Head of School Charley Stillwell speaks about the new year as a journey that, much like travel, can lead to self-discovery and fulfillment.
Watch his talk at Monday's opening Vespers service on this LocalLive video
(beginning at 21:15), or read the transcript below. Also: read
about the field research and study that took EHS students to four continents this summer.
Good evening and welcome back. It is so exciting to see you all together in this space. It never feels the same on the campus when you are gone, and I am thrilled that it is time for us all to be together again.
I want to send a special welcome to our new students and faculty joining us this year. We all look forward to getting to know you better, and I know that all our returning students and faculty are ready to help you transition to the community in any way that we can.
As I have been thinking about your trip to Episcopal for this year and my hopes for the year ahead, I came across an interesting comment from a celebrity chef who died not long ago, Anthony Bourdain. I love cooking and travel, and Anthony Bourdain had a fascinating show where he traveled to different cities around the world. When asked about why he enjoyed travel, Bourdain once said, “It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn.”
Bourdain’s comments hit home for me in particular during a trip that Mrs. Stillwell and I took towards the end of the summer. Twelve years ago, Mrs. Stillwell and I hosted a junior exchange student from Germany for the school year, and Dominik quickly became our “German son.” We have stayed close with Dominik over the years, and we had a chance in August to travel to Berlin for his wedding.
On the way, Mrs. Stillwell and I added a stop in another fascinating European city, Budapest, and there were several moments during our week away when I was reminded how exciting and important the learning can be that comes through travel. In particular, I find travel to be an intriguing opportunity to learn about people — to see situations where people are sometimes at their best or at their worst, to understand how people in different places approach difficult issues in very different ways, and to consider where our common bonds may lie no matter where in the world you may be.
I had no idea, however, that the timing of our visit to Budapest would offer us just this kind of a learning opportunity. When we arrived in early August, Budapest was hosting the 2019 Maccabiah Games, a 10-day, Olympic-style athletic gathering bringing together 3,000 participants from 42 countries, all of whom share the Jewish faith. These gatherings were first organized in the 1930s to be held every four years, and this was the 15th European Maccabiah Games.
It was so fun to see the excitement and enthusiasm that Budapest had for hosting this event for the first time. The games were promoted and celebrated on billboard signs throughout the city. There was a huge opening ceremony and gatherings throughout the city with special religious services at the Dohány Street Synagogue, the second-largest synagogue in Europe, and all the synagogues in town. Participants were wearing their Maccabiah Games gear. One race weaved through the streets in the heart of the city and went right past our hotel.
The government had invested millions of dollars in supporting the games, and the support that the city gave to the event and the enthusiasm and sportsmanship among all the athletes from all parts of the world very much reflected for me one of these moment of seeing humanity at its very best. People with intriguing differences, eager to compete and win for their country, yet who also looked for their common bonds and celebrated the gifts of others. And also people from the host city building wonderful new friendships with all those visiting from far away.
What made these feelings about Maccabiah Games so powerful for me, however, was the fact that we were also encountering the horrible realities of a very different moment in time in Budapest’s past as well. As we were walking one day along the beautiful Danube River between our hotel and the National Parliament building, we came upon an incredibly powerful and unique memorial. On the edge of the river at the top of the flood wall next to the walkway, there was a series of empty bronze shoes. The shoes were somewhat in disarray. They were in all shapes and sizes. There were men’s shoes and women’s shoes and shoes for young children. What we learned about the shoes was a sickening reminder of humanity at its very worst. This memorial was developed to capture the horror of the Holocaust especially at the end of World War II in Budapest.
In the last months of World War II, the brutality of the Holocaust took an even more horrible turn in Budapest. As the Russian army began to win victories over the Germans and advance through Eastern Europe in 1944, Hitler became worried about Hungary’s willingness to stay in the war as one of his allies. He invaded directly and put the Hungarian fascist Arrow Party completely in control, with German troops in support. In the final six months of the war, this new Hungarian leadership called for the extermination of 400,000 Hungarian Jews. The only way to accomplish this mass killing was literally to line people up on the banks of the Danube and shoot them.
The bronze shoes in this powerful memorial told the chilling story of this horrific treatment. The shoes lined the shore where these mass killings took place — right in the middle of downtown Budapest. The design of the memorial had a powerful connection for me with a saying that has been attributed to a Cherokee proverb: “You can’t really understand another person until you walk a mile in their shoes.”
To encounter the emotion of this memorial in this city that had also found a way with the Maccabiah games to celebrate our common humanity and the dignity of one’s faith was incredibly moving. This journey left me wrestling with important and difficult questions — how is it that we have let hate like this exist in the world? We see it still in many forms around the world today and have encountered two terrible, hate-induced shootings in our country this summer in El Paso, Tex., and Dayton, Ohio. But also, how can we move towards a world where we find ways to come together and to learn from each other as the Maccabiah participants and their Hungarian hosts were doing? I realized that Anthony Bourdain was right in saying that we still have so much to learn, and that encountering other people and other places is key to this learning.
And as we all now begin this year together, I hope you will see this moment as a journey for you, as a chance to engage with new people and new places and to wrestle with challenging questions. Even for those of you who are returning for a second, third, or fourth year here, this is a new trip of sorts, a chance to be guided by your curiosity, to expand your friendships, to walk in others’ shoes, to encounter new ideas, and to learn who you want to be and how you want to make your mark. And I think it is important for all of us to remember that trips and journeys are not always easy and smooth sailing. Flights get canceled. Traffic jams occur. People react to stress or disappointment in unfortunate ways. There will be moments when we will be at our best, and there will also be moments when we make mistakes or do things that can be hurtful. What I hope is that, like the city of Budapest, we continue to push beyond our mistakes and hurtful moments and find ways to build true community.
English writer Hilaire Beloc once wrote, “We wander for distraction. We travel for fulfillment.” I hope your trip through this school year will be wonderful and fulfilling. It is exciting to have you all back on campus, and I look forward to watching your progress as a fellow traveler.