I don’t think that I’ve ever had a week like the one that just finished and I suspect that most teachers haven’t. I had a chance to travel to a beautiful and exotic sounding city, Budapest, and do something that I love to do, with talented and passionate colleagues. At the risk of being inarticulate, I will just summarize some of my thoughts, in no particular order.
The Budapest Jewish community – There is no doubt that the Holocaust plays a much larger role in the psyche of the average Hungarian Jew than it does in the mind of an American Jew. For all intents and purposes Hungarian Jewry was destroyed by 1945. Whatever Jews survived the war and decided to try and rebuild here were set upon by the wolves of Communism. When the iron curtain was finally lifted the community had no infrastructure capable of revitalizing its young people. There was no model for people to emulate. We learned that right now there are two ways that are typical for young people to learn they are Jewish. In one scenario a young person comes home saying something like, “they called me a filthy Jew!” To which the mother responds well, it’s true, you are a Jew. The other sene is where a young person comes home and says “so and so is an f-ing Jew” to which a parent says, “Don’t say that, you are one too.” We met a young lady over Shabbos who learned she was Jewish at her father’s funeral. As they buried him in a Jewish cemetery she figured out she’s Jewish.
At the same time that this is true there is another truth as well. There are 4 Jewish high schools. There are 3 kosher restaurants. There are now 25 active synagogues. There is a kosher “makolet” (bodega). There are young people starting to reclaim their heritage. But it is so hard. Jewish infrastructure is so tenuous and the country is so poor. To be honest, it seems to me that what they really need is a generation of great teachers and great schools. But also, I can’t imagine why a teacher who is knowledgeable and talented would stay and teach here. It is SO HARD to make a living here, especially as a teacher. I just can’t imagine a person with a family passing up the opportunity to leave here if they could. And many want to. 30-50 percent of the students we met with told a colleague of mine that they dream of leaving Hungary.
Teaching – I started teaching more than 20 years ago if you count substituting and Hebrew school. Like in all things, there are good days and bad days. There are days when you feel like you did something important and there are days where you wonder what the hell the point is. This week I had a chance to teach kids in a way that they never experienced. (That’s what they and their teachers and other observers said.) They had never been asked what they think a Jewish text means. They have never been asked to think deeply about what things mean or how they apply in their own lives. And they have never had such a fun time in a Judaic studies class. So it made me feel important and special that I had a chance to make them enjoy Torah studies, maybe for the first time. And not just enjoy the class, but recognize the depth of Torah.
On Shabbos I helped run a Friday night meal at the Moishe House. (Moishe House is an international network of houses that are staffed by young adults who provide Jewish engagement programming in return for free or reduced rent in the home.) Our group of 40-somethings (mmm and maybe a couple older than that 😉 )had dinner with around 10 college students and young professionals. My job was to run the meal and make it important and memorable. I decided that the best plan was to make it fun. These young Hungarian Jews need to know that Shabbos is important, I know, but I think that what they needed right now was to know that it could be fun. They can do it, and they can enjoy it, and then they can do it without us. There was a lot of laughter; it was a great time. We learned about each other and we played silly games and it was a blast. Perhaps most rewarding was that before we left for the evening I took each of the 20-somethings off to the side and gave them brachos and davened for them. And they were each grateful for the time together. They would love for us to come back and do it again. (I think I’ll need a new round of games.)
So I had a chance to do both formal and informal education here and I loved it all. I found young adults and kids ready to learn, eager to have someone teach them about Torah. And I have renewed faith in my contribution to this work.
Colleagues – I’ve worked on teams before and in departments. I’ve gone away on Shabbatonim and trips with colleagues. But I have never done anything like this, where I had a chance to pick my own team, put everyone in a new situation, see how everyone was a bit scared, a bit unsure, and then see EVERY SINGLE member of the team succeed beyond any measure. There were lots of moments over the last week that are unforgettable, from realizations about kids and teaching to realizations about English/Hungarian homonyms that resulted in some awkward learning moments for me and some fellow teachers. (Hysterical, awkward, and not for this format.) Tonight at dinner we were comparing our bonding to the kids in the movie the Breakfast Club. Although we have been assured by the self-declared “Molly Ringwald” that she would still talk to us when we pass in the hall next week. This has been a truly incredible experience and I can’t imagine doing it with a more talented group. Everyone is so open and so eager and so available to listen and share that it made a truly engaged and cohesive group.
