Catholic-Turned-Atheist Teaching at a Yeshiva
Tonight I graduated the first set of students that I’ve taught for their entire four years of high school. They were my freshmen when I first started teaching, and I saw them grow up as if I had experienced adolescence all over again. I saw them through their braces, their changing voices, and their ProActiv phases. And tonight, there they were sitting across the stage in their suits and ties–with beaming, perfect smiles, and glowing, clear faces–knowing that the world is theirs to conquer.
I can’t help but think of my own high school graduation–the one I missed. I boycotted it. In my own self-aggrandizing way, I had thought my boycott would mean something. I stood by my principles then. I even wrote a letter of protest that the principal read. And my name was mentioned by the salutatorian, during her speech, acknowledging my little protest (or so I later heard from my friends who were there to witness it). I never asked whether or not people applauded that moment–wishfully thinking that I somehow mattered that much.
That was 1999. Now it’s 2007. I’ve grown up even more since. And I’ve realized how much I don’t matter to many people. This kind of disillusionment, while sounding tragic, is actually what I needed. Living in this YouTube and MySpace generation, so consumed with how my life is perceived by others, I needed to realize how insignificant my life that I try to broadcast is in the grand scheme of things. That feeling of self-importance and overvalued, over-egoed sense of self needed to be tempered with humility.
As I looked at my graduates, I wondered whether or not they, too, would experience this existential crisis when they got to my age: will they eventually lose their idealism and turn cynical, as I have?
There’s something beautiful about my high school’s graduation, and the kinds of graduates the school produces. Because it is a Yeshiva, the students have learned a life of Torah. Over the years, I’ve often questioned what the value of that Torah learning is. Sometimes I’d laugh at their debates about kosher laws and rules for Shabbos.
But tonight, it dawned on me that there’s something true and profound–awesome even–in the values and morals they have embraced; and that their learning is transcendent of the pettiness of the world in which I live.
As I watched a retrospective video presentation, I was moved by the students’ devotion to prayer. In one segment of the video, the students–who otherwise look like typical American teenagers–are on their senior trip to Israel, and they are praying at and kissing the Western Wall. They have a connection to history and to god–a connection i had severed long ago. I have just lived in the present and I have just lived for myself.
Judaism is the world’s oldest religion that has survived persecution and genocides basically since evil was born in the world. And the Jews have thrived and are some of the most successful people in the world. They know the secret to life–and that secret is revealed in the Torah.
I don’t have the kind of discipline they have; I don’t have the faith they fervently believe in; I don’t have their sense of purpose. This is why I’ve suffered my existential crisis: wondering what the hell life is supposed to be about; feeling sad and depressed about my life and the people who are in it; questioning what is the point of it all!
All over the room, I looked at faces that were happy. They have the light. They know the truth.
…And I want to know. This I now believe.
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