Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Graduates and the Grand Conversation

By: Rabbi Shmuel Hain, Rosh Beit Midrash

We are often asked by prospective parents and community members: What does the “average” SAR HS Graduate look like? Five years ago, in conjunction with our first Bogrim (SAR HS Alumni) learning program, several alumni participants surveyed their peers to collect data to begin tackling the question. And while that data, now somewhat outdated, is informative (the big takeaway: almost all alumni closely mirrored their parents’ degree of commitment to Jewish values, Halakhic practice, and regular Torah study), I would like to answer the question with a photograph: 

This is a grainy picture of several of our Bogrim 2017 participants at a recent book launch at Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. That picture captures one story of what SAR HS graduates look like during their college years and beyond. 

Let me explain with some background: As Rosh Beit Midrash, I have had the privilege of directing our Bogrim program since its inception six years ago. Each year at the conclusion of the spring semester, a graduates’ cohort of 15-20 alumni spends an intensive mini-semester at SAR High School learning and giving back to the SAR High School community. During this time, the graduates engage in an intensive program of study with sessions prepared and taught by SAR HS faculty and guest lecturers while also interacting with students in the Beit Midrash, during Advisory, and through special programs. It has been extremely rewarding personally to remain in touch with our alumni and to continue to learn with them. But directing Bogrim has also challenged me to reflect on the essential question raised by devoting resources to this annual program. What responsibility does a high school and its faculty have to students after they graduate? 

Surely there are a number of reasons for all Yeshiva high schools to stay in touch with alumni. One motivation is to promote a sense of school pride/community by fostering a family-like feeling between the faculty, alumni and their families. These relationships are meaningful for students and faculty alike and are most manifest at lifecycle events long after high school graduation. A second reason for ongoing connection is to facilitate alumni participation at school shabbatonim and other informal educational settings. These interactions provide current students with relatable role models who inspire them in impactful ways. Staying connected may also help fortify the religious commitment of alumni during the college years and beyond, when some graduates are less anchored to formal, Jewish learning environments. A final factor- long-term institutional advancement- is another positive byproduct of ongoing engagement. But these reasons do not get to the core of SAR High School’s sense of responsibility to our graduates that animates our Bogrim program. 

To fully explain that sense of responsibility and the rationale for Bogrim requires reformulating the essential question in more particular (read: SAR HS Mission statement) terms: What unique role should our alumni play in shaping and enhancing the “Grand Conversation” within our “Community of Learners”?

We dedicate faculty time and energy to Bogrim because we feel an abiding responsibility to deepen our alumni’s connection to our mission and vision as they mature into modern orthodox adults. This feeling is one that is reciprocated by the desire expressed by our graduates to more fully integrate the messages and orientations that they were first exposed to while in high school. As maturing, more reflective adults, alumni strive to make the Grand Conversation a dynamic reality as they navigate new stages of their lives. The Bogrim program represents our signature effort to advance this important project and to further our mission to produce a new generation of committed, sophisticated modern orthodox Jews.

With this ambitious goal in mind, the teaching methodologies utilized and the material studied in Bogrim are not identical to the high school classroom. Sessions are often co-taught by SAR HS Faculty in a dialogical fashion to foster more robust discussion and reflective learning. Guest lecturers are brought in to challenge alumni, and faculty, with different perspectives. The theme of each Bogrim program is carefully chosen to correspond to the unique challenges that our alumni face. Topics explored have included Religious Zionism, Jews & Non-Jews, Tefillah & spirituality, and Jewish values & sexuality. Each of these subjects has been addressed during the four years of high school, but more advanced life stages demand a more comprehensive, sophisticated, and nuanced examination.

While the primary goal of Bogrim is to further our alumni’s identification with the Grand Conversation, the Bogrim program has consistently enlightened faculty as well. As any parent of an emerging adult can relate, we have experienced a particular revelatory pride and nachas from our alumni. Invariably, as we have examined these challenging and complex topics, our alumni share insightful perspectives that deepen the faculty’s understanding of these subjects. This, in turn, informs how we think about these subjects and teach them to our high school students. 

Perhaps the best example of this is in Israel education. When studying religious zionism in depth in our Bogrim program several years ago, the learning and conversations with our alumni pushed us to broaden our approach to Israel education during the high school years across different subject areas. A Machon Siach Faculty Beit Midrash cohort formed to further research and advance our Israel education. The alumni, then, through the Bogrim program, are a critical cog in our vibrant “community of learners.” That is, ultimately, the responsibility we feel towards our graduates. To deepen their understanding of the Grand Conversation and to encourage our alumni to further enrich our broader community of learners. 

Which brings me back to that picture. This year’s Bogrim program, in conjunction with the special celebration of Yom Yerushalayim, explored Jerusalem @ 50: Kedusha and Controversies. After a week of in-depth Beit Midrash learning and sessions examining the religious, political, and social significance of Jerusalem in Tanakh, Chazal and today, the last few sessions featured guest lecturers exploring Jerusalem from a number of different perspectives. These sessions, especially on the heels of the Beit Midrash learning, were remarkably impactful.

The highlight was a double session on the second to last day of the program. First, Ari Gordon, an academic and interfaith activist specializing in Muslim-Jewish relations, taught a session entitled “‘Ir HaQodesh, Aelia and al-Quds’: An Inter-religious history of Jerusalem” which considered, through careful text study, how Jews can think about Jerusalem in light of the veneration of the Holy City in other religious traditions. In the following session, alumni had the opportunity to dialogue with prominent Muslim academic, social commentator and author Haroon Moghul. Haroon detailed the dynamic place of Jerusalem in Contemporary Muslim culture and shared his experiences bringing North American Muslim leaders to Jerusalem and Israel. The scheduled 75 minute session extended for close to two hours as the conversation offered Haroon and the alumni the opportunity for candid and open discussion on a range of topics. The conversation was challenging at times, but it yielded a deep appreciation for Haroon and his perspectives. At its close, the Bogrim Faculty and participants resolved to explore additional venues for these kinds of dialogues to take place. 

Just a few weeks later, Haroon began a tour promoting his latest book, How to Be a Muslim: An American Story. The Bogrim participants- completely on their own- attended Haroon’s Book Launch and reading at Barnes & Noble as an expression of appreciation and support. Haroon was so moved by the intellectual and religious commitments of our alumni- coupled with their humanity- that he asked to take a picture with the Bogrim after the reading. 

So, what does an SAR graduate look like? That picture of our alumni posing with Haroon, whom they had forged a bond with through study and dialogue, tells one poignant story about what SAR Alumni look like in their college years.