Free Speech and Religion

The Splendor in Waiting

June 2, 2020  • Lindsay Bressman

“Waiting is not easy,” Gerald bemoans to Piggy in Mo Willems’ delightful children’s book of the same name. Piggy tells Gerald she has something very exciting to show him, but Gerald must be patient and wait all day. Gerald isn’t happy about this and grows exasperated. But with Piggy’s support, Gerald waits until nighttime. As the splendor of the stars falls upon him, we feel Gerald’s sense of awe.  “This was worth the wait,” he acknowledges. 

We are all doing a lot of waiting, and it is not easy. Rather, it is frustrating, heartbreaking, terrifying, and exasperating. We are waiting to spend time with friends and family; for news about schools, offices, travel, places of worship; for clear rules.

What public spaces are allowable? 

What do we need to wear? 

What behaviors are recommended? 

Without direction, we feel lost and confused.

For many Americans, religion offers a roadmap to purpose in remarkable ways—text study, prayer, service, and community—as well as insight into waiting. Comparable to Ramadan and Lent, Jews find meaning in waiting through Sefirat Omer, which translates as “Counting the Ancient Units.” For 49 days, Jews around the world engage in a cycle of daily counting in anticipation of Shavuot, a joyous holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah, with its bold laws, codes, and wisdom. 

Waiting can be frustrating, heartbreaking, terrifying, and exasperating.

Shavuot, which concluded on May 30, allows Jews to practice engaged patience and demarcate a period of anticipation. Having left slavery with the promise of freedom, the Israelites spent 40 years roaming. They waited for structure and a system to grasp. 

Mentioned in an enchanting melody of the Shabbat service, grasping is viewed as a gift. Each week, Jews return the Torah to its ark and sing: Eitz chayim hi lamachazikim ba, Vetomecheha me-ushar.It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and those who uphold it are happy.” The word “lamachazikim” translates as the verb “to grasp, cling to, or holdfast.” At the center of this word is the root “chazak”–which translates in Hebrew as strong. For the Jewish people, grasping Torah when everything feels bewildering is a demonstration of strength. Clinging to its teachings and framework is a way to feel brave in the face of challenge.

Right now, students are eager to make sense of this long pause in their life story. Furthermore, they are longing for a role in the collective journey that America is experiencing, even before social distancing began. We see this every day through the work of Civic Spirit, as we partner with faith-based schools in creating a meaningful place for realistic and impactful civic education to thrive. 

Just as faith communities use religious texts and rituals to affirm relevance, so too can we draw on American texts and rituals and the tools of our dynamic democracy to dignify uncertainty. 

Last month, 100 high school students from Jewish and Catholic day schools representing the demographic landscape of New York and New Jersey participated in a Zoom-based virtual civic learning program. Through three sessions, the students engaged in activities designed to anchor their presence and unearth their agency in the civic arena. 

Civic education is a complex field of study that seeks to prepare students for inheriting self-governance. It is a beautiful composite of multiple disciplines: American studies, history, government, debate, philosophy, literature, and the arts. Prioritizing civic learning in our schools, religious communities, and social clubs not only can help students understand the content of democracy—founding documents, key dates—but also it is an avenue through which they can learn the reasons why voting is an opportunity and how their participation in the public square is desperately needed. In this sphere, students are not just waiting. They are waiting to serve in urgent roles. In the service of civic life, sheltering in place is their assignment.

Educators have an opportunity to transform the state of vulnerability that the COVID era has presented. There is an opening to play in lovingly creating space for students to gaze upon the unknown with awe and grasp the notion that they matter. 

Lindsay Bressman is the director of Civic Spirit which partners with diverse faith-based schools and communities in designing transformative civic learning opportunities for inside and beyond the classroom. 

The views and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

Free Speech and Religion
Everyone Belongs in This New American Story
May 28, 2020 • Samia Khan