Head Notes

Head Notes banner photo
Adam Eilath

There is a great deal of research about the types of questions that teachers ask when studying a novel or piece of literature. Unfortunately, too many teachers ask factual questions: When did the character live? How many brothers or sisters did she have? What was his profession? Literal and factual questions are important because they lay a foundation for a discussion, but they are also limiting. Due to time constraints or the digressions that are common in a classroom, teachers often don’t “get to” interpretive or evaluative questions. Interpretive and evaluative questions can include: How do you think the character felt? How might the ending change if x y or z happened? What do you think the antagonist would have done in a different situation? Interpretive and evaluative questions are critical for developing emotional intelligence in our students. They cultivate an ability for students to develop empathy and think about the “real world relevance” of their learning.

This week’s Parasha, “Vayetzei” includes one of the more iconic moments in the Bible. In the process of fleeing his home, Jacob lies down to sleep and dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder. The Ben Ish Chai, a 19th century Rabbi from Baghdad wrote a powerful parable about this Biblical story claiming that the dream of a ladder hints at the power of empathy. According to the Ben Ish Chai, “there once was a ladder that had ten steps. The top step of the ladder would always mock and laugh at the steps below it, saying ‘I am higher than you and better than you.’ One day a man walked by and heard the top step mocking the lower ones. Immediately he walked over to the ladder and flipped it upside down. As expected, the step which had mocked the others and now found itself on the bottom, was immediately quiet.”  The lesson of this parable is clear. When we are humbled we act in kinder ways. When we know how others feel, we are more likely to treat them with kindness and respect.

The cultivation of empathy starts in the classroom with students being asked questions that probe into the inner workings of the psyche of characters in their books. It continues through experiential programs that have our students out in the world meeting students from other parts of the world, serving meals to those who are less fortunate, and interviewing grandparents as a part of class projects. There is a Jewish Tunisian saying that I love about the power of speaking with others: “Anshed mizrarab umah tanshidishi tabib” which translates to “Ask the person to whom it happened, not the doctor.”

I sometimes think of The Divine as a Being or Spirit that is able to contain all of the multitudes of opinions, beliefs, and perspectives in the world. Indeed, I believe that the world becomes more holy, the more we listen to others who are different than us and the more we are able to hold other’s experiences. I’ll end this week’s blog with a quote from one of my favorite books. The memoir When Breath Becomes Air by the late, Dr. Paul Kalanithi. “In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Adam Eilath

When I was in elementary school, I could have never imagined that the world would look the way it does now. I could have never imagined that Uber or Lyft would exist, or that I would never have to go to the store to buy diapers. I never imagined that I would be “plugging in my car” when I got home or that self driving cars would exist.

One of the things that keeps me up at night is how different the world will be when our students graduate. Will our students ever need to cook or will machines make their food? How will they form new friendships and relationships as adults? How will automated machines control and manage the fundamental tasks, responsibilities, and benchmarks of life?

In my previous role as a high school teacher, I had the privilege of teaching Ancient Civilizations to High School Freshman on a number of occasions. One of my favorite texts in that class came from the Ancient Chinese philosophical work by Zhuang Zhou. In it, he recalls a story which warns of the danger of machines.

As Tzu Gang was travelling through the regions north of the River Han, he saw an old man working in his vegetable garden. He had dug up an irrigation ditch. The man would descend into the well, fetch up a vessel of water in his arms and pour it out into the ditch. While his efforts were tremendous, the results appeared to be very meager.

Tzu Gung said “there is a way whereby you can irrigate a hundred ditches in one day, and whereby you can do much with little effort. Would you not like to hear of it?” Then the gardener stood up, looked at him and said, “And what would that be?

Tzu Gung replied “You take a wooden lever, weighted at the back and light in front. In this way you can bring up water so quickly that it just gushes out. This is called a draw-well.”

Then anger rose up in the old man’s face, and he said “I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his chest loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul. Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things: I am ashamed to use them.

My students were usually able to understand that “strivings of the soul” had something to do with purpose and meaning in life. However, what was harder to understand was why mechanization leads to a sense of purposelessness or a lack of meaning in life. When you grow up in a highly automated world, how would you know the difference in meaning and purpose in a mechanized world? If you have never gone to a butcher or a baker and you have only seen your parents ordering groceries on their phone, how could you know what life was like before? One of the central questions that we will have to grapple with for our children’s sake is: What are we not willing to mechanize or automate?

This week's Torah portion contains Abraham engaging in two core human experiences. The portion opens with Abraham searching for a burial place for his late wife Sarah and closes with him searching for a spouse for his child Isaac. Both acts, burial and finding a partner are so core to the human experience. In the text, Abraham has to negotiate, fight and advocate for both of these events to come to fruition. Perhaps it was his deep love for both Sarah and Isaac that the text, which is typically brief and laconic, shares so many details about how he engaged in both efforts. And yet, there is something so relatable about the end of Abraham’s life being concerned with continuity.

