I often questioned my goals when I was actively a principal of a Hebrew day school. When my students graduated from my school, what expectations would make me satisfied enough to say that I have done an admirable job and feel proud of my students.
If one were to ask this question to different principals they might respond by saying that they feel accomplished when their students do well on the Board of Jewish education entrance examination (BJE’s) or are accepted to the highest track in the High school that they apply to. Often they feel proud when their students are awarded scholarships or are singled out for excellence in the academic fields.
While these accomplishments are important, in my mind they are not the main objective and achievement that one should strive for in the field of Jewish education.
I have fond memories of my trips to Israel with my eighth grade classes for over twenty-five years. It was a two-week study tour, in which the students prepared for an entire year, taking a yearlong survey course in Jewish history and a review, in relative detail, of the places that they will be visiting in Israel and their history. The trip was an intensive two weeks in which my students traveled the length and breadth of Israel, starting daily at six in the early morning and returning to their base Hotel at ten in the evening. The tour brought into focus the history of our people and brought alive a subject that was relatively vague for the students.
In the last day of one of these trips we visited the Holocaust museum of Yad Vashem and we took a guided tour of this remarkable place.
My goal was not to just be escorted around by anyone, but rather to be led by someone who was passionate about the subject and of being a Jew.
Rabbi Hanoch Teller was that person. A man who has written many books and an expert in the field, he confidentially weaved in and out of the crowds at the museum and took my students on a journey they long remembered. After two and a half hours he looked up at me and remarked:
“Rabbi Weiss. I lead four to five groups daily around this museum. I guide high school students as well as university students – older adults and parents – and I must tell you that your children are outstanding! Most kids after this length of time cannot concentrate any longer, but your students are remarkable in their interest and focus.”
And I remember asking myself, how are we so successful in developing such sensitive students?
The answer came to me as an epiphany.
“It is because we touched their neshama, their soul.”
As we proceeded from the museum we continued to the cemetery on Mount Herzl. There my students sat around in a circle as the guide told them stories of the heroes of our people. The children were noticeably moved to tears. They shared with our guide Yoni the challenges and the sufferings of our people.
Once again we touched their neshama.
When we were about to leave Jerusalem on our way to the airport we stopped at the Kotel to say our good-byes and to pray one last time before we returned to the states. The emotion was palpable. The children were all moved to tears.
I also was swept up in the sentiment of the time and I too began to say Tehillim, praying to Almighty G-d. As I was completing my davening one of my students came near me and I overheard him praying.
He was addressing the Kotel as he wept:
“Kotel, I promise that I will come back to you next year. And if I don’t I will see you certainly after I graduate high school.”
Seven years later, this boy returned to Israel and is now serving in the Israel army.
If one would ask me what my goals were when a child graduated our school, I would say forthrightly, if I can succeed to touch each child’s neshama and leave within them the spark of our Torah and our people, then that would be my greatest accomplishment.
And indeed, I touched their neshama.