As educators, we always hope that our students are engaged with the work we give them while they learn in our classrooms. But to what end? It’s safe to say that we are always striving to teach them something that will be meaningful and relevant to their lives. In Jewish education, we also aim to strengthen their identities as Jews. But is it too presumptuous to hope that what we teach them can also help them find a sense of their life’s purpose? What if what a student wants to do with their life seems irrelevant to their education or is too “unrealistic” to pursue? 

Just as a rich and meaningful education often means thinking outside of the box, so too does looking for unique and unprecedented ways to apply what a student learns in the classroom to their life’s deepest sense of purpose. Doing so is not only an important job for an educator – it is also the Jewish way. 

Living with purpose

It is a core Jewish belief that our lives were created for a purpose, which is to fulfil the mission given us through the Torah. Every facet of our lives are therefore meaningful. Everything we do pushes us towards that mission, and it is that mission that beckons us to live our lives with purpose.

All too often, educators and adults are quick to dismiss the goals and aspirations of students who are perhaps striving for a career, goal or lifestyle that is off the beaten path. We find ourselves feeling responsible for our students’ ability to find success in life, so we give them what we assume is the sage advice to stick with goals that are safe, practical and easier to obtain. 

But is that the Jewish way? One could make the argument that we are always being summoned by a higher calling. Universally, we are called upon to be “a light unto the nations.” If that is the case, then we should be encouraging each other to be the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be. We can’t do that if in our own personal lives we are unhappy, and feel a lack of passion and purpose over how we spend our days.

Why then, would we even consider extinguishing the fire that ignites passion and purpose in our students? Our own Jewish lives set us apart from the mainstream world. Jews have, throughout history, boldly decided to live in a way that is neither typical or lacking in meaning. Living with purpose is a Jewish way of life, and a tradition that must be passed onto our students.

So how do we do that, exactly?

Listen to your students

Practicing patience and listening with our students can provide critical insights about their lives and passions. If we are quick to respond to our students with dismissal, brushing off their goals as unrealistic, then we will quickly help place them on a path that will be unhappy and unfulfilling for them. What if you have a student who wants to be an actor? How about a professional video game player? How about a fashion designer? Many educators, adults and parents will wave their hands dismissively at these suggestions and deem them unrealistic, silly aspirations from immature and fanciful minds. 

But what if instead of dismissal of our student’s more unorthodox goals, we instead encouraged them to pursue them? What if instead of passing judgment, we asked questions when students express their “far-fetched” desires for their life’s paths? Asking questions can actually yield more insights into a student’s career and personal preferences. Perhaps you have a student who wants to become a professional gamer because she experienced bullying as a child. Her gaming started out as an escape, but when she got to play the hero and found herself identifying with her favorite gaming heroes, it actually helped to improve her self-esteem and see herself as someone who could also be strong and inspiring.

Only by asking “why” are we able to decipher what makes our students tick: helping others feel that they can also be strong, inspiring and “the hero” through the medium of video is what makes this particular student feel good, and drives her with a sense of purpose. With this insight, the student can be advised to look into career possibilities with the same purpose she found in gaming—such as looking for a college with strong video and communications programs, or jobs in social work, psychology, or even teaching. When we take our student aspirations seriously, and find out what is behind the things that they enjoy, we can then find a whole world of possibilities for them and where they might want to apply their life’s deepest sense of purpose and meaning. 

Motivate and Inspire

Instead of asking “what” students are doing, and “what” they want to be, focus more on the “why” behind their choices. By asking more questions of students—”What do you do for fun? What are you passionate about? What are your hobbies?”—educators can open the door to student passions and help them pursue what is behind those passions.

Each of our students is a unique world unto themselves. Once a person is gone, that singular, individual soul will not come around again. It is not only necessary for a person to discover their unique purpose in the world, but it is an educator’s obligation to guide their students to not only find what their purpose is, but to also find the means to actualize it. Pursuing purpose is, after all, the Jewish way of life.

As Hillel famously said, “If not now, when?”