HOS HS Graduation Address

June 16, 2017
By Dr. Cindy Dolgin, HOS

Dear graduates, your beloved families, friends and esteemed members of the faculty and administration:
Several weeks ago, I decided to speak to you this evening about resilience.  There is no question that the secret sauce of long-term Jewish survival during tough times has been resilience.   I have recently been wondering – or rather, worrying - whether we have done enough at Schechter to instill in you the virtue of resilience.  I worry because, frankly, you’ve had it too good.  

You are imperfect beings, and we are not a perfect school.  But you are very smart and kind people, and at Schechter, we do quite a good job of being a caring community.  For many of your parents, our caring community was a primary driver in their decision to send you to Schechter.  You all have friends here and your teachers, guidance counselors, support staff and administrators have kept a close watch for tell-tale signs of unhappiness, distress, pain or reason for concern.  Your parents do the same for you at home.  So I worry about whether we – meaning your teachers, your school and your parents – have instilled sufficient resilience in you.  You do not have personal memories of 9/11, and you have been personally unscathed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Certainly Ethan has been tested, as he has battled Leukemia since the middle of Junior year, all you have all be there by his side, growing up in many ways because of this major tragedy and triumph in the Schechter family.  But are you really resilient enough to face what is out there?

There is your “Ben Adam” (human) resilience to worry about, and there is also your resilience as a Jew to worry about.  As far as Jewish resilience goes, as Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman said on May 16th at a public address, “the foremost challenge of our time remains the passing of Jewish ethnicity, the idea that Jews are automatically conjoined at the hip by language, history and memory.”   YOU, members of the Class of 2017, are Jewishly knowledgeable – much more knowledgeable of Jewish language, history, observance and memory than almost anyone else you will meet in college -  but I also know that your Jewish resilience has not yet been tested.  When you no longer attend Schechter, will you continue to prioritize Jewish learning as a hobby?  Will you heed to words of Achad HaAm, who wrote in 1915:  “If we want to go on living, we must restore the center to the Bet Ha-Midrash, and make that once more the living source of Judaism.”  Will your love for the State of Israel hold up when bombarded on campus by BDS, and other convincing narratives that deny Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish nation?  When you no longer live in your parents’ home, will you choose to participate in Jewish ritual?  

Regarding your resilience as B’nai Adam, in some ways, you have likely been LESS tested than others who will attend your college.  Why?  Because compared to your peers in public schools, you have not been roughed up at Schechter.  Not at all.  Since I worry that you haven’t yet had your resilience tested, I decided it is my obligation, as your Head of School, to at least inform you that in the months and years to come, your will be tested in a myriad of ways.

That’s the soundbite.  
To get myself into the resilience mindset, I decided to compose this address without using any online search engines.  No Google, No Chrome, just the books in my personal library.  To my utter astonishment, I found almost no references to the word resilience anywhere in my home library.  In the book, “Teaching Jewish Virtues,” I published by ARE, I couldn’t believe there is no chapter on resilience.  In a gigantic volume called, “The Ultimate Jewish Teacher’s Handbook,” not only is there no CHAPTER on resilience, but the word resilience doesn’t even appear in the index!  Not one book of the thousands I own has the word resilience in its title, nor does the word appear in the index of Alfred Kolatch’s anthology, “Great Jewish Quotations.”  

Really?  I have a lot of Jewish books, and we Jews are the living embodiment of resilience.  Think about the Avot and Imahot, about Yosef and Yocheved, Moshe and Miriam.  The Torah and Aggaddah are full of stories of imperfect humans prevailing over great adversity.  So why isn’t resilience a key Jewish word?  
I remember once learning this expression: “I don’t know who named water ‘water,’ but it was definitely not a fish, so immersed in water is he.”  Is resilience so pervasive in the life of the Jewish people that we don’t even realize it and therefore cannot even fathom a proper word for it? 

At this point of my speech-writing, I’m starting to worry that I am going to fail my self-imposed resilience test by resorting to Google.

But NO!  This will remain a Google-free graduation address!  I will plug at it, sweat and I will prevail.
I did not even use Google Translate when I realized that although I am fluent in Hebrew, I did not know the Hebrew word for “resilience.”  I cracked open the massive “Megiddo Modern Hebrew Dictionary,” and found 2 Hebrew definitions.  The first is “Kvitziyut.” A Kvitz is a spring or coil that when pressured, bounces back, so I guess that “resilience” in Hebrew is “springiness.”  The second definition is “Ko-sher Hit-toshe-shoot,” or the “ability to recover.”

I concede that springiness and the ability to recover are PART of resilience. But “Kvitziut and Ko-sher Hit-tosheh-shoot,” are not what I wanted to speak to you about.  These Hebrew words do not pay proper homage to our ancestors who showed resilience in the face of pogroms, midnight raids on their homes, and survival of the most brutish, systematic attack on a people or a race that man has ever inflicted, that being the Holocaust. In fact, when I finally despaired from my own library and moved this Google-free speech-writing project to the public library, I only found one book about the Holocaust that had the word Resilience in its title.  

Thanks to you and my self-imposed Google-free challenge, I labored for many hours in the public library, pulling lots of books off the shelves, learning as much as I could about resilience.  Fortuitously, I found a book entitled – surprise, surprise -  “Resilience,” by Eric Greitens, published in 2015.  Greitens was a Navy SEAL and in this remarkable collection of letters to Zach Walker, Greiten’s former SEAL-comrade who had fallen into alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder, which killed his marriage and career, Greitens offers a much more satisfying definition of resilience than the Hebrew translation.  

