Lessons from My Student| April 11, 2022
Leaders reveal what they’ve learned from those they guide
“I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students” (Taanis 7a). Centuries later, those in leadership roles echo Rabi Chanina’s observation, and share what they gained from those they guide
Director, Yeshiva Ktana of Passaic Ohr Dovid preschool
Nechama* was a bright, sweet four-year-old who had a bad habit. She often brought home things that weren’t hers — her friend’s new bouncy ball, the classroom’s new doll, all sorts of stuff.
It could have been a bigger problem, but we were blessed that Nechama’s mother, Rena, would check her daughter’s schoolbag nightly and send Nechama back the next day with whatever goodies weren’t hers.
We never lost anything of significance, but we clearly needed to work with Nechama to train her out of this bad habit. We settled on a sticker chart: Every day that Nechama came home empty-handed, she’d get a sticker, and at the end of the week, five stickers bought her an ice cream. Her teacher Mrs. Schein* worked with her as well, gently guiding her to return her friends’ toys and snacks after free play.
One night about halfway into the year and this contest, I got a call from Rena. She apologized for calling, but explained that she was stuck. Nechama had come home from school with a package of stickers, the very stickers used on her chart. When Rena questioned her daughter, Nechama said that her teacher had given it to her — but she didn’t remember which teacher, and she couldn’t say why.
Rena and I spent time brainstorming, but we had a hard time finding a way to be dan l’chaf zechus. There was no way her teacher had given Nechama those stickers; she’d obviously taken them.
I gently instructed Mom to have Nechama return the stickers. It was a shame. Nechama had been doing so well, and this was a real setback. We’d have to figure out what had happened to cause this reversal.
The next day, when I stopped by Nechama’s classroom, I took the teachers aside to inquire whether Nechama had returned the stickers. She had. I asked them if anything had happened the previous day that might have overwhelmed her. They couldn’t think of anything. I watched Nechama for a few minutes. She was subdued, but that made sense. I hoped this was a learning curve, and that this would be the last time she’d take something that didn’t belong to her.
Later that day, I passed the three-year-old class, where Morah Malka, a permanent sub, was reading the kids a story. Suddenly I recalled that Morah Schein had left early yesterday, and Morah Malka — who’d never been in Nechama’s class before — had taken over half an hour between morahs.
“Did you by any chance give Nechama Bergman stickers yesterday?” I asked Malka.
“Nechama Bergman?” Malka thought for a minute, and then lit up. “Oh yes, I did! Gitty spilled her lunch yesterday, and everyone was making fun of her. Only Nechama bent down to help her clean it up, and she did it so kindly, making Gitty feel good about it. I felt like I had to reward her, and I told her she could choose a page of stickers from Morah’s drawer. Did I do something wrong?” Malka sounded nervous.
“Not at all,” I said, smiling at Malka. “It sounds like Nechama really did deserve those stickers.”
Malka hadn’t done anything wrong, but we had. We’d jumped to conclusions and assumed that Nechama had taken the stickers without permission — even if we did so based on prior behavior.
Nechama taught me never to assume. Whenever two children are brought to me to break up a fight, and the teacher tells me she “knows exactly what happened,” I think of Nechama and ask her how she knows.
“Unless you witnessed something from the beginning, there’s no way you can know.”
Nechama taught me that we can never assume anything, and that we can learn from everyone — even a four-year-old.
Mr. Alan Rosenstock
Director, Tomche Shabbos of Rockland County
n my involvement in Tomche Shabbos in Rockland County, I’m, unfortunately, privy to many stories of hardship and despair. I also come across people who teach me much.
Dovid Melberg* was a successful businessman and longtime donor to Tomche Shabbos. One day, Dovid asked to meet with me, and when he did, he told me that his business had hit a bump. But he wasn’t here for tzedakah; Dovid wanted me to find someone who could daven for him and his business. He wrote out an $8,000 check, with instructions that I give it to someone who would promise to daven for his success.
After much thought, I decided to present this money to Mrs. Aviva Cohen.* Her husband, who lived his life kulo Torah, was in a coma, and Mrs. Cohen was taking care of her husband and her family on her own. I set up a meeting with Mrs. Cohen and presented the proposition to her.
