As a rabbi and teacher, I teach many different subjects with students from preschool toddlers to lifelong learning adults. Admittedly, I am concerned with what I know and what I need to learn to present a coherent and well-formed lesson. I focus on curriculum and on values clarification. I am committed to sharpening my skills and techniques, my presentations and my mode of communication. I convey joy and passion. Yet, according to our ultimate educator, Dr. Palmer, I have only just begun the teacher’s journey.
The public discourse about Jewish education reform has given birth to many innovative and often highly creative solutions to the Hebrew afternoon school of the twenty first century. We have been rewriting curriculum, revising textbooks, and restructuring the very foundation of synagogue learning.
However, the Jewish community of educators and administrators have paid little attention to the heart and soul of good teaching: the teacher!
A teacher needs the support of educational institutions who can provide the environment
for spiritual growth that teachers need to develop the self that teaches.
Teachers need mentors who are dedicated to that teacher’s soul and spiritual development. Teachers need partners in the dance of teaching who will not only lead but will guide the young dancer in the movement towards their authentic self.
We in the Jewish community have been focused on “performance” and how we look
in the classroom, rather than creating a living classroom of integrity where teacher and
student are connected to the truth of their Jewish identity, where the personal and the
public come together and a new role model is revealed.
Are we creating the kind of community that is centered on the capacity for connectedness
among the students and the teachers and their parents? Are we creating relationships
that are truthful and whole, caring and candid?
“All real living is meeting,” said Martin Buber, and teaching is an endless meeting of the self
in every classroom we enter.
Perhaps it is time we had the courage to create communities of learning with teachers who are themselves creating an inner landscape of hope, heart and wholeness.
Last year, just before Chanukah, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman came to me for some assistance. Her four-year-old daughter had come home from school and asked her to explain the meaning of Chanukah. Although the reporter had grown up in New York City and had many Jewish friends, she didn’t feel equipped to adequately answer the question. She also realized that if she felt this way, there certainly must be others with a similar lack of “Chanukah knowledge.” That’s where I came in; the reporter asked me to write a piece that would help well-meaning, culturally curious parents answer their children’s questions. Here’s what I wrote:
My 6-year-old daughter, Noa, was particularly thrilled by Chanukah last year. She became more excited each night, as the number of candles we lit increased. The last night was enthralling, as she set each candle in the menorah that stood next to the window in our living room.
Chanukah (meaning dedication) comes at the darkest point of the year, waking us from our apathy and reminding us to be in awe of all of the small and large wonders in our lives. In the darkest of days, we have the amazing capacity to bring light — to bring goodness and peace — to those we encounter.
We light a menorah in our window for eight nights, adding one candle each night so that by the final night we have all eight candles and the helper candle, used to light the others (called the shamash), sparkling through the glass. By lighting the candles in the window, we don’t merely retain our light — rather, we shine it out onto the world.
But why the eight nights and eight candles? The story of Chanukah is one to which we can all relate.
It is the story of the small and righteous winning out over the large oppressive forces in the world. In 165 B.C.E., after discrimination, forced assimilation and violence, a small group of Jewish fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, won religious freedom from the large Hellenistic Assyrian army, led by the King Antiochus.
The rabbis responsible for writing the Talmud centuries later, who were living in a time when a military solution to oppression was not feasible, were uncomfortable simply celebrating a military victory, and therefore emphasized a more spiritual dimension with the legend of the oil. We are told that after the war, when the Maccabees went to rededicate our temple, there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one night. Yet, amazingly, this small cruse of oil lasted for eight days, enough time for our people to acquire more oil. Similar to Judah Maccabee’s tiny army, the small amount of oil would not dissipate.
Today, we eat special fried foods that symbolize the miracle of the oil — specifically potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly doughnuts. We also play a game called dreidel. Each side of this unique top is engraved with a letter symbolizing the line “A great miracle happened there.”
