What Now? Episode 6 podcast transcript
The following is a transcription of episode 8 of the podcast What Now?, “We Were Strangers” with Abigail Uhrman, provided for accessibilty for all website visitors.
Sara Beth Berman: Welcome to What Now?, a podcast from the Jewish Theological Seminary that asks how we respond when it all goes wrong. I’m Sara Beth Berman, your host, and a graduate of the Davidson School at JTS, and I’ve been searching for answers for a long time. Almost a decade ago, I had a crisis of faith when my fiancé Rafi, a fifth-year rabbinical student, died after a year of suffering and a month in a coma. Even all these years later, I’m still trying to find answers to the hard questions. Specifically, why? Why do humans suffer? And what now? How does our tradition help us tackle this fundamentally human experience?
Tragedy and misfortune strike all of us just about every day. On a scale of one to 10, where one is dropping your perfectly scooped ice cream cone onto the sidewalk before you get to eat it, and 10 is that time I was widowed before my wedding. In my continued search to answer my big questions, “Why?,” and “What now?,” I’m meeting with professors and teachers from my beloved alma mater JTS, the Jewish Theological Seminary. Each professor and each person has had their own struggles. My professors have applied their wisdom and scholarship to finding answers. After years of banging my head against a wall while I whine loudly about tragedy, I’m hoping my professors can help me find some answers.
In this episode, I sat down with Professor Abigail Uhrman, who teaches and researches in the Davidson School of Jewish Education at JTS. Dr. Uhrman and I spoke about communal tragedy, specifically about challenges around inclusion in Jewish educational settings, as well as how to talk to children about more conventional kinds of tragedy. I’ll let her introduce herself.
Abigail Uhrman: My name is Abigail Uhrman. I’m an assistant professor in the Davidson School. I teach a number of courses to rabbinical students and graduate students. And I also do a lot of research on Jewish education.
SBB: So as a graduate of the Davidson School, I’m very excited to be talking to a Davidson professor. So when I invite people to have this conversation with me, the framing that I use is this scale of one to 10. So on a scale of one to 10, where one is spilling your tea all over yourself right as you’re going into a meeting, and 10 is the Book of Job, where would you find yourself or some of your experiences or some of your studies in that scale from one to 10? So something that’s really small and something that’s large.
AU: So I would say I’ve had plenty of one, twos, and threes, like we all do. I feel really lucky that I don’t have a lot of the higher numbers. I think I have a lot of the experiences that most of us have, of losing a grandparent or other sort of bigger picture things. I would say when I think about 10s in my life and my world right now, I’m thinking really about sort of national and global crises. And the implications that has for my everyday life and how I talk to my kids and the world that I’m raising my family.
SBB: That’s a totally reasonable response, trying to find yourself on that scale, especially when you think about the constant flow of news. I could rattle out a list of shootings and natural disasters and all sorts of other terrible things that happen in our world today. When we’re talking to our students, to our kids, to our families about all of the terrible things that come up, how do you approach that?
AU: So first of all, I just want to say that it’s actually really tough. These are hard conversations to have. They’re hard conversations to do well. And I would say that even if we’re extremely prepared and thoughtful about how we do it, it doesn’t make it easy. So that’s just sort of the baseline understanding, I think, is that this is hard work. And this is hard work to do well. And I don’t think there’s expectation that it’s going to be good, necessarily. I think it’s just hard.
But in terms of thinking about what we as educators, what we as parents, even, can do to help have these really hard conversations with kids, I think about it in terms of, if we think of prayer or tefillah as having the keva side and kavanah side, the sort of fixed piece and also the more spontaneous piece, I actually think this fits nicely into that model. So I think the keva piece or the fixed, rigid piece, is that before anything happens—as you said, things happen all the time. But before anything happens that you actually need to confront and deal with immediately, I think you need to have processes and rituals in place for talking to kids about hard things and hard topics.
So do you have a language for talking about it? Is there a space? Is there a venue for having these conversations? Are you communicating with, if you’re thinking about a school, are you communicating with parents on a regular basis about what’s happening in your school and what you’re noticing? Are you paying attention to kids’ emotional responses? Are you paying attention to what they say and what they do? Do you, if you are a teacher, have a mental health professional on your speed dial? Do you have a school psychologist in the school? Are you leveraging your resources so that when push comes to shove, and you have to have these difficult conversations, do you have sort of the emotional foundation and trust so that you can have these conversations in a way that can be the most supportive and the most productive for kids? That was the keva part.
