Chanukah is the Festival of Lights — culminating in nine blazing candles gleaming in the front window of your home, and homes around the world. Yet it all starts with just one spark on the first night. Similarly, the work of a day school educator illuminates untold students, classrooms, and communities. Yet often it all begins with one spark, a moment or series of moments that incites passion in that individual to pursue day school education as a career. In this blog series, day school educators will tell the stories of those moments of sparks that made them into the enlightening educators they are today. We hope that telling these stories can help brighten this Chanukah and lead to inspiration that burns strong for the rest of the year. Chag Sameach!
Chanukah Sparks from Dr. Susie Tanchel
Head of School, JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School
The power of great teachers cannot be underestimated. Never did I imagine becoming a Jewish educator, though I attended a Jewish day school for 12 years. But I suspect that the teachers I encountered along my educational journey knew I would be. During the process of discovering my calling, I had compelling, inspiring, and generous guides who invested in my growth.
The first time I took responsibility for teaching Jewish content to a large group occurred in eleventh grade when the Director of Judaica asked me to coordinate our high school’s Seder for a few hundred children. I was excited by the opportunity to work with him because he was the first person I had seen share weekly relevant and meaningful divrei Torah. A bit intimidated, I nonetheless wanted to offer my fellow pupils a stimulating — even motivating — experience. At this time, I was also troubled by how God could abide the immorality of apartheid in South Africa. Thus, I was mindful that we were celebrating the holiday of freedom in a country in which Black people were not free. My decision to sing the Negro spiritual, “O Freedom,” at the Seder led to a “punishment” of spending a few recesses in conversation with the Director of Judaica.
What a blessing this was! Mr. Mann and I talked about Judaism — the parts I loved and the parts that challenged me. He had a significant impact on me, as he encouraged my intellectual curiosity and treated my questions about religion seriously. He also gave me books to read — two by R. Abraham Joshua Heschel. I was captivated, reading them at night by flashlight under my comforter. To this day, Heschel’s perspective and insights remain an integral part of my educational philosophy. I was on my way to becoming a Jewish educator — I just didn’t know it.
In my junior year of college at Brandeis University, having almost completed the psychology major required to become the therapist I was planning to be, I enrolled in my first Bible class. An inspiring professor who passionately taught his subject matter introduced me to a world of study in which I discovered how intriguing biblical texts were. He fostered in me a new appreciation for our Jewish past. I was hooked! The texts were fascinating, and I learned more about the antecedents of Judaism and our history of interpretation. As I continued to take courses with Professor Marc Brettler in my senior year and then in graduate school, I noticed how well-prepared he was for class and how deeply he cared about his students’ learning.
While deeply engaged in my Ph.D. program and with a newly defined career path of becoming a Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, I heard from my advisor that a new Jewish high school was forming in Boston. Though at this point I was enthralled by biblical texts and my commitment to living an engaged Jewish life was already in full swing, I had never considered being a high school teacher, so I didn’t pay too much attention to it. My advisor, who was on the Board of the new school, thought it would be a great idea for me to teach a class to the academics and community members founding the school. Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, the visionary founding Head of the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, offered me a job immediately thereafter. To be honest, the thought of being a high school teacher still didn’t seem that appealing. But after some conversation with those I trusted, I decided to give it a try.
It didn’t take long for me to realize teaching high school was awesome. Truly! I loved the kids’ questions and their passions. I relished the opportunity to show them the myriad of ways these ancient texts had modern resonance and how biblical texts can withstand serious intellectual inquiry and are worthy of careful study. I found it meaningful and satisfying to be a role model of serious Jewish living to my kids and a resource for them on their individual journeys. I realized that my goal was not to write articles of biblical scholarship that few would ever read. I wanted to be on the front lines of Jewish education, grabbing kids’ hearts, souls, and minds and exciting them about being Jewish.
I only realized much later that I was following in the path of my teachers. The Director of Judaica of my high school and my Ph.D. advisor each paid careful attention to my interests and provided me with challenges and opportunities to develop my passions. I try to follow their example for the children in the school I now lead; it is sacred and profound work. I am deeply grateful to have discovered my calling and to serve the Jewish community each day.