by Samanthan Vinokor-Meinrath –

I am someone who embraces the awkward. I’m a Jewish educator – I’m up for singing off-key whenever the occasion calls for it, wearing ridiculous costumes for the sake of teachable moments, and will even take one for the team and partake in a human knot if called upon. Like many of us, I’m at once happy to make small talk with literally anyone, and to get more personal than one might naturally be ready for, thanks to an overabundance of ice breakers and sharing circles. These are the fun awkward moments that lead to the stories that make me a sought-after guest at Shabbat dinner tables.

But then there’s the overabundance of really potentially awkward moments that I encounter as an educator.

  • Moments when I have to figure out how to address the #MeToo movement with high schoolers.
  • Moments when I’m standing in front of a group that I know includes children whose families are administrators in the Trump White House, and those who were staffers under Obama [an occupational hazard of working in the Washington, DC area].
  • Moments when I’m called upon to make teens feel safe entering Jewish speakers in the wake of the Etz Chayim/Tree of Life shooting, while holding the multiple truths that some of them are passionate about gun control and others may not be.
  • Moments when I can’t assume a shared understanding of Israel’s role in the Jewish experience, or the gender identities of my learners, or literally anything about the perspective and potential baggage that they’re walking into the room with.

So, as educators, how do we handle this? How do we create spaces where these meta questions and existential conversations can be appropriately nurtured in a Jewish way? How do we ensure that we are safe presences for our learners to explore the questions that are most relevant to their lives and the world they live in today?

I don’t claim to have all the answers. But in my own exploration of the questions, I’ve come up with a few best practices that I’m excited to share here.

Bring it back to the texts.

The Jewish canon is seriously our biggest blessing. In Pirkei Avot, we are told in relation to the Torah that “Ben Bag-Bag used to say: Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” 100% of the time, when I teach literally any contemporary topic, I’ve found that, without reaching too far, I’m able to find numerous relevant texts from Jewish tradition that speak to it. No matter how seemingly new or obscure the conversation is, there’s a way to bring it back to Jewish texts, and therefore to provide a context for your teaching and the conversations that it provokes. My favorite resource for this is

Mahkloket b’shem shamayim.

This phrase translates to arguments for the sake of heaven, and is representative of sacred disagreements in the Jewish tradition. When multiple perspectives are seen as valid and are argued respectfully, thoughtfully, and with a shared understanding of being done so for honorable purposes. Introduce what it means to disagree constructively and from a place of thought. My favorite resource for this is the content produced by Pardes.

Own your own biases and perspectives.

I believe in taking off your mask as an educator, and naming where you come from. Trust your learners, and tell them where you stand on the issues in question – not to sway them or even to show solidarity necessarily, but rather to be vulnerable and authentic along with them, and to provide an understanding of why you’re operating the way you are in these conversations.

Be willing to draw boundaries.

The above are all very meta, foundational ideas about multiple perspectives as a positive value-add. And I believe in them wholeheartedly, but at the same time, as individuals and as representatives of our organizations/communities, I also recognize that each of us has boundaries and perspectives that are beyond the pale of what we’re comfortable with giving legitimacy to, particularly when it comes to some of the hot-button issues of today. That’s ok – as long as it’s communicated clearly, respectfully, and with consistency. If there’s a boundary you want to draw, feel empowered to do that.

If you’re interested in considering how to have the awkward conversations in a way that isn’t actually awkward, I encourage you to join me for my latest Gratz NEXT class: Navigating and Nurturing Complicated Conversations with Teens. We’ll be talking about all the hot topics + potential minefields – consent, #MeToo, gun control, Israel, identity development, politics – and how to approach them through a nuanced Jewish lens. Gratz NEXT classes are fully online, asynchronous learning opportunities geared towards supplementary Jewish educators, and I’d love to see you there!

This article was initially published on Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath’s personal blog. Click here to read the original and be sure to sign up for her newsletter!