I have found that as I continue down my rabbinical path, the idea of bringing spirituality and Judaism into the lives of my students is more and more important. I have served at Miami University Hillel in Oxford, Ohio and found that Hillel is often one of the only opportunities for students to express their Judaism openly and honestly, in a community surrounded by other Jews. Through these students, I have learned what it means for students to feel a connection to their religion. And I have seen what religion can do to bring relaxation and community into their lives. This is the lesson that I have applied to other parts of my rabbinical and educational career. My students have allowed me to see that it is spirituality they long for, and it is through that spirituality that they connect to their Judaism. So I tried to inject that spirituality back into my lessons.
Spirituality is often overlooked when we walk into a classroom. Focused on the lesson we have prepared and the goals we want our students to take home, we often forget that the reason our class has come together is our common bond, our Judaism. Judaism is an inherently spiritual religion. But it seem to me that we have lost that aspect of spirituality in our lessons and simply push our students to learn the Hebrew letters and the prayers, history and Bible, and we forget to allow them to connect to the material in a meaningful way. To create an environment where the students have a personal interaction with our language and our history and our Bible is what will push our students to want to come back, to want to continue to develop their own relationship with Judaism. It is that connection that I have tried to bring to my students both at Hillel and elsewhere.
This past December, I was invited by the Cincinnati Alzheimer’s Home to lead a program about Hanukah. When I first thought about what I would do with these residents, I thought about how we can bring light to our lives, both literally and figuratively. As I began my program, I realized that a renewed connection with Judaism was more important for these individuals than Hanukah itself. Many of the Jewish residents have extremely limited interaction with Jewish clergy. Using Hanukah to bring spirituality to their lives, was more important than just a lesson about Hanukah.
Hanukah can be easily adapted to talk about spirituality. As I thought about how, I gained the important insight that I must begin planning my lessons from a spiritual point of view moreso than a factual point of view. I came to the realization that my role as a rabbi is to teach spirituality as I teach religion. And my role as a teacher of spirituality is not limited to the religious education classroom. Everything that I do as a rabbi is religious: even a math lesson can be seen through a religious light, and it is my job as a rabbi to educate with more than just facts, but with spirituality and religiosity as well.
I have quickly learned over my first two years in rabbinical school that everything is innately religious and spiritual. From teaching college students at Miami Hillel to residents of the Alzheimers Home, it is my job to bring that spirituality to the lives of all of my students, in all walks of life, in all circumstances and in all types of lessons and interactions. I only hope I can live up to that expectation.
Ben Azriel is a rising third-year student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was a Fellow at Miami University Hillel in Oxford, Ohio during his second year continues to working with the students.