By Avi Baran Munro
Last week in Community Day School’s fifth-grade classrooms, an ancient Torah story intersected perfectly with the arc of American history and world events, prompting a deep and meaningful exploration that deserves a wider audience.
During the course of their regular study of the Hebrew Bible, CDS fifth-graders encountered the portion of Torah (chapter 20 in the Book of Numbers) where it is determined by God that Moses will not be allowed to enter the “Promised Land” when the Israelites finally reach it.
This past Thursday also marked the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and these same students analyzed Dr. King’s final speech before his assassination. In his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, MLK takes on the persona of Moses. He explains to those gathered in Memphis that he may not live long enough to see black Americans reach the “Promised Land,” but that he’s been brought to the mountaintop and shown what freedom and equality look like. It is an incredibly powerful and painful speech in which Dr. King eerily predicts his own death, which horrifically comes to pass the very next morning.
Our fifth-graders studied the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968 that precipitated this speech and examined the analogy in which Dr. King compared himself to Moses. They also discussed the potential this analogy has to teach us about the depth of Moses’ struggles, which we’re not able to witness today via YouTube videos or even grainy black-and-white prints.
These 10- and 11-year-olds are learning how to read and critically analyze our most sacred ancient texts. They also are studying modern American history and discovering how it shapes our reality today. And they are linking past and present, while trying to figure out what it means for their own futures.
By making connections between Moses and MLK, these young people will know and understand the true power of struggling to achieve our noblest, most elusive dream—liberty and justice for all.
They are why, on this somber day, in these most harrowing of times, I am still brimming with hope.
Why am I compelled to share this with you? Because all children are growing up in a time of swirling domestic and international conflict. The tropes of racism, prejudice, religious persecution, anti-Semitism, baseless hatred and fanatic dictatorship continue to threaten universal rights and freedoms.
Our children, and we, as adults, struggle to make sense of current events, from Ferguson to Paris, from Syria to Nigeria, and even here, at home, with issues of access and equity for all Pittsburghers.
Universal rights and freedoms hang in precarious balance with each generation. Moses taught them to us. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for them, for us.
Young people today must learn them, teach them and fight for them in the names of Moses, Martin and humanity.
In humanity’s journey from Sinai to Selma and to the events of today, our communities and our schools must ensure that students are given the gift of a rich and critical cultural literacy. Without context, education is irrelevant. Without relevance, education is meaningless. Without meaning, education wastes our children’s precious time.
Our unique education at Community Day School allows us to bring together Moses, Dr. King and curious children in a timeless conversation.
I am full of hope in these dark times because of the passionate educators I see at Community Day School every day and because of the engaged children they inspire.
Avi Baran Munro is the Head Of School at Community Day School in Squirrel Hill.