Most would agree that while Pesach may be one of the most enjoyable Jewish holidays, it is also one of the most difficult. Getting ready for Pesach is no easy task. From the cleaning to the food preparations, the two weeks before Pesach can bring a frown to even the most dedicated Jewish homes. In our home, after 16+ years of celebrating Pesach, my wife and I have pretty well set pre-Pesach routines. She has her jobs, and I have mine. One of the jobs on my list is to go through the boxes of old papers and belongings to see if there are items which we no longer need. Somehow, despite the fact that I go through this routine almost every year, I always find new surprises. For some, this process may seem annoying and difficult. I however, actually find the task to be a great way to reflect on the past and to remember events that helped shape our lives. That is after all a central part of the Pesach holiday. This year’s sorting experience was no exception.
When we made Aliyah 11 years ago, we moved from a large six-bedroom house to a much smaller apartment in Israel. Less space made it necessary to put some of our lesser used items in boxes to be stored in our machsan/storage room. While we have tried to review the contents of these boxes from time to time, this year’s check reintroduced me to materials from more than 20 years ago, when I was still in high school. When I opened this particular bag, I found old awards and school newspapers from my junior year at the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore, Maryland. In many ways, the discovery of these items made me feel like I was traveling back through time. I instantly began to think about those years in the mid-’90s and where I was when I originally came into contact with these relics from the past.
My high school experience was one of the most important and enjoyable experiences of my entire life. In those days, BT was a small school where everyone really did know your name. Many of my friends from those days are still friends today, and the bonds I built with some of my teachers and principals helped shape the person I became. Keep in mind that I was, what any educator would refer to as an awful student. Ability was not really my problem, but it was usually my laziness and general apathy for learning that held me back. Well, somehow I managed to graduate and I eventually decided to pursue a career in education. It has often been said that the worst students make the best teachers. I am not sure if that is actually true, but looking back, I think there probobly is some validity to that idea. Despite my academic “challenges” BT always made sure that my accomplishments and interests were recognized and appreciated. This is part of what continues to make Beth Tfiloh such a special place. So, while my friends and classmates were being recognized for their academic achievements and high SAT scores, I found my place in other areas, including becoming the school photographer and being involved with various Jewish life initiatives. While as a teacher today, I would never minimize the importance of a strong academic program, I can also appreciate the role that the non-classroom based activities play in education. The fact that I went to a school that shared this vision ensured that I would find success, both educationally as well as in all other areas of my life.
Fast forward 24+ years to cleaning for Pesach in my home in Modi’in, Israel. I stumbled across a big Caldor bag (remember Caldor) with all sorts of random items. Besides finding my tax returns from 1997-2002, I found the bag that really made me think back. I found the award certificates that I received back in 1995 as well as copies of the school newspaper for which I served as the photography editor. While for some, these items could represent wasted storage space or even just trash, there was a clear reason why I saved these mementos. When I received these certificates back in 1995, I and everyone else knew that they were not the “big” prizes of the awards ceremony. Yet, the fact that I was singled out for my roles in the school, gave me the confidence and growth potential that I may not have received otherwise. Today, I can be honest and say that my work was not usually hanging on the fridge at home. That spaced was reserved for the work of my much more studious sisters, who thank goodness raised the family GPA to acceptable levels. For a few days though, when these awards were visible, my accomplishments were recognized and I felt proud. This was what made my high school experience most unique.
One of the main ideas of the holiday of Pesach is to look back on our past so that we can learn from both our accomplishments and our shortcomings. The Hagaddah is full of stories and lessons of events that happened long ago, but are still important in our lives today. It would be easy to dismiss these events as “old” or “uninteresting,” but our job during the seder and during the entire holiday is to learn from our past. As Jews, the past has not always been easy or kind for us. Yet, the lessons we have learned have been invaluable and have in fact shaped who we are as a people.
The old box of papers could easily be dismissed as unimportant or irrelevant, but for me, they represent an important part of my past, with many valuable lessons to be learned. As an educator today, I hope that my students can also look back on how their experiences in school had a positive influence on their lives. May we all use this time before Pesach to not only prepare, but to reflect on how our experiences have made us each who we are.