“Resilience is the virtue that enables people to move through hardship and become better.  No one escapes pain, fear and suffering.  Yet from pain can come wisdom, from fear can come courage, from suffering can come strength – if we have the virtue of resilience.”

Now THIS is the kind of resilience I want you to think about before heading off to college and beyond.  Not “springing back,” rather “becoming better.” Not just surviving but THRIVING.  Not just the ability to recover, but to gain wisdom from pain, courage from fear and strength from suffering.  To move through hardship and become better.

It is worth noting that in the Megiddo Dictionary, right after the noun “Resilience” comes its adjective, “Resilient.”  Resilient in Hebrew is “Gamish,” which means “flexible.”  Flexibility adds a dimension to springiness and ability to recover, but I still prefer the growth evident in Greiten’s definition, and indeed, in the evidence of Jewish history.

In this extraordinary book of letters, published in 2015, Greiten coaches Zach Walker to reflect on his suffering, in order to build deep reservoirs of strength.  Not all growth happens this way, but a great deal of our growth does come when we put our shoulder into what’s painful.  The take-away is that you can choose to encounter pain and step beyond springiness, beyond flexibility, beyond the margins of your past experience and DO something hard and new.  This will bring you joy and happiness.

Eric Greiten’s letters to Zach Walker focus on facing problems head on, being mindful, and taking action in order to move through hardship to become better.  Imagine my utter shock to discover Letter #23, the very last letter in the collection, which begins with a quote from none other than Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.   “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.”

In letter #23, Eric Greiten wrote to Zach Walker the following: 
“These letters have been full of work: striving, overcoming, sweating, pushing-through, bearing-down.  Making ourselves more resilient is necessary and can be joyful but not easy.  And if I’ve stressed the difficulty of the path ahead of you, it’s partly because I’ve wanted to set these letters against the message our culture too often sends: that you can have happiness and fulfillment effortlessly and instantly.  These have been letters about the work of your life.  But now I want to add: not all of life is work.  Not all of life is overcoming.  Not all of life requires resilience.”

Greiten continues:
“There are Roman roads, laid down two thousand years ago that you can drive a car on today.  The Romans were some of the great makers and builders and workers of the ancient world.  When the Romans came into contact with the Jews, their first reaction was shock: they had never met a people so lazy.  Every seventh day, the Jews stopped all their work.  Fields went unplowed, tools collected dust, and businesses went silent.  From the highest priest to the lowest servant, everyone – even the horses and the oxen – spent an entire day at rest.  This was the Sabbath.  And for the Romans, who were masters of things and activity, it looked as if an entire people spent one-seventh of their lives doing nothing.”

Greiten goes on to explain to Zach Walker the wisdom of Rabbi Heschel, that there is more to reality than the world of things and objects.  There is also TIME.  We spend the bulk of our lives DOING things, and yet some of the most meaningful part of our lives come when we simply choose to be, when we let time carry us, when, as Rabbi Heschel said, we “face sacred moments.”  Greiten tells Zach Walker that Romans built magnificent palaces in space, but that Jews built “a palace of time” –  called Shabbat.

Greiten writes, “We should move through fear to courage.  We should move through suffering to strength.  We should move through pain to wisdom.  But sometimes we don’t have to move at all.  We simply have to be, to practice the virtue of restful joy in a world that is not at rest.”

Please do not misunderstand Rabbi Heschel.  He was not all about “reflection and rest,” even though that’s the message shared by Greiten to Zach Walker.  In the inaugural issue of Tikkun Magazine in 1986, Rabbi Heschel wrote:  “Reflection alone will not procure self-understanding.  The human situation is disclosed in the thick of living.  By whatever we do, by every act we carry out, we either advance or obstruct the drama of redemption.”

Eric Greiten ends his final letter to a recovering Zach Walker, with the following words, but I want YOU to take these words into your own heart:
“What matters most is that you find time to stop.  Stop striving, stop struggling, stop thinking about how to be resilient.  Find joy and rest in a world that never stops moving…We fill our lives just as I’ve filled these pages.  If we’re resilient, we fill them with purpose, with meaning, with wisdom and with work.  And then on the Sabbath we turn the crowded page, and we rest.”

And so, dear graduates of the Schechter High School of Long Island’s Class of 2017, I assure you that you will face adversity, disappointment and shocks.  Your work ethic has muscle, as your teachers have pushed you hard.  With the help of your parents, teachers and clergy, your moral compass is strong.  But your fortitude has not yet been stretched to the limit, because your teachers and parents have protected you as best we can for as long as we can. 

Your Jewish identity has a better chance than most, because you have acquired rich, thick Jewish memory.  And in my estimation, your Ben Adam resilience has great potential, just as long as you continue to live your life with purpose, meaning, good judgment and hard work.  And just to be sure, please heed the message of Eric Greiten’s 23rd letter to Zach Walker:
“You don’t celebrate Shabbat to become more resilient.  Shabbat is the counterbalance to resilience.  Excellence and enjoyment, resilience and rest;  With Shabbat, we make our lives whole.”  

Now go make your lives whole and make us proud!
Derech Tzleichah to the Class of 2017!


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