A few years ago in one of my first classes as a doctoral student in education, the professor asked our class to write down what we perceive to be the top five problems in Jewish education. As the professor went around the room asking us to name the problems on our lists, students mentioned high tuition costs and low teacher’s salaries. I mentioned “respect,” to the puzzlement of the teacher and students. But let me explain through a true story shared with me by a Jewish day school graduate.
The person this happened to, a college student at the time, was deeply committed to religious practice and belief, spending most of his days and nights in the beis midresh. He was extremely close with his brother who had come out to him as gay. This knowledge created a deep struggle for the devout student over how to reconcile the Torah values of the beis midresh, where homosexual conduct is sinful, with his strong desire to continue to love, support and stand by his brother. Finally, after wrestling with this inner conflict on his own, he sought out his rebbe who had become somewhat of a father figure to him. The rebbe’s response was simple and straightforward: You should never speak to your brother about his homosexuality, ever.
When I speak about disrespect I am talking about the willingness of teachers to seriously engage their students. By the time this person managed to give voice to his struggle by raising it directly with his rebbe, which was difficult on so many levels and required some serious courage, it had also already become for him, a serious challenge to the values of the world of his beis midresh. The rabbi, instead of appreciating how difficult it must have been to raise this issue, and instead of taking the time to acknowledge the struggle his student was experiencing, chose to dismiss the struggle and the conversation. This complete disregard for the entire matter and total lack of engagement is disrespectful. The rebbe was unwilling to meet his student in the real world where Torah was clashing with personal reality. This young man walked away disillusioned, knowing that he was going to have to look elsewhere, not just for an answer, but even for a conversation.
When students ask questions they need to be taken seriously, they deserve conversations. As parents and as educators we emphasize the importance of respecting elders, respecting teachers, respecting rabbis, etc. But how much time and energy do we spend discussing the need to respect students, or contemplating what it even means to truly respect students? There are adverse consequences that can result when students feel disrespected and our community cannot afford to ignore them.
As part of my recently completed doctoral dissertation, I examined the positive and negative impact that day school teachers and other role models have on the long-term religiosity of students; as it turned out, respecting or disrespecting students plays a pivotal role. My research suggests that teachers generally, and Judaic studies teachers in particular (because they are held up to students as religious role models), can have profound impact, both positive and negative, on the long term religiosity of their students. Students’ attitudes towards religion and spirituality are deeply affected by their teachers’ words and deeds. Students want to be respected for who they are, as reflected in the ideas they have and the questions they ask. If a teacher dismisses a student’s questions, especially about theological matters, that is an act of disrespect, and so weakens the student’s regard for the teacher, and potentially for religion.
In practical terms, these are some suggestions for us as educators to internalize and put into effect:
· We should encourage our students to talk openly about religion and welcome their questions. If a teacher is uncomfortable talking about a question raised by a student, the teacher should listen carefully and attentively to the student and allowing time for reflection, respond to the question the next day. If after reflection the teacher is still uncomfortable with the subject matter, the teacher can connect the student with a colleague more at ease with the subject.
· Yeshiva day school classrooms should be safe spaces for students to inquire and dialogue with us. This kind of exploration helps students internalize their religious attitudes and beliefs. If we fear such dialogue, we send the message that religion doesn’t have answers to these questions. But ignoring questions won’t cause the students not to have them; they will simply seek answers elsewhere, or perhaps even internalize the message that religion is simply not for them.
If we respect our students by respecting their ideas and questions, we will help them develop their religious and spiritual selves.
Beth Hait is the former assistant dean of students at YU/Stern College and is currently in practice as a Life Coach. Her website is www.bethhait.com and she can be reached at Dr.Beth.Hait@gmail.com