Preparing for a Yemenite Jewish wedding in the Bay Area. (Photo/File photo-JIMENA-Punam Bean)
Preparing for a Yemenite Jewish wedding in the Bay Area. (Photo/File photo-JIMENA-Punam Bean)

Using Sephardic sources to create a perfect moment of Jewish learning

Imagine a perfect moment of learning. How does it feel? What does it look like? Is it a deep, into-the-night chevruta (study session) with a friend? Or a moment of discovery by a third-grader after weeks of not understanding? Is it when a student is cheered on and supported by her peers when overcoming a difficult challenge? Or when a teacher simply sees a student, his or her background, hardships at home, emotional needs?

As an educator, I strive for these meaningful moments all the time.

Most of the tools I picked up were in the field, watching inspiring teachers, learning from colleagues, and facilitating in beit midrash (study) settings here and in Israel.

One main influence on my teaching comes from the wisdom and experiences of Sephardic sages, chachamim, or rabbis who lived throughout the Arab and Muslim world. The values that influenced these communities focused on belonging, intergenerational connection, humility and the ability to learn from every person.

These values also permeated educational settings and influenced how rabbis and teachers passed on Torah from generation to generation.

As I shared several years ago in this publication, we need to change the way we think about including the voices and teachings of Sephardi wisdom in our Jewish educational spaces.

My vision is that we not only incorporate Sephardic sources, texts, stories and interpretations in our curricula, but that we use Sephardic pedagogy to connect our students to Torah, to each other and to the chain of our Jewish tradition.

As we near the end of Mizrahi Heritage Month, I want to share some of this educational wisdom from our sages — with the hope that Jewish educators and leaders can begin to integrate it into our Jewish schools and communities year-round. (And I also want to thank my teachers Eli Bareket, Yardena Nachtomi, Drori Yehoshua and Rabbi Isaac Chouraqui for teaching me these priceless tools.)

Every person who studies Torah is merited

Algerian Rabbi Yosef Messas taught that every person receives merit from the study of Torah, even if they do not learn in a scholarly manner.

As he explained in his commentary on Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”): “All who occupy themselves with the Torah for its own sake, merit many things … The word ‘all’ expresses multitude, therefore craftsmen and traders who study regularly for the sake of the Torah itself, also merit from it, as the verse suggests … It would be a mistake to say that only scholars merit it (because they dedicate their whole time to study).”

Insights and inspiration from Torah learning can come from anyone in our community; they do not only need to come from scholars, rabbis or great institutions of learning.

As educators, we need to have the humility to invite and seek out these voices in our classrooms. Using this “meriting mindset,” educators become learners and students become teachers. Both have something equally important to offer in this educational exchange.

Everyone has a piece of Torah from Sinai

This democratic idea of learning was deepened by the late Moroccan Rabbi Shmuel Ibn Danan. In his book “Dishanat B’Shemen,” he reminds us “Everyone in Israel has their piece of the Torah from Sinai, and everyone has to toil and study the Torah and bring to light their part and this can’t be done by anyone else.”

Each person in Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, has a claim to a very specific piece of Torah — and only they are able to access this piece.

We need to encourage each learner to find their distinctive piece, to learn it and share it with us, so that we can deepen our understanding and connection to Torah.

As teachers, we often search for the special spark that a student has, a special connection to a topic we may be teaching. When we engage in the study of Torah, we need to encourage our students to find their piece. Otherwise, we, along with all the people of Israel, will be missing out. Our Torah will be incomplete without these unique voices.

Every Jewish learning experience changes our essence

I hope that for those of us doing the amazing work of education, our teaching — and the learning that happens in our classrooms — changes our students for the better.

As educators, not only do we aspire to intellectual success for our students, but also for a change of their heart and soul.

Former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron wrote about this change: “The study of Torah changes the learner’s essence, the learner’s purpose and their thoughts. It uplifts the learner to higher ground, and the learner wakes up with a renewed purpose, their life’s work now has meaning. Their ideas and thoughts expand and are blessed. Thus, we need to give thanks not only for the study of Torah, but for what it gives us, which is a change in our essence.”

Now, back to that “perfect moment of learning” I led off with.

As educators, if we see the ultimate act of Jewish learning as something that affects our students’ souls and their essence, we will be careful, open and compassionate when preparing to teach in this holy context.

We will strive to truly understand our students, to hear their voices and to help them access their pieces of Torah.

Competition, levels and grades contract in importance — while patience, humility and love expand. No child is left behind.

These wise sages have taught us to remember each voice and to create spaces that allow our chain of tradition to continue and to strengthen, all year-round.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Tamar Zaken
Tamar Zaken

Tamar Zaken is an educator who lives in the East Bay. In her spare time, she translates Sephardic rabbinic texts to expose English speaking audiences to their inspiring message of inclusion and justice.