by Karen Bernanke, Director of Student Support Services
by Karen Bernanke, Director of Student Support Services
As my youngest daughter, Danielle, prepares to graduate from JCDS in a few short weeks, I find myself reflecting on my family’s nine years at JCDS. I think back to the first time I visited the school. My husband, Yaniv, and I were living in Watertown at the time, and we happened to meet a JCDS parent. He asked us how come we, an Israeli family, weren’t sending our kids to JCDS — so we decided to visit.
The first time I stepped into the building, I became aware of all that was available right around the corner from where we lived. The first thing that caught my attention was the Israeli music being played. It wasn’t the old Zionist pioneer songs that can be heard playing in other Jewish circles, but modern Israeli songs. I noticed the student artwork that always covers JCDS’s walls. Many works contained Israel-related symbolism and all of them were signed with the student-artist’s Hebrew name and then I saw how the young kids in the lower school classes were spread around — some on the rug, others sitting up, but all busy enjoying their activities in this lively way. All I could think was: how did I not know about this place before?
Now, nine years later, my family is about to say farewell to this community we know and love. Our older son, Stav, is about to graduate high school and go to college, and Danielle is getting ready to start her freshman year at Gann Academy. Yaniv and I brought our kids to JCDS to maintain their Hebrew and teach them our traditions and values; we found all that and so much more.
“Yaniv and I brought our kids to JCDS for their sake, but we had no idea how it would affect our lives. The community at JCDS has truly changed us.”
Hebrew plays an integral role in the JCDS curriculum. Through a Hebrew-throughout-the-day immersion approach in the lower school, the kids learn Hebrew naturally and continue to progress throughout the years. In the middle school, they learn the language through songs, plays, projects, and reading. I love how Danielle sometimes comes home with Hebrew songs that are so current that I don’t know them!
The connection to Israel is also remarkable. From Yom Hashoah to Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, the kids have a chance to engage with guests, including soldiers from the IDF and holocaust survivors, to hear their perspectives and ask them questions. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, (Israeli Independence Day), the whole school takes part in a day filled with fun, including “traveling” to Israel, making falafel and labneh, and participating in an Israel-themed scavenger hunt.
As an Israeli-American family, we are thrilled with how well our kids can speak, read, and write in Hebrew. They are able to stay connected with their family in Israel in meaningful ways, and when we return to Israel, there is no language barrier between Stav and Danielle and their cousins, which is so powerful to see. This summer, Danielle will travel to Israel by herself for five weeks to spend time with our family. I give much credit to JCDS for helping my kids develop strong Hebrew skills and a lasting connection with Israel.
Yaniv and I brought our kids to JCDS for their sake, but we had no idea how it would affect our lives. The community at JCDS has truly changed us. Like many Israelis, we tended to have predominantly Israeli friends when we first moved to the United States. Now, most of our friends are from JCDS. Many are parents from Stav’s class; even four years out of JCDS, we still meet for Shabbat dinners. We have been blown away by the strong, warm, and welcoming community.
We are thankful for our partnership with JCDS, which has created thoughtful kids who love Israel, and are knowledgeable about its history, culture, and language.
Dr. Susie Tanchel, JCDS Head of School was honored at Keshet’s annual OUTstanding! awards gala. Along with Rebekah Farber and Dr. Marc Kramer, Dr. Tanchel received the Hachmei Lev Award for modeling Jewish LGBTQ inclusion and equality in the Jewish Day School movement. Dr. Tanchel was, until recently, the only out head of a Jewish day school in the country. Serving as a role model through her own journey of coming out, she played a crucial role in creating a space for LGBTQ students, faculty, and parents to be able to be themselves in the Jewish Day School world.
Mazal Tov to Dr. Tanchel on receiving on this incredible honor. Below are her remarks from the evening.
I remember it vividly. Around a decade ago, this spirited, intelligent, Jewishly committed, 16 year old, sitting in my office at Gann Academy with tears rolling down her face. She could barely get the words out, as she poignantly asked, “Ms. Tanchel, can I be gay and Jewish?” I remembered wondering that very same thing, years before, along my own coming out journey. I remember feeling terrified that I would lose a job I loved and cause a controversy for a school I cared so much about. Remember this was 1998 – it was a different world for LGBTQ Jews back then.
Thank you, Keshet, for this award; it means a great deal to me. You play a critical role in transforming the national landscape for LGBTQ Jews. Special thanks to Idit Klein, who I had the good fortune to befriend many years ago, to James Cohen, who we are blessed to have in our JCDS community and to Arnee and Walt Winshall, for your tremendous leadership on so many issues. Thank you to all of you who are here to support me tonight: so many from the JCDS community, my parents, and friends, including former Gann students, your presence here means so much.
Tonight is a celebration of the positive movement toward inclusivity and that LGBT kids and families are far more integrated in the day school community.
Before: we were invisible at day school conferences
Now: there are sessions dedicated to LGBT issues
Before: there were no GSAs at day schools
Now: not only are there many GSAs, even, some Orthodox day schools have support group for their LGBTQ kids.
Before: there were no out heads of Jewish day schools in this country
Now: here I am and I am not the only one
Many are responsible for these leaps forward and I am deeply proud to be among them. My desire to be a better role model for students thrust me out of the closet. I distinctly remember the first time a student came out to me, though sitting calmly, I was inwardly thinking holy cow what on earth am I going to say now. The words that came out, “mazal tov,” expressed the celebration of greater truth. Later this same person, would be my central teacher introducing me to the concerns, challenges, and blessings of transpeople. When you are very fortunate, as I have been, your students are also your teachers.
