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Community Seder celebrates education and all it brings

Read this story in The Jewish Herald-Voice

Just a few weeks ago, then 17-year-old Nashvillian Sam Perlen was elected international president of BBYO, a 90-year-old youth organization with 43,000 members in 25 different countries. He is deferring college for a year to work with young people in places like Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, New Zealand and Turkey.

It won't be easy. Leadership at the international level involves vision, strategic thinking, diplomacy and the ability to recognize strengths and passions. Where does a 17-year-old get skills like this?

From his family. From his community. From his teachers.

When Sam's parents were congratulated by the head of the school he once attended, they said, "It's just as much Akiva (School) as it is us. We've always allowed our community to make Sam who he is. This is everyone's success."

Allowing Sam's community to shape his future has been his and our success. But does that work for others? That depends on our schools and our teachers.

Our nation's schools are a microcosm of our culture, bearing all that is wrong with us and all that is right: poverty and homelessness, bullying and violence, failure and shame. But also hope. Our educators welcome the immigrant, the stranger, the child who is different and the child who struggles. Through them, our children develop their talents, discover their passions and learn to work.

Amid heated discussions about charter schools, vouchers, Common Core standards, test results, textbook commissions, even the value of cursive writing, we lose sight of what is most important: Education is a conduit to justice.

Education is also a means of survival. At sundown on April 14, the Jewish people began celebrating the festival of Passover. The Passover Seder is the world's oldest continuously observed religious ritual. At Sedertables around the world, families retold and re-enacted a story of slavery and freedom. At the center of the ritual is a powerful idea: Teach your children. Teach all your children. Because all our children are needed.

In the words of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, "it may be hard to escape from tyranny, but it is harder still to build and sustain a free society. … To defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilization, you need education."

Because the Seder is such a powerful teaching tool, the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee annually hosts a community model Seder to call attention to a critical justice issue. This year on Wednesday, the federation is hosting a community Seder that focuses on justice in education.

Jesse Register, director of Metro Nashville Public Schools, is the honorary chairman. We will also be honoring Paul Bass and Ping Shen Whittaker, Martin Luther King Academic Magnet School; Camilla Benbow and Elise McMillan, Vanderbilt University; Jenn Garcia, Oasis Center; Melba Marcrum, McNeilly Children's Centers; and Alina Gerlovin Spaulding, Akiva School. Together, they represent the foundations of education: beginnings, courage, determination, peace and the future.

Freedom begins with what we teach our children.

Mary Shelton and Frances Pursell are co-chairs of the Social Action Seder and are members of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee.

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