Mr. Rogers has had a revival. Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the children’s television series “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” which ran from 1968 to 2001 on public television, is known to be appreciated for his keen understanding of children and his belief in the importance of kindness. This past summer, a documentary titled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” was released and has audiences, especially Gen Xers, in tears for much of its 94 minutes, not simply out of nostalgia for the man in the zip-up sweater, but out of a newly-found appreciation for Mr. Roger’s sensitivity in guiding children through the ups and downs of life. That somehow, love, acceptance and compassion is really all we need, especially in today’s tumultuous world.
When Mr. Rogers says in his deliberate and gentle way, “Everyone longs to be loved. And the greatest thing we can do is let people know that they are loved and capable of loving,” it is not difficult to think about our relationships with loved ones, particularly children, and recognize the truth in his words. “Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it,” is one of Mr. Roger’s most famous quotes.
My son is privileged to have a rebbe who lives this philosophy, one which is, of course, rooted in our Torah. Love is at the core of our belief system as Jews, with v’ahavta l’reiecha k’mocha and ahavas yisroel, amongst others, as fundamental tenets. But from the perspective of a parent, I see a teacher loving my child as a very lofty ideal. I don’t really expect my children’s teachers to love them. I hope they like them. I hope they appreciate their abilities and enable them to grow. But only the greatest of teachers would have the ability to connect to my child on such a level to love them.
It seems, however, that love is an essential requirement of true connection. And love means loving the person that you see in front of you now. “I don’t think anyone can grow unless he’s loved exactly as he is now, appreciated for what he is rather than what he will be,” Mr. Rogers believed.
My son’s rebbe loves my kid for who he is – for his personality, his strengths, his challenges, his humanness. He loves my son exactly as he is now, appreciates him for what he is but also has a vision of who he can become. The rebbe’s greatness is knowing, sensitively and wisely, how to empower my child to take small steps to live up to that. It’s acceptance with a shared vision for an expansive future.
No one wants to be made to feel that they aren’t enough. No one wants to feel that they are a project, that they are on someone’s agenda to be changed, molded or improved. True growth can only come from within, on one’s own prerogative. So being loved and appreciated b’asher hu sham, for where one is at, is really the only place to start.
This understanding is particularly important for those in involved in kiruv. I spoke to Eve Levy, the women’s programming coordinator of the Portland Kollel. She told me about her personal transformation in how she viewed her “not yet frum” students. She used to approach her students with the thought foremost on her mind that she had what to give them. She had the knowledge, she had the understanding, she had the experience – and they didn’t. It was very much teacher-centered.
As she developed friendships with these women, her mindset completely shifted. She realized the worlds of greatness within each woman. She realized how she could learn so much from each of them.
No longer was it so clear who was the teacher and who was the student. Her love grew for each woman, as did the connection between them. “Now I try to meet women where they’re at and develop real relationships,” Eve explains. “I really try to see each woman: who is she and what is the special light that she can bring into the world?”
In such an environment of mutual respect, acceptance and love, the groundwork for further growth was laid. “The women that I have really let into my life have indeed taken on much more in mitzvah observance than the others. It’s the women who have become my dear friends, the ones that can come over anytime, even erev Shabbos in the middle of complete chaos. They see real frum life, the good parts and the more challenging ones.”
Rivka Malka Perlman is a transformation coach in Baltimore who has done extensive coaching work with women of all ages and backgrounds. “There’s nothing you can teach a person that they can’t find in some book,” she explains. “Love is the only key that opens the doors to real and lasting change.”
Her understanding of people has helped her get to the essence of what it means to do outreach. “‘I love you’ is the bottom line message that opens hearts and ears and minds,” Rivka Malka says. “The tzaddik is one who sees the greatness in each person. This is kiruv. It’s not what we teach that has an impact. It’s the lens with which we see people that opens up their hearts and minds.”
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey and director of Agudath Israel’s Project Y.E.S., has become a go-to name for parents who are dealing with children who have not followed the path of their upbringing. At the root of his philosophy is love and acceptance. In a video presentation for parents entitled “Be Happy with Us – Yom Tov and Your Non-Observant Child,” Rabbi Horowitz shares a personal insight about the Yom Kippur davening. We ask Hashem to be happy with us at the same time we are asking Him to have pity on us and forgive our sins. “Every child deserves to have a parent who is happy with them, no matter what they’ve done,” Rabbi Horowitz explains. “This is what we ask G-d to do. I want to get closer to you…be happy with me. Don’t look at me as someone who is not worthy of redemption.” Rabbi Horowitz appeals parents to put aside the pain and frustration and try this approach, to find it in their hearts to accept their children as they are and love them for who they are, just as Hashem does for us. “How wonderful it is for a child to have a parent who accepts them as they are,” he says.
I have been reading The Secret Life of Gershon Burd by Rabbi Yaakov Astor, which chronicles the short life of a young man who was a master of hidden chessed. His unbridled love for other Jews, and his desire to minimize himself in service of Hashem and His Torah, propelled him to do extraordinary behind-the-scenes acts of kindness for anyone and anything. His family, his yeshiva, his neighbors and strangers around the world were the recipients, and they were the ones who did a chessed for Gershon by enabling him to help them. In fact, after his death, scores of stories about Gershon’s acts of kindness emerged, from providing birthday balloons for neighborhood children to yeshiva scholarships for potential students – all in secret. He did all this while quietly devoting himself to deeply personal mussar work.
Reading about spiritual superstars – how the highest levels of Torah and avodah literally chisels a person’s character to reflect Hashem’s goodness and love — is awe-inspiring. Everything Gershon Burd did was rooted in love: his relationship with others, his connection to Torah, his character refinement. He emulated his Maker in every aspect of his life.
Love is the necessary component of all relationships and all learning. And if love has so much power to transform oneself and others, lack of love must be at the root of all damage.
The Torah-observant world is filled with people who already know the truth that Mr. Rogers has shared with the world, that “everyone longs to be loved.” They are our teachers, our children’s teachers, our compassionate leaders, and the individuals who we may never know who bring light into the world through their love for others and for Hashem.
If only the rest of the world knew what they did.
Alexandra Fleksher is an educator, a published writer on Jewish contemporary issues, and an active member of her Jewish community in Cleveland, Ohio. You can find her blog and published articles on www.alexandrafleksher.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.