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FRONTAL FREE: A Fallacy of Empathy

Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale! From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!

My goal in teaching children is to teach Empathy. And Empathy cannot be taught. If Empathy can be defined as the human being’s inherent capacity for reaching into their own experience in order to connect with another’s tragic loss or inspiring achievement, then lording over a group of teens or toddlers or seniors, and dictating how they should feel, isn’t the course of action. And yet for me, teaching Empathy is the most important aspect of Jewish education. So out of necessity, I’ve tried to develop a teaching style that somehow, even indirectly, reaches this goal.

Unless you’re teaching students in a daily, formal pedagogic setting, I argue that you must create lesson plans that get the kids out of their seats. By acting out scenes or walking through their lessons, kids begin to internalize the material you’re trying to convey, creating their own sense memory which then helps them somehow attach and associate their own personal experiences to the lesson. I repeat this idea to myself every time I see their eyes wander, squint, and gradually migrate to the clock on the wall above me in the classroom…and if they actually get to the point of asking “When’s recess?” before I’ve transitioned them into something active and fun, I know I’m behind the 8-ball and should’ve been moving faster in my lesson and paid better attention.

That being said, all of us are now experiencing what appears to be a ramp up of anti-Semitism in the United States. If it’s possible for me to face and address the course of recent human events without emotion or personal opinion, I’d like to be true to my blog and this company of Kikayon Productions by talking about Empathy. And I’d like to explore how these nefarious times we live in can be used constructively to build sensitivity in the next generation. Experiential learning helps kids take the subject matter we teach and find connections to their own lives, helping them build those emotional and synaptic bridges that lead to a deeper, more personal understanding of why their Jewish identity and heritage should mean so much to them.

I write this in the wake of at least 16 bomb threats called in today alone to Jewish community centers and day schools in multiple states across the country, on the heels of numerous similar incidents that have occurred just since the beginning of 2017. And I insist that we need to use the awful events of today as teachable moments. We should imply to students the gravity of the situation without dictating to them how they should feel and react. We must trust in them that, once the kids are in the right frame of mind, their minds will accept what we explain to them is going on around them.

And then what? Which kids will feel righteous anger? Which will feel pity for those communities affected? Which will feel mercy for the lost souls committing these crimes?

I don’t know. You won’t know. But I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of the perpetrators of these crimes, I’m not afraid to live in my community as a Jew in my own respect, and I’m not afraid of opening discussions, and dialogue, and creative outlets and outward responses with a group of ten-year-olds.

And I have no agenda. I want to see what happens, what they do, what they come up with. Maybe the greater good in the room will lead to discussion. Maybe it will lead to their wanting to write letters of support, or raise money for a cause, or plan a trip to somewhere to support a silenced minority in our community, who knows. But any one of these elements arising from a quieted room will mark the burgeoning and blossoming of Empathy in our children, in their hearts, in their minds, and in their collective conscience.

We have a golden opportunity now to make a true “gam zu l’tova”, find a Jewish silver lining from the recent ravages of anti-Semitism, whether brutal or subtle. Give your kids an article about what’s going on. Have them read one paragraph.

Say to them, “Circle a location you recognize.” “Tell me if you’ve heard about this from your friends.” “Do you think it could happen here? Because it’s happening…right…now.”

This isn’t about kids today being hyper and sugared up and disrespectful to the extent that the only way to teach them is to play a game. To me, this is about the empiric need, in our community and society in general, to help our Jewish children find and grow their sense of Empathy. When they truly feel for the characters or events or Torah stories at hand or in the world around them, they will automatically become sensitive to the material and take it personally. No lecture, no arm-twisting, nothing more needed. And once you as a teacher, leader, or parent, realize they’ve crossed that line, you can do as I do. Stare at them, stand up before them, and simply ask them:

“So…what do we do now?”

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