“You daven for Dovid ben Chana’s business in exchange for this,” I said, sliding the check across the desk.
Mrs. Cohen picked up the check and looked at it. I saw her eyes widen at the amount, and was happy, anticipating all the things she could do with it. Who knows — maybe there was a Hashgachah pratis story involved, and the Cohens needed exactly $8,000 to pay off an old debt, or buy a new medicine, or send a few kids to camp.
But Mrs. Cohen didn’t respond right away. After a long silence, she slid the check back at me. “I can’t take this,” she said. “There are others who need the money more than I do.”
I encounter so much greatness over the course of the work I do, but this felt… greater. No one knew better than I how much Mrs. Cohen could have used the money to support her family. That others might need it more than she did? What a lesson in humility! No doubt, this came from the life of Torah she and her husband were zocheh to lead.
“You’ve shown that your tefillos are just what is needed,” I said gently, placing the check back on Mrs. Cohen’s side of the desk. “I feel sure that your tefillos on behalf of the donor will be mekuyam.”
Chana Rochel Ganzweig
Former teacher, current Assistant Principal at Bais Yaakov Elementary, Monsey
Chaya was a sweet girl, well-liked by her peers, but she wasn’t academic. She didn’t understand much of the material taught, and she didn’t do well on tests. She was pulled out for math and reading assistance, but it didn’t seem to help much. Despite many hours of tutoring, Chaya still didn’t get it.
I wasn’t particularly worried. Chaya was in tenth grade and had coasted along. School wasn’t her strong point, but there are many types of intelligence, and Chaya had an abundance of sensitivity toward others; she’d make a great mother one day. For now, she was a happy student, and always eager to please.
She tried her best to take notes, and particularly loved when I brought in memorable quotes, like, “Don’t let the world change your smile; let your smile change the world.”
I thought it was cute, the way Chaya was so eager to write down every word of these quotes, and I often wondered about it. What did she get out of them?
Toward the end of the year, Chaya shared her notebook with me, and I saw that she’d written down every memorable quote I, and other teachers, had shared. She’d devoted a page to each one, writing the quote at the top and drawing a picture illustrating what it meant to her.
I was a young teacher at the time. But Chaya taught me both to look past the limitations of others, and more importantly, that while we all have limitations, and we can use them as excuses, we shouldn’t. I saw how Chaya rose above her learning challenges and taught herself life lessons — and this became a life lesson for me.
Dr. Michael Goldfarb
Attending Staff, Division of Cardiology, Jewish General Hospital and McGill University Health Center; Assistant Professor, McGill University; Member, Division of Experimental Medicine, McGill University, Montreal
During the first few weeks of Covid, when so many of our brothers were in the hospital, alone and scared, I did what I could to alleviate their feelings of isolation and fear. I don’t have to remind you what it was like; patients left alone for days at a time, nurses too busy or scared to check on them, families with no way to contact their hospitalized loved ones.
People asked me for favors: to check on a relative, smuggle food to a father, pass a charger to a husband. But mostly I acted on my own, visiting Covid patients after I finished my shift. I’d stand at the doorway to a patient’s room and offer a few words of chizuk: “Don’t worry, you’ll be okay.”
A couple of incidents stand out. A woman asked me to get a tablet to her husband, who’d been in the hospital for over a month and had made no progress. “I’m sure that if he could just see us, he’d turn the corner.” This man wasn’t in a hospital I worked in, but I found a doctor who served as a resident under me a few years back, and asked him if he’d pass the tablet along to the patient. Baruch Hashem, he agreed, and the patient and his family were finally able to see one another.
The change in the patient was miraculous — as his wife predicted, his mental state improved drastically and helped him turn the corner physically. Within a short time, this man was home.
In another incident, I wrote a note to Eli,* a neighbor, as he was wheeled into the ER. “I’m here if you need anything. I’ll check on you as often as I can.”
