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Shavuot Learning from Annie Winick

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The festival of Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and encourages people to be inspired by the wisdom Jewish tradition has to offer. One fun tradition is to learn with friends! We are excited to share our own Shavuot learning experience featuring interpretations of Torah written by students at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School (RZJHS).

Check out Annie Winick's D'var Torah to learn how RZJHS teaches the values of nivra b'tzelem elohim and chesed, which builds community and helps students come together to support one another during difficult times. 

When one of us hurts, we all hurt, and when one is celebrating, we celebrate together.

When I was in eighth grade, I started to experience an interconnected and caring community through my sisters, who were students at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School. We learned that my sister's best friend's mom had become sick. Her cancer, which had been in remission, came back, and we all came together to help the family. Abby's mom, Andrea, planted a garden every spring, but when her illness came back, she struggled to keep the garden. Good friends took on the responsibility of planting and then tending the garden for her during this difficult time.

Knowing how important the garden was to her, our community donated plants to the garden. We, as a community, would help the family travel to and from hospitals, come together in prayer, invite them to our houses for Shabbat and high holidays, and organize meal trains, so they had home-cooked meals that Andrea was no longer able to prepare. We, as a community, prioritized doing all we could to make the rest of her life enjoyable and relaxing.

After she tragically passed away, RZ provided a bus to the funeral, and everyone came together to grieve. The garden remains in their backyard and blooms again every spring.

Before I started at RZ, I observed the tight-knit community as more of an outsider, but I didn't think much of it and had yet to experience it fully. In my eighth-grade year and my years as a 9th and 10th grader, I assumed that everyone has communities that surround and support them in times of need.

Now I realize that our supportive and nurturing community extends from our Jewish roots.

Through our discussions in my junior Talmud class, I have begun to recognize what a unique environment RZ creates for everyone, based on the foundation the Talmud provides. The capacity to grow, love, learn and help. Nivra B'Tzelem Elohim and Chesed are key foundations for a Jewish life. Nivra B'Tzelem Elohim translates to "we are all made in the image of God" and therefore have infinite value. This concept presents itself in Genesis, from the story of creation, which shows how important it is in Jewish life. Nivra B'Tzelem Elohim describes how we should treat everyone with respect since we are all connected to God. The value of this concept is shown in the Mishna as it describes when one life is destroyed, all lineage of that person will be erased. Sanhedrin 4:5 goes so far as to say that, "anyone who sustains one soul, the verse ascribes him credit as if he sustained an entire world" (Sanhedrin 4:5). Nivra B'Tzelem Elohim also explains how we are all interconnected, as we all contain a likeness of God within us. As Abby's mom became ill, she was suffering; but it impacted the whole family. When our community supported her, we supported the whole family. When we recognize the value of someone and then see them struggling, our immediate response should be to help and restore their sense of value through acts of chesed. Rabbi Shai Held articulates, "We are asked to become like God by being creatures of chesed, of love manifested as kindness. Even more profoundly, we are asked to transform our suffering into love — to love the stranger, because, after all, we 'know the feelings of the stranger.'" (Rabbi Shai Held, "Daring to Dream"). Once we understand that every human being is infinitely valuable, it compels us to treat others with chesed. We are compassionate and filled with the capacity to love and help. When we recognize each other's struggles, we feel obligated to support one another.

I have come to understand why the environment and community at our school is so special and isn't an accident, as we recognize that we are all made in the image of God and thus understand the worth of every person. Through these insights, Jewish people grow from a young age, embedded with this reason. The core of our key Jewish concepts – the idea that every person is worthy and valued — remains the structure that our community is built around.

Our beliefs drive our actions. Understanding this foundation continues to impact my perspective of our school community. At RZ, students constantly discuss our school's connection with everyone's family and how we all come together in times of need. My realization in my Talmud class is that our community's care should not be expected and is not normal but continues because of our shared values of Nivra B'Tzelem Elohim and chesed. 

Going through these tough times with a community connects us. The community's help did not stop after providing a meal for the family or attending shiva; rather, this support created lasting connections. These relationships now look like having coffee with members of the family, calling them on the phone, or having them at our high holiday meals. Our Jewish values compel us to reach out and support one another during hard times, which creates this meaningful and irreplaceable bond.

Recently, we have seen this connection on a global scale. Through the acts of violence perpetrated upon the people of Ukraine, JUF works to help and deliver aid halfway across the world. Our community cares for strangers as well, as emergency efforts are being deployed to assist the Ukrainian community. Even though we don't know the Ukrainians halfway across the world, we can see them suffering and thus feel the duty to assist them, no matter how far removed they may seem.

Realizing how our shared values affect our community shifted my perspective this year. I now see these core values everywhere at our school. Friends here do not hesitate to ask for support because we all know that we are all infinitely valuable. I help my peers understand physics concepts because I recognize that they have infinite value. My teachers devote their entire lunch period to help ensure that I thrive in class because they recognize mine, and every student's, infinite value. Although many of us may think this type of community is "normal" because it is what we are used to, it is important to remember how special our environment at RZ is and the foundation for it. I will continue to use the ideas of Nivra B'Tzelem Elohim and Chesed in my Jewish life to help guide me in treating other people and creating a strong community.

Annie Winick

About the Author: Annie Winick is a rising senior at RZJHS in Deerfield. She belongs to North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park. Annie is active in her Jewish community. For two years, she served as a member of RZJHS’s social justice club, DEAP, which stands for Direct Service, Education, Advocacy, and Philanthropy. She will serve as president next year. Annie loves food, exemplified by her presidency of Holla for Challah, a school club that facilitates challah baking for the whole school before Shabbat on Fridays. She also loves to play tennis and is looking forward to being RZ girl’s tennis team captain next year. She likes to hang out with friends and walk her dogs, Scout, and Jem, in her free time.

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