SBB: And I’m really curious about the kavanah, or meaning and intention part.
AU: So I would say that that has to emerge sort of naturally from these processes and structures. So if you have, again, let’s think of the classroom setting. If you have a learning space where kids feel like their voices are heard and their voices are valued, and they feel safe and comfortable expressing themselves, and that it’s okay to have big feelings. For example, it’s okay to feel angry and feel upset, as long as they’re not hurting someone else, and what do we do with our anger and our big feelings? If you have that kind of a setting, I think you are way ahead of the game in terms of making it easier—and again, that’s in quotes, “easier,”—to have these conversations.
I would say the kavanah part, that sort of what do you do in the moment when something really horrible and really tragic happens, you need to first listen. I think you need to pay attention to what they kids are saying and what they know. And respond age-appropriately to what it is that they’re doing and saying. I would say most important after that, is helping kids feel safe. Helping to reassure them that you as a school community, as a parent, are working hard to keep them safe, so that they don’t feel scared. I would say you also need to make sure that you offer them an opportunity to ask questions. I would say in general, all of these things are ways that we build resilience in our kids. And we help them think about, what do we do when we encounter something difficult and tragic, and how do we make sense of that.
For me, one of the most important pieces of having these processes and rituals in place is not only that we offer real opportunities for kids to grapple with tough things in their lives, and also just managing their everyday lives. But I think also, an additional piece of this keva work, I think is really talking explicitly about discrimination, bias, and hate with our kids. Those are sort of some of the tragedies I was thinking of, when I was thinking about global tragedies and the collective discourse today.
We want to raise kids, we want to grow a generation of kids who challenge racism, who challenge discrimination, who challenge anti-Semitism. And I think we have to be really, that has to be a forefront of our agenda, is how do we talk to kids? How do we, as Fred Rogers would say, how do we help them become the helpers? How do they be the change agents? How do they be the ones that are going to make a difference in this world, and they are not going to stand by when they see horrible things happening, but they are actually part of the solution?
SBB: I just think it’s an excellent a moment for us to acknowledge that while not everybody is a day school teacher, everybody, most everybody cares about children in one way, or for children in one way or another. And I was struck as you were talking specifically about raising a generation and talking with kids and thinking about how that language is also really important for adults. And I think about how I try to do that work as well, with learners of all ages. And I just wanted to acknowledge that the intentional kind and thoughtful work that you’re putting in to the education of our youth can teach people a lot about how to work with everyone around them, talk with everyone around them, create spaces for everyone around them.
Not everyone who’s listening to this podcast is a day school teacher or camp director, but most people who listen to this podcast interact with other humans. I hope you all do.
So when we’re talking about discrimination, bias, racism, I’m wondering if there’s a Jewish framework that you could apply to that?
AU: I actually think this idea of combating discrimination, bias, hate, racism, whatever it may be, anti-Semitism—I think that’s actually a really important piece of our Jewish story. So I would share two things, I think, that are helpful in framing this. One is, it says all over the Torah, and also all over our liturgy, “ki ger hayiti be’eretz Mitzrayim,” so this idea of, we were once strangers. And I think when you think about that, you have two choices, right?
So you were a stranger, you can choose to say, well, I wasn’t included. Something went wrong for me. I have no responsibility to help anyone else. And Judaism actually pushes against that impulse pretty strongly, and says actually, you were a stranger, therefore you have to ensure that no one else has that experience. That no one else should feel those things, and you have to be an active agent in helping to effect positive change.
So I would say that, as a Jewish lens, as a Jewish frame, it’s actually an important piece that tragedy, horrible things, that we talk about them, we teach about them, and we think about how we’re going to move forward.
In addition to this idea of not oppressing the stranger, I want to share one more story that helps further our thinking about how tragedy gets incorporated into our ongoing narrative. So the story is from the Talmud. It’s a story of Rabbi Akiva and the rabbis. It is after the destruction of the Temple, and they go to what was the Temple Mount. So they’re at the ruins of the Temple Mount, and they see a fox running through the ruins.
And Rabbi Akiva, unlike his colleagues, who are visibly sad, and crying, and upset, Rabbi Akiva laughs. Some of us might think that is an inappropriate response. But for Rabbi Akiva, the idea of the laughing is that without the prophecy of destruction, the prophecy of redemption and consolation couldn’t come. So for him, there was a direct link between this prophecy of the bad and the promise of the good.
