Tziri’s Story: Finding My Own Voice
This Profile is brought to The Layers Project Magazine in partnership with The Jewish Education Project.
(1/6) ” I Got to be a Teacher”
“My first teaching job was in 2005. It started with a mixture of panicky nausea and excitement. On the one hand, I would finally be a teacher, which was my dream, but on the other hand, I would have to contend with real children right in front of me. Lots of faces, and I was the one in charge.
After that year I got married and moved to Israel. During that time I couldn’t teach because I had no formal credentials. Instead, I did some tutoring during my time there. After four years, at the end of the summer, I came back to the States. I was in the process of getting divorced, and I spent the first few weeks just sitting on the couch. Around Yom Kippur, I decided it was time to get up and move on with my life, so I opened a newspaper to look for jobs. I found an advertisement posted in the help-wanted section of the paper, requesting a twelfth grade English teacher who could start immediately. It was for a Chassidish school, and they hired me just after Sukkos. This was a very chaotic time in my life, and taking a job, especially one in a classroom, helped ground me. Although only three hours a day, five days a week, this was the greatest source of stability I had. In those three hours, I got to be a teacher.
A lot of the definitions that I was accustomed to applying to myself no longer existed: I was no longer a wife, I no longer lived in Israel. Because there was so much in limbo, I didn’t feel I could talk to my friends about what was going on. I didn’t know what to tell them; I didn’t know what to tell myself. Even the label of ‘mother’ was overwhelming for me. I had three tiny kids: a three-year-old, a less than two-year-old, and a newborn. Although the word ‘mother’ definitely applied to me, it didn’t bring me stability because my children were so young and needed so much from me. But throughout all the turmoil, ‘teacher’ was a label that brought me calm. For three hours every day, I could leave all the chaos behind. It was such a comfort to have this one thing that I could lean into and just be.”
(2/6) “Discovering Where I Belong”
“After my second year, I found an even deeper passion for this career. Teaching was something I was good at, something I could really see myself doing long-term. I decided that I wanted to go back to school to get a master’s in education. At that moment, teaching morphed from just ‘a job I could do’ to a career path I wanted to pursue out of passion.
Deciding to attend graduate school was very empowering, even though by that time a lot of the chaos had settled down. I was doing something for me, investing in myself and in my future.
This was the first time, at age twenty-six, that I entered a fully coed, secular school environment. Growing up, I attended a Bais Yaakov school, then seminary in Israel, and then a Jewish college. A secular graduate program was a big step out of any kind of comfort zone that I was used to.
One of the most surprising things about the experience was that I found myself often the lone Orthodox Jewish woman in my class. I felt that I needed to double down on my values and advocate for them when I felt they were being threatened. It had less to do with advocating for my own personal values and more to do with considering the communal values of the school in which I was teaching. I finally understood why education needed to be culturally competent. Originally, when I applied to the program, I had considered working in public school because of the benefits they offered. Now I realized that the Jewish world was where I needed to be, somewhere that my skills and cultural knowledge could be put to good use.”
(3/6) “The Moment I Found My Voice”
“One of my master’s courses, called ‘Self in Education,’ taught about how who I am as an individual, impacts who I am as a teacher. It was fascinating because it taught me so much about the intersection between myself and my teaching. One discussion we had in class was how vital it was for adolescents to read literature that contained representations of who they are. We discussed promoting multiculturalism in literature, specifically the literature we taught in our classrooms. What struck me was that the Bais Yaakov girls I taught every day were not seeing themselves represented in the literature they were reading. Even many of the books marketed specifically for frum girls, the students often didn’t find interesting or stimulating. For my final paper, I chose to research the issue: if my students didn’t see themselves represented in what they were reading, how would it help them form their identities? I made surveys and handed them out to students to gather data, but somehow this didn’t bring me any closer to finding a solution.
My professor recommended a book about feminism in Jewish schools. He thought I might enjoy it and suggested I write about how religious girls schools have an antiquated approach to teaching, how we were not feminist enough in our school systems. I started reading the book, and I felt the need almost immediately to take a pencil to the book, making notes and corrections. The author’s version of Orthodox feminism was drastically different from my own definition for myself and what I saw in my school. To get a balanced perspective, I read a book with entirely antithetical opinions written by an anti-feminist author. Doing so, I recognized, was key to helping me realize my own opinions. Where I came to at the end of my research paper was this: Willingness to listen to other viewpoints with tolerance and respect allowed me to create a composite ideology comprised of all of them. My opinion was created by me and just for me. That was really a defining moment for me, a moment when I realized where I wanted to go in education: I needed to stay in the Jewish school system. There, I could encourage discussion, conversation, critical thinking, and openness to ideas.