After Eli was safely out of the hospital and well on the road to returning to normal life, he and his family made a seudas hodaah, to which they invited me. After he spoke, he came over to me — and pulling a tiny, crumpled-up paper from his pocket, he credited me with saving his life.
I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t been part of Eli’s medical team. And my note? How — and why —had Eli managed to save this paper as he moved from ER to ICU to a room on the regular ward?
The hakaras hatov he and others whom I’d passed and visited had for my small gestures made a strong impression on me. These former patients and their families used words like “lifeline” and “lifesaving.” They called me a malach and said I’d saved them from the brink of death. They’d memorized the words I’d used when I’d tried to offer a bit of hope. They’d kept little notes I’d penned when I couldn’t speak to them directly.
I hadn’t visited these patients for any reason other than I am a Jew, and this is what Jews do — we help each other when we can. The extent of the gratitude I received taught me how catastrophic isolation is, and how important it is for patients to have family surrounding them during their illness.
In October 2020, I took this to a new level, and began to research the limitations of family involvement in patient care. I’m now collaborating with doctors and nurses across North America, and our research has shown that family involvement is crucial to recovery. In the most recent Covid wave, we were able to ensure that patients in my hospital were allowed at least one family member with them at all times.
As a cardiologist, I’m always learning from my fellow doctors and their research into best practices in medicine. But what my community and their hakaras hatov has taught me about the importance of bikur cholim, offering hope, and involving families in recovery will change how hospitals and doctors manage care, locally and internationally.
Owner of Cookie Wigs, Baltimore
lisheva Handler* was a beautiful kallah with gorgeous red hair. She came to my salon to choose wigs not a moment too soon; it’s always harder to find the right shade of red than to pick out a brown or blonde sheitel. I ordered a few pieces and finally, with six weeks to her wedding, we found two wigs that were great for Elisheva.
But I couldn’t schedule a cut just yet. Each of the sheitels needed work. One required a touch of color to make it perfect, and the other needed some hairs added to the front. This is normal, and I sent each one back to the manufacturers to get the repairs done. As they were made by different companies, I sent each back the way it had been sent to me: one by UPS, the other by FedEx.
All was well, and I followed up with each company until I received return tracking numbers. And then suddenly, the tracking stopped — and it wasn’t because they’d been shipped to my door. This had never happened to me before, and it hasn’t happened since, but both wigs, shipped by different carriers, got lost in transit.
It was four weeks to Elisheva’s wedding. In theory that should be enough time to cut and set the sheitels. Except they were lost. Both of them. And she’d paid for them already, and she was a hard-to-match red, so it wasn’t like we had the option of choosing another wig.
As the days passed, and I got increasingly nervous, I noticed a curious thing: neither Elisheva nor her mother called and badgered me. When they called to check in at three weeks, and the wigs were both still lost, I was wary of letting them know, but I had no choice.
“Okay, Cookie,” Mrs. Handler said. “Thanks for the update. I’m sure you’ll let us know when they come in.”
Of course, I’d let them know, and I’d cancel every other appointment to devote the whole day to Elisheva. But when would they arrive?
I didn’t hear from the Handlers again. By now I was a nervous wreck, obsessively tracking two packages that were nowhere to found, but Elisheva and her mother were smiling as though nothing was wrong. When, with just two days to go, I passed them in the supermarket where they were buying cute little boxes of cereal and half-loaves of bread, Elisheva pointed to her mother’s red wig and said, “We still have time, but if worse comes to worse, I can wear my mother’s Shabbos sheitel.”
Finally, at 4:00 p.m. on the day of her wedding, one of Elisheva’s wigs finally showed up. By the time I made it to the wedding, the chuppah had passed, and I peeked in on Elisheva, smiling broadly as she took pictures — this girl who knew she’d have to attend her first sheva brachos in her mother’s sheitel.
I gave Elisheva a thumbs-up to let her know one of the wigs had come in and we’d cut it the next day, then ran off to find her new mother-in-law and let her know what a gem her son had just married.
