In addition to my full-time job as a congregational rabbi, I teach Jewish religious studies to middle school students twice a week at our community’s parochial day school. I’m there to help my young charges understand – and maybe even appreciate – the vast rabbinic tradition of Judaism, which successfully interpreted the Bible and created the foundation for what we call Jewish religion. Under the best circumstances, this is a supremely difficult task. The distracted and all-too-concrete middle school brain is at striking odds with the often abstract and demanding literature of the ancient Jewish sages. The ears of a contemporary American teenager are so attuned to what they deem to be relevant and modern, that they are often deaf to the authentic yet ancient voices of the old-time faith. Under the current circumstances of COVID isolation and Zoom learning, I approached these last few months with my students in anxious anticipation of dismal failure. In a strange and sweet surprise, my students proved my fears unfounded. Nearly all of them showed up to class, on time, every session; they brought their more relaxed social selves – pajamas, breakfast and all – onto our Zoom sessions, and, perish the thought, they dug into the demanding projects I assigned them, not despite our classroom’s new-normal, but because of it.
These projects were an even bigger, sweeter surprise. The typical fare of non-frontal pedagogy, independent projects emphasize the student’s empowerment in applying concepts, facts, and figures to real-life, real-time problems and controversies in the world. Ideally, my students get to employ whatever media they best connect with to make their points and find their voices in ancient tradition and modern problem solving. From them, I have learned how to enjoy such disparate media as Storyboard, Minecraft, Playdoh, and Legos to understand Judaism. Rather than detract from their learning, these tools allow them to pour the old and fine wine of tradition into the shiny new bottles of the popular culture that they know well.
Though, in retrospect, it should not have surprised me at all, my biggest, sweetest surprise has been the revelation of my students’ emerging hunger to do justice. Around the time that George Floyd was murdered, and in its aftermath, I was teaching my students a passage from the Jewish legal tradition about how to conduct a criminal trial fairly. In it, the judges interrogate the witnesses and warn them not to victimize the accused with sloppy or false testimony, the kind motivated by bigotry, bias, or apathy. This passage quotes a famous admonition that the judges in the case delivered to the witnesses:
In the beginning, God created only Adam and his wife Eve, and made them the founders of humanity, to warn us that no person should say to another person, “My founding ancestor was greater than yours.” Each person is such a unique descendant of the first people, that destroying one life is like destroying an entire world and saving one life is like saving an entire world.
These powerfully evocative statements represent some of the best of Jewish tradition, following as they do in the footsteps of the great biblical prophets. The prophets refused to allow society to ignore its lowliest, most forgettable or most easily demeaned members. They demanded that justice well up like mighty waters, that righteousness gather up like a mighty stream.
Having been drenched in the filthy waters of stories about George Floyd’s brutal murder, my kids took to these teachings like student prophets. They don’t yet understand the complexities of American history and politics. Also, they are largely growing up in spaces of White privilege that could easily lull them into dangerous self-deceptions about how America functions. However, hailing as they do from wonderful families and a profound faith tradition, they know right from wrong, just from unjust. My assignments to them included interpreting these teachings and applying them to questions about justice in American society. I now see that in project after project which they created for me, they were saying that their young and generous hearts were shattered in a thousand pieces by the absolute unfairness of that man’s death, especially as the result of racist hatred.
As they begin their mostly sedate and boring COVID 19 summers, I want to thank them and their parents for being what we call in Yiddish, menschen, decent human beings. The renowned theologian and activist, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, once taught that in any society, few are guilty, but all are responsible. As their prophetic voices gradually emerge to call out injustice when they encounter it, I’m comforted knowing that these kids - my students - will grow into adults who take that responsibility with the utmost seriousness: the sacred trust given to them as Jews, as Americans and as human beings.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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