It’s interesting that these two events, burial and “matchmaking” have taken radically different directions in our contemporary world. On the one hand, burial is still a raw and completely human experience. If you attend any Jewish funeral, you will see any able bodied person using a shovel to fill the grave. On the other hand, dating and matchmaking have become completely automated. At a recent wedding, I was surprised to hear a Rabbi start his speech under the Huppah (Marriage Canopy) with the words “from the moment you swiped right!”

I can’t help but return to the words of the old man in the Chinese parable: “It is not that I do not know of these things, I am ashamed to use them.” What did the old man know about himself that he was not willing to compromise?

I believe that one of the greatest gifts we can give our students is a sense of self. An understanding of who they are and what they value. As our world changes, we need to graduate students who will have the agency to say what they will or will not automate. What changes in the world they can accept and what they will not accept because it would cause “uncertainty in their soul.”

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Adam Eilath

When I look at our parent body at Wornick, I am amazed at how many of our parents are new to the Bay Area. I would be quite interested to study what percentage of our parents went to high school outside of the Bay Area, California, or the United States. Indeed, draw of the Bay Area often means that so many of us have come to this region for opportunity. However, there is also something deeply Jewish about moving from place to place from generation to generation. In my own family, a combination of economic opportunity and persecution caused my family to zig-zag across the world. In the 20th century alone, my parents and grandparents lived in Tunisia, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Israel, Uruguay, and Canada. And, it seems like the more I dig into my family's past, the more I learn about our history of being transient and how shallow our roots were in any given place.

Often, when I ask parents at Wornick about where they come from or how they got here, a tear will emerge in their eyes as they recall their place of birth. Even briefly talking about life in Israel, Ukraine, Iran, South Africa, or South America can remind them of friends, family and memories of their homeland. But beyond the question of what we have left behind is a deeper question of where we are going and where we are travelling towards.

It is quite fascinating that the “Jewish story” begins with our forefather leaving his homeland. The story of Abraham begins with no context about his life other than us learning about his departure from his birthplace and family. The first words of the portion describe God commanding Abraham, “Lech Lecha - Go from your land, your birthplace and your parent’s home to a place I will show you.” In the original Hebrew, the verb is written in an interesting doubled way.  “Go” is written as “Lekh Lekha” which can be translated as “You shall surely go” or more precisely “Go to yourself.”

Lekh Lekha. Our sages have poured over these two words seeking to understand why God commanded Abraham to leave his homeland. A number of commentaries describe why God selected Abraham and what Abraham found unsavory about his homeland. A number of commentaries describe Abraham as a pursuer of truth, or as a person who was guided by a desire to spread truth around the world.

Leaving one’s homeland, family, and birthplace is challenging. However, I believe that these first few verses capture an experience that many of us know so well. We often have to leave our homeland to be ourselves. In fact, when God commands Abraham “Lekh Lekha,” he understands that in order for Abraham to “Go to himself” he needs to leave his land, his parent’s home, and his birthplace.

Often in learning how to be our truest selves, we have to leave everything we know behind. Rabbi Zushya of Lanipol was recorded to have said, “When I get to heaven they will not ask me, Zushya, why were you not Moses? They will ask me, Zushya, why were you not Zushya?”

I believe that when we get to the core of what we value and what we believe, the only question that truly matters to humans is, “how authentically are we able to be ourselves?” As we think about what has motivated us to travel far and wide to get the places we currently are, I hope we can always keep the compass pointed at ourselves. Wherever we find ourselves, may we continue travelling to our “truest selves.”

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Adam Eilath

When I lived in Israel in my early 20’s, I would often catch low-cost flights to whichever European city was cheapest to travel to during my breaks from school or work. When I would visit these cities in Southern and Central Europe, I would walk around the city for a few hours, predictably get tired, and position myself in an old building or church. There I would read, journal, or engage in conversations with whomever I was travelling. I was quite mesmerized by the architecture of these old European buildings and in particular, the stained glass windows that would adorn the walls of each structure. Stained glass windows have a remarkable impact on the way you feel inside a building. They make you feel like you are in a completely insulated and enclosed structure. You can’t see outside light except for the light manipulated by the stained glass. The images on the windows keep you focused on the mission and intent of the building in which you are located. You are compelled to focus on what is inside and not on what is outside.

