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Dear Rabbi,

The last time you heard from me was about 35 years ago when I graduated high school. Today I’m 51, married, and my kids are almost through with college, but I must admit I do think about you from time to time. Up until age 18, the only association I ever had with rabbis was either getting thrown out of one of their classes or getting in trouble for talking during davening.


Because I suffered from learning disabilities and had a healthy dose of ADHD, I was not a pleasure to deal with. Every morning from 1977-1989, I dreaded sitting in any of your classes. You were boring me to death, forcing me to memorize Aramaic words from a book I could barely understand, or learning to conjugate Hebrew words for yet another impatient Israeli teacher who should never have taken the job.

A pulpit rabbi? To me, that was someone who lectured and pounded on his lectern about something that I could hardly connect with. And of course, who can forget the ceremonial bar mitzvah siddurim presented to every bar mitzvah boy from pulpit rabbis who hardly knew our names. Heck, they even started a Talmud Hebrew summer school for five rejects – of which I was a card-carrying member.

Recently I got together with some old high school buddies and we started to reminisce. “Hey, I was just wondering what you thought of the rabbis we had in high school?” One friend’s response? “I don’t really think about them, but I guess if I did, I think most of them were very religious people who didn’t know how to connect with us. It seems like they were more interested in grades and disciplining us.”

I can honestly and regrettably say that up until I graduated high school, every conversation I had with rabbis always involved my grades, or rather my lack of them. I can’t recall any exchanges that endeared me to Torah observance. No rabbi ever asked me, “So Avi, what do you feel about G-d? Do you actually believe He wrote the Torah (many Orthodox children don’t, and then we wonder why the numbers are dropping) or what happens when we die?”

Of course, a rabbi is hired to teach, but again, I believe a rebbe’s ultimate spiritual goal is to bring kids closer, or at the very least, not push them away, as many inadvertently do. But when the dialogue seems to be: “Why are you out of class? Where’s your tzitzit? I’m sending another referral home for being late to davening” – well, let’s just say, it doesn’t warm the heart.

Another guy said: “Honestly Avi, I seriously cannot remember too many rabbis back in high school who seemed to actually care about me personally. Except for one guy. Rabbi B.

I immediately knew who he was talking about. A very gentle, unassuming rabbi that everyone loved at the Hebrew Academy. He was under the radar, and yet whenever his name comes up, every student always has a wonderful thing to say about him. The fact that he was genuinely funny certainly helped, and I too felt the very same way about him. I can’t quite recall anything that he taught me, but I do recall that he spoke to us in a nonjudgmental caring way. In fact, it was that caring nature that might have saved this 18-year-old so many years ago.

A long time ago, in a galaxy not far away, I attended a high school party where they had dancers who were dressed (and eventually undressed). Although I’m ashamed when I think about it now, I failed to see my actions at the time. After the party, I received a phone call from Rabbi B. to come to his home at night. On the drive over, I couldn’t help but think, “Uh oh, what did I do now?” When I arrived, he asked me about the party, and I immediately became defensive, explaining that I just showed up as a guest, and that I had nothing to do with it. And then he did something I had, up to that point, never experienced: he treated me with kindness. Rather than lecture, threaten or judge me, he gently spent the next hour trying to convey the holiness within each Jew. He explained the idea that even if a woman chose to behave this way, that I, as a holy Jew, shouldn’t contribute to her delinquency. In other words, I was, on some level, part of her degradation.

At the time I couldn’t process most of the information, but he made an indelible impression on me. This rabbi chucked away his ego and “rulebook” and simply cared enough to go out of his way to try and bring me closer to G-d. Juxtapose that with a rabbi who once challenged me in yeshiva because I admitted to brushing my teeth on Shabbat. “You think you’re religious, Ciment?”

Once again, rather than try and bring me closer to G-d through words of encouragement and love, he chose to denigrate a teenager. Momma always told me that you get more bees with honey than vinegar….

Sometimes, I think about some of those moments as lost opportunities because ego and “rules” got in the way of connecting with a student. I know sometimes when I speak in high schools, there’s usually a few rowdy kids who disrupt me. I used to immediately go on the attack, until I found out that many of these kids are actually my biggest fans, just hyper and capricious.

Back in the day, I knew students who were caught with cigarettes or perhaps went to a pizza store with a girl, and were thrown out of yeshiva. They are lost for now. Perhaps if the rabbis had taken a different approach, one based on love and tolerance, as opposed to one of rigidity and harsh judgment, things might have turned out differently.

So how did my attitude change to the point where I am? Well, I spent my gap year in a yeshiva in Israel and was introduced to a new kind of rabbi: a rebbe.

Big difference.

No longer was I constantly being harassed for not paying attention or failing another test. These guys actually cared about me. Now, I could literally learn Torah for the sake of learning. I spent many hours educating myself and I began to see a rabbi as a friend, not the enemy. I realized that many rebbes are grossly underpaid, overworked and worse, and forced to deal with entitled, spoiled brats – kind of like the way I used to be. The class sizes are huge and there’s not a whole lot of time to forge a closeness with your students. Add to that the fact that most parents who send their kids to day school aren’t looking for their kids to “frum out.” Still, even within these limitations, you can have a tremendous impact.

Isn’t it interesting that the biggest impressions made on me by rabbis rarely happened in the classroom? My high school rebbe is a huge talmid chacham and has tons of students, yet still finds time to text his old students for one primary reason: he cares. Wow! What a zechus! In my old yeshiva, there was a greatly admired man named Rabbi Mendelovitch. I can’t recall anything he ever taught but we all remembered his genuine kindness and infectious smile.

So, the next time you get the urge to stroke your beard, pound a desk and send some kids to the principal’s office, remind yourself what your ultimate goal is. To bring them closer, not further from Torah and mitzvot, chas v’shalom.

Maya Angelou once noted that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

(This article originally appeared in the Jewish Link.)


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Avi Ciment lectures throughout the world and has just finished his second book, Real Questions Real Answers, and can be reached at