Rabbi Dr. Noam Weinberg, in an article posted on JewishIdeas.org, speaks of the need for today’s Jewish educators to be able to relate to their students. While some in the education community argue that it’s best for these teachers to model a lifestyle free from the impure influences of modern, secular society, Rabbi Weinberg disagrees. He suggests that, in the spirit of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and the Ba’al Shem Tov, in order to rescue those students who have “fallen down in the mud,” today’s teachers must get a bit dirty themselves.
Rabbi Weinberg recalls an anecdote from his youth when his 3rd grade rebbe shared a video game with his class. The game was “Torah Frogger,” and it came out at about the same time as Atari’s version of the game that many of us spent hours mastering in our living rooms or in friends’ basements. That was one example of how a teacher connected with his students without being exactly like his students.
I was privy to another example that illustrates this further. A student club at Yeshiva University hosted a Shabbaton in the fall at which I was a guest, along with Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Carmy, a respected authority on Jewish theology, history, and philosophy who is, by all counts, pretty frum. We sat on a panel together Friday evening and discussed matters pertaining to education. In response to one question, Rabbi Carmy turned to the audience and asked them, “Are you familiar with the movie Clueless?”
My jaw dropped as did many others in the room. For those who don’t know, Clueless is a movie from the mid-1990’s starring Alicia Silverstone. According to IMDB, it’s a “West Coast teen lifestyle parody centered around Cher, a popular high school girl who spends her days playing matchmaker, helping her friends with fashion choices, and looking for a boyfriend.” I could not imagine any reason why Rabbi Carmy would have seen the movie. After a pregnant pause, Rabbi Carmy inspired laughter when he said, “I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard that it’s based on Emma by Jane Austen, a book you might have heard of that I have read.” In other words, Rabbi Carmy had never seen the movie and had no plans to see it. However, he knew that people in his audience probably had seen it or were familiar with it, perhaps more familiar than they were with the classic novel on which it was based. Rabbi Carmy had made it his business to learn about what his students knew and cared about. He didn’t sink down into the mud, so to speak, but he did study the mud from afar and connect it to something far less muddy in his own experience.
The lesson here is nuanced. It is commonly agreed that it is important to know what your students (or campers, or NCSYers, etc.) are watching, reading, playing, and talking about. However, one can and should be careful about how much he invests in understanding these things intimately. Is it enough to know that there’s such a show as Glee and to be familiar with the broad strokes of its story line (which one could find on Wikipedia), or should one watch an episode to “really understand” what kids love about it? Ultimately, the answer must be a personal one and should be guided by a fidelity to halacha and one’s own hashkafa (and, where appropriate, rabbinic guidance). But it’s important to ask the question of yourself frequently.
The two examples cited above illustrate what I believe is a profound truth about how kids relate to their teachers and other role models. I think kids relate best to teachers who represent what they could see themselves becoming when they are grown, not teachers who are on their level today.
Rabbi Maccabee Avishur is the Associate Director for Teaching and Learning at Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership. He can be reached at avishur_yu.edu.
By Rabbi Maccabee Avishur