The Differences We Make

In Baltimore’s Ner Israel Yeshivah, in whose yeshivah gedolah I was fortunate to study in the 1970s, the custom was that each beis medrash bachur would learn during night seder with a high school-age boy. I enjoyed the experience and it probably set me on a path to become a mechanech, in which role I was privileged to serve for nearly two decades.

At least one of my night-seder chavrusos, as it happened, followed me into the field of Jewish education, becoming, as I learned years later, the principal of a middle school in New England and then of a Bais Yaakov in Rockland County, the position he currently occupies.

I had only seen him once since our youths, when I was a rebbi and principal in Providence, Rhode Island, where he had brought a group of students from his school there for a Shabbos. That, though, was more than 25 years ago and so, it was a special pleasure to find myself at a meeting not long ago that, as it happened, took place in his home. It was an even greater pleasure to hear what he told me when he took me aside before the meeting began.

“You should know,” he told me, “that something you said when I brought those kids changed the life of at least one of them.” He went on to recount that a young woman among the group had discovered that, although she was raised as a Jew, she did not meet the halachic standard of Jewishness. At the time of the visit, she was deeply conflicted about whether she wanted to become a giyores or just accept her non-Jewish status and forge a life apart from the Orthodox Jewish world.

According to my former chavrusa, the young women he had brought from his school joined the Providence Bais Yaakov for Shabbos seudos, one of which my wife and I and our daughters were invited to attend. He told me that I spoke to the group about the parashah and, although I had been oblivious to the presence of a potential giyores, had made some reference to illustrious geirim and descendants of geirim in Klal Yisrael.

“It made a tremendous impact on her,” my former chavrusa told me, and recounted how the girl went ahead with the giyur shortly afterward and went on to get married and move to Eretz Yisrael, where she is the mother of a large and wonderful family.

The story, as might be imagined, warmed my heart. The only problem was that I had no recollection of ever having spoken to the group, or of speaking about geirim to any group of visitors. I strongly suspect that the orator at issue had been one of my wonderful colleagues in Providence at the time. Whatever.

But the story, whomever it concerned, was one worth pondering, and still is.

One can never know the effect of an offhand encouraging word or positive comment. If we think about our own lives, most of us can readily remember something said by a teacher, parent, friend or even a stranger, that subtly (or not so subtly) put us on this road rather than that one. Sometimes it may even, as the famous Robert Frost poem goes, have made all the difference.

Unfortunately, the same, it must be thought as well, is true about discouraging or negative comments; the difference they can make can be devastating. Anyone who is thinking of entering the field of chinuch needs to realize that, while being a Jewish educator relieves one of many of the ethical challenges of other professions — doctors, lawyers and businessmen face all sorts of dilemmas — there are dangers in the seemingly idyllic vocation of teaching Torah too. Like the possibility of inadvertently saying or doing something that might negatively affect a young person.

I might not remember saying many of the things that erstwhile students of mine have told me made a positive difference in their lives. But I remember more than a thing or two I said in frustration or under pressure that certainly could have, chalilah, had the opposite effect. And those students won’t likely call to let me know.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” Shlomo Hamelech informs us (Mishlei 18:21). And while that organ may be physically soft and feeble, it can have the effect of a protective fortress or a sharpened dagger.

An important realization for every mechanech. Actually, no less important for us all.