As Rabbi Ari Leubitz has written, about 70 Jewish communal leaders from Atlanta went to Israel to see how we could improve dialogue within our community, as we met with a number of diverse Israeli organizations, and take that conversation back home. Rabbi Leubitz and I represented Atlanta Jewish Academy.

I am not a hugger. I am a 50-year-old, reserved, difficult and opinionated individual. I hate going outside my safe zone.

I, and I think most of my colleagues, had some trepidation about the trip for a number of reasons. We were told we would have uncomfortable moments (we did, and we survived). A special thank-you to Eric Robbins, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and his team for the invitation to participate and the program itself.

Alan Minsk

Some observations:

  • I was amazed at how many people who participated had a GHA/Yeshiva Atlanta/AJA connection. There will be some overlap, but of those who participated, I counted four alumni, four current or past school presidents, and 18 current or past parents.

During our visit, we met with two alumni studying in Israel, and our Shabbat night speaker was a GHA/Yeshiva graduate (with his brother, also an alum, in attendance). A childhood friend and fellow alum, a congregational rabbi who now lives in Jerusalem, spoke as well.

We should all share a sense of pride that the school was well represented.

  • There were 13 congregational rabbis who participated. Two graduated from Hebrew Academy/GHA, three currently send their children to the school, and nine have congregants who attend AJA.
  • Our insistence on community engagement and continuity continues to shine; AJA was the only day school represented on this mission.
  • Much of our trip was spent listening to people in Israel and to one another from Atlanta about perceptions and frustrations. It was frequently said, “We must listen until it hurts.”

No silver-bullet solutions were found, but the discussion, the dialogue and the value of being present were great first steps.

Start with a question, not a statement. Talk to one another, not at one another. Let’s remember: We can agree to disagree and engage in civil discourse.

  • A goal of the trip was to build relationships and, in turn, begin collaborations. A speaker in Israel said Chase Bank used to advertise that it wanted to be the bank for all Israelis. An Israeli bank countered that it wanted to be the individual’s mishpacha (family).

That remains AJA’s challenge. We are geographically dispersed. We have families from many religious and cultural backgrounds. We are the only Jewish day school serving early childhood to 12th grade in Atlanta.

We must ensure that everyone at AJA feels at home and genuinely connected to our school. “Community” and “connectivity” cannot merely be part of a tagline.

We recently enjoyed our second schoolwide Shabbaton and have initiated community dialogues. Rabbi Leubitz and I have scheduled meetings with some groups from our Israel trip about possible engagements to benefit AJA and the students. We have more to do.

It is perfectly acceptable and normal to stay within one’s own community. It’s safe.

But, as the Israel trip showed me, it’s OK to go outside my comfort zone, to meet new people and to learn from others. Sometimes, being uncomfortable can lead to personal growth.

AJA must ensure the door is open to all and, to quote the Motel 6 commercial, make sure the light is on. We must be inviting and welcoming, sensitive and receptive.

  • AJA walks a tightrope between tight budgets and growing needs. That was a common refrain during the six days for all organizations.

While it perhaps was comforting to know AJA is not alone, no one has the answer.

Know that our proud dual curriculum isn’t going anywhere. We will continue to strive for academic excellence. We will offer extracurricular activities. We will continue to help families in need.

We will continue to teach our children the meaning of being Jewish, the Jewish values we hold dear, and the ways to be proud mensches who love G-d, Torah and Judaism.

We must make the school open and affordable to all who want what we offer. We must be amenable to see how we can offer alternative courses to those who want to come to AJA and participate in a dual-curriculum track.

However, we cannot make significant changes to our curriculum that compromise our vision and our core mission. We are what we are; the brochure doesn’t lie. As my pulpit rabbi has said, “One is great if one is credible and reliable.”

That must be AJA.

  • The trip was, to some extent, a microcosm of AJA. Perceptions and preconceived notions of us vs. them. Diversity. Differing ideas. Community. Inclusion. Change.

While the trip broke down immediate stereotypes, it wasn’t atypical that exceptional, well-meaning people, in the same discussion of inclusion and community, would revert to “they” to describe a group rather than “we.” It takes time, but the Israel trip was a first step (and we will continue to meet as a group).

It is our challenge; it is our opportunity. Rabbi Leubitz, the AJA board and I are committed to bridging our community. We look to you, though, to help us in this effort.

  • So, the Israel trip taught me to (try to) be more respectful, open, tolerant, committed and decisive. I am not naive. I have no illusions that the trip will lead to immediate peace and harmony. We plant the seeds of a tree knowing that we will not see it grow completely, but that it will benefit future generations. (In fact, we did this on Tu B’Shevat during our trip.)

What I know is that I prayed at the Kotel on Friday night with a man whom I never met before the trip. I spent six days with a group of (largely) strangers on a trip, the type of which I told my wife I’d never take. I participated in discussions with people I never would have encountered because of made-up perception boundaries.

I can say the trip was personally meaningful for me. And I even hugged a few people at the end.

Alan Minsk is the president of Atlanta Jewish Academy.