Paying it Forward: The Power of Mentors

My journey to rabbinical school began with a meaningful and impactful conversation with my mentor, Rabbi Educator Vicki L. Tuckman, z”l. After a long day at summer camp, we found ourselves sitting on her cabin porch around midnight as the stars rose over the Mahoning Valley. I remember her exact words: “You’re going to be a rabbi—you just don’t know it yet.” I laughed it off as a well intentioned but incorrect prediction. Six years later, as I wrap up my second year of rabbinical school, an “I told you so” would seem to be in order…

Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “The power of our mentors…is in their capacity to awaken a truth within us, a truth we can reclaim years later by recalling their impact on our lives.” Vicki planted a seed in my mind and heart that sprouted years later, when I was ready to acknowledge and accept that wisdom. Her personal interest in and insight into my own Jewish journey did, in fact, awaken a truth within me. Her mentorship and advice, although she has since passed, still guides me. Palmer’s understanding of the power of mentors, of being in relationship with educators who truly care for and help their learners, rings true. 

This year, as part of the TJF Fellowship Program, I was placed in Congregation Beth Adam’s innovative and highly creative Sunday school program, Our Village. During our first get-to-know-you meeting, Rabbi Dave Burstein asked me why I wanted to be a rabbi educator. I shared Vicki’s name without hesitation, as well as the impact her mentorship had on me. With an excited and warm smile, Rabbi Burstein revealed that he actually attended rabbinical school with Vicki, that they were classmates at HUC-JIR Cincinnati. Our meeting quickly turned into a walk down memory lane—sharing Vicki stories, discussing how much she would love that we (Rabbi Burstein and I) had met each other and were working together, and how much she would love Our Village and the ethos of the school. Although we lost Vicki in 2015 to breast cancer, her teachings and the truths she awakened in us continue to live on, enriching and impacting our lives. 

It feels besheretto end up at congregation like Beth Adam. Working with Rabbi Burstein reminds me of working with Vicki. Both mentors have taken personal interests in my growth and sought to help me evolve as a rabbi, educator, and person. Deep personal connections and relationships based on trust and empathy are central to Rabbi Burstein’s vision of Judaism and to Our Village. The program was inspired by an observation shared by a parent at a community visioning meeting. In response to a question around parent goals for the new Sunday school program, one person responded: “I want my child to love Judaism and be loved by Judaism.” That one request has directed the vision for the whole school. We ask ourselves how we can craft an educational space that is as much about the learner connecting with the subject as it is about the subject openly and meaningfully accepting the learner. Our Village is centered around love: love for Judaism, love for each other, love of curiosity and learning. Questions are encouraged. Experimentation is invited. Our Village creates a space for exploring and crafting one’s Jewish identity through hands-on, experiential learning. Educators are asked to be in deep relationship with their students, to bring their authentic selves and their personal Jewish journeys to class each week so that real, meaningful, impactful connections can be forged. Jewish education at Our Village is as much about community and togetherness as it is about material and content.

Spending a year at Beth Adam has truly impacted me as a Jewish educator. Much as Vicki affected my personal Jewish journey, Rabbi Burstein and Our Village have invited me to pay it forward as I seek to affect and guide my own students at Beth Adam. Palmer writes, “Good teachers join self and subject and students in the fabric of life. Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.” When education is connected to meaning making and relationship building, it is more impactful, more engaging. Learners at Our Village are pushed to find and weave, as Palmer says, their own understandings, to craft direct and personal relationships not only with the material being studied, but also with their fellow learners. 

Serving as an educator at Our Village has given me the opportunity to experiment and grow as a teacher, to apply what I’ve learned in school alongside my students as they experiment and grow as young Jews. As a teacher, or guide, at Beth Adam, my role is to help students grow, offering insight and teachings while also exploring right alongside them. We weave our complex webs of connections together, reminding ourselves of our own love for Judaism and helping our students discover how Judaism can embrace and love them. When I think back on what Vicki did for me, it is much the same. The impact she made on my life was profound. She helped me to love Judaism and feel loved by Judaism. Now it is my turn to do the same at Beth Adam. 

Caitlin Brazner is a rising third-year year rabbinical and education student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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