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Non-Jewish Teacher: What I’ve Learned Teaching Modern Orthodox Jewish Kids

Selim Tlili is a High School Science Teacher at Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox day school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

In an article he has written for Aish.com, Selim talks about what he has learned while teaching there.

Warning: if you are an antisemite, you might want to look away now.

I grew up in New York City, so I thought I had a generally good understanding of what it meant to be Jewish, as far as a Gentile like me could understand.

But teaching biology at Ramaz, an Orthodox Jewish school, this past year showed me how little I knew.

I was bowled over by the students’ collective fearlessness when it came to discussing ideas and debating their points without fear.

This is rather different from what I have experienced at other schools where the unspoken rule was to avoid or minimize discussing issues that could be potential hot buttons.

Students in the past have confided in me that they are nervous expressing their points of view out of fear that they will be shunned or canceled. I don’t know what is in a student’s heart and mind, but at Ramaz not once have I had a student share fears like that with me.

Jewish culture embraces discussion, argumentation and hearing various points of view and that helps to prevent or at least minimize that kind of idea policing. As part of the culture, students study the Talmud and they learn to read multiple interpretations and commentaries of Torah passages. These students have grown up in a world where it is normal and expected for people to have strong perspectives on important issues, but it’s also expected that your point of view be supported by more than feelings – there needs to be evidence and logic to support your conclusion.

These students have grown into a culture that says, “In order to get closer to the truth, at least as best as humans can approximate it, it’s important to hear multiple perspectives.” This kind of outlook and education is rather different than what many students experience at other educational institutions where they may be less likely to hear or appreciate the idea that respectable people can have differing points of view.

Growing up in a culture that demands logical, refined thinking results in students who may get annoyed at one another for their points of view but don’t feel the need to ostracize someone who dissents from the consensus. I have not once seen a student who felt like they couldn’t share their opinion on an issue in a class. This kind of fearlessness is refreshing, and all too rare.

As important as being able to discuss academic and philosophical issues, the most important thing about education is how it can help challenge a person to go out into the world and make it better because of their engagement. I have seen firsthand the importance Ramaz places on helping students develop this sense of mission and caring about others.

Students talked about their experiences on service trips where they helped renovate houses in New Orleans. On this particular trip students went down to the Lower 9th Ward, an area that still echoes the effects of Hurricane Katrina. They worked all week to renovate homes that were water damaged. Additionally, the students cooked and served over 150 homeless people.

It seems like every week there is a new initiative to help other people. Whether it is toy drives or fundraisers, the spirit of giving permeates this institution and strongly influences students to offer the best of themselves to the world from a young age.

I have taken away a lot of wonderful experiences teaching at Ramaz this year…I’m a better teacher and, hopefully, a bit more of a mensch thanks to my time within the Orthodox community.

Read the entire thing.

As a Modern Orthodox Jew myself, none of this surprises me. These are the values and actions I know and love.

About the author

Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
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