The Soft Underbelly of Jewish Educationby Rabbi Jacob Rupp January 2, 2018
What are the two things to focus on when educating oneself or someone else who is above the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah?
If these two pillars are done well, the student’s Judaism becomes a crucial part of his or her life, and if not, he or she continues to grow the numbers of Jews who are completely out of touch with their heritage.
Before discussing topics, it is crucial to understand the transmission methodology—i.e. how we are getting the message across. Imagine one of the massive ‘Stratotanker’ aircraft that refuel fighter jets on long missions. No matter how crucial the mission, without fuel, the fighter jet won’t get there. And no matter how much fuel the tanker has, without the right pipe, the right mechanism of transmission, the fuel is useless.
In the same way, we can just ‘spray Jet fuel’ at our students and hope it works. The messenger is crucial. At the core of every good teacher, there must be a genuine love/care for the student. Naturally, this is challenging. How can you love someone that bothers you? How can you love someone you are just meeting for the first time?
Over my career I’ve had to address this multiple times. For some, it could be as simple as focusing on the good the student has, or creatively overlooking the parts of their personality or their lifestyle choices that are problematic and connecting with their inner potential. While it hurts me when I hear my students curse, or I become aware of choices they make that I feel are below them, I rarely talk to them about it. I don’t want to be seen as an advisory; rather I’d like to be seen as someone that gets them, accepts them and loves them, and I will address the negative behavior in a general discussion so it is clear they know I disapprove, or when they bring it up to me.
So often we spend time putting up boundaries that if we want to get to our students, we need to love them and make them feel safe so the boundaries don’t come up. It doesn’t mean not having standards, or educating them as to how they should behave, but it has to be handled in a way where they don’t feel accused or judged.
Creating a feeling of love for strangers is not complicated from a Jewish perspective. Our tradition teaches that the Jewish people are one family, and each one of us, existing today despite all our historical challenges, is a miracle. The mystics teach that each soul that interacts with one another a) was specifically selected for the interaction and b) likely had bonded before. The Rebbe of Satmar famously mentioned post-Holocaust that many of the children that the survivors had post the war were the reincarnated souls of the parents that had perished.
With that in mind, as educators we look at our students at least as long lost relatives, and at most as ‘spiritual soul mates’ that in previous lives may have been our teachers, parents, students, or friends. This concept should be enough to create the necessary bonds of love and trust to make us properly able to give over effectively the lesson.
And what lesson is so crucial? For the post Bar Mitzvah crowd it is two pillars: a) the philosophic truth of Judaism and b) the relevance of Judaism.
Dr. Dovid Lieberman, a well-known best selling author and psychologist says the foundation and fundamental underpinning of mental health is being inline with truth. Judaism thrives on truth. Our religion doesn’t require a suspension of belief or avoiding questions. It is a history and a solid philosophical argument. Our students (and us) need to know that Judaism is true, not just because our parents say so, or because we’ve always done it, or because the Bible says so—look for empirical evidence, ask people who proclaim its true, in short, get involved. If it’s not true, why do it?
The second necessary pillar for Jewish education was from Rabbi Y.Y. Rubenstien, a prolific author and speaker who says the foundation of all of his work is to demonstrate and articulate how living a Jewish life fundamentally is more enjoyable and creates a better life; i.e. how its practice is relevant today.
In the same way that we don’t study old science, or use outdated technology, if we as teachers can’t create a relevant case for the fact that Judaism is relevant in 2017, why in the world would be expect our students (or ourselves) to want to do it? And dare I say it’s not just because Jews are a cool group or do cool things—because I don’t need to be Jewish to have an identity nor do I have to be Jewish to do good things in the world. We need to craft a message of exclusivity; what unique things about being Jewish make our lives better today? What is relevant about our religion.
These questions aren’t easy, mostly because they require work. But if you can answer these questions, you can’t hide; the world needs you because you have discovered the secret to empowering the next generation.