by Asher Weinstein
When I first came to Rockwern Academy, I was 6. As a first grader, I did not have a strong perception of my own identity, either as a person or as a Jew. Now, as a 14 year old, graduating from eighth grade, I feel as if I do. Over these years, Rockwern Academy and its teachers all have helped me realize and mold my identity. Thanks specifically to my Hebrew and Judaic Studies teachers, I understand my background as a Jew and I have been able to formulate my own ideas about my Judaism. In addition, they taught me about complex moral and ethical dilemmas, and I think I am a better person for it.
What constitutes a change in identity? I would say that, while you can alter your identity, the real challenge is unlocking it, finding out what you yourself truly think and feel, and discovering your own potential. Everything we have learned has been told by someone, who, even if they are just giving the facts, puts his or her own spin on it. This leads me to one of the greatest advantages of being a student at Rockwern. Every teacher here at Rockwern Academy has opinions on the subjects they teach. However, they manage to mask it almost entirely, or if they don’t, they emphasize that we are not to take their opinion as fact. Instead, we do an astounding amount of critical thinking and writing, which emphasizes learning the facts, and then formulating our own independent opinions. This has also taught me how to identify bias. In the past two years, this has led to many a heated debate of what is the right thing to do or which commentary is correct for various Mishnaic and Torah sections. One such debate was on the subject of Mordechai Rumkovski, the leader of the Jews in the Lodz Ghetto, and what he should have done when the Nazis demanded 20,000 Jews for deportation. Some of us took that side that he took, saying that he did the right thing when he sent all the young children, elderly, and sick away. Others were bitterly opposed. While our debates have often been on dark subjects like this one, they have often been the highlight of my day, and they have also been extremely educational, allowing us to expand our personal opinions while absorbing strong points from others. I am most thankful to Rockwern for allowing me to form my own thoughts, but still be able to alter them.
However, while part of identity is in your mind, it is in your background as well. Rockwern has provided me with extensive knowledge of my Jewish background, and more importantly, has laid down the foundations for future learning. Not only have we learned about our history, but we have also learned a great deal about our spiritual background, all of which adds up to a strong idea of what it means to be Jewish. In addition, we have learned, as Jews and as moral human beings, what the true definition of morality is, and what defines doing the right thing. An important lesson of those teachings ties in with formulating opinions, because sometimes the lines between what is right and wrong are blurred or even invisible.
In historical background, most Jews can cite David, the Holocaust, and the creation of the State of Israel. All are significant events in Jewish history. However, I feel a great deal of pride that I can discuss much more of Jewish history, on topics ranging from A-Z-Ashkenazim to Zealots.
On the spiritual side, we have learned about all of the Jewish festivals and holidays, covering much more than just the basics, including the Mitzvot, customs, background, and idea behind each one. Because of this, I feel much more connected to the holidays. I know the reasons behind them, and so I feel like I am not merely celebrating the holiday, but instead am part of the holiday. In addition to holidays, we have studied Jewish texts extensively, and knowing the meaning of my religion’s holiest writings means a lot to me as a Jew. Almost every Jew that has become a Bar Mitzvah can read at least one portion from the Torah. We have been studying many since 5th grade. The small lesson about teaching a man to fish comes to mind. Teaching someone one portion of Torah is like giving them a fish. Fortunately for us, Rockwern has both given us a fish and taught us how to continue fishing for the rest of our lives.
In closing, I would like to thank everyone at Rockwern, not limited solely to my teachers of Judaic Studies and Hebrew, but extending to everyone that has taught me since I first came here. Because of every one of these people, I have been able to unlock my true identity as a person and as a Jew. I go forward knowing who I truly am, and I am confident in my ability to retain that knowledge and put it to my advantage in all stages of life.
Asher Weinstein, 14, wrote this address for his 8th grade graduation at Rockwern Academy, Cincinnati’s Jewish Day School. In addition to Judaic studies, Asher excels in secular studies, earning the school’s Academic Achievement Award. He is a huge Cincinnati Reds fan.
Rabbi Oshrat Morag adds: As a Rabbi and Jewish educator I had the privilege to work at Rockwern Academy Jewish Day School in Cincinnati, Ohio, and to teach Asher Weinstein for two years. The graduation speech he wrote is an inspiration to the importance of Jewish Education and a brilliant reminder to all Jewish Educators that the work we do is a holy work (avodat kodesh) and that sometimes, even if we don’t see the fruits immediately, we do plant the seeds. Don’t give up on Jewish education!