Rabbi Edelman with students.
One of my favorite teaching memories is from when I taught preschool years ago, and was leading a class of 3 year-olds to look at the inside of a real Torah after a unit on Simchat Torah. We had passed around a stuffed Torah during davening/prayer circle time, and we always urged the children to take this special time to talk to Hashem (G-d) because he loved to hear what they have to say. Their faces as they examined the scroll were literally beaming with joy, and my heart was so full watching them have such a delightful Jewish experience.
Creating a joyful experience in the Jewish classroom is important, because we’re not just imparting information and developing study skills, but encouraging our children to develop a relationship that we hope holds meaning for them - to the extent that it guides their decisions throughout their entire lives! We hope that this relationship affects both minor everyday choices, as well as major milestone decisions as well.
The use of joy in our service to G-d is something that our sages throughout the generations have encouraged us to embrace. The Psalms, in chapter 100:2, urge us to “Serve G-d with joy, come before Him with exultation.” The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, explained, “The happiness itself is your service of G‑d.”
This joy that we experience has to be nurtured – and it is humbling to realize that we have a huge responsibility as educators to cultivate this relationship, which helps us keep our focus in the classroom. Every unit, every activity, and every tidbit of information we share with our students must be infused with the message of love and joy. (Additionally, it can certainly re-frame our approach to working through challenging behaviors in the classroom!)
Developing this positive relationship requires depth as well, in order to make it last. Every lesson we prepare must contain quality content. Our fun activities and games should be backed with learning and information that further develops their appreciation of their role in their relationship with G-d. When we plan a unit on Tu B'shvat, it isn't just a holiday that celebrates trees, but we explore it as another way for us to deepen a special bond that we have with Hashem.
The message we communicate to our students is that every single mitzvah (commandment) they do, even the ones that ask us to refrain from something, is a way to show Hashem that we care. Every time we eat Kosher food/abstain from non-kosher food, visit a sick friend, kiss the Torah in shul (synagogue) on Shabbat, etc., it’s like sending a little card to Hashem, and it makes Hashem so happy…beyond what we can even imagine!
Investment in a relationship brings true, lasting joy. When our students realize the deep connection that they already have, and the myriad of mitzvot that they can do to create a further connection, this relationship brings a joy, a joy like the 3 year old seeing the inside of the Torah for the first time, after learning about what the Torah means to them and Hashem.
May we, as educators, merit to be successful in our role of helping our students develop meaningful, enduring and joyful bond with G-d.
Chava Edelman is the director of the Milwaukee Community Hebrew School (affiliated with The Shul in Bayside).