I tell my students, ‘It’s okay to read something and then disagree.’ Sometimes the best way to learn is to read something and realize, ‘This concept doesn’t work for me.’ Being able to find your voice, even when there are loud and important voices saying different things, is the bedrock of everything that I hope to transmit to my students.”
(4/6) “Critical Thinking Leads to Self-Identity”
“I have found, in some of the schools where I have taught, that there can be a large focus on compliance-based education. Growing up, I was taught to respect my teachers and my rabbis because they were my sources of knowledge. I was taught to take as certain truth anything they had to say. At times I felt like asking questions was treated negatively – as some sort of deficiency in me – rather than a praiseworthy skill of critical thinking. I wonder if there is a connection between religious ethos and the way we structure our education.
In my graduate program, I learned about ‘hidden curricula.’ Beyond the curricula that we teach explicitly and intentionally, our hidden curricula comprise the values we teach through our actions, without ever speaking. I wonder if, in religious education systems, our hidden curriculum teaches, in part, compliance, a blind faith. But we as Jews don’t believe faith is blind. Of course, we believe that our rabbis and teachers have the wisdom of the sages to offer, that they stand on the shoulders of great teachers before them, transmitting knowledge that stretches as far back as our sages and earlier. But I think students need to learn to find their own voices within that mix. I am not suggesting that students need to question everything they learn or stage a grand revolution and rebellion. I just think it’s important for girls to find their voices and learn that they should look for answers, listen, explore, compare, evaluate and then find their place within the context of what we give them. In order for their faith to be authentic, it needs to truly be their own. Their rabbis and teachers can guide and support them, but ultimately it needs to come from them.
I believe critical thinking will bring a level of self-awareness that is otherwise outside of their grasp. As a child, I was always smart at school, a ‘good girl’ who followed all the rules. When I got divorced, and that institution that was a large part of my self-identity was gone, it took me a long time to discover who I was. What was my voice? I ask my students to respond to what they learn in my class. I ask them to make assumptions, make assertions, and then stand behind those ideas until they feel it represents what they have to say. I ask them, ‘Does this sound like you?’”
(5/6) “A Voice Through Poetry”
“I have a wonderful friend, Sari Mayer, another teacher whom I’ve known since we were children. I began to add a lot more poetry to my English curriculum, and Sari inspired me to teach reading and writing poetry at a higher level. One day we said to each other, ‘What if we did a poetry slam? Wouldn’t that be awesome?’ I had heard of schools organizing poetry slams for their students, and I wanted to bring the idea to Bais Yaakov institutions. For three years we had inter-school slams with many participants. Many of our students found them life-changing. I have former students who still talk about the poetry slam as ‘the best thing we ever did.’ We encouraged our students to write their own poetry, get up in front of a crowd, and present it.
The beautiful thing about poetry slams is that they combine self-expression and performance. For these students, there was a stage where they could stand up and share personal poems that touched upon real feelings. This gave them an amazing platform to be able to find their voices.
We wondered what would happen if we started a poetry journal for all Jewish students. So we did! It’s called the Bedford Ledger (thebedfordledger.com). We compiled a list of as many Jewish schools as we could find in the US and we sent out letters explaining who we were. We told them that we had created this journal ‘to provide a voice to Jewish students’ and that poetry ‘had the unique ability to unite us under the common things that draw us together.’ We’ve gotten submissions from more than twenty schools, with hundreds of students. We are up to our fourth issue and we are looking for creative Jewish students, boys and girls in grades 7-12, to send in submissions by April 30, 2018.
There is nothing more meaningful than creating an environment that empowers students. I also understand that a decade in the classroom is barely a drop in the bucket of what there is to learn about teaching. I have only just begun my teaching journey.”
“The Jewish Education Project has a collaboration with Brooklyn College that offers Jewish day school teachers the chance to get a fully-funded masters in school leadership and administration. I had the opportunity to participate, and I learned just as much from my classmates in the program as I did from the professors there. It offered fantastic networking opportunities; I met so many different teachers from so many different schools, and have gotten multiple jobs through those connections.
The Jewish Education Project empowers Jewish educators to take on leadership roles and is raising the level of professionalism among Jewish day school leaders. Thank God, I finished the program in 2016. I keep telling my colleagues to reach out and seek professional growth opportunities through them.”
Learn more about The Jewish Education Project’s leadership development opportunities for Day Schools: https://goo.gl/H8iapm
Listen to Tziri’s Story in her own voice- (BRAND NEW FEATURE!!)
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.