The sign of a great program is that the participants want more. We’re eager for the next steps. We want to host our Hungarian colleagues. We want our kids to share this too. We can’t wait to come back and do it bigger and better.
Today I met someone I truly admire. The truth is, I’m a pretty critical guy; I tend to start by seeing people’s faults. After I get to know them I usually find something that I like or some aspect of their personality I would like to emulate. But at first, my conceit usually gets the better of me. Not tonight. Tonight I met someone I truly admire.
After a day filled with learning about Budapest, the uprising of 1956, life under communism, visiting with Holocaust survivors, singing and dancing with residents of a home for adults with special needs, and meeting with young people working to revitalize a shteibel and a neighborhood in a forgotten section of Budapest’s Jewish community, we went out to dinner. It had been a full day and I for one thought that dinner was going to be mostly the team just kibitzing. (There has been a blessed amount of kibitzing with this team too. More on that some other day.) Enter Linda Vero-Ban. Linda grew up in Budapest and became very interested in her Judaism as a teen. She a mom now and together with her husband they run a vibrant and growing shul in Budapest. But she does so much that it would be hard to explain in the written word her accomplishments. She saw a need for Jewish books for children written in Hungarian, which reflect the Hungarian context – so she wrote them. She saw a need for programming for teens, so she started it – and now she has 45 teens that meet weekly. And so much more. And when she talks about all of this she does it with matter of fact humility.
During the conversation tonight Linda shared a critical insight. While it’s true that communism fell in Hungary in 1990, 26 years is in truth, not much time. All the teachers in Hungary schools right now either were themselves teachers in the communist system of they were students in the communist system. Only now are there teachers that are starting to come into schools that are open to new ways of thinking about kids and teaching and asking questions. She said, just like it took our ancestors 40 years for there to be a generation that was cleansed of the slave mentality and ready to enter The Land, it will be 40 years until communism’s shadow has been cleansed from the educational system. We are really the first effort in trying to get new ideas and possibilities into the school and into the teachers’ imaginations.
Linda shared her thinking about a Shabbaton that she and her husband are planning for the children of the Scheiber School. We were happy to share with her some of our experiences from running events like that and what type of planning needs to go into it. We talked about how important informal education is in conjunction with formal education. As we talked long into dessert (a yummy creamy filling on top of a small piece of cake with some type of fruit/gelatin topping – right up my alley) we found ourselves vacillating between a glass half full optimism about Jewish life here and a pessimism that is “inspired” by poor economic conditions, rising institutionalized and inter-personal anti-Semitism, and the incredible difficulty in attracting the highest caliber of young person into teaching. And of course, without great teachers, any plan to fix a school and inspire kids is going to fail (said the teacher.)
In the end I think the dinner ended with us all feeling uplifted that the work we are all engaged in is holy work. There are only 2 choices after all, try something to fix this or give up. I’m not a prophet, but I’m pretty sure the Creator would say not to give up.
Linda has not given up. She keeps looking for new ways to serve, new ways to inspire, new way to help Jewish teens and their families. I admire that.
On day three of our visit to the Scheiber Sandor Gimnaziyum I had the class that I had been dreading since I first saw my schedule. I was assigned to a 5th grade Hebrew language class. Now keep in mind that in the Scheiber school grade 7 is an immersive year of language with an intense focus on English and Hebrew. That accounts, at least in part, for the pretty decent overall English skills of the student I had met with so far from grades 8-13. But 5th grade will be students who’s English fluency is somewhere between nonexistent and not very good. In essence I was asked to teach Hebrew, a language that I am not native in, to students with whom I share no common language. So I was concerned.
I got to the classroom early so I could get myself and the room ready. I washed the chalkboard, learned the names of a few students, and figured out which of the early arrivals might be my translation helper. (Typically in each class there is a student or two that has pretty good English because they have an American parent of they had lived someplace previously where people speak English, like Israel, for example. Not kidding.) Class started and I began.