When I would return to Israel and my apartment in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, the synagogues that lined the streets of my neighborhood were structured in a completely opposite way to the churches and old buildings I would encounter in Europe. In particular, the windows were eye level in contrast to the high windows of the enormous European churches. There was never anything painted on the windows. Rather, there was a clear view of the street. In the midst of prayers you could hear families walking back from the market, arguments between city employees, couples engaged in romantic conversations on their walk home, or beggars asking for money. In fact, at my favorite synagogue, “Ades” which served the Syrian Jewish community from Aleppo, it was not uncommon for folks passing by to lean into the big open windows and listen to prayers or a sermon that was being delivered. Spirituality in these synagogues, with big open windows to the street, was not constructed by creating an insular experience closed off to the rest of the world. Spirituality was fostered through a blurry and unclear boundary between the inside and outside world of the synagogue.

In this week’s Torah Portion, we are told the story of Noah’s Ark intended to protect him and his family from a flood that destroys the world. In the narrative, God commands Noah to construct a “tzohar” in the ark. Biblical commentators were quite perplexed by this word. Rashi, a 12th century Medieval Commentator from France, argued that “tzohar” meant an opening for light, and likely intended to mean a window. Why would God command Noah to build a window to the outside in a structure intended to protect him from the outside world? What could a window to the outside offer Noah and his family during a terrible flood?  One clue might be found in a statement from the Talmud which discusses the laws of prayer. In Tractate Berakhot, Rabbi Hiyya Bar Abba says: “A person should not pray except in a house that has windows.” The message of this Talmudic law seems to be that spirituality or concentration on prayer can be enhanced not only by staring inwards, but also by looking outwards at the world.

As Jewish educators, we are tasked with creating and curating environments for our students that are conducive to spiritual engagement and meaning making. The question we have to ask ourselves is, should we create cocoons that close students off to the outside world? Or is spirituality enhanced by an encounter with the outside world? At our school, both seem to be the case. Our students encounter warm, closed environments for Tefillah every morning in our Ulam Gadol. At the same time, our Middle School Jewish Studies Coordinator and Rabbi in Training, Chelsea Mandell has masterfully curated spiritual experiences for our students that are reflective of the real world our students live in. Whether we are at the Pacific Ocean or in the streets of San Francisco, Ms. Mandell is able to transform moments with the real world into elevated spiritual encounters. The result is that our students graduate from our school with an ability to engage and find spirituality in insulated, public, natural or cosmopolitan environments.

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Adam Eilath

In the Talmud, Rabbi Hanina is quoted saying “I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned most of all” (Taanit 7a). In my career as a teacher, no statement has proved to be more true than this. Undoubtedly the greatest benefit of being an educator is learning by watching your students grow, listening to your students, and learning from watching them learn. When I speak with teachers both at Wornick and beyond, this usually proves to be at the core of their sense of purpose as an educator. We all crave those moments where a student's wisdom reveals something new about ourselves, the content we are teaching, or life in general.

This week’s Torah portion, Bereshit, recounts the order and substance of the creation of the world. In chapter 2, we are told that initially only Adam was created, and that he existed on the world alone. However, at some point he became lonely and realized that he had no partner (Ezer Ke-Negdo). According to the text, the necessity for a partner is what leads God to create Eve alongside Adam. One of the more well-known verses from this Torah portion is God’s reflection on Adam’s loneliness: “It is not good for man to be alone, I will make a fitting partner for him.” In his book ‘Ohel Moed,’ Rabbi David Abuhatzeira, a 20th century Rabbi from Southern Morocco, wrote that this verse hints at an important idea related to studying Torah. He wrote, “It is not good for a person to be alone while studying Torah without a fellow.” 

One of the ageless values of the Jewish tradition is the concept of a Hevruta, loosely translated as a study partner. The Talmud placed a premium on the idea of a Hevruta and went so far as to say, (perhaps hyperbolically), “Give me Hevruta or give me death!”

Although educators understand the concept of learning from their students, developing a culture where students understand the importance of learning from one another is much more challenging. Schools built on the foundation of progressive education like Wornick have long understood that deep learning that sticks with students is a result of students learning from themselves and from their peers. Small classroom environments that build trust, allow for failure, and democratize learning, enable students to see the educational value that each young mind in the room offers.

We often romanticize the idea of a charismatic teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom delivering content to students. However, research shows us that students learn most by actually teaching content and skills themselves. In communities like Wornick, students have this opportunity. More importantly, they are able to realize the value of their peers in creating meaningful and rich learning environments. 

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Mission Statement

Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School develops students who are socially and academically prepared to meet their full potential as engaged leaders committed to a life steeped in Jewish ethics and values.

About Wornick

Enrollment: 177
Grades: TK-8
Average Class Size: 14
Accreditation: 
California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS)
Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
Membership: 
National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS)