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Bonding and Boundaries: Jewish Educators as Role Models for Jewish Teens
I never made a conscious decision to become a Jewish educator. There was no proverbial “a-ha moment,” or lightning bolt flash that triggered an existential awareness of my life’s calling. Instead, there was a series of individuals who inspired me, motivated me, and who each took an interest in me that brought me a step along the winding path towards my current reality of Jewish communal professional. Most of those individuals came into my life during my high school years – those profoundly awkward, transformational days when relationships are everything, and you never know what will trigger a lifelong affinity.
To work with Jewish teenagers is to walk on a tightrope, simultaneously filling the roles of teacher, spiritual leader, best friend, guidance counselor, older sibling, and baby-sitter, amongst others. The “and other responsibilities as assigned” part of the job description is often the most accurate, with a glance at my to do list equally likely to include brainstorming ice breakers, creating source sheets, figuring out how to convince unaffiliated teens to participate in supplementary Jewish learning, and watching television shows that I am decidedly not the target audience for so as to stay updated on the trends that speak to my learners. All of this is done with the core goals in mind of achieving what every educator I know seeks to: meeting learners where they are, building authentic relationships between them, myself, and the Jewish canon, and ultimately having some meaningful impact on their ongoing Jewish identity development.
In his treatise on Jewish experiential education (The Philosophy of Informal Jewish Education), Barry Chazan describes the role of what he refers to as informal Jewish education’s holistic educator: a total personality who educates by words, deeds, and by shaping a culture of Jewish values and experience. He/she is a person-centered educator whose focus is on learners and whose goal is their personal growth. For educators who work with teens, particularly in informal or experiential settings, the all-encompassing nature of the work of education can easily lead to blurred lines between professional and learner. In some ways, this shaky boundary is encouraged by Jewish tradition.
Pirkei Avot gives us a widely quoted teaching: Make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend, and judge each person favorably (Pirkei Avot 1:6). This popular phrase is regularly used to encourage the building of personal relationships between educators and learners, which is a good thing. It is known that positive relationships with mentors lead to teens that are more likely to exhibit favorable outcomes relating to education, work, reduced problem behavior, psychological well-being, and health. But in an era of ever-increasing concern about liability, and the setting of boundaries, not to mention work-life balance, what can Jewish educators do to ensure that they maintain reasonable and healthy limits in their roles?
Set expectations: From the beginning of your relationship with any group of adolescent learners, it’s important to set expectations, not just for technical details, but also for the sake of the relationships themselves. Share what it means for you to be a mandated reporter, and what details you may or may not be able to keep confidential. Lay the foundation for building relationships that align with your values as an educator. It’s up to you and your organization to decide what this means – I’ve told learners that I’m here for them inside and outside of our professional relationships, but reminded them that once I know something I am not able to un-know it. So while it may have been exciting to tell me about a budding romance on the first night of a weekend Shabbaton, if a few weeks or months down the road, unhealthy behaviors manifest in that relationship, I can’t pretend not to know. My door is always open, but it may not close as tightly once we’ve stepped through it.
Share of yourself (within reason): One of the greatest gifts that we can give our learners is our authenticity and vulnerability. Rather than creating an educator persona of an unflappable paragon, allow your learners a peek behind the proverbial curtain. Particularly as it relates to your own Jewish journey to date, bring them into your narrative, the questions you’re grappling with, and the complexities of your identity. When I first started teaching teens about Israel, I considered it my role to be the constant devil’s advocate. I was proud of being able to complete an entire eight week class without any of my students knowing my real politics, because I wanted to ensure that whatever their perspectives on the various topics at hand were, they didn’t feel influenced by me or uncomfortable expressing an alternative point of view. While this worked well, when I switched techniques, and after laying out the rules for a safe, dissent-friendly environment, opted to share my own point of view and the experiences that inform it, I was rewarded with teens who felt closer to me, asked more pointed, mature questions, and were able to not only grapple with the content, but also with the adult challenge of respecting each other across disagreements.
Embrace teachable moments: When it comes to bonding with Jewish teenagers, there are very few hard and fast rules. There will be times when over-sharing happens. You may find out more than you wanted to about the romantic relationships of your teens, or their home lives, or the perennial dramas that plague adolescents. As long as what you’ve learned isn’t a cry for help or a danger of some kind, it may be an opportunity for education and reflection. Lean into the Jewish canon, our sources and traditions, and find ways to connect individual dilemmas to the bigger picture of your work. Friend drama? Time to talk about hevruta! The daunting expectations of the ever-looming college choice, for teens who may not have figured out what they’re looking for in life? Bring in Rabbi Akiva, who started on a new career path/passion project/life calling at age forty. The list goes on, and each topic can be filtered through the lens of your experiences, relationships, and connections.
Find your tribe: Lean on the network of Jewish educators and professionals in your community, and work together on developing and sharing best practices for building meaningful relationships while maintaining appropriate boundaries in your work. When we’re asked to bring our full selves to the learning environment, it’s important, exhausting work. Every Jewish educator knows what it’s like to have people leaning on you, counting on you, expecting things of you above and beyond what you may be prepared to give. So cultivating accountability partners, hevruta learning pairs, mentors, and friends is critical in maintaining perspective and having your own space to be introspective, just as you are offering to your learners.
Jewish adolescents often enter into educational spaces seeking connection, relevance, and meaning. Working with them is a sacred responsibility that gives practitioners the opportunity to make a direct impact on the lives of individuals at critical pivot points in their development. Finding the balance between being supportive, open presences in their lives and maintaining appropriate and comfortable boundaries can be a constant negotiation with morals, ever-changing circumstances, and shifting priorities. At its core, Jewish education is a field built on gray areas. There is very little black and white in our lives. Instead, we wrestle, we debate, we struggle, and we ultimately embrace the complexities that bring us the meaning and beauty that we seek.
by Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath
Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath is a lifelong Jewish learner and educator. After four years at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, she recently joined the team at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, where she oversees numerous teen engagement initiatives. Samantha is currently completing her EdD in Jewish Educational Leadership at Gratz College, where her research focuses on identity development in unengaged Jewish high school students. Samantha’s writing, consulting, and freelance work can be found at