The Modern Role of Today’s Educators

Oped by Rabbi Gershon Avtzon: A mechanech once asked me “Why is it that so many of today’s youth are turned off from Yiddishkeit because of something relatively small that a teacher says or does while “we” (people over 40), whose educators expressed less love and care, were not?”

By Rabbi Gershon Avtzon, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Lubavitch Cincinnati

The summer is nearing an end and another school year is set to begin. With each new year comes many positive resolutions and optimistic feelings that it is going to be a successful year for each student. To all the dedicated Mechanchim/Mechanchos (and the truth is that every parent is by definition an educator), I would like to share a conversation that I had recently with a fellow educator.

In honor of 11 Nissan this past year, I was invited to Eretz Yisroel to spend Shabbas with 1000 bochurim in a rented college campus. In addition to the students that were there, they were joined by many mechanchim from the various Yeshivos around Eretz Yisroel.

After Davening, one of the mechanchim came over to me and asked me the following question: “Why is it that so many of today’s youth are turned off from Yiddishkeit because of something relatively small that a teacher says or does and “we” (people over 40), whose educators were less professional and expressed less love and care, were not?”

As I was reflecting on this question, two scenes came to my mind:

  1. A classmate of mine was literally hanging out the window by his feet from the third floor of United Lubavitcher Yeshiva on Ocean Parkway! Our English teacher had lost patience with our class and when this boy opened his mouth without raising his hand (or something else), the teacher literally grabbed him by his feet and hung him out the window and threatened to drop him, or any of us, the next time. 

Fast forward to today: That teacher is no longer teaching and B”H the young boy is today a very frum yungerman with a beautiful family.

  1. A “late night” conversation that I had many years ago with a very close Talmid of mine. This boy went through the system but never emotionally connected with what was being taught. He was and continues to be, a very fine human being and friend. After finishing Mesivta, I invited him to come visit Yeshiva for a few days. One evening, I casually asked him if he could pinpoint what turned his heart off from emotionally connecting to Yiddishkeit. He did not hesitate and told me the following story (with time, I may have mixed up some of the small details):

“I am naturally very creative but not the strongest book learner. I have a brother, which I am very close with, that was a natural learner and always was on the “honor roll”. One semester I decided that I will put all my efforts into getting on the honor roll. I asked the teacher to be placed next to his desk, so that I would be able to focus and not be distracted and invest my heart and soul into the learning. I was successful and for the first time was developing a taste and geshmak in learning.

The day (or so) before the honor roll names were to be submitted to the principal, I came late to class (not intentionally). There was another boy that was already sitting in “my” place. I asked the teacher to move the boy so that I could have my seat but the teacher, being in the middle of a lesson, just motioned to me to sit in another seat. I, who connected the seat to my personal success, made a commotion to get my seat back. The teacher got upset with me and then told me that he had in mind to make me the honor roll but I just lost the privilege. My heart cried and turned off.” 

Fast forward to today: The teacher is (probably) still teaching and this boy is – still a very good person and loyal friend, but in terms of lifestyle – not frum.

These two stories seemed to reinforce the question that I was asked, as in terms of “trauma and disillusionment”, the talmid in the first story seemed to have gone through something much worse. And yet, the first talmid decided to push forward and live a frum lifestyle and the second one (whom I am NOT judging and continue to be very close with) did not. What could be the difference?

The following is what I responded to the yungerman in Eretz Yisroel, and would like to share with all of you today. While I am not oblivious to the general “sensitive” feelings that prevail amongst youth across the world these days, my answer was specifically addressing Chabad youth. Feel free to disagree, but I feel deeply that it is true: 

When we (those 40 and older) were growing up, we did not subconsciously equate the actions and examples of our teachers and principals with the truth of Torah and Yiddishkeit. We saw the Rebbe (almost) daily, and it was clear that the Rebbe was the nexus of our lives, so that was our example of Torah true Yiddishkeit. What our teachers said or did (as well as our parents), mattered less in the context of our own inner decisions about following the ways of the Torah and Chassidus. I look around at many of my peers who struggled through school and our very proud and successful Shluchim.

