightening and enjoyable, and the memories we’ve made will be life-long.
Again – parents, teachers, friends, thank you. In your own ways, each of you has helped each of us reach this moment. You have inspired us to not simply wait as time ticks away, but to work to make the most of our present, all the while reflecting on our past and looking forward to our future, one that will build and build on the foundation we’ve had at Ida Crown Jewish Academy until we’ve reached our castles in the sky.
This Shabbat, we will listen as Parshat Chukat is read in shul. Chukat tells the story of a nation, Bnei Yisrael, at a moment of transition. The generation that was saved from Egypt by G-d and subsequently sentenced to die in the desert due to Chet Hameraglim has passed on. Rashi says that when kol ha’eida assembles in Perek 20: Pasuk 1, the verse is telling us that only those who have been designated to enter the Promised Land are present. This section also deals with the terminus of the administration of Moshe and his siblings who had led Bnei Yisrael out of slavery and through the desert. Moshe’s sister Miriam dies in this chapter, as does his brother Aharon. Moshe himself, along with his brother, is forbidden to enter the Land of Israel, prohibited from setting foot in the place towards which he spent decades guiding an often reluctant and recalcitrant nation.
R’ Mosheh Lichtenstein writes that the reason for this harsh-seeming punishment is that there was a rift between Moshe, who belonged to the previous generation, and the current generation. This generational gap resulted in tension between Moshe and the people, diminishing his ability to lead them.
R’ Amnon Bazak notes that in order to understand the difference in character between the generation that was taken out of Egypt and their offspring who entered the Land of Israel, one must look at them both at similar moments: each after they crossed a body of water into new territory. The Dor HaMidbar reached the zenith of their faith after walking across the Red Sea, the Yam Suf, split for them by Hashem. Overcome by gratitude and joy, the nation, led by Moshe, burst into song, as it says “az Yashir Mishe O’Vnei Yisrael et HaShira HaZot.” Similarly, we are taught that his sister Miriam leads the women as she runs out with a tambourine in her hand: “Vatikach Miryam Haniviah Achot Aharon et hatof biyadeha, Vateizeina kol hanishim achareha…”
When the next generation crossed over the Arnon River, they also praised Hashem through song. The same words are used to describe this moment of music and exaltation. However, in this case it just says “Az Yashir Yisrael.” While their fathers and mothers had to be prompted by Moshe or Miriam or another authority figure, these people had to initiate the chorus and choreography on their own. While the previous generation had been miraculously taken care of throughout their long journey through the desert, with Man placed in front of their tents, and pillars of cloud and smoke leading the way, this new generation is ready to take charge, fight for the land and toil to make it their own.
Accordingly, it is quite fitting that we read Parashat Chukat this week, the week of our graduation from high school. This is a moment of transition for all of us as well. Today signifies the end of not only four years of schooling at Ida Crown Jewish Academy, or even fifteen years of education that began for many of us, myself included, as our silhouettes were traced onto the walls of Skokie Valley or we baked challah with Mrs. Posner. As we embark on the next stage in our lives – whether that stage be college, a year in Israel, or something else – what all of us have in common is that we will be stepping out of the comfort and protection of our lives until now. Like Bnei Yisrael no longer had Man delivered to their doorsteps, we will no longer come home to a lovingly home-cooked meal by our parents on a daily basis. Like Bnei Yisrael no longer had pillars of smoke and cloud telling them when to rise and rest, we will no longer have our parents and teachers by our side to guide us through every problem we encounter. Similarly, will no longer have Mr. Harris’s weekly reminders to bring home our tefillin. The Jews who crossed the Yam Suf had Moshe and Miriam to show them how and when to praise G-d and to lead them in song. The generation who crossed the Arnon had to write the melodies and lyrics on their own.
As we enter new and unexplored territory, it is up to us to put to use the skills we have acquired and principles we have internalized. The moral and educational support we have received in school and at home has brought us to where we stand today; if we couple that background with initiative and action from within ourselves, we will travel even further. We must follow the example of the generation who entered Israel by forging our own paths and composing our own songs.
While David spoke about the parsha that we will be reading this Shabbos, I would like to look to the past, to Parshat Korach. A quick summary of the events in Korach from a cursory reading of the text:
Korach and his followers question Moshe and Aharon’s leadership, argue with Moshe, and end up being swallowed up by the ground and go to Sheol. I had one primary question while exploring this parsha: What made Korach’s actions so reprehensible? To answer this question, I looked at the first two Psukim of the Parsha:
“וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח – and Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi took- together with Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and Own the son of Pelet, descendants of Reuven.
וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה – and they confronted Moshe, together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute.”
The first verb in these psukim is Vayikach. and Korach took. But what did Korach take? There is no object for the word, rendering the literal translation incomprehensible.