These advances are wonderful, but we are not done. I know this because last year a Jewish educator called me, someone whom he actually doesn’t know that well. He had to call me because each day, all day, he hides that he has fallen in love with a man. He wanted someone in our field to bear witness to his truth. As I voiced my excitement for him, I privately wished he could enjoy the freedom I do every time I acknowledge my wife’s support at large school events. No big deal for straight people, but a hard-won victory for us.
More change is required because an excellent Jewish Studies teacher at a different school recently quit her job. As we talked it through, it was evident her prominent school was not yet in a place to accept her because she wanted to be out. This was a loss for all involved because, believe me, excellent Jewish Studies teachers are not so easily found.
I remember coming out – scared at first, I quickly found it exhilarating. Schools contexts matter so much in this process. I am indebted to Rabbi Danny Lehmann and Arnee Winshall for each creating school communities that courageously grapple with complex issues and celebrate differences. If we seek a more just world in which our civil discourse does not denigrate difference, but upholds the dignity of each person, we need to prioritize teaching our children how to engage with people different from themselves. At JCDS, we begin this work, when we instruct our kindergartners to explore their differences as a critical part of friendship. Differences strengthen communities. We cannot underestimate the power of teachers normalizing differences by, for example, showing kids exemplars of all different kinds of families, or by not assuming, in word and in deed, that every kid is straight. It is essential for Jewish day schools to be inclusive and accepting, for they are formative communities in our children’s lives. It is here where our future Jewish adults develop their life-long templates for how to treat others.
I’m very proud that one of the hallmarks of JCDS is being a warm, accepting community. Thus, our children have the gift of being loved and appreciated for exactly who they are. This is evident when a girl, comes up to me and says, “Dr. T, my mom finally bought me these cool Spiderman boxers” or a young boy proudly wears his princess or Frozen t-shirts and his pink sneakers to school. Perhaps it is not surprise that it was this kind of a school that was the first to take the courageous step of hiring an out lesbian as their Head of School. As we do for our children, so we do for all members of our community.
Within this supportive context, we also have more work to do. Currently, we have a bathroom challenge. Last year I learned about a child who was suffering on my watch because they didn’t feel comfortable going to gender assigned bathroom. We came up with a temporary, less than ideal, solution. As we struggle to come up with a better one, I have talked to many people. Some ask, “why do we have to make drastic changes for so few kids,” but recently a friend to JCDS offered these words that made a lasting impression: “Susie, even if you didn’t have any, not even one, trans kid in your community, you would want to do this. You school wants to communicate we are an inclusive, welcoming community regardless of who is at the school at any given moment.” Yes we do! Our Jewish values and human decency demand it.
The work continues. With the support of many, we will continue to make the Jewish world a more just and inclusive place. This will of course benefit LGBTQ Jews, but it will likewise be a benefit to entire the community. Not only because we all want to be our better selves, and to embody our Jewish values, but because, as we all know, we are stronger together.
Growing up, I loved candy. As a kid, I wondered why the adults around me didn’t eat candy all the time. I mean, they had the freedom to do it, so why didn’t they just indulge constantly? Though I did not know it at the time, I was wondering about the nature of freedom. What meaning did it have to the adults around me? Now as an adult, I am curious about the same thing — albeit from a very different perspective — as we prepare to celebrate another Pesach.
The Torah offers at least one response to the question I asked as a sweet-toothed child. Shmot 7:16 states: שַׁלַּח אֶת-עַמִּי וְיַעַבְדֻנִי (“Release my people, so that they may serve me.”) The grammatical structure of this verse makes clear that the very purpose of the freedom from slavery is to serve God. While I appreciate that we each have a different interpretation of precisely what “serving God” means, it remains clear that freedom has an intended purpose. In other words, freedom is intimately — and necessarily — connected with responsibility.
According to our Haggadah, one of the responsibilities our freedom demands is for us to retell the story of our Exodus. In this process, our attention is focused on the immediacy of each night of the Seder as famously epitomized with the question: “Why is this night so different from other nights?” And yet in one of the most famous paragraphs of the Haggadah, the obligation does not seem to be so time-bound:
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים
In every generation one has to see/view oneself as if he or she came out from Egypt.
This passage does not specify that we need to see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt only on this night; rather, “in every generation…” implies that we have an ongoing obligation to do so. This interpretation is further strengthened by the Sephardi and Yeminite versions of the Haggadah, in which the instruction is להראות את עצמו “to show oneself” as part of the Exodus story. This distinction between seeing and showing ourselves as newly free people reminds us that it is not enough to talk about this story for one night; we have to figuratively inhabit the transition to liberation — and then act with the awareness that our freedom demands. Moreover, while we can see ourselves in private, the act of showing demands the presence of an other, be it a single witness or an entire community. By both seeing and showing ourselves as if we came out of Egypt, the many years between then and now collapse. Now we are recalling the Exodus not as an event that took place long ago to our ancestors, but as a foundational narrative of our People that continues to have meaning today. We are obligated to derive our own personal purpose from this story and to act in our lives in accordance with its implications.
Just last week, I learned with and from our 4th graders as they took the lead in creating a space in which they, their parents, and teachers could grapple with timeless questions during their Milestone. They shared poetry and music, and then led their families and friends in profound text-based conversations about slavery and freedom. They asked us to consider: what does it mean to be free? How can a person have an enslaved mind even if his/her body is free, and vice versa? Who is not free, and what can we do for those that are still enslaved? Their authentic curiosity about the full meaning of freedom and its impact not only on their lives, but on the lives of everyone in the world, inspired me to reflect more deeply on the enduring legacy of our narrative.
Thus, the questions I am left thinking about even as I invest much energy into planning our Seders are: what am I going to do next week, next month, to keep the spirit and meaning of freedom alive? What is the national memory of the slavery of my people going to propel me to do? And I now I know it means more than just buying candy – though there might be a little of that too.
I wish you and your families a chag kasher ve’sameach.