Two minutes of class pass and a teacher from the next room says (In Hebrew) that her kids really want to come also, and will it be ok if we put the two classes together. No problem I tell her. Really, I think, what could go wrong?
My plan was to do a Shabbat lesson and review so Shabbat vocabulary and maybe explain the reasons for some of the things that are Shabbat-y. Although I had educational goals for the lesson, my main goal for the lesson was really an affective one – the students will feel that Shabbat is a positive thing. I started out by explaining to the students, with exaggerated pantomime that I am a very talented artist. I told them that I can draw anything and they are very lucky to have me as a teacher. I asked them to call out anything and I will draw it on the board. Someone said a word that sounded like shluyflykla (which is more or less how everything in Hungarian sounds to me) and another student translated –dog. So quickly drew my best dog, essentially a salami shape with sticks coming out of its bottom and a circle on the top edge. The kids laughed and we has some banter back and forth. Soon told them that I was going to draw some Shabbat things on the board and they would have to guess what they were. Soon the board was filled with silly, terrible drawings, Hebrew and Hungarian words and every kid was focused on trying to figure out how an awkward bumpy line was a challah. In the end we played a game. When the bell rang, the kids begged me to finish the game, no one was ready to leave and the kids finished with, “Todah Rabbah, rebbe.”
Each class I met I introduced myself as Rabbi Soskil, a novelty for them because the school is more of a “call teachers by the first name” kind of place. To me, it’s important to instill in students a sense of kavod HaTorah – respect for Torah and Torah teachers, and in my culture that meant being makpid (demanding? Not sure how to translate) that they use the title Rabbi when addressing me. But I also wrote “rebbe” on the board next to my name and I taught the students that this is an informal way to address someone that is your Torah teacher and it shows that you have a warm relationship with that person, but in a respectful way. By the end of our third day students would see me in the hall and say, “Hi, rebbe!” That was just the best.
There are a lot of reasons that our kids at BT have gotten a better hand than the kids that are at Scheiber. By and large the students in Budapest are worse off financially, there is a much higher incidence of divorce here than in the states, there is greater access to robust athletics and arts programming at BT, smoking and alcohol consumption are much more common place in Hungary than in our little niche of the world, meaning that many more health problems will be part of the future of these children in their adult life. But one thing that our kids and the Hungarian kids have in common is that they are ready to learn. They are ready to be inspired. They want teachers who can help them think deeply about Torah and understand how it matters to them. They want to be challenged and inspired and they want to feel the safety of structure and the reassurance of clear expectations. I think they want a rebbe.
Yesterday I wanted to talk about the teaching and what was different and what was the same. Today I want to spend a few moments thinking about our host city Budapest (which I will now correctly, and pretentiously, pronounce Buda-PESHT.) Although I have traveled to quite a few places in America, the only foreign places I have been are Israel and Canada, and Canada doesn’t really count. This being my first trip to any city in Europe so there are some things that are striking here, in particular how old things are. About a hundred and twenty years ago the kingdom of Hungary celebrated the country’s 1000 year anniversary. While it’s true that much of the city was destroyed during the Second World War, it was mostly rebuilt with the same architecture and the same flavor. So many of the buildings here are much older than our republic.
Before we came people told me that the city is a beautiful one and they didn’t exaggerate. The architecture is striking and distinct. The parts of the city we’ve been in have been clean, well-lit, fashionable and modern. And with at least 3 Kosher restaurants here (300% more than in Sharon Massachusetts) there are plenty of places for us to eat. There seems to be very robust public transportation. Although we haven’t used them, I see trolleys, light rail, and buses all over. Museums and parks and hotels all over as well. So from that perspective this city is probably as vibrant as it ever was.
It’s hard not to spend time thinking about the reason that we’re here. Hungary was once a country with and extremely robust Jewish scene. This is the home of many Hassidic movements, including Munkatch and Satmar. This was the home of the Chasam Sofer, his dynasty and an entire system of yeshivos he inspired. It was the home to many highly organized Jewish communities and hundreds of years of our holy ancestors building loving families and vibrant businesses. Reflecting on that I can’t help but think of the words of our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy – [life is] “a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.” Hundreds of years filled with thousands and thousands of Jewish souls and all that’s left is a few plaques and a couple of shuls.
