Posted on December 7th, 2015

Sparks of Menschlichkeit

When I think of bringing light to Jewish education, I immediately think of our dedicated teachers, whose warm smiles and enthusiasm for learning have the potential to enlighten even the most disengaged souls.

As Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk said: “If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example.”

But our students come to us not just to learn to read Hebrew and study the words of the Torah; they come to be welcomed into the formal Jewish community, to understand what it means to live a life of Jewish values, to ask big questions, and of course to wrestle, as our forefather Jacob wrestled with the angel. As teachers and guides, it is our responsibility to meet them in their questioning, in their struggle, and in their sometimes chaotic expressions of youth. It is our job to model menschlichkeit, so that they may follow our example.

Too often in this work I have found that teachers do not have the resources to support their own spiritual growth, even as they are being asked to light the way for others. To address this concern, our teachers and I now engage in the study of Mussar each month. The practice of Mussar is helpful in that it provides a framework for teachers to think about who they want to be in the world, and what type of space they desire for their students. Is their classroom open-hearted, modeling Jewish values of chesed, generosity, gratitude, and humility? Do the children have the opportunity for exploration, community building, and sacred listening? Are they encouraged to experience the powerful feeling of belonging, of connection to something larger than one’s self? Expert educator Donald Graves wisely said: “Children need to hang around a teacher who is asking bigger questions of herself than she is asking of them.” May our teachers continue to question, study, and grow – and in doing so, bring sparks of holiness to our synagogue walls, and into our children’s hearts. And may we always encourage them to do so.

Ashley Plotnick is the Director of Congregational Learning at Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois, where her work is informed by her graduate degrees in Jewish studies, social work, and human sexuality education, as well as advanced training in Jewish spiritual direction.