In these post-Gimmel Tammuz days, before the Hisgalus of the Rebbe, there has been a paradigm shift: Our Talmidim (and children) look up to us to represent Yiddishkeit. What we say, and how we act and interact, has a tremendous effect on the internal decision that they will be making on their own commitment to a lifestyle of Torah and Chassidus. It is a very sacred shlichus and we must be fully conscious of the zechus and achrayus that we carry. 

While it is also obvious that we, educators and parents, are still very “human” – and we will not act as a true Tzaddik can, it is the awareness that matters most. We also must know that – as with a trial and challenge – we were given special Koach to deal with the youth of today. It is a big merit to be an educator and it comes with the greatest responsibility.

To quote a Gemara (Sota 20a): “Rav Yehuda says that Shmuel says in the name of Rabbi Meir:  When I came to learn Torah before Rabbi Yishmael, he said to me: My son, what is your vocation? I said to him: I am a scribe [lavlar] who writes Torah scrolls. He said to me: “My son, be careful in your work, as your work is the work of Heaven, lest you omit a single letter from the Torah scroll or add a single letter, and in this you are found to be destroying the entire world”.

If you have comments, questions or ideas, please write in the comment section below or email me directly at [email protected]

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  1. It is true that the impact of teachers and parents on students’ journeys is significant. However, it’s crucial to recognize that each individual’s response to experiences is complex and multifaceted. The assertion that today’s youth are more sensitive than previous generations might be overlooking the broader societal changes and cultural shifts that influence young people’s perceptions and reactions.

    Comparing different eras can be challenging, as circumstances and challenges faced by each generation differ. The experiences of today’s youth, with the prevalence of technology and social media, can be vastly different from those of previous generations.

    While we should undoubtedly strive to be responsible and sensitive educators and parents, attributing a person’s religious choices solely to a teacher’s actions might be an oversimplification. Many factors, such as family dynamics, peer influences, and personal experiences, play a role in shaping an individual’s relationship with Yiddishkeit.

  2. Perhaps a potential solution is that the youth and everyone else should continue to experience the Rebbe and see his example.

    The question is how can we continue to experience the Rebbe and his perfect representation of Yiddishkeit?

    I want to suggest that stories and videos of his interaction with people are the best way to absorb his example for this particular issue.

  3. Very much agree – be mekarev your students to the Rebbe
    and be extremely sensitive to them

    i think both are really important – but it is really good to constantly impart to your students, the greatness of the Rebbe, and the perfection of Hashem and Torah in general,
    that Torah has everything in it, the gadlus of Torah, the beauty of it, the fact that everything in the world that people are coming up with today has been written and are the instructions of Torah for thousands of years, Torah has the recepie for the happiest and most fulfilling life for each indivudual etc etc

    This will impress upon the student that Torah is everything, its the most sensitive, its has the best middos tovos, its the most kind etc etc,

    no one is perfect, not parents or teachers

    but a good parent or teacher points to Torah and Yiddishkeit and says this is the ultimate, the truth, the most good

    A good Mechanech is always telling stories of maseh Tzadikim, stories of Gemilus Chassodim, Yiras Shomayim, Ahavas Yisroel to impress upon the child that Yiddishekit is good

    of course the teacher or parent themselves has to embody that too, absolute sensitivty to the child etc but sometimes theyre not perfect, or a bit inexperienced, but the ikaar they need to know is just point the way to the Torah, show them Torah is amazing

    A good teacher or parent knows how to do that,

    so regardless of Gimmel Tammuz, if you bring the Rebbe alive to your classroom/home and the whole of Yiddishkeit in general is portrayed in a most amazing way, showing the beauty and goodness of it all the time,

    the children or students will learn to look past the teachers/parents small imperfections, because they see them too as Ovdai Hashem who are trying to do their best..

    But it doesnt take away from the fact that it is SO important for a parent or teacher to do their utmost to embody the right traits and be extremely sensitive to the needs of the children because that does impact them so much as well, it gives them the FEELING that Yiddishkeit is good, not just the knowledge, and thats really important – they have to be actually happy

    Like the Rebbe once told a mother, make Shabbos meal so so nice, so your kid will love sitting there

    If youre trying to teach how good Yiddishekit is, and in the process you emotionally are insensitive to your child or student its not going to go anywhere and they will just leave with a hurt and bad feeling towards it because theyre now just going to assosicate both consiously and also subcousiouly Yiddishkeit with bad feeling

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