English Department Co-Chair
Faculty Fellow, Machon Siach at SAR High School
Dedicated to the Memory of Belda K. Lindenbaum z"l
As a participant in one of the Machon Siach groups currently underway at our high school, I experience firsthand a number of different ways in which the program can be understood and explained. It is a kind of Torah study that blends the practical and the theoretical. It is a way of writing that is both academic and personal. It is a form of communal outreach intended to expand SAR’s mission beyond its student community. First and foremost, however, Machon Siach is a statement of trust.
As a high school teacher, even in a school without walls, I operate in a set of closed rooms. My primary responsibility is to my students; considerations beyond that scope take a back seat to the rhythms and demands of the school year. I grade papers, I write assignments, I meet with students. I go to meetings to discuss schedules, anticipate color war, organize beit midrash materials. Consequently, my professional identity is not oriented towards larger issues that emerge in the context of my teaching, in large part because I rarely have the time. My concerns become so relentlessly local, that as a result I begin to think of my potential contributions as correspondingly local. As deep and important as I believe my work as a high school teacher to be, most of the time I assume my reach is defined by the community of students that passes through these walls, during these four years.
And yet, I also believe that as a high school teacher I have a perspective that is unique, a way of thinking that is unique, and a set of values that is unique. So much of my time is spent in classrooms that theoretical concerns come palpably to life; by virtue of the amount of face time I have with my students, I experience daily the fluid boundary between theory and practice both in my pedagogy and in my subject. Additionally, in part because my students are yet living at home, high school teaching unfolds in the context of a concentric series of communities, at the very least including my students, their families, their local Jewish communities, and the Jewish community at large. I am keenly aware of the personal nature of learning; for high school teachers, the academic is never academic. What all this means is that even while the realities of my job limit my reach, they simultaneously make possible a set of insights and a series of communications that extend beyond my classroom.
Machon Siach represents a recognition of this potential. Its purpose is to create space and time in which high school teachers can share their unique perspective on larger theoretical concerns that typically are the province of professional academics. Its driving assumption is that high school teachers, precisely because they are high school teachers, are positioned to offer unique contributions to the social, political, and religious questions that are being asked in any thoughtful community. Our areas of study are inspired by our teaching experiences, given ethical and religious weight by our Talmud Torah, informed by academic writing, and sharpened in the crucible of our daily practice. We write not only for one another, but for all the communities we touch: our students, their parents, the Jewish community; consequently, our writing at its best is both analytic and self-reflective, formal yet personal. In the subjects we research, in the method of our study, in our goals, and even in the style of the writing itself, Machon Siach is a new effort in Jewish high school education.
Perhaps my own example will help bring these descriptions to life. For a number of months now, I have been reading and writing about sex education in the Modern Orthodox community. My interest in the subject is driven by my experiences here at SAR, as we have worked to create a series of programs that would animate our students in their halachic practice even while recognizing their specific psychological and developmental needs. Anyone who has spent time teaching teenagers about sex is familiar with students’ interest in poking at the boundaries of appropriate talk. Questions often blur the line between the clinical and the personal, pressing teachers to carefully evade or even chide students who ask about our personal lives. Even as we do our best to speak honestly with our adolescent students about sex, we face a central question: when are these conversations meaningful and helpful, and when are they titillating? In other terms, do we help our students develop healthy self awareness around their sexual selves, or do we contribute to an unhealthy excessive self interest that chips away at their potential to lead psychologically fulfilling sexual lives?
In pursuing answers to these questions, I am leaning heavily on the work of Dr. Rollo May, an American existential psychologist, whose work I am using as a lens through which to read several narratives in the Talmud. These narratives serve as case studies, of a sort, with which I hope to consider the nature of dialogue in sex education. My ultimate goal is to better understand how to talk to our students about sex in a manner that integrates religious practice with psychological health.
At times, sometimes when sitting around a table discussing the paper I am writing with colleagues, sometimes when reading and rereading a difficult sentence I can’t quite understand, I struggle with the feeling that I am in over my head. I wonder: who am I to be doing this? Let me go back to grading papers, writing assignments, meeting with students. I keep on keeping on, however, for two reasons.
First, I believe the work I am doing in Machon Siach will ultimately bear fruit in the grading I do, the assignments I write, in my meetings with students. That is, implicit in this work is an important act of translation: the real value here will only emerge when the theoretical concerns are manifest in the basic work I do. I face my students every day, and my experiences with them are the litmus test with which I evaluate everything about my professional identity. This is who I am as a high school teacher.
Second, because Machon Siach’s very existence is a message to me, encouraging me to contribute to more global educational and religious conversations, telling me that precisely because I am a high school teacher I have a unique contribution to offer. As such, it does not represent an external obligation layered onto my professional identity, but a natural and inevitable outcome of the expertise I have developed during the course of my teaching. It is as much my responsibility to participate in Machon Siach as it is to teach my classes.
In short, when I doubt myself, I remember: Machon Siach is a statement of trust.