By Nancy Alexander
I am from Richmond, VA, a classic “out of town” community. We have to stick together, pool resources, and collaborate in order to keep our little world of Jewish life afloat. Coming to Yeshiva University has been an incredible and eye opening experience. Who knew there could be so many Jews in one place that you need tens of high schools to accommodate them all? Apparently you have to get into highschool? I’ve certainly been enjoying this broader and richer community, as well as all the resources and opportunities that it has to offer, but I can’t pretend I don’t miss my little oasis of Southern Jewry at home.
Soon after my arrival at Stern, I discovered the MafTEACH Fellowship. It is the brain-child of Rabbi Yehuda Chanales, and runs under the auspices of the new YU Chinuch Incubator. MafTEACH is an opportunity for students considering or, as Rabbi Chanales put it, “those considering considering,” Jewish education to learn more about the field. Groups are paired with different communities across America (Atlanta, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Seattle, and more) and spend long weekends there throughout the year. Students spend time in the schools on Friday meeting with teachers, students, administrators, and even do a little bit of teaching. Shabbat is spent in the community and students are provided opportunities to inspire with shiurim (classes) and programming throughout.
I was excited about the prospect of exploring a new and different Jewish community and have enjoyed spending Shabattot in Atlanta, GA. This has offered me a much needed escape from the unfamiliar landscape of New York.
Our first debrief session was a few weeks ago. After having such a positive experience, I was excited to hear from my peers and find out about the communities they had visited. The participants of this program are fairly representative of the broader YU student body in that the majority of them are from the New York/New Jersey area. Of course I know that there is a difference between “in-town” and “out of town,” but I had always experienced that dichotomy from the “out-of-town” perspective. It was fascinating to hear my peers who had never been exposed to out-of-town communities reflect on their experiences.
There was a general consensus that the teacher/student relationships in these communities are qualitatively different from those in “in-town” schools. Ora Hochberg, who visits Fuchs Mizrachi in Cleveland, explained, “I grew up in Teaneck, so I am used to the experience of a large Jewish community. In Cleveland, it is a totally different ballgame. The students see their teachers at Shul, at the ice cream store, and on a Shabbos afternoon. In this type of community, the teachers become so much more than just the adults who teach them Torah within the walls of a classroom. The teachers become role models and mentors for living a Torah life.” She is absolutely right. I can’t believe I needed a girl from New Jersey to explain to me what makes my community so special.
When Ora told me her impression of Cleveland I was a bit confused. “Isn’t that what every school is like?” I asked. And her answer was a resounding “No.” In communities which lack the resources which are commonplace “in-town”, community members are forced to inhabit many different roles. Consequently, they get to see one another in various different settings, as Ora described. Perhaps in a larger community your understanding of your fellow Jew is more fragmented. This is the hatazala guy, this is the mashgiach. People become limited to the roles which you see them fill, but they rarely become more than that. In an “out-of-town” community, we are privileged to experience one another within the broader context of our lives, as opposed to in isolated roles.
To see a person of the sum of their composite parts and to understand all of the different components and layers of their identity makes for a richer and deeper understanding of that person. I want to encourage all of you to get out of town. Literally, come for shabbos! But also metaphorically. It doesn’t require a trip to Cleveland or Atlanta to view people as more than the minute aspects which we have been exposed to, but if it is not built into the structure of your community it may require conscious effort. I challenge you to find out more about the people you interact with, whether it’s fellow students, coworkers, or someone at your shul. Do a little digging, challenge yourself to see beyond your limited interactions with them and engage the layered and deep person who stands in front of you.
Ultimately we must turn the “out of town” perspective back on ourselves. This is really the goal of the MafTEACH Fellowship. Rabbi Chanales told me, “Many young people assume that they can only succeed if they are like teacher X or work in school Y.” When you see people through such a narrow lense you may come to limit yourself as well. To broaden your perspective, focus on engaging a whole person; allowing them to surprise you will allow you to do the same inwardly. You may be surprised at the person you can become when you are no longer limited by your own self-perception.