I had the address of the shul in Paris where I was hoping to say Kaddish for my mother. I walked up and down Rue des Tournelles, where the shul was supposed to be, but I couldn’t find it. After a few loops, I ventured out to the neighboring streets, practicing how to ask for directions in French. Still no luck. Though I really wanted to find that shul, it was getting dark, so I started to head back to the hotel. Then, up ahead, I saw a fellow Jew: black suit, black kippah. I quickened my step, caught up with him, and, still thinking in French, asked if he knew where the shul was. He wasn’t very responsive. I tried again, with slightly different words. At that point he looked at me and simply asked, “Ivrit“? Ah, that was easy. So I asked him again, in Hebrew, where I could find the shul. He immediately gave me the correct address and walked away.
We know Hebrew unlocks the mysteries of our ancient texts, but I hadn’t appreciated until then how it also unlocks the gates of trust. Given the uncomfortably high levels of anti-Semitism in Paris, he wouldn’t divulge the shul’s location until he knew I could be trusted. The fact that I knew Hebrew gave him that assurance.
Never before had I thought of language as engendering trust, but this encounter made the connection seem obvious. Sharing a language means sharing a piece of your identity; it means establishing an instant state of belonging, especially when you’re traveling in a foreign country. My shared knowledge of Hebrew with that French Orthodox Jew, whom I will likely never see again, promoted trust.
To be sure, part of the power in this encounter emanates from the historical, cultural, and religious resonance that Hebrew embodies, given its central role in Jewish life for over three millennia. But part of the power is also embedded in language itself, through the shared way of thinking it engenders–which, because it connects diverse groups of people, serves as a bridge.
I find myself thinking about shared language in light of PEJE’s upcoming Assembly for Advancing the Jewish Day School Field, a setting where we will harness the power of the leadership of the day school field, which will gather from across the continent. That power will be intensified as we share a common language–connected to a shared way of thinking–of sustainability, of strength, and of commitment to meet our challenges head on.
Through the carefully constructed plenaries, the dynamic keynote addresses, the many focused sessions, and the Pre-Assembly Institutes, each participant–whether they are leaders in day schools, federations, central agencies, foundations, or individual donors–will be exposed to a vocabulary of action, strategy, and collaborative practice. The honest exchanges among attendees, the trust that will grow through multiple interactions, and the reflection that will surely be stimulated, will all go a long way to propel us forward in the face of substantial challenges.
Never underestimate the power of language–especially the power of shared language. May our own experience with language, with Hebrew in particular, help us to appreciate the amazing opportunity we all have to shape the way we think about our challenges.
Let’s harness our collective power to make a tangible and positive difference in our schools and in our communities.