Teachers Change Jewish Lives: A Lesson from 1924
By: Leah Meir
I was reminded of my father when I read a recent New York Times article entitled “Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gain”. This major study found that good teachers have lasting effects on their students’ lives that go way beyond academics, affecting life choices the students make years later. This study only confirms what many of us have felt personally. And the impact of teachers is even more crucial in Jewish studies, where we expect teachers to “lead by example” and act as role models for students in addition to imparting knowledge.
And why was I reminded of my father, Rabbi Judah Nadich z”l, when I read the article? Because when he was 12 years old in 1924, he had a teacher who changed the course of his life, launching him on a path to the rabbinate, to serving as Senior Jewish Chaplain in Europe during World War II and Advisor to General Eisenhower on Jewish Affairs and then to a distinguished career as a leader of American Jewry. He was the kind of rabbi whose teaching had deep impact on both adults and children. His years in the chaplaincy are the subject of a current exhibit at the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, through February 7th.
In his unpublished memoir, my father tells the following story:
Growing up in Baltimore, his Jewish education had consisted of private lessons with a European-born teacher. By the time he was 12, he was completely bored with the rote lessons (which his teacher often listened to while sitting in his kitchen drinking a cup of tea Russian-style, sugar cube between his teeth). He started to skip his lessons to play in the park with his friends. He had absolutely no interest in the Jewish studies that he had experienced. When his parents found out, his mother lamented that he was in danger of growing up to be “a truck driver”, clearly not an acceptable career choice for her Jewish son!
She had heard about the Baltimore Talmud Torah, a more “modern” school on the other side of town, and enrolled him there. He was amazed to see that his teacher was a 19-year-old Johns Hopkins student by the name of Morris Perman, only a few years older than he was! At the end of his first day, Mr. Perman asked him what he enjoyed doing and my father answered that he liked to draw. Perman asked him whether he would draw a map of the Kingdom of David, which the class was studying, on the blackboard the next day. My father was hooked. A teacher was interested in what he liked to do, and actually asked him to use his skill in the class! It was a small but profoundly important gesture that made a lasting impact on a young boy.
My father noted in his memoir that Morris Perman went on to a career in Jewish education, leading religious schools in a number of cities including the illustrious Talmud Torah of Minneapolis. Searching the internet, I just discovered that Morris Perman passed away in 2008 at the age of 101, just months after my father. His obituary notes: “His zeal for teaching profoundly enriched and touched generations of students, family, and friends.” It certainly did.
Thank you to Mr. Perman and to all the teachers in Jewish religious and day schools who show their students the way, through their character and behavior as well as their knowledge. How can we recruit more like Morris Perman and Judah Nadich?
Leah Nadich Meir is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation. Connect with her on Twitter @lmeir