I’m in the service business. I’m used to people, especially kallahs, demanding their “rights,” often forcing me into corners I don’t belong in. I expected the Handlers to vent and wouldn’t have been surprised if they had taken out their nerves on me, even though there was nothing more I could have done to help them. The grace they displayed astounded me. Elisheva and her mother taught me what it looks like when we truly believe that Hashem runs the world. They understood that it wasn’t about them, or me, but about what Hashem wanted to happen, and they accepted it with love.
Sarah Rivkah Kohn
Founder and Director of Zisel’s Links & Shlomie’s Club, supporting children and teens who have lost a parent
’ve been running Zisel’s Links since 2006, and at this point I’ve seen a lot.
I’m now able to size up people and situations quickly, and I often know how a conversation will go before I have it. Everyone is different of course, but after a while, you come to understand how people work, and what makes this type react one way and another react a different way.
A couple of years ago, the Weiss* children were referred to Links after the death of their father. Onboarding new families is never fun — how can it be? But this situation was especially difficult. The families we work with are mostly full of gratitude for our programming, which includes mentors and peers who have lived through the same experience, shabbatons and Yom Tov programming, a magazine, 24-hour hotline, and more. Mrs. Weiss, though, was proving very difficult.
She wanted her children to benefit from everything we had to offer, but she wanted it on her terms, which didn’t always work for our staff and volunteers. Even when we went out of our way to accommodate requests that sometimes seemed over the top, she was still very combative. It was like she was saying, “Give me everything I ask, and I’ll still find something to get upset about.”
It came to a point where my staff and volunteers couldn’t work with Mrs. Weiss. I knew I needed to get involved, and I knew, too, exactly how the conversation would go.
I was on the defensive as I dialed, and took a deep breath as Mrs. Weiss answered with a “Hello?”
And then everything went wrong. Mrs. Wiess burst into tears and cried for a few minutes, as I sat there, cradling the phone. When she was finally able to talk, she said, “You have no idea what it’s like to live without a spouse. You know about losing a parent, but not a spouse.”
I was silent.
Because she was right.
Everything we do at Zisel’s Links and Shloime’s Club to support children who have lost a parent comes from personal experience. Most of the staff and mentors are people who have lived through this very pain. Yes, I know what it’s like to lose a mother. But I have no idea what it’s like to lose a spouse.
I took a step back. “You’re right,” I said gently. “Please, take me into your world. Help me understand.”
I was on the phone with Mrs. Weiss for over an hour, as she talked to me about her loss and what her life was like. She opened my eyes to a new reality and changed my perspective forever. Since my encounter with Mrs. Weiss, I enter situations with much more humility. Though I may think I know the circumstances, the family dynamics, everything that has brought us here, and though my experience may provide insight as to what might be needed to help this family, I think of Mrs. Weiss and remember that, in truth, the only ones who can tell me what’s needed is each family. And since each is unique, I’ll forever have so much to learn.
Rabbi Ahron Hoch
Rabbi Hoch was one of the founders of the Aish HaTorah Learning Center in Toronto in 1981. He also served as the rav of the Village Shul in Toronto for 20 years. In 2020, he moved to Lakewood
As the Rav of a baal teshuvah community, I was on the teaching end. But the intrepid men and women of the Aish community in Toronto have taught me so much about true courage and avodas Hashem.
These people uproot their lives to take on Torah and mitzvos, and they need to do their best not to alienate their own families in the process. (“Sorry, Mom, but I can’t eat the roast you cooked specially for me.”) Baalei teshuvah are immigrants to a new culture, and this doesn’t abate throughout their lives — no matter what stage of life they’re in, they often have no familial context for what they’re going through as a frum Jew (first simchah with a mechitzah, first child in shidduchim). It’s incredibly humbling to be part of their journey.
Adrienne Gold Davis was a well-known personality who had her own fashion and beauty program on Canadian TV for 15 years. When she and her husband decided to send their kids to a Jewish day school, they started learning along with their children. They were introduced to Aish and the Village Shul, and slowly began taking on more and more mitzvos.
As Adrienne learned more and more, the world of fashion and television began to seem meaningless to her. She’d discovered truth and meaning in Torah, and she began to talk differently to her television audience, committing “career suicide,” as she described it.
