A Sabbath Message: In Praise of Teachers Everywhere & Mental Health

The great teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel taught,
“What we need more than anything else is not textbooks, but text people. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read – the text they will never forget.”

– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

As Sabbath approaches with spring in full bloom, the month of May brings gratitude that our lives are moving in the right direction following a challenging year – it is a positive season. It is in this spirit that we mark two events: Teacher Appreciation Week and Mental Health Awareness Month. This has been the official week to show our appreciation for teachers, May 3rd–May 7th, although I think we can all agree that our valued educators should be shown our gratitude at all times! I mentioned in last week’s Sabbath Message that there is an interesting tie-in with the Jewish calendar for this event. Last week, when we observed Lag B’Omer – the 33rd day of the Omer – we noted that this usually falls near secular Teacher Appreciation. Indeed, they are related, as there is a reverence to Jewish learning paid on that day to the great sages who continued to learn and teach Torah, despite being forbidden to do so by the Romans. In addition, May also marks Mental Health Awareness Month, and as we will see, there is an important relationship there to be discussed, as well. More lessons learned from this year.

Being a teacher is never an easy job, but this year, what is a difficult, undervalued, and underpaid profession by our society, became almost impossible to fulfill successfully. Essentially, what started as a regular challenge, turned into a Herculean task, with an incredible toll taken not only on teachers, but on their families, and on students and their families. As an educator myself I can tell you, it can be very hard to hold the attention of students in the classroom or lecture hall – how much more so behind a computer screen over Zoom, when it may be the case that you cannot even see many of the faces of your students, as they do not wish to be seen in their own environments for a variety of reasons. Inequities which we knew were there became even more apparent when students did not have adequate devices to use for school – or internet access. Teachers did their best, but for many of them, it was just too much – and they could not continue. I watched a CBS News interview with a panel of teachers speaking about the impact this year had on them and their families – and it was heartbreaking. Watching helplessly as their students fell further behind, the fears of contracting COVID, pressures on their own families. And huge gratitude must also go to those who became teachers this year, who never expected the job: parents, grandparents, siblings, caregivers. All who did their best in a job they were not trained for, often while trying to do their primary job.    
Think back to your favorite, most inspiring teachers – the educators who changed your life. For me, it was the extraordinary English teacher at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles who literally taught me how to write. The skills I learned from him set me on a road for college, graduate school and my thesis, and ultimately my career. Every time something I’m writing seems to work, I think of him. For Jewish scholars with whom I have been fortunate to study, two stand out from the group. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a giant figure in Judaism’s Conservative Movement, a philosopher, a theologian, a lawyer, and a bioethicist, he helped me to understand Conservative Judaism within the framework of Judaism as a whole. One concept I particularly recall learning from him was the idea of Continuous Revelation – the notion that the Torah was not revealed at one moment in time on Mount Sinai, but continually revealed throughout time and the generations, and throughout our own lives as well, through our study. I love this idea, as it has guided me in my understanding of our Torah and the inconsistencies in the text. A leader in the Reform Movement, Rabbi David Ellenson was my professor at Hebrew Union College, while I was getting one of my master’s degrees, before he became President of the university. His fields of study are Jewish History and Modern Jewish Thought, but it was his passion for Jewish history for which I will always remember him and the gift he gave me for taking the lessons from the past and applying them to the present, so that the path to the future becomes more certain. Of course, I’m glad that I stood my ground with him, as I would likely not be here today writing to you, since he was determined that I move forward with a Ph.D. in Jewish History! Finally, I must mention my favorite teachers of all: my parents, Rabbi Paul Dubin and Esther Dubin. Both wonderful Jewish educators, whose voices are always with me – in every program we plan, every holiday we commemorate, every Jewish value we recall and incorporate.

Finally, perhaps it is no accident that May is Mental Health Awareness Month, as I believe there is an important relationship between our teachers and schools regarding mental health. Among the many lessons we have learned from this pandemic is the importance of mental health awareness and support. We have always known these issues have been present, but the crisis of the pandemic has increased them, and in its wake, our need for this support is more than ever. We know, for example, that the number of adults experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders has TRIPLED in one year. And we believe it is event more so for teens. This year’s theme of Mental Health Awareness Month is Tools 2 Thrive, focusing on practical tools we can all use to increase our resiliency. A few basic things to keep in mind: focus on those things you can control; stay connected to others; get outdoors/exercise; sleep and eat well; take time for yourself/find ways to relax. Mindful meditation is often cited as an excellent tool to increase mental health and well-being. We invite you to join our program – Renee is a wonderful guide, another teacher to cherish!

Wishing you all a peaceful Sabbath – and a Happy Mother’s Day (our mothers were teachers, too),

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW, MAJCS
Director, Jewish Family Service
Image caption: In this classic Roman Vishniac photograph of a Polish cheder in pre-War Europe, the personality of the charismatic Rebbe comes through as he teaches Torah to his young pupils.