Thursday, September 28, 2006

Role Models and Education by Nati Helfgot

In many of our day schools, in addition to the living role models that our children can learn and grow from, there is often a conscious attempt to present to students ideal types of people who they should aspire to emulate. This goal is achieved both through formal and informal means such as stories, choice of curricula and direct exhortation as to the "ideal" they should strive for. One of the more popular, and ultimately not so subtle methods is the ubiquitous pictures or posters of various great Rashei yeshiva and Gedolim that often adorn the halls and walls of many day schools throughout the country.

This phenomenon has always both fascinated and troubled me. One the one hand, these pictures on the walls reflect an attempt to project the centrality of Talmud Torah as a central value of Jewish existence. It highlights the esteem in which we rightfully hold Torah scholarship and our aspirations that all should strive for Torah excellence. On the other hand, these pictures by definition limit our perspectives by sending a message that there are only one or two "ideal" models that we project to our children in the classroom.

In terms of Talmud Torah proper, the model that is projected is the great Rosh Yeshiva, expert in Shas and Poskim and classical "lamdanut". No pictures usually appear of great baalei machshava like R. Yehuda ha-Levi or experts in parshanut ha-Mikra like R. Abraham Ibn Ezra or Nehama Leibowitz zt"l who were not gedolim in classical gemara learning. Moreover, beyond the world of Talmud Torah proper, other role models of the great baalei chesed - whether rabbis or lay-people - communal leaders who worked tirelessly for the Jewish community or Israel, simple baalei battim who toiled with honesty and integrity, or a whole host of other wonderful role models are often left out of the mix entirely. We would and should be proud to project such people to the wide spectrum of children that we teach.

With these models on display, Talmud Torah, in its more narrow "lomdishe" sense, subtly moves from being a central value, to being an exclusive value. In addition, the young girls in our schools are very quickly initiated into a reality into which women role models of excellence in Jewish life are simply invisible. We should try to be more inclusive. The pictures we choose to put up on our walls are part of the portraits that we shape in our hearts and the hearts of our students.

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Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is the Chair of the Departments of Tanakh and Mahshevet Yisrael as a well as a Halakha rebbe at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He worked in a wide range of Yeshiva High Schools for over 15 years and continues to lecture and run in-service workshops to Judaic studies faculty in various locales.

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