We began the day after the election gathered as a whole school community. This rare treat included both Babinyan and Mekuvan students on Zoom, sitting six feet apart, masked, but together as a community. The day after the election warranted pulling the brakes on our usual schedules. Given this moment in time, it was imperative for faculty and staff to help our students process the future of our fragile democracy. Focusing on our country’s heart and soul transcends traditional daily curricula.

Gathering Gan Nitzan (Kindergarten) through eighth grade for an all-community experience is not always an easy task, particularly because students span the spectrum of developmental awareness and understanding. And yet there was something very simple and pure that had the potential to penetrate the minds and hearts of all the members of our community, from our youngest students to our faculty and staff members.

Framing this moment around healthy community and healthy democracy, or, in John Lewis’ words, “our beloved community,” all participants could relate in their own individual, unique ways. They could begin to imagine what they personally could do to ensure that JCDS is living up to our ideals as a strong community.

In typical JCDS fashion, we set the mood with a communal “humming” of Hinei Ma Tov as Oren, our madrich ruchani, played the guitar and sang within the confines of his private office. As the familiar tune filled our figurative space with warmth and hope, I quickly scrolled through the faces of our children and was moved by their innocence. As David Brooks commented in this past weekend’s New York Times op-ed section, what is missing today is our “floor of decency.” He writes: “This was the basic minimum standard of behavior to be an accepted member of society.”

By contrast, we were determined to remind our JCDS students of civil discourse, civility, connection and shared values that we all believe in as a community, and to recommit to being members of our kehila (community) that is built upon a strong foundation of decency. In fact, the “Prayer for our Country” reiterated these themes with requests made to God: “Help us all to appreciate one another, and to respect the many ways that we may serve You. May our homes be safe from affliction and strife, and our country be sound in body and spirit.”

I invite you to read the words I shared with our students:

Many of us sat pinned to our TV sets watching the election results way into the night. For those of you who learned about the electoral process, I, like you, was trying to do the math in my head to figure out how many votes candidates would need in order to win the election. Many Americans voted early; many were just so excited to get it done, to exercise their power to vote and to make their voice heard. Some went to their local libraries to cast their votes in the ballot boxes in order to stay healthy and safe, and to stay away from the crowds. Others just felt a sense of security by voting early. It may simply have been convenient to mail in their ballots rather than having to drive somewhere. One hundred million people voted early and another 100 million cast their votes yesterday on Election Day.

I know many of you have been learning about the importance of voting in your classes. The right to say what you believe in, in the form of a vote, was something many people in our country have had to fight for, for years. Voting is a privilege that we can’t take lightly. It is how we live out the values of our American democracy, where our government is ruled by the people and for the people.

What does that look like? What does it mean to vote according to our values? It means we have to ask ourselves hard questions and pick a leader we think reflects those values. We have to think about things like: What is the right balance between what is good for me and what is good for us? What rights and privileges do I think need to be protected for me, my community and my country? Who belongs here in America? What can we do to protect the earth and our environment? How can we keep people healthy by helping them to easily visit doctors and nurses? How can we make sure children can have access to a great education like you do here at JCDS? How can we make sure people of color are treated equally in our country? That people understand that Black lives matter and that we are made betzelem elohim (in God’s image)?

At the core, we are asking ourselves to think about what it means to have a strong community and a healthy democracy. Around 20 years ago, a sociologist, a person who studies people and communities, wanted to see how strong communities were in the Chicago area. He addressed and stamped thousands of letters and threw them on the ground. He wanted to see who would stomp all over the letters and leave them there and who would actually pick up the letters and put them in a mailbox. He learned that the closer people lived to each other, the likelier they were to pick up the letters and put them in the mailbox. They cared about each other and they knew each other. When you know each other, you feel connected. You feel that you are part of a beloved community. What does it take to be a part of a community? What does it mean to be a member of a community? Does it mean we all love each other? All agree with each other?

Writer Suzanne Goldsmith wrote: “Communities are not built of friends, or of groups of people with similar styles and tastes, or even of people who like and understand each other. They are built of people who feel they are part of something that is bigger than themselves: a shared goal. Like righting a wrong, or building a road or raising children, or living honorably, or worshipping a god. To build community requires the ability to see value in others; to look at them and see a potential partner in one’s enterprise.”

Today we are going to create a school-wide puzzle art project. Each of you will receive a puzzle piece and draw, paint, glue and cut out pictures of ways that you can personally make our community stronger. Examples from just this week: Oren asked for people to come outside to help him pick up the white stools under the tent, just like the experiment about picking up the mail on the ground. Fourth and fifth graders not only agreed to help, but they actually came running outside to do this mitzvah. At the beginning of the year, we all agreed that as a community we would be sure to wear our masks because we wanted to protect our community from COVID-19. Seventh grade has a garden project, where they are learning how to protect the earth. In this week’s parsha, Vayera, Avraham opens his tent to strangers and rushes to invite them in for a meal.

I want to invite each and every one of you to think about the ways you will run toward doing the right thing. Run toward justice. Run toward peace. Run toward appreciation of each other’s differences and similarities. That’s what it means to be in a community.

Shira Deener is head of school at JCDS. The School Sparks blog appears periodically by various writers among the JCDS educational team. Learn more about JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School.

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