Their Opportunity,
Our Responsibility

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By Jody Passanisi

And once Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the attic of the House of Nitzah in Lod [and] this question was asked in front of them: Is study greater or action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered and said, “Action is greater.” Rabbi Akiva answered and said, “Study is greater.” They all answered and said, “Study is greater, since study bring about action.” (Sefaria, Community Translation of Kiddushin Daf 40B)

In the world we live in, the present, which is more important, study or action?

How do you think our Jewish day school students would answer?

To Study and to Act

Having taught middle school for many years, and now as a middle school director, I am accustomed to the combined reaction of pity, concern, revulsion, and gratitude that people feel when I mention I work in a middle school. But the tweenage or teenage student in a Jewish day school, a K-8 day school, a school like my own school, Gideon Hausner in Palo Alto, has a vastly different experience to the one that people dredge up at the mere remembrance of themselves at that age. But how different?

It’s true that when I was in middle school myself I didn’t feel like I had much of a voice – that anything I thought or said made a difference. If I had something to say, who would hear? Even if I’d had the inclination to write an op-ed about something (as one of our students at Gideon Hausner did recently), I didn’t really know that that was even a possibility. I had little autonomy – I was much more focused on the minutiae of my day. But I did feel a sense of importance in the Jewish aspects of my life.

Truly, that’s why I became a Jewish educator, because in all of the parts of my life that felt devoid of meaning or purpose at that time of pre-teen angst, the Jewish parts, which focused on service, tradition, learning, real history – community – always felt like an antidote to that helplessness I felt as not quite a child, not quite an adult.

Now, let’s fast forward. It is a strikingly different time to be alive now. There are many things our kids have to deal with that they didn’t before – texting, 24/7 media, the pressure, all of it. But, there are (at least) two sides to this. What kids have now that they didn’t have when I was growing up – is a voice.

There is a reason why many movements are being led by students today. Young people have platforms through social media – and at Jewish day schools like Hausner we feel an immense responsibility to help students to recognize their potential and power – not only the potential and power they will have in the future – but the potential and power that they have now – to improve the world in the way they feel compelled to – through service projects – to lift others up by reaching out – by connecting, by learning a perspective that is different from their own.

History is happening right now with voices of our students empowered along with the voices of adults. Students’ voices, ideas, and actions are at the forefront more than they really ever could have been in the past.

And so what an opportunity we have as a Jewish education institution. What an immense responsibility we have as Jewish educators of young people.

Voice, ideas, actions

We are often told, in the wise words of our tradition that we may not see the results, but we aren’t free to desist from the work.

And this is still true to a certain extent. As educators, as people looking at the world and trying to change it for the better, it is hard to see our progress. But, as Emerson says, ‘“the years teach which the days never know,” we are leading and working by our lights, each day in order to see a better future.

Our kids are aware of our foibles, they know the problems – and a middle school aged student is especially sensitive to these things – because they are just figuring out that the adults in their own lives don’t know everything, and that their voices might not just be able to be heard, but might need to be heard.

As educators we can help them to practice using their voices. We can provide a space for them to exercise their will, their moral voice, and their authentic self. We can provide opportunities for students to lead through action, to test their ideas – in academics, in social change.

Like many Jewish days schools, Hausner is a school with a strong commitment to inspiring students to improve the world – and as a school in the middle of Silicon Valley – we understand that it is incumbent upon our next generation to create, to think, to fix, and to change.

What do they need from us?

It can’t all be about change. That’s not what middle schoolers need. They’ve got a lot of change going on. Physically, emotionally, socially – in school, in their families. They need something to hang on to when the winds get strong and when things get confusing. So what can they hang on to? They can know that from our traditions there are some guidelines in place to make sure we take care of each other. That our peers and teachers are here to help think through things to come to best decisions. That we honor more than one opinion, that we don’t take anything for granted, that we take care of our communities, that we honor nature and cycles of life, that we have somewhere to turn when we have nowhere to turn. From their study of these things, they can be prepared to act.

These things we give them in a Jewish day school – from the youngest students to the oldest – help them to see how these concepts, these sets of ethics, can be employed in both the challenging world that is and the imagining of the world that could be. Our students can speak with a voice that can change worlds.

They have a vastness of platform that has never before been imagined. They can make a difference. We are there to root them in strength of character, identity, and community responsibility.

We need our students to have skills – strong skills to be able to speak eloquently, from the heart, to be able to listen, and to be able to stand up for others. These are particular to our context – these goals that are just as important as raising strong thinkers, we raise mensches who will have the what and how to change the world.

Which is more important? Study? Or Action? We can have both. As it was in the Talmud, when the rest agreed with Akiva, our day school students study and use their gleanings for action. They discover their common history, they acquire tools to think and research, they develop their unique voices, and they are poised to effect meaningful and significant change in our world.

Jody Passanisi is the Director of Middle School at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. She is the author of History Class Revisited, and the co-host, along with fellow DeLeT alum Shara Peters, of the podcast “Find Yourself a Teacher.”