The Junior Speech is a rite of passage at The Frederick Gunn School. Every student gives a speech in front of the entire school, and everyone, all 400 students and faculty, listens when a speaker bravely steps up to the podium in the Tisch Family Auditorium. When a Gunn student presents their Junior Speech, it is their chance to speak from the heart, to put their voice out there, and to stand up for what matters to them.
Juniors write and deliver their speech in The Declaration, the third course in the school’s four-year citizenship curriculum. The first two years of the program are designed to give students opportunities to reflect on their choices, their values, and their vision for their lives, and to develop some concrete goals. The third course in the progression equips students with the tools they need to be effective communicators, and culminates in their speech.
“As citizens in our country, it’s so easy for people to talk about and to say what they are against, but not necessarily what they are for. We want students to profess what they are for,” said Bart McMann, Director of the Center for Citizenship and Just Democracy. “We want them, through this reflective process, to look past the surface of their lives and go deeper.”
“This rite of passage is one of the most important things we do as a community and I appreciate the courage it takes and the diversity of experiences we all get to learn from,” said Head of School Peter Becker, who congratulated all of the juniors who have presented during the Fall Term.
One of them, Jacob Rothman ’23, spoke October 24 about the transformational change that occurred after he visited Israel in July as a member of the U18 Men’s Ice Hockey Team for the 21st Maccabiah Games, also known as the “Jewish Olympics.” Rothman was among 10,000 athletes from 80 countries who competed in the quadrennial event, which according to The Jerusalem Post, boasts 42 sporting events and tens of thousands of spectators. It is the third largest international multi-sport event in the world, following only the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, according to Maccabi USA.
This was Rothman’s third visit to Israel. He previously traveled there to celebrate his and his brother’s bar mitzvahs, but this trip sparked a deeper appreciation for his heritage and his faith. “It was the experience of the whole trip, not one singular event,” Rothman said this week, explaining, “I used to conceal the Jewish part of me, but as the trip went on, I noticed that all my other friends, they were talking about it, they were proud of it, and they were expressing it.”
Rothman said listening to his peers as they traveled around Israel made him realize: “This is not who I am, but this is who I want to be, and that's who I became, and who I wanted to become.”
Here’s how he described his experience in his Junior Speech:
Imagine you’re playing in one of the biggest events in your life. And you look around and you see 9,00 people all cheering and yelling for you. That’s how my trip to Israel started this summer. Nine thousand people from all over the world came and watched our opening hockey game in Jerusalem. It was us, Team USA vs. Team Canada. Now, everyone who was there was somehow Jewish, whether they were blood, adopted, or converted. The point is, I was surrounded by 9,000 people who were almost all just like me. And being surrounded by all these people and seeing them all cheer for me made me realize that being Jewish was something I should express and be proud of, not something that should be concealed.
Now, I love hockey, but I went to Israel for more than just to try and win a gold medal. Unfortunately we fell short and came home with silver, but that’s only half the story. We played hockey, yes, but we also toured around the whole country, from Tel Aviv to Haifa, to the capitol, Jerusalem. I made many new friends and met an infinite amount of people I will never forget. Going to Israel made me realize that I should not be ashamed of being Jewish.
Growing up, my friends sometimes would give me a hard time about being Jewish. As I was one of the only Jews in my friend group, I became self-conscious about it, and for a while, tried to hide it and conceal that side of me. But going to Israel, and seeing all these people, helped me realize that I should be proud of it, and that I should express it, and not conceal it. I spent the majority of each day with the boys on my hockey team. We became a very tightly knit group. As we traveled around Israel, we learned about the proud heritage and history of the Jewish people. As we visited the desert, walked down the street, and practiced in the rink, my teammates helped me realize what I was missing. And it really wasn’t what was missing, but what was lost. And what was lost was my pride.
One time we went to the Western Wall. When we got there, a man in a black top hat asked us if we wanted to put on tefillin. Tefillin are small, black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. Some of the boys and I said, “Yes.” Now I’ve only done this once, and it was only because I had to. But once we put it on, we went next to the wall, took a couple of pictures, and we each said a prayer. I’ve never said a prayer in front of any of my friends willingly. But this was different. This was the first time I realized I could express my Jewish self. This led me to do it multiple times in the future. They helped me realize that expressing the Jewish part of me was important.
I saw all my friends throughout the trip explore and strengthen their Jewish faith, and not just think of themselves as hockey players who played for Team USA. They really encouraged me to feel comfortable about expressing my Jewish heritage. We all have our struggles and our problems, but in the end, my friends from the team helped me find the piece of me that had been lost, and for that I will be forever grateful.
The best part about all of this is that I did it all on my own, and I didn’t have to rely on my elders or my parents. I was able to find those who could help me, and those whom I could help. Going to Israel was crucial for me because it helped me understand that I need to display any and all parts of my character. I went to Israel thinking I was primarily focused on hockey and winning a gold medal. I came out of it with a renewed appreciation for my heritage, and a desire to learn more about my faith, and how Judaism can help me become the best version of myself. This lesson I will never forget.