Whatsapp message from teacher
He doesn’t have a home — so he doesn’t have to clean for Passover”

My son’s 8th grade homeroom teacher sent this on his class WhatsApp group. In Israel, homeroom teachers have a different role than they do in the US. In Israel they’re called “mechanchim” — educators. Among their other, more technical, duties of passing on information and monitoring attendance, they’re also supposed to teach the kids extra-curricular, value-based lessons, a role which makes a message like this even more glaring.

It isn’t easy to teach 30+ rowdy kids with raging hormones, most of whom are taller than you are and speak only in grunts. It’s even harder when you have to be a member of their WhatsApp groups and post cool jokes, something teachers in past generations didn’t have to worry about. I get that. Jokes can’t always be 100% politically correct. I get that too. But I can’t accept this one or what it says about our society.

Exactly a year ago today, an earthquake of a magnitude of 7.8 on the Ricther scale shook Nepal, where Tevel b’Tzedek, the NGO where I work, has been active for the last decade. Over 8000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands lost their homes. As a result of the remoteness of the villages and paralyzing government bureaucracy, the majority of them are still living in makeshift housing built from the tin sheeting that Tevel and other NGOs distributed. While it does keep them (mostly) dry during the torrential monsoon rain, it doesn’t do a lot to keep out the cold.

Despite the harsh conditions, the villagers are working with our staff on building disaster response teams and on ambitious agriculture projects. When I visited the area in January, I slept in one of the few cement homes that was able to withstand the earthquake. Although better insulated than the temporary shelters, it was still freezing at night. Curled in my “up to -30 degrees” sleeping bag, I shivered myself to sleep. I can only imagine the conditions in the makeshift shelters, or in the communities where Tevel and the other NGOs couldn’t distribute materials. I can guarantee you that the villagers are NOT thankful that they don’t have to clean for Passover.

Tin sheeting distribution in Nepali village

Tevel staff and volunteers distributing tin sheeting in a Nepali village

My inspirational colleague Suman lost his Kathmandu home in the earthquake when his neighbor’s larger one collapsed on it. Two days after the quake he wrote me on Whatsapp that “It will take time to rebuild, in the meantime I can do my job. We will bounce back!” He then spent hours clearing rubble from the ruins of his home every morning before coming into the office where he worked tirelessly to help Tevel get aid to over 25,000 villagers who needed it desperately. Last month he and his family were finally able to move back to their home after months in makeshift shelter. He’s not complaining about cleaning either.

So dear educator, mechanechet, shaper of young minds, wouldn’t it have been better to teach the kids that their problems are not the center of the world? That attitude has become so prevalent in Israel, we almost don’t notice it any more. What we also don’t notice is that by becoming callous to the suffering of others, no one loses more than we do. When we can’t empathize with the suffering of others, we lose our ability to appreciate what we have, our own experiences. We lose the richness of learning from wonderful, inspiring people who just happen to live somewhere else. By hardening our hearts to them, we lose the motivation to strive to make the world better, to do our small part in helping someone else. What a terrible fate to assign to a class of 8th graders. Wouldn’t it have been better to  post the following?

Dear children, blooming souls in awkward bodies, hear my voice. 

Be thankful that you have to clean for Passover- it means you have a home to live in. Shelter from the rain and cold, the wind and scorching heat. It means you have ample water with which to clean, and enough  to drink too.

It means you have the education to understand that cleanliness and hygiene keep you healthy.

It shows that you live in a society that supports and embraces your traditions and you are free to express them as you see fit.

Be thankful for having to cook- it means that you have enough to eat. Not only enough, but incredible variety and tastes.

It means that you have a family and friends to cook for.

Be thankful for the tedious texts of the Hagaddah. The fact that you can read their words means that you are going to school. That you can access any information you want, whenever you need it.

So embrace the cooking, the cleaning, the long tiresome texts. Ponder the story of our people’s journey to freedom. Who isn’t free today? How can you change that? Let’s discuss that in our morning lessons.

Learn about other people for who don’t have the privilege of doing those tasks. See them, hear their stories. Let’s think together about what we can do for them, with them, and how we can be more conscious of how we live and the choices we make.

Happy Passover my dear children. Let’s find happiness by giving thanks for what we have and reaching out to others. So clean away, with a thankful soul and a heart filled with appreciation and love. 

Wishing a meaningful Passover to all my Jewish friends and family and a year of rebuilding and recovery to all of my dear friends in Nepal.