Jewfro: Commencement Address To The Rainbow Room



By Ben Falik

To my knowledge, Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park and its sister schools do not have commencement speakers upon whom they bestow honorary pre-kindergarten degrees.

But if they did, I’d like to think I would be on the short list, assuming Dora the Explorer or Mitch Albom were unavailable.

Were I to find myself on such an esteemed dais, here’s what I would say to the Rainbow Room, the Temple Emanu-El Preschool Class of 2016:


Good morning to the Olivias and everyone else.

Every morning, after I drop Phoebe off at school — sometimes too early, sometimes too late, sometimes with no lunch — I drive down to Southwest Detroit and get to work with two members of the Rainbow Room Class of 1998.

Almost 20 years ago, Alex Chmara and Rachel Klein sat right where you were sitting, possibly wearing scrunchies and plaid, both of which were quite popular at the time. Like you, their parents bragged about them on the phone and took lots of pictures, albeit on two different devices.

And like you, they had their community’s support and myriad opportunities to grow up safe and strong.

Alex and Rachel chose to spend this year as Repair the World Fellows and are going on to other forms of world repair. After graduating from college, Alex returned to elementary school, pouring his energy, compassion and creativity into a Project Healthy Community  after-school program at Schulze. He showed the kids in Northwest Detroit that they can do great things — and that we expect nothing less.

After studying in Israel, Rachel has worked in Mexicantown (north of Canada) to help the international refugees and asylum seekers living at Freedom House. She has coordinated speakers including Sen. Carl Levin on subjects including urban planning, all to help the residents develop a sense of place here.

Alex is heading to Wayne State to get his master’s in social work. Rachel will work as a community organizer with MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength), on campaigns to address social justice issues.

Rainbow Room teacher Adrienne Gersten with Phoebe and Ben

Alex and Rachel learned a thing or two about making the world a better place — just like you did — in the Rainbow Room. That mitzvot come in all shapes and sizes. That the oppression and liberation Jews experienced in ancient Egypt commands us to help liberate oppressed peoples everywhere. That you can have Shabbat on Friday mornings if it means songs, smiles and grape juice.

Unlike the people Alex and Rachel have worked with this year, you are not strangers in a strange land or students at a school that doesn’t have funding for art or music. All the more reason to dedicate yourselves to understanding other people’s problems and helping them develop the tools to solve them.

Of course, we have problems of our own. Phoebe, the first time I wrote about you, your mom was 39 weeks pregnant, it was very cold and the economy was a shambles. A lot has happened in the past five years, including you being born shortly thereafter and kicking our asses ever since.

Where we live, the houses have become more valuable, the community swimming pool is open, and we have many excellent Middle Eastern restaurants to choose from. Not too far away, people are losing their homes and wondering if the water is safe to drink. In the Middle East, families like ours are searching for safe places for their kids to grow up and their parents to grow old.

I don’t think you’re too young to understand how important you are to our community — and how important this community is to you. We’ve got a lot riding on you. Chances are, you’ll have to leave to realize that you are a product of here: the seasons, the accent, the pop.

You will always be from here — of here — and uniquely situated to make here better.

Mazel tov and wear sunscreen.

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