Igniting the spark within our children and students

By Surie Fettman

The Source

Consider the olive. It is a dull green, relatively small, somewhat bitter, oval fruit. It grows on a stubby, gnarled tree, and a process of intense pressure must be applied in order to extract a few, pure golden drops from each olive. Combine many of those drops, and you will have a small flask of shemen zayit zach, pure olive oil.

Consider the flask. It is small, made of clay, and is stamped with the seal of the high priest. It contains pure olive oil. This is the oil that was used to light the menorah in the Bais Hamikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, when it still stood.

Consider the scenario. The Maccabees entered the now reconquered temple and were confronted with a devastating situation. The holy vessels of the temple were reduced to rubble, remnants of unholy sacrifices and other spiritual atrocities were scattered throughout this once holiest of places. Everything inside the Bais Hamikdash was now destroyed and impure.

Consider that, even once the rubble and defilement was removed, only the light of the menorah could return holiness back into that once sacred place, to transform darkness into light. A crude menorah was hastily erected. Yet, that menorah could only be lit with that purest of pure oil, and only from a container that was whole and sealed. Alas! Any flasks that were located had been defiled, their seals broken.

One sealed flask was finally located, and the miracle we celebrate on Chanukah is primarily due to the discovery of that flask.

The Purpose

Now, consider the word Chanukah.

Its most basic translations are “dedication and “inauguration.” In addition, Chanukah shares the same root as the Hebrew word chinuch, which we translate as “education.” During this holiday, we celebrate the freedom to give our children a Jewish education, and we “dedicate” ourselves to that goal by practicing the age-old Chanukah rituals.

The purpose of many of these traditions is to awaken the interest of our children. We perform the rituals in the presence of our children. Symbolism is embedded in many of these traditions.

We know that children are most likely to absorb concepts when engaged with visual and tactile experiences, such as kindling and observing the Chanukah flames.

We serve latkes and jelly doughnuts, play dreidel and dole out Chanukah gelt. Whether we use actual money, nuts or chocolate coins, our goal is to help our children feel the sweetness of the mitzvah.

And what is the mitzvah? To kindle Chanukah lights.

These lights represent Torah and Jewish tradition, and we rededicate ourselves to continue preserving and passing those forward to the next generation.

This brings us right back to education, or chinuch, which, as noted above, shares the same root as Chanukah.

So what is effective chinuch? How can we successfully convey the truth, beauty and holiness of the Torah and our Jewish heritage to our children?

Many teens, young adults and adults struggle to maintain their connection to G-d and Judaism. It takes dedication, and we begin at the beginning, with the inauguration of a child’s life. 

The Vision

Let’s return to the recently defiled, now restored, Holy Temple, and the absence, on the surface, of even one, small, flask of pure olive oil. It must be unbroken with the seal of the Kohen Gadol still intact. This oil was needed to light the menorah so that the Temple could be rededicated and holy once again.

Only one sharp-eyed Jew was needed to notice that small and sealed flask amid the devastation. That Jew held the key to the entire miracle of Chanukah. Find the one pure little flask, light that first light, and the rest of the miracle could now unfold.

Similarly, when engaged in chinuch, an adult must be able to detect the purity, goodness or potential in the child they are about to educate.

Every child is a miracle waiting to unfold, even if, on the surface, it is not immediately evident. Since we know that each child is born with a piece of G-dliness, the soul, within him, we are certain that the pure oil needed to kindle the spark does exist within every child.

It is our responsibility to find that positive trait, talent or tendency in every single child we encounter—to draw it forth and to help it shine. For the miracle of that child to manifest in its full glory, there must be a sharp-eyed adult (or two or three) who can see that potential.  

Whether it is our own child or our student, it is up to us, the adults, to detect and ignite that spark. Once we accomplish that, the sky’s the limit; the miracle can now unfold. 

The Practice

I have been teaching for many years. I started my career as a teacher in Jewish preschools. Later, I became certified as a special-education teacher and worked for the New York City Department of Education. I’ve taught children from the ages of 3 to 10 years old in a variety of settings. Over the years, I taught in many early-childhood classrooms, self-contained special-education classrooms, resource rooms and general education elementary-school classrooms.

Some of my colleagues have described me as a person who wears “rose-colored glasses” because I could always find something positive to build on in every child with whom I worked.

But I disagree: Those glasses are not rose-colored. I do not have the power to add a rosy veneer that does not exist.

I believe that a better analogy would be that my “glasses” have X-ray vision; they see past any misbehavior or physical, language or motor difference to find that pure flask of potential in every child.

The Inauguration

Throughout a child’s life, the parents, caregivers and teachers must seek to identify the qualities that will help that particular child’s shine. In Proverbs (Mishlei), King Solomon advises us, “educate the child according to his or her way.”

There is no one-size-fits-all parenting style, curriculum or program that will magically help all children succeed and develop to their potential. Yet there are some core, common principles that are necessary for the healthy development of all children.

First, we must provide a safe and nurturing physical environment, and an enduring connection with a trusted adult must be established. After all, how can one ever achieve connection to, and trust in, G-d, if one has not been able to feel a deep and secure connection with human beings?

The key is for caregivers and educators to be attuned and responsive to the needs and emotions of the particular child in their care, and to respond to those needs with physical and emotional nurturing with as much consistency as possible.

The Progression

Each year on the first night of Chanukah, we light just one candle. We add one additional candle on each subsequent night until on the eighth night, the whole menorah is aglow. If we missed the opportunity to light that first candle on the first night, we have another chance, on the second night, to light the second and the first candle.

Similarly, at each stage of a child’s life, even if that child’s potential seems lacking, it’s never lost. It might take time, but ultimately, each of us, at each stage in that child’s development, has the opportunity to detect the holy spark within—and to help unfold the miracle of that human being’s purpose on earth.

Surie Fettman is a mother, grandmother, and certified special education teacher who has been  working with children in a variety of settings for over 30 years.  A native Brooklynite, Surie is now living in Toms River, N.J. In her private practice, she works with individual children, their parents and teachers, facilitating social emotional skills development and providing academic intervention. Over the years, Surie has written and published a number of articles, and she is the author of “My Shabbos 123s.”

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