Commentary: Soul Doctors
[Samson] Benderly liked to tell the story about how [in 1900] he broke the news to Dr. Friedenwald that he was leaving medicine to devote himself completely to [Jewish education]. Friedenwald apparently responded by checking Benderly’s pulse to determine whether he was ill. He and his associates considered Benderly’s career decision to be “suicidal” and attempted to dissuade him. “You know, Dr. Friedenwald,” Benderly is said to have retorted, “healers of the body there are many, but there are very few healers of the soul, and I want to try my hand at that.”
Jonathan Krasner, The Benderly Boys & American Jewish Education
Dr. Dan Glass, head of school, The Brandeis School of San Francisco:
The word “heal” in English traces its origins to our language’s deepest past, going all the way back through the Germanic branch of our linguistic family tree to the Proto-Indo-European root word kailo-, which meant whole, or of good portent. That “k” became an “h” sound somewhere over the millennia, and today our English is scattered with kailo’s descendants: whole, hale, health, heal, hallow, even holy. Like Samson Benderly, my path into Jewish educational leadership began with recognizing a need: seeing that “educating the whole child” as we did in independent schools still left so many kids unmoored and burning out amid the adolescent onslaught of stress, anxiety or drug abuse. I found myself drawn to work in an educational model that would address the spiritual development of children not as an ancillary benefit, but as central to the project. Certainly, this election season has reminded us of the need to make our democracy whole, and I believe that work begins in the healing, holy work of education.
Avi Baran Munro, head of school, Community Day School, Pittsburgh:
Throughout Jewish history there have been critical moments when choosing learning was the only way to save Jewish lives. Ben Gamla, in the first century CE, noted with alarm that the ancient system of Torah learning would be extinguished and Torah would be forgotten if only male, wealthy children of educated fathers had access to learning. He created the first known system of public Torah education to afford everyone access and spread Jewish literacy throughout the Jewish people. In 70 CE, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai engineered the life-saving transplant of the heart of Judaism from the destroyed Temple to the academy of Yavneh, giving rise to the post-Temple rabbinic tradition that created the Judaism we recognize in our homes, synagogues, schools and communities today. In Jewish history, the life-saving doctors are indeed the educators who keep Jewish learning alive and relevant for the current generation and the ones to follow.
We are now, once again, at a critical moment in our history where it is clear that Jewish day school educators have in their hands nothing less consequential than the Jewish future. I challenge the Jewish world to not squander this moment and to put the community’s resources solidly behind their Jewish day schools that are the soul, heart, and home of tomorrow’s Jewish communities.
Rabbi Yehuda Jeiger, associate principal, Bi-Cultural Day School, Stamford, CT:
Approximately, a century after Benderly made his famous inexplicable proclamation, I found myself in a somewhat analogous situation, making a similar declaration and receiving almost the exact same perplexed response (from my family). I am sure we faced many of the same questions: How could we give up the prestige, honor and lavish lifestyle that generally accompany the medical profession? Why would we waste our time in a stagnant field thought to be reserved for those who lacked the ambition to do anything else? Today, nearly two decades after making that life-altering decision, I feel so blessed to be work in a Jewish day school during an era of unprecedented growth in pedagogy and practices of Jewish education. At Bi-Cultural Day School, we are blazing a trail of transformation, growth and innovation—a trail started by idealistic pioneers, such as Benderly over 100 years ago. With the enormous investment of our incredible staff and the abundance of resources that are readily available through the efforts of organizations such as Prizmah, I feel that we are truly living in a time where carrying out our holy calling will bear their most meaningful fruits. At the end of the day, to us “healers of the soul,” it’s not about the income—it’s all about the outcome!
Naomi Lev, head of school, Denver Academy of Torah:
When I started my teaching career, there was a tremendous push from people around me to teach in public schools, because I would be able to retire after twenty years and collect a pension. I remember the arguments so clearly, people telling me that I could transition later to Jewish education. My response then is the same as it is now: Education, and education of Jewish students, is my clear passion and it is where we should be applying our talents. We enter Jewish education to be able to feed the mind and the soul, and we stay because we are truly providers preparing our students to live rich lives full of knowledge, Torah, inspiration, passion and a love of learning.