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TMI and teacher-student boundaries

I read my student's blog and learned he has emotional problems. Should I try to help him or keep quiet?

Today’s Jam

I am in the midst of teaching a 10-session Jewish spirituality class at my local JCC to a group of motivated and committed adults. As part of the course experience, I ask students to share reflections on the themes that we discuss each week together.

This week, one of my students sent me a link to a post from his blog inspired by our discussion. After reading this entry, I continued to read a few other archived pieces from the last month or so. In doing so, I learned that the student struggles with bouts of severe depression and appears to have a limited support network.

Given the personal nature of the course, I feel a responsibility to be of help to my student, but I do not want to overstep my bounds. While we have had a few substantive exchanges in class, they have all been brief and the subject of his depression has not come up. However, I am also wondering if in sharing his blog with me, my student was making a veiled call for help?

Rabbi Naamah Kelman says…


Your student is certainly asking for help. It is the nature of the blogging culture that personal reflections become public property. So clearly, the student is sharing his thoughts with many people and not just with you. In addition, a Jewish spirituality class is an invitation to bring one’s self to a shared process of learning and exploration. The fact that he is open to articulating his deep struggle is almost to be expected since you asked your students to share aspects of their inner lives. This is not a “veiled” call for help, but an open and honest request for support and guidance.

You have a wonderful opportunity to use Jewish wisdom and practice to help your student. I say help and not medicate or treat because that is the work of physicians and therapists. I think that a teacher has an obligation to guide and mentor students. Spiritual practices and Jewish texts are important tools for finding insight in the midst of chaos, confusion, and despair. You can give this student a great gift by helping him see the course material as life-giving Torah that can provide wisdom and comfort. Finally, you must be careful not to showcase your student’s struggles in class (even if he has made his blog available to his classmates), but to emphasize the complexities of the spiritual journey.

Naamah Kelman is Dean of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. She was born and raised in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1976 where she is involved in progressive Jewish causes including Interfaith work. She was the first woman to become a rabbi in Israel in 1992 and has fought for equality and justice for all Israelis.

Rabbi Ebn Leader says…

EbenLeaderAs Naamah has already addressed the question of identifying a call for help, I will take a step back and address a more general challenge that I see in this case: Reaching out to help another person is an act of engagement and of taking responsibility. As such, it involves entering into another person’s “space” and can understandably give rise to concerns regarding inappropriate boundary crossing.

Shouldn’t we ask permission before presuming to help someone? Yet Maimonides, out of concern for the shame one can cause by making a needy person ask for assistance and face their benefactor, prefers that we help people before they have to ask us for it. He promotes other ways of giving that avoid any direct contact between giver and receiver. Indeed, Maimonides goes so far as saying that a poor person who does not want to accept charity should be tricked into accepting the help they need (Maimonides, Gifts to the Poor, 10:11-12 and 7:9).

How do we balance our sense of responsibility for the other and our fear of violating their autonomy? Of course, every case needs to be addressed individually, but I am reminded of a story that Rabbi A.J. Heschel told in a different context:

A learned man lost all his sources of income and was looking for a way to earn a living. The members of his community, who admired him for his learning and piety, suggested to him that he serve as their cantor on the Days of Awe. But he considered himself unworthy of serving as the messenger of the community, as the one who should bring the prayers of his fellow men to the Almighty.
He went to his master the Rabbi of Husiatin and told him of his sad plight, of the invitation to serve as a cantor on the Days of Awe, and of his being afraid to accept it and to pray for his congregation. “Be afraid, and pray,” was the answer of the rabbi.

— Abraham J. Heschel, Man is Not Alone, p.256

The fear of unworthiness is actually a powerful ally in praying for the community, and I would propose that the fear of violating autonomy plays a similar role in reaching out to help others. Be afraid and help.

Ebn Leader is a teacher at the rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Boston. He grew up in Jerusalem and was a Talmid (student-disciple) of Rabbi David Hartman of blessed memory and learned Talmud; was a Talmid of Amos Hetz and studied movement and movement notation. He is currently a Talmid of Arthur Green from whom he has received Semicha. He is the co-editor of God in All Moments: Mystical & Practical Wisdom from Hasidic Masters, published by Jewish Lights.

Sue Fendrick says…

e.SueFendrick Headshot
I don’t actually know that your student is crying out for help — even though he truly needs it — or if sharing his post is actually a display of relative strength (and perhaps even a desire for positive regard) in the midst of his struggles. But whatever he may be doing (consciously or not), you, as a caring and mentshlach teacher, are now aware of his situation and feel a responsibility to help.

Ebn has addressed both the caution and bravery that is required in reaching out to another, balancing respect for one’s autonomy and the ethical call to responsibility. But there is also the (unstated) question of your boundaries as a teacher. You may not ultimately feel comfortable doing more than speaking privately with your student or sending him an email acknowledging that you read the other blog posts, expressing care and concern, and making some referrals.

The boundaries you set as a teacher can be very helpful to you and to your student. Even if you choose to work with him through text study and spiritual practice (as Naamah suggested) you may still find that you are over your head. Reaching out, naming the issue, and offering your student referrals allows him to be seen and heard, instead of opting for the safer, more sanitized position of “this is not my job.” But this approach also respects your role as a teacher, as you direct your student to people who can treat his depression.

When the depression is better managed, you can more appropriately and effectively help bring Torah to bear as a resource. The boundaries to be considered here are those that not only define the student’s autonomy, but also the teacher’s own limits, as well as the overlapping but distinct areas of medical and psychological care and Jewish textual study and spiritual practice.

Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick, a Conservative rabbi, is a freelance editor, writer, and spiritual director, and co-editor of Turn It and Turn It Again: Studies in the Teaching and Learning of Classical Jewish Texts (Academic Studies Press). Her writing appears in numerous books, journals, and online publications. She has served as a rabbi at American University and Brown University, as founding editor of SocialAction.com and managing editor of MyJewishLearning.com, as a consultant and teacher of adult Jewish education in a variety of settings, and as an assistant faculty member to Peter Pitzele in the bibliodrama training program at the Institute for Contemporary Midrash.

Now, what do YOU say?

Our panelists have spoken, how about you? If you stumbled on blog posts that described emotional pain, would you say something to that student?

And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like us to address in the Ethical Jam, send it to EthicalJam@timesofisrael.com

Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.

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About the Author
Ethical Jam presents contemporary ethical dilemmas and the responses of Jewish thinkers from across the world Jewish community. Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism (CGJ) at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts and of the Times of Israel, and was created by CGJ’s director Rabbi Or Rose and Hebrew College president Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. It is edited by Rabbi Sue Fendrick, Editor at CGJ. (Illustrative ‘thinking woman’ author photo via Shutterstock.com)