Traditionally, teachers were paid during Chanukah in gelt (coins), and therefore it also has become customary for children (and adults!) to enjoy chocolate Chanukah gelt.
Whatever story we choose to tell our children — whether it is one of victory over oppression or of miraculous oil — the essential message is the same. Sometimes life is rough. Sometimes people are mean, hurting us and getting us down. Yet, in the end, goodness will win out.
We all have a powerful inner light — represented by the candles of the menorah. It is our job — even in the darkest of days — to remain dedicated to allowing our light to shine bright, illuminating our world and bringing us to a better tomorrow.
My husband spent Sunday afternoon at a NY Jets football game with his buddy, Dan. He told me about a scene two rows in front of them that left him shaking his head. A dad who was accompanied by two young sons watched the game intently while his younger son (maybe six years old or so) stood on his seat facing the stadium audience with his back to the field for three quarters of the game. While the stadium entertainment crew tried to whip up the crowd with cheers and chants, the child raised his arms to the crowd to be a combination cheerleader/conductor. He was having a great time.
My husband reported that the dad was both tolerant and amused by this activity. Yet, my husband wondered: why did the dad bother bringing the kid, when he wasn’t really engaged by the football game?
I viewed this differently. It didn’t matter that the child wasn’t watching football – his experience was fun. He will come away with a warm feeling of having spent a fun day with his dad, and memories of the stadium being a welcoming place to spend a Sunday afternoon.
So it goes in life. We each find our way through the experiences that are imposed on us as children through the pathways most appealing to our tastes and interests. We may not necessarily do or learn what is expected of us, but as long as we can have compelling experiences, we come away with warm and positive memories. On a certain level it doesn’t matter if we didn’t fit into the pre-assigned pegs, as long as we were comfortable and conversant enough in the experience to come back for more.
It seems to me that this reflects on our model of Jewish education. We are so content-driven; we can miss the value of memory and experience. For all kinds of good reasons, the typical Jewish school endeavors to “educate” our students with as much Jewish knowledge as we can cram into the short space of time we are given with our students.
But maybe that model of Jewish learning is backwards. What if, instead of assuming that enough Jewish knowledge will secure our children’s Jewish future, we focus on the quantity and quality of their Jewish experiences? And what if we conceived of those experiences not as “pegs” into which we must squeeze each learner to make them come out “right,” we observe them to see what adventures they can find in the experiences we enable for them.
So what if the child stands on the chair backwards and cheers with the crowd and doesn’t watch football? Perhaps he will settle down to watch the game when he is older, and he is happily at home in the stadium because of his early experiences. Perhaps he may not even come to love football like his dad, but he will carry forever the warm memory of being with his dad on those cold fall game days.
So what if a child’s favorite part of being in synagogue is the experience of being part of a community that is engaging and fun? As children grow older they can settle into their seats to learn the why’s and how’s of Jewish behaviors. Maybe they won’t grow up to want to be engaged in all the same ways as their parents, but they will be at home and comfortable and happy enough to want to learn more.
We’ve had this debate for years – how to do Jewish education in America. But all the studies support what this child at the football game demonstrated – experience matters. And the learner is central to the experience. Good Jewish camps provide this opportunity. So should our other vehicles for Jewish learning.
Last week I participated with RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) in their annual conference. We spent half a day on the Lower East Side of New York City doing a geo-locating game, using a new iPhone app that guides participants through a walking tour of the historical sites of the area, while enjoying the tastes and landscapes of the neighborhood. Visionary educator David Bryfman of the Jewish Education Project gave us a window into new possibilities outside the classroom setting. We spent a morning learning at Behrman House about the use of an online classroom to create fun, learner-driven experiences.
It’s the tip of the iceberg – we need so much more. But if the child who cheers with the crowd loves the stadium experience, and the child who dines on Gus’s pickles and Yonah Schimmel’s knishes tastes the history of Jewish immigration and leaves wanting more, we’ve done an awful lot. And that’s a good bit more than happens in most Jewish education classrooms.