Danielle Sobkin

Shaping Tomorrow’s Jewish Leaders

As a Jewish Studies teacher, my role extends beyond the conventional classroom. It’s a journey into the heart of what it means to be Jewish, intertwined with the complexities of modern education. This path isn’t just about teaching; it’s about nurturing a deep-rooted connection to an ancient heritage and navigating the unique challenges that come with it.

My own Jewish upbringing, set against the backdrop of my family’s history from the Soviet Union, was a beautifully complicated one. It was an experience which was vastly different to anything they’ve seen before. And while they couldn’t quite understand it, they loved to live the experience through me, alongside me. Nothing made my parents happier than watching me fall in love with the very thing they could never have. Religious freedom.

My brother, on the other hand, perceived and experienced Jewish identity in a distinctly different way. His initial years in the Soviet Union, where religion was more a concept than a practice, shaped a different perspective of Judaism for him. His introduction to our faith came later, and perhaps with less of the fervor and immediacy that I experienced. Yet, this divergence in our paths only highlights the multifaceted nature of Jewish identity and the impact of education on our religious connections. Watching me, my parents witnessed not just my growth but also the transformative power of religious freedom and education. They observed how these forces allowed me to explore, question, and ultimately, forge a personal and enduring connection with Judaism.

In my classroom, the goal is to make Judaism come alive. It’s about transforming ancient texts into living lessons, making holidays more than just dates on a calendar, and turning history into a mirror reflecting our own lives. But this isn’t an easy task. The diversity within my class – from backgrounds to beliefs – makes this a delicate balancing act. I strive to be a role model, a mentor, and an educator, all while respecting the individual journeys of my students.

Teaching the Holocaust epitomizes this challenge. It’s a subject that requires not just sensitivity but a profound understanding of its impact on our collective and individual psyche, especially for students with a personal connection to this dark chapter. 

The gravity of teaching the Holocaust is compounded by the context in which my students learn. After spending hours at grade school, they come to Jewish school often tired, exhausted, and at times, struggling to muster the attention such a heavy topic deserves. This additional layer of complexity requires me to not only deliver a lesson that is respectful and insightful but also one that is engaging and accessible.

My approach to teaching this topic involves balancing the harsh realities of the Holocaust with stories of resilience and human spirit. It’s crucial to acknowledge the atrocities while also highlighting instances of resistance and survival. These stories serve not only as historical accounts but as powerful lessons showing courage and hope.

My move to the Bay Area further underscored the complexities of teaching in a Jewish school. The community here, with its rich tapestry of beliefs and practices, presented new challenges and learning opportunities. A particularly striking incident occurred during a parent-teacher conference. A parent, with a hint of apprehension in their voice, asked, “Are you teaching about G-d in class?” Their question took me aback. I responded, “Yes, of course, it’s integral to understanding our faith and history.” The parent’s face clouded with a mix of uncertainty and concern. They explained, “We don’t focus much on G-d in our house. We’re more culturally Jewish.” This exchange left me questioning my approach. The conversation replayed in my mind for hours, stirring a mix of doubt and contemplation. Ultimately, what I seek in this journey is to forge in my students a lasting bond with their Jewish identity. Beyond the religious teachings, I yearn for them to embrace their Jewishness with enthusiasm and pride.

Discussing this incident with my mentor, I was advised to view it as a moment for growth. It was a wake-up call to the rich diversity within the Jewish community and how Judaism is uniquely interpreted and lived by different families. This realization was pivotal: it underscored the need for my teaching approach to be as dynamic and inclusive as the community I serve. This experience taught me the importance of acknowledging and respecting the varied dimensions of Jewish identity, adapting my teaching to encompass not just the religious aspects, but also the cultural and secular perspectives that make our community so wonderfully diverse.

These challenges don’t deter my commitment to the Jewish community; they deepen it. Each obstacle, each unique interaction, reinforces my understanding of the profound impact of this work. I view my role not merely as a job but as a privileged opportunity to cultivate an environment where learning about Judaism transcends traditional academic boundaries.

To me, being Jewish is an experience that goes beyond the mere observance of traditions. It’s about living these traditions through our daily lives, understanding their relevance, and embracing them within the context of a broader, more modern narrative. My classroom is a microcosm of this journey, a place where students come not only to learn about Judaism but to experience it as a dynamic and integral part of their identity. It’s about fostering a sense of pride, a curiosity that goes beyond textbooks, and an understanding that being Jewish is a rich, multi-dimensional experience. It’s a unique blend of joy and solemnity, tradition and innovation, individuality and community.

My journey as an educator, albeit new, has provided me with a great sense of hope. Each week, as I watch my students engage with our rich Jewish heritage, I see the future of our community taking shape. Their curiosity and eagerness to learn not only strengthen their own connection to Judaism but also rekindle my passion for teaching. This role has underscored the importance of education in bridging past and future. I see in my students the potential to both preserve our traditions and redefine them for a new era. In their hands, the enduring light of our heritage burns brighter, promising a future rich in Jewish joy and enduring legacy.

About the Author
Danielle Sobkin is a student at the University of California, Berkeley pursuing a double major in Data Science and Economics. With a deep connection to the global Jewish community, she has served on the Hillel International Student Cabinet (HISC) and works as a Data Scientist with Jewish on Campus (JOC). As the daughter of Soviet refugees and a first-generation student, Danielle draws inspiration from her unique background and aims to connect with others through her writing. She is passionate about conveying the importance of Jewish Joy in everyday life and creating a more inclusive and understanding community.
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