August 17, 2019

Bruce Powell’s Words of Wisdom

Over my 48 years in Jewish education, I have written 31 graduation talks, and have heard perhaps another 50 commencement addresses for graduations of my children, my wife, myself and a vast number of family members and friends. For its annual Outstanding Graduates issue, the Jewish Journal asked me to sum up “all the wisdom” I recall in these commencement speeches. So, in no particular order, here are some random recollections:

Knowledge without Jewish values is dangerous; values without knowledge are weak and feeble; yet, the combination of the two defines a truly great education.

American education is too much about measuring and not enough about meaning (Shlomo Bardin).

Judaism is not so much about a leap of faith as it is about a leap of action (A.J. Heschel). Therefore, dear graduates, talk less and do more.

Will you be honest in business? Will you make a set time to study? Will you raise up community? Will you have hope? Will you act with wisdom? Will you understand a big thing from a small thing? (Talmud: Masechet Shabbat 31a). These are the six questions God will ask of us when we pass from this world. Be sure your answers are YES. 

Some of our graduates have excelled in Advancement Placement math, or AP sciences, or AP languages, or AP history; yet, all have aimed for an A+ in Advanced Placement kindness. Be an A+ human being and allow that mindset to inform your work in the world.

We have far too many text books and not enough text people (Heschel). Dear graduates, live our texts, be our texts, and transform the world with both word and deed.

The Latin root of both “religion” and “obligation” is “LIG,” or connection. To connect to Jewish peoplehood, to the State of Israel, to Jewish culture, to the Hebrew language, to Jewish arts, to the Jewish moral vision for our world, is to be a “reLIGious” Jew; to create justice in the world is our sacred obLIGation. It is the ultimate task of each of our graduates.

Will you be honest in business? Will you make a set time to study? Will you raise up community? Will you have hope? Will you act with wisdom? Will you understand a big thing from a small thing?

Leadership is not always from the mighty orator, the great language artist, or certainly not the demagogue. Indeed, real leadership may simply be the “still small voice” that when whispered in the often empty moral spaces of our world becomes a deafening roar for goodness, for godliness, for action and for hope.

Our sages teach us that the world rests on doing justly, walking humbly with God, on Torah, on service, and on acts of loving kindness, to name a few. However, the reality is, our community rests on “doing lunch.” Yep, it’s over lunch where the money is raised to maintain our community; it’s over lunch where relationships are forged; it’s over lunch where, one day, you might tell your parents whom you are marrying, or what great contribution you are making to our world. So, dear graduates, be sure to have enough money on your Venmo app to cover lunch, especially for your parents.

Our Torah teaches that every human is created in the “image of God.” This simple precept is the basis for peace in the world. Imagine a world where that “image” translates to nations treating nations with dignity; where citizens treat citizens with dignity; where the indignity of slur, of innuendo, and of curse are erased from the lexicon of our community. Be the image of God, every day. Be the lexicon of godliness.

I once asked a dear colleague, a Talmud scholar and rabbi, the purpose of all of our Torah learning. He stroked his beard, thought for a moment, and said, simply, “Edelkeit” (refinement of the soul). So, dear graduates, like wheat, refine your souls so that one day they may be shaped into a wonderful braided challah of Jewish values, of love, of good works, and of contributions to our great American society.

On a personal note, “Thank you” to the Los Angeles Jewish community that has supported my life in Jewish education, and has made it a journey of refinement, of obligation and, hopefully, of good works.

And remember to be brief.   

Bruce Powell is the founding head of school at de Toledo High School. He is retiring at the end of June to consult with Jewish schools throughout North America, and to carpool his grandkids to their Jewish day schools.