I’ve received a number of responses from people who have been reading this column and I am thankful to all of you who have said how much they are appreciated. I am particularly thankful for the personal stories and recollections that people have shared about their own religious development or that of their children. At the same time, I have been profoundly moved by the sharing of the challenges and problems that many parents feel they are facing. Perhaps we will one day find a forum where everyone can share with one another. In the meantime, I hope you will continue to stay in touch so that your concerns and stories can shape future editions. In that spirit, I hereby share with you some of my own internal struggles.
One of the favorite children’s books in our house was “My Teacher Sleeps in School” an enchanting story about a group of elementary school students who believe that their teacher has no personal life and must obviously be sleeping in school at night and so they set out to observe her there. The story points to the fact that many students view their teachers as, well, teachers. Teachers can be role models of course but they are also a little weird in that they became, well, teachers. Many are very personable and warm and invite students into their lives while others may seem a little more distant and remote. But, in the end, all teachers are people of whom you come to expect certain things, especially a certain consistency between what they practice and what they teach.
In the case of Jewish Studies teachers, the issue is even more serious and the stakes arguably even a little higher. For, more than many other teachers, limmudei kodesh teachers are expected to act differently; they answer, to borrow a phrase from the hot dog people, to a higher authority. For better or worse, justified or not, they are expected to embody halakhah and Torah values in their lives. They are supposed to be role models, or as we have been calling them, spiritual exemplars.
Now the truth is that most of the professionals that I know expect this of themselves as well. We tend to be very careful about what we say and how we act around kids because we know that anything could be misconstrued as a reflection of Torah rather than our own failings as human beings or educators. If I ever really lost my temper at school during davening (as opposed to the times when annoyance might be faked for educational effect) not only was my davening ruined for that morning but so was the rest of the morning as I got angry with myself for the misimpression that I may have left behind with that student that the Torah or Judaism was angry with him. Ask anyone who has been in this business for any amount of time and they will tell you that this is a factor that is often a consideration in the way they talk, eat, dress, spend recreation time or the like. What our students may think of us guides/haunts us on a regular basis. It’s not that we are all living double lives, one persona in school and another out of school (where we also encounter our students regardless), but rather that we are always conscious of the fact that what we say or do could be misconstrued as reflecting back upon the religion and way of life that we spend our professional lives teaching. At least one gifted and talented educator I know, abandoned teaching adolescents and emerging adults for exactly this reason.
“I felt the suffocation of educational mar’it ayin.[the halakhic concern for what misimpression others might get.] Were my eyes closed tightly enough as a I recited the blessing before them? Did I deal with a difficult student with the Hafez Hayyim’s sensitivity? Did I dress in accordance with their expectations? I did not want to disappoint them, but I also wanted my own space. Role modeling became a mixed blessing. It provided a powerful incentive to stay within the parameters of my own highest ideals. But it also ate away at the freedom I needed to express my individuality. I struggled to find the right balance, to look beyond the superficiality of mar’it ayin and locate a more genuine self in the classroom. I returned to adult education because I found in that setting a greater respect for the varied shades of individuality and an ability to admit the complexity of religious life in the setting of modernity.”
Although the author may not have intended it, at root here for me is the knowledge that we as adults recognize the nuances of difference sometimes between what we practice and what we preach. We know, for example, that we can skip shul from time to time and still not suffer any serious blow to our spirituality because our connectedness has been years in the making and will not be quickly torn asunder. We can “compromise” or “slip” or live with our own inconsistencies because it has taken us a lifetime to get to where we are and the compromises or inconsistencies that we currently live with are a part of what we know is our ongoing growth as people.
But our children do not know of such nuances and it may take them some time to understand them, just as it took many of us a long time to come to grips with our own. Kids need consistency. They need to know that values are constant. One of the worst insults that adolescents can hurl at an adult is “hypocrite,” for a part of their natural emotional and cognitive development is the discomfort with the dissonance that engulfs them, especially as it relates to the adult world.
And so, those of us who have chosen this field as our profession, struggle daily with the impressions and misimpressions we may leave behind as spiritual exemplars. Given that the research shows that, all else being equal, parents are the most important spiritual influences in a child’s life, how much more difficult it must be or should to be for parents to be that kind of spiritual exemplar.
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Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than thirty five years who currently teaches fulltime at Ma`ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefila Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.