In 1988, my boss at Central Agency for Jewish Education in St. Louis called me into his office to ask if I’d like to recruit and lead a midwest group for a new program that was being headed by Jewish education organizations in New York and Miami. At that point, I could not have imagined that, over the course of the next 27 years, I would spend 14 years working at that New York organization or that I would be occupying the office of Gene Greenzweig, of blessed memory, who was the exec. at the organization I now serve in Miami (and whose photo I have given a place of honor in our office).
More surprising to me is that the program, the March of the Living, has continued to grow and that, 27 years later, I am still playing a major leadership role, with our agency sending over 100 teens annually to learn about the Holocaust, the State of Israel, and the students’ own Jewish life journey through this program. Through its work, the March is an immersive experience, bringing high school students to sites in Poland that were important to Jewish life before the Nazi era, to concentration camps and other sites of the Nazi killing machine, to sites of resistance, and to sites at which Jewish life continues today. From there, participants spend a week in Israel, delving into the birth and continued vibrant life of the state and land of Israel. This program has a major impact on the teens who participate. But it also changes the lives of the educators who work in it.
The life-changing impact on me is not simply about the Holocaust or about Israel. What also changed in my life, particularly my professional life, was the ability to comfortably say “I don’t know” as a rabbi and an educator.
Implicit in my rabbinical studies was that we would have the answers to everyone’s questions. Not sure whether something is kosher? I can look it up for you and give you a call back. Want to know whether it is ethical to unhook life support? There are responsa that address that; I’ll give you the info.
Oh, and my training as an educator tended to go the same way. We teach facts, information, the things we know. My university education taught me how to know what was factual. If you could base it on science and math, it was fact. The other stuff – literature, history, psychology – there was fact in there, but it was more squishy”, subjective.
Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach, writes about the role that fear plays in teaching. Both learners and teachers come to the educational process with a certain amount of fear. For him, for me, and probably for most teachers, the fear of either teaching incorrect information or of not having sufficient knowledge of a subject to teach it, is one we live with. And serving as an educator in the March of the Living, taught me more about that fear and about overcoming it than any other experience in my Jewish educational career.
Through the years of leading teens on this program, the questions came at me and my colleagues: How did the Holocaust come to occur? I can tell you the historical factors that led to the ascent to power of Hitler, but I can’t explain how a country supported the mass killings of Jews, Romanis, LGBT individuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others. Why did some Poles rescue Jews while others aided the Nazis or even massacred Jews after the war had ended? After decades of research about rescuers, it is still unclear what the motivations to risk their lives was. Why would a God not intervene before as many as 17,000,000 people died as the result of the Nazi regime? I don’t know. I don’t even know (because there is still historical debate on the topic) which buildings at Majdenek, one of the most powerful of the concentration camps standing, are as they were in 1945, and which have been rebuilt from the remains of the original buildings.
“I don’t know” is a powerful answer to hear from a rabbi and an educator. It allows for the possibility that we, learners and teachers together, will have to search for hypotheses that may serve as the best answers available to us. It provides the challenge to learners and teachers to research further to find the “real” answers. And it gives teachers and students permission to not be omniscient. Not only about something as difficult to understand as the Holocaust, but also about the unknowns of every other subject that is taught.
Learning “I don’t know” has been one of the most powerful lessons of my life and career. May every person who learns and teaches (and isn’t that everyone?) be blessed with the ability to say “I don’t know”. And may “I don’t know” motivate us to search, individually and collectively, for greater understanding, knowledge and wisdom.