The work we’re doing is holy and important but we’re also playing a really long game. We’re hoping to strengthen the school and thereby strengthen the community. That’s not the kind of work that is going to show results in a year or two. This is going to take a generation.
So the yin and yang of this aspect of the trip is that it’s a really beautiful city in a really dark shadow of history. It would be enough for me to almost think this endeavor is hopeless but . . .
I came across a great piece from Rav Soloveitchik that set the day in perspective for me. “World history is a chronology of cause and effect: event A occurs and, as a result, event B follows- a process known as etiology. Jewish history is not pushed by the mechanical events in the past but rather pulled by a Divine promise about the future, toward a glorious destiny. Thus Jewish history is not etiological but teleological: events take place according to design and purpose rather than cause and effect.”
In the context of our being here seeing this quote from the Rav makes me even more aware of the holiness of our work. I feel like am literally an actor with the Divine in setting the Jewish nature of this city back on track. The work we are doing is nothing less than playing mankind’s part in moving this town, and all the Jewish people, toward “a Divine promise about the future and toward a glorious destiny.
Should it be a surprise to learn that teens in Hungary are just like teens in America? Should it be a surprise to learn that the same techniques that we know work in a classroom in Baltimore also work in Budapest? Maybe it shouldn’t be. I walked into a Judaic studies class today full of the cocky swagger and self confidence that usually means I’m nervous about something. I was confident that the lesson that I had prepared on the inspirational prayer of Chana compared to the formal and planned prayer of Daniel would be enough to “fill” the time allotted. But of course, I had no way to know if the lesson I had prepared was at all a good fit for the students. So while I wasn’t nervous exactly, I was somewhat concerned. I really want to do a good job but it was so hard to know what that would look like in a room of European teens for whom English is not a first language.
I didn’t just want to do a good job because SOS International has invested so much in our trip. I want to do a good job because I feel like the holiness of the moment, and preciousness of the students demands that I don’t waste a second. So I wasn’t nervous, but I did feel the pressure of not letting down Klal Yisrael. I wish that I could report that, BAM, the kids heard my Torah and they all stood up and yelled, AMEN! We Believe! Bring on the Torah study! And then they all ran out and signed up for yeshivot and seminaries in Israel. Alas, kids are pretty much kids. Some of them were intensely focused on our discussion. Some attempted to hide and disengage. And no was Born Again.
Here was my take away anecdote for the day; after my first lesson, with the 12th grade, I heard the teacher tell his principal how much he got out of the lesson. I just did my thing, some kibitzing back and forth, text study interspersed with personal anecdotes, layering in subtleties of additional sources or laws that are hidden morsels for advanced students. I walked the room a lot, the way we do to keep interest high and decorum even keeled. Basically I just did me. And I was really gratified that the kids responded so well. (Which basically means that they laughed at my jokes.) It turns out that kids are kids, even in Hungary. And good teaching is good teaching. And the best part of that whole class was knowing that I helped open the eyes of a younger Judaic studies teacher. He said that now he knows what an interactive class can look like. I really feel blessed to have been part of that. And in classic Mordechai Soskil style I walked away thinking that I was just the awesomest and how lucky they were to have me here.
Later in the day I met with students in grade 13 (yes, 13) and I gave them a chance to do something we do all the time at BT. I told them how once in 10 days when I meet with my seniors I do ATR – Ask The Rabbi – and how the kids ask about topics that range from Judaism’s thinking about aliens to Judaism’s view of birth control. The best moment in this part of the class came when I asked the teens what they think about a certain issue and a student responded with, “I think that Hashem loves us too much for that to be true.” The actual question that was on the table is not relevant. What is relevant is that here is a young man who knows Hashem loves him.
Seems to me that if the students here know that Hashem loves them then I scarcely have anything to teach anyone. To my thinking that only happens because he knows his Rebbe and his Morah loves him. That’s good teaching no matter where you are.