Ibn Ezra, quoting Ibn Janach, solves this problem by saying that “Vayikach” in this context is in fact a reflexive verb. So, Korach took himself.
This explanation was not enough for me to really grasp the meaning of the psukim, so I looked to other mefarshim, Nechama Leibovitz and the Sfat Emet, or as he is correctly referred to in my house, the “Haylege Sfas Emes”.
Both Nechama and the Sfas Emes begin their explanation of Korach by quoting the same well known Mishna that is often cited with this parsha:
“Kol Machloket sh’hee l’shem shamayim, sofa lehitkayam, v’she’eyna l’shem shamayim, ein sofa lehitkayem. eizo hee machloket sh’hee leshem shamayim? zo machloket hillel v’shamai; v’sh’eina l’shem shamayim? zo machloket korach vechol adato.”
“Every controversy that is pursued for the sake of heaven is destined to be perpetuated; and that which is not pursued for the sake of heaven is not destined to be perpetuated. Which can be considered a controversy pursued for the sake of heaven? This is the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And that not pursued for the sake of heaven? This is the controversy of Korach and his congregation”
Nechama quotes a Malbim that explains the differences between the two types of Machlokot. Malbim explains that a heavenly debate is made to further each side’s unselfish ends, and both sides are united by a singular purpose, even though they disagree. Conversely, in arguments that are not for the sake of heaven – ְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם – personal advancement is the purpose – a selfish goal, and even those who are fighting on the same side are only superficially united. And what was Korach’s selfish goal? Malbim explains that it was pursuing what he thought was his right to Aharon’s role as the Kohen Gadol.
In light of Malbim’s explanation, Nechama explains why the Mishna was not worded as may have been expected – “the controversy of Korach and Moshe”, but rather, “the controversy of Korach and his congregation”. This is because each member of Korach’s cabal had his own individual complaints against authority driven by individual ambition, fighting to achieve his own personal desires.
Because of this lack of unity, instead of rebelling against Moshe and Aharon, Korach’s followers quarreled among themselves. So, the controversy was truly between Korach and his congregation.
This explanation of Nechama works seamlessly with that of the Sfas Emes, who quotes the Targum as translating “vayikach” as וְאִתְפְּלֵג – “He divided”.
The Sfas Emes notes that our world is called the “world of separation”, and in this world, each creature looks out for itself.
But, using Torah, we are able to override the natural tendency of separation, and attain wholeness and peace. Those who act only in ways that are L’shem Shamayim achieve that completeness, and are not envious of others the way Korach was envious of Aharon. Only when all of Bnei Yisrael act together is the will of Hashem fulfilled, and when people give up their selfish motivations and instead give to the community to serve God, they see that everyone is equal.
The Sfas Emes explains that Aharon exemplified this quality of one who seeks wholeness and peace for Israel, which is why he is described as an Ohev Shalom and a Rodef Sholem, a lover and pursuer of peace. On the other hand, the Torah says “Vayikach Korach”-Korach took for himself, and as Hillel said, if I am only for myself, what am I?”
So, to tie this all together: Korach’s rebellion was not out of a desire for equality; it was out of ambition to assume Aharon’s position of the Kohen Gadol. The reason that this was so abhorrent is that Korach is the anti- Aharon. Korach is the epitome of a taker. His first action is taking, Vayikach. And while Ibn Ezra explains this to be “He took himself”, through Nechama and the Sfas Emes we see that he also took “for himself”. Additionally, according to Targum’s definition of “vayikach” as “he divided”, Korach sought to divide the people that were destined to be whole.
In contrast, Aharon epitomizes the giver. He lives his life l’shem shamayim, selflessly devoting himself to helping Bnei Yisrael achieve their wholeness.
Throughout my Ida Crown career, I have participated in many machlokot. What my teachers have taught me is the importance of transforming each argument into one that is for the sake of heaven and worthy of being perpetuated. Ida Crown has created a safe setting for me to grow and mature through the process of having those heated debates, allowing me to wrestle with my beliefs. Our teachers at the Academy, modeling Aharon, are givers. They spend their days engaging with students, teaching us Torah and other subjects while answering our questions. With their patience and dedication, they bring peace and wholeness into this divided world.
As we, the Class of 5773, moves on to become devoted seminary and yeshivah learners, stressed college students, teachers, politicians,doctors, rabbis, scientists,leaders, mothers, fathers, and other types of Bnei and Bnot Torah who thrive in the modern world, let us live our lives as givers, not takers.
While we pursue our own individual life goals, let us never forget the bigger picture of achieving peace and completeness among Bnei Yisrael, and hopefully in the rest of the world as well.
And while it is the life of a Jew to passionately struggle and question, let it all be l’shem shamayim. Lastly, let us never forget our shared experiences, nor the school which has given us so much and has shaped the people we have and will grow to become.