Being an English teacher at an all-boys Yeshiva is a tough job. Secular studies begin after eight hours of religious study and prayer, when the students are already mentally and physically exhausted. Even the most mindful of them understand that the important stuff, the Torah study, comes first, and that the material I teach is a sort of supplemental education. Still, I walk into the classroom every day, hoping to broaden my students’ horizons, just as mine had been. Like them, I was raised Orthodox, and I was hoping that, like me, they’ll soon discover that there’s more to life and the world than the dictates of the rabbis, meaningful as they may be.
One day in June, as I entered the building, I passed by two ninth graders in the hallways who asked if I would be in Brooklyn that Shabbos. An older student later informed me that a local synagogue was hosting a retreat for a Jewish organization that helped gay Orthodox Jews stay connected to their families and communities, overcoming the hurdles they faced. My students assumed I’d be there, because despite not being gay, they knew I was politically and ideologically liberal, even though I tiptoed around my beliefs in the classroom for fear of being fired. Any nuance might be seen as corrupting young minds away from the yeshiva’s mission.
After school ended, I understood the gravity of their questions. There was a letter on the building’s front door, signed by 40 local rabbis. It excommunicated the Orthodox synagogue that welcomed the organization and labeled it as no longer Orthodox. Later, I learned that the person who led the charge—drafting the text and collected signatures—was my co-worker, the 11th grade morning rebbe. I decided that I had to say something, even if it meant losing my job.
On Monday morning, I mulled my complex feelings over in my mind. The entire subway ride to work, I wondered what I would say and how I would speak to my students in a way that made them listen and understand. My palms were sweaty. I realized I’d never felt so vulnerable with my students before. When I walked into the classroom, I took to the whiteboard and wrote the day’s agenda, with the first item being a “special conversation.” I spoke to a silent classroom, a rarity, about how being an Orthodox Jew meant that you’re constantly repenting, leaving little room to judge others. That we all struggled with tests. I also noted that my nature as a straight man meant that I had no idea what it’s like to be gay while wanting to live an Orthodox lifestyle. I had to be open to understanding. I told them that if a congregant came out to a rabbi and the rabbi quoted a passage from Leviticus, they’re having two different conversations.
After giving my speech, I asked for follow-up questions. One student asked for a clarification. Then, a hand went up from the back of the room. It was the principal’s son, Shlomo. His father had worked in the school for longer than I’d been alive.
“Would you have signed the letter?”
I froze. I wasn’t just talking about this weekend or that temple, I said. I hemmed and hawed, joking that, as a policy, I don’t sign letters. He pushed back with different scenarios. If this Jewish leader or that had asked me to sign it, would I agree? I danced around the questions. Our back and forth was like a gladiator match with the rest of the class waiting to see who might emerge victorious. Finally, he countered with his best retort.
“If the grand Rebbe would ask you personally to sign it, would you?”
I had no choice but to answer honestly, conceding that I would have signed it. I respected Shlomo enough to be honest, and I said that I respected the Rebbe enough to follow his wishes, even if I bitterly disagreed. Shlomo leaned back and smiled in victory. With one swoop, he undid every reason I gave myself for being in the classroom. I had failed at my goal of broadening my students’ worldview. My small candle of hope blew out. I don’t remember what we learned that day. I was ready to quit.
The next day, however, after leaving my final class hopelessly, I passed by Shlomo in the hallway and felt a jolt of clarity and inspiration. I pulled him aside. He looked around, guiltily, as he had cut my class.
“There were 15 students in the classroom yesterday. What if one of them was like that?” I went on.
“How would he feel listening to the conversation and hearing your comments?”
He laughed at the absurd notion.
“Rabbi Schwartz would never accept someone like that to the yeshiva.” The high-school principal, Rabbi Schwartz, was very religious and would never let an openly gay student in the Yeshiva.
“But what if the student kept it a secret and never told anyone? How would he feel reading the letter and hearing the conversation?” I countered.
He paused for a second and frowned, lost in thought.
“You know what? That’s interesting. I never thought of that.”
His mind was expanded. My candle of hope flickered back to life. I broadened his worldview by just a bit. He was empathetic in a new way. I still work at the yeshiva, enjoying these tiny moments of connection and growth. It would have been easier to not bother. We connected on a tiny detail in a hypothetical scenario. But he’s a kid and he’s figuring himself out and he’s asking questions. Mutual respect built a two-way bridge. I let him in, and he did the same in return. Shlomo may not be fully changed. He may not embrace Jews of other denominations or beliefs, or fundamentally alter the way he saw the world. But human experience is made up not only of big and dramatic changes but of tiny moments of understanding and empathy. And in June, in Brooklyn, I managed one, one of my proudest moments as a teacher.