Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what should be the single most important attribute in the way we approach our rabbinate. Every time I contemplate this, I come to the same answer: passion. My Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship with Kulanu, the Reform Community High School, just confirmed the paramount importance of this attribute. During my past year as a fellow, I was charged with the responsibility of creating curricula for courses related to Israel and the Middle East. Throughout this fellowship I have had the privilege of working with Rabbi Burstein, the founder and director of the school, who demonstrated in practice what this passion means in the rabbinate and the field of Jewish education. His approach inspired me to write about why I consider this attitude to be crucial if we want to succeed in bringing more Jews closer to G-d, to Judaism, and to Am Yisrael.
As rabbis and Jewish professionals, our not-so-easy goal should always be to inspire others with a love for living Judaism and a passion for learning more about our traditions and beliefs. No matter how we decide to approach this lofty goal, the most important ingredient that we bring to the table should be an obvious enthusiasm for what we do that will instill passion in our students and congregants.
The students we have the privilege to teach have unprecedented access to a wealth of sources and choices for their education, so we should not take for granted that they will choose Judaism. In many households imbuing the younger generations with an appreciation of what Judaism has to offer is unfortunately not even on the list of top priorities, and attending a Jewish school even once a week seems to be more than enough.
It is the task of the rabbis and educators, then, to show all who approach us for learning the beauty of Judaism, the power of Judaism to enhance our lives with deep meaning and provide us with a moral compass needed to improve as individuals and to make the world a better place. More often than not, it may be the charisma of an individual rabbi that will determine whether a person will be attracted to Judaism or (G-d forbid) be turned off and look elsewhere for meaning. If we are passionate about who we are and what we represent, this enthusiasm will be apparent and, hopefully, contagious. If we come across as unexcited or indifferent, surely this will be perceived by the children and adults.
Maimonides was fully aware of the crucial role that rabbis and teachers play in shaping Jewish individuals and wrote:
A duty rests on every scholar in Israel to teach all students who seek instruction from him, even if they are not his children, as it is said, “And you shall teach them diligently to your children.” According to traditional authority, the term “your children” includes students, for students are called children (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:2)
Imagine that! Each and every person we have the privilege to teach is considered as if they are our own child. Beyond the clear obligation to educate our children, this teaching extends the same obligation to everyone who wants to learn from us. Just as a parent’s love for their own children motivates them to teach them the most important life skills with commitment and passion, so it is with the same devotion that we, as rabbis, must treat all of our talmidim.
The Tanakh recognizes that a proper investment in education will certainly yield profit as it teaches us, “Train up a child in the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). It seems to me that this text is relevant not only to the content of our teaching, but also to the way that we approach this sacred task. If we teach with fervor, knowledge will be engraved in the student’s mind with fervor. If we teach as though it just another job, we will come across as indifferent and risk teaching students an indifference to knowledge.
The proper method for disseminating the Jewish ideals according to Rabbi Kalonymous Shapira in Chovat Ha’Talmidim should be through a teacher who will manage “to penetrate into his [or her student’s] inner life, bring him/her close and ignite his/her heart and soul.” The goal, according to him, is to “induce in oneself states of passion and excitation” and to re-create the lost closeness between teacher and student by “making an effort to capture the student’s heart.” In order to achieve all of these goals the teacher must be in love with the incredible task that has been entrusted to them and project nothing less than zest and passion for this sacred mission.
All these elements presuppose a deep and intense enthusiasm and devotion for Judaism which will create the necessary and unbreakable bond between teacher and our students. Acquiring and displaying these traits will certainly have a tremendous impact on our Jewish communities and will potentially bring more people closer to living a Jewish life.
Yoni Greenberg is a rising senior rabbinical student and a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at the Kulanu Cincinnati Reform Jewish high school.