Eventually, Adrienne decided she needed to leave television. She broached the idea of teaching at Aish. I wasn’t sure that it would work; she was still a beginner herself. But she was so passionate — and she threw my words back at me: “Haven’t you taught that we have a responsibility to help our fellow Jews wake up to the light of Torah?” she said.
And so Adrienne, already in her forties, with a young family to support, left television, and came to Aish to start all over. Today, she’s a leading light in motivating people to come closer to Torah through Momentum (formerly the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Program). When I think of Adrienne, I’m blown away at how she left a successful public career and began at the bottom, training in everything Torah to inspire women all over the world.
Devorah Himy, SLP
Curriculum Developer; Supervising Therapist/Director; Educational Consultant at Language Builders, Lakewood
the beginning of the school year about 12 years ago, I got a call from Mrs. Greenberg,* who’d heard I was an experienced speech language pathologist. Mrs. Greenberg was visibly upset as she told me her story.
Her 16-year-old son, Shimmy, had always had learning difficulties, and he’d just gone through an extensive evaluation to see if they could finally determine what help he’d need to succeed.
“The evaluator basically told us to give up,” Mrs. Greenberg said. “Shimmy will never be able to learn, and he says we should pull him out of yeshivah and just find him a job. He thinks that forcing him to stay in an environment where he feels unsuccessful will not be good for his Yiddishkeit.”
Mrs. Greenberg was in tears, and I was close to them myself.
“You can’t imagine what it’s been like in our house since then. My husband has been learning with Shimmy every night forever, and he can’t bear to think it’s all been for naught. Look, we’re not expecting him to be the gadol hador, but to take him out of yeshivah at such a young age? Why does anyone think that will keep him connected to Hashem?”
I tried to comfort Mrs. Greenberg and agreed to take Shimmy on as a client. I told her that as highly recommended and experienced the evaluator was, an evaluator cannot predict the future. And no evaluator can substitute a parent’s role in believing in and working with their child.
Succos was on the horizon. “On Simchas Torah,” I told her, “the men will dance around the bimah and sing eidus Hashem neemanah, machkimas pesi, affirming our belief that the Torah has the power to ‘make someone smart.’ We believe that.”
I began working with Shimmy after Succos, and I’ll be honest: He needed a tremendous amount of help. But Shimmy was incredibly hardworking and motivated. He came week after week after week and took in the skills I taught him. Yes, it was hard. Yes, it was slow going. But undoubtedly there was progress.
Pesach time, Shimmy switched yeshivos, and a couple of weeks later, he stopped coming to see me. That was the last I heard from the Greenbergs until the summer.
We were on vacation in the Poconos when I picked up Mrs. Greenberg’s call.
“I’m sorry to bother you on vacation, Devorah. But I had to share the nachas. Shimmy just made his first siyum on Berachos!”
I was incredulous as Mrs. Greenberg shared how Shimmy’s new yeshivah was responsible for a complete turnaround in his abilities. Their approach to learning worked for Shimmy who tasted the sweetness of a sugya for the first time in his life. Now a counselor in summer camp, Shimmy persevered, learning every spare moment until he finally reached this point.
The tears in Mrs. Greenberg’s and my eyes were a different sort this time, and I wished her a heartfelt mazel tov.
“It was definitely worth picking up a call like this on vacation!”
I think about Shimmy often, especially as I evaluate a child who seems to be severely delayed in speech/language development. As diagnosticians, we identify various learning issues that children present with — and we’re right to do that, as it helps us help them. But I find that as educators, we sometimes define people by their disability, categorizing them and forcing limitations on them.
Shimmy taught me that people can surpass those limitations, and that we can never predict what a child can accomplish. Children have so much potential, and we only see parts of it.
I still diagnose, and I still work with children to overcome their limitations. But now, when parents ask me what I think is in store for their child’s future based on issues I’ve pinpointed, I think of Shimmy. And I tell parents that we can never know. As parents, our goal is to give our child every tool we can to help maximize their potential — and then to believe that change is possible and limitless.
*The names of all those involved in the stories have been changed.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 789)
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