Happy New Year! The start of the new school year is always one of the most exciting times of year for me. Even after decades of attending and working in schools, I get just as excited about the first day of school as I did as a little kid.
As American Jews, we celebrate a lot of different days dedicated to a new year, each of which is special in its own way. There are secular observances, of course – January 1, for example, or the start of a new fiscal year. The traditional Jewish calendar actually has four new year’s observances. The First of Nisan is the first day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar. It is the new year for the ordering of the holidays, and, in ancient Israel, was the new year for counting the years of the reigns of the kings. As it falls near Passover, the First of Nisan is sometimes considered the anniversary of the founding of the Jewish people when they escaped from Egypt.
The First of Elul, the sixth month in the Hebrew calendar, comes up soon – it falls on September 1st this year. During the times of the Temple, this holiday, known as Rosh Hashanah LaBehemot, was important as the new year for the tithing of cattle. Today, this new year is largely unknown, but there have been some recent efforts to develop the holiday into a new year for animals. It’s not uncommon for Jews to layer new meaning onto important dates in the traditional calendar. Those leading this effort are focused specifically on raising awareness of the living conditions of domesticated animals, and, more broadly, want to celebrate the sacred in all life and explore our own role within creation.
The First of Tishrei, the seventh Hebrew month, is Rosh Hashanah. The Hebrew year advances on this new year, and it is celebrated as the anniversary of the creation of the world. Rosh Hashanah is the start of the Days of Awe, a period of serious introspection. This is the date that is widely considered to be “the Jewish New Year.”
Finally, the 15th of Shvat, the 11th month, or Tu B’Shvat, is the new year for trees. In ancient Israel, the holiday was used to determine the age of trees for the purposes of tithing. In the 16th century, the Kabbalists celebrated a “Feast of Fruits” on Tu B’Shvat, modeled on a Passover seder. Early Zionists celebrated their tree-planting efforts in Israel on Tu B’Shvat. Today, it is often a time to explore environmental stewardship and to raise awareness about the importance of care for the environment.
This year, PJA’s new school year begins on the 27th of Av (Aug. 28). If the four new year celebrations described above are considered to be the new years of the kings, the animals, the world, and the trees, respectively, then I would consider our new school year to be the new year of the children. It’s a time when we take stock in how much our students have grown - physically, intellectually, and emotionally - and a time when we connect and re-connect with one another. Old friendships are rekindled and strengthened, and the seeds of new relationships – with teachers and with peers – are sown. We experience a collective excitement that brings our community together in a powerful way that binds us together for the coming year.
The start of the new school year is also marked by important goal-setting. Our goals are diverse and wide ranging, from learning to read to presenting a drash, from designing a garden to completing a capstone project, and from serving food at a shelter to serving as a “buddy.” Regardless of the nature of the goal, at PJA, we accomplish our goals together. The start of the new school year is the beginning of an enormous, year-long, collective endeavor to take risks, make mistakes, serve our community, learn and grow, and to do it all with laughter and with love. Welcome back to school and to the new year of the children.