I want to add that there’s actually 60 years that elapse between the destruction of the Temple and this story of Rabbi Akiva and the rabbis. So the idea is that, immediately after the fact, the pain was probably too raw and too immediate. That Rabbi Akiva and certainly any of the other rabbis couldn’t look beyond the tragedy. But there was a time and a space for the mourning and the grieving. And then once Rabbi Akiva let that time pass, he was able to see that the tragedy is going to be a vehicle for something good.
I’m not saying that tragedy is always a vehicle. But I think this idea of, what do we do with tragedy? And how do we take this experience of suffering and make it into something meaningful? Is a really core Jewish belief. Again, going back to this idea of “ger hayiti,” that we were once strangers in Egypt, we have to choose consciously every day to take that experience and make something good of it. And I think Judaism is encouraging us, again, on a daily basis, to think about what am I going to do with this experience, and how do I make the better world as a result?
SBB: Yeah. I mean, if someone had told me that I was going to record a podcast about 10 years after Rafi died, where I would mention that he died in every recording, I would have collapsed on the floor with laughter. But here I am. So there is, I mean, I’m trying to take my experience and use it for something useful. So I guess this podcast is the fox running around the ruins of the Temple Mount. Maybe that should be our logo.
AU: I guess I’ll just add one thing. We have a family friend who is, I think he just turned 93. He’s a child psychologist. He was the head of psychology at our local school district. He is an incredible, incredible man. And he, when I was talking to him about my own children, he was telling me that it’s really, really hard to be a kid. I said, “Oh, well, I think it’s really hard to be a parent.” He said, “Yes, yes. But it’s really, really tough to be a kid.” And that they have a lot of feelings and they’re going through a lot and a lot of changes, and they really don’t know how to make sense of this. So the best thing we can do for them, is to just love them and support them, and to be very, very patient.
And I think the example of being a stranger, the example of Rabbi Akiva and the idea of thinking about allowing space and time and being patient and waiting, and then being able to use that and incorporate those experiences into who we are and into what we believe and into what we’re going to do in this world, I think is a really powerful message.
SBB: That is, in fact, a really powerful message.
SBB: Could you tell me a little bit more about the research that you’re doing here at JTS?
AU: Sure. I do a lot of research on inclusion and diversity. My dissertation research, way back when, was on specifically parents with kids with disabilities, looking at their educational decision-making, and specifically their experiences in Jewish day schools. And since I finished that project, I’ve been working a lot in the area of disabilities research and starting recently to think about other dimensions of diversity and how diversity looks in different Jewish settings, and how as a theory of change we can think about creating more inclusive Jewish spaces.
SBB: Could you explain a little bit more what you mean when you say inclusion?
AU: So typically when I think about inclusion, I think we usually think about it in terms of including individuals with disabilities in the community. But I want to broaden that to think about not just the disabilities community, but also other marginalized groups. And I’m going to use the term marginalized with quotes around it. I think that we don’t want to create this sense of a hierarchy as an us and a them. We’re really all part of it together, but how do we create spaces where even those who have voices who aren’t often heard are equal members and equal participants in our institutions, and how we can be more intentional about ensuring that the widest possible spectrum of people’s needs are met.
SBB: That’s beautiful and it’s really interesting. I imagine that the work could never possibly be done.
AU: Yes. And I think we’re a little bit behind the eight ball, and I think we’re trying to do a lot of catch-up also. As a general rule, I think we’re more limited in how we think about diversity in our communities, and I think there are some really important conversations about how we push the envelope in terms of thinking about, what might it look like? And how can we make this possible, by including more people and being thoughtful about real differences that exist? And what does it mean to have a community of people, and learning communities, and synagogue communities, etc., etc., of people who aren’t just all the same and have different needs and different wants and different desires?
SBB: I would love to hear about how you got into your research, specifically. How you decided to study what you’ve been studying. So tell me a little more about that.
AU: So that’s actually a good connection to the question of the one to 10, and how my research fits into this idea of what my one to 10 would be on my scale of tragedy. I would never have thought to use the word tragedy, although it is tragic, when I think about it through this lens. So my research is really about, how can we create educational institutions that help people, all people, feel like they have a sense of community and sense of belonging. A lot of my research is about how people don’t feel that way, and how people are marginalized and people don’t feel like they have a voice and they’re not supported. And the community is not able to provide the services and supports and resources that they need in order for themselves, their children, their parents to be full-fledged, successful members of the Jewish community.
And again, this is with my colleagues at JTS, our research is really about how can we, as Jewish educators, provide an antidote to those tragic experiences where people feel like they don’t have a sense of belonging. They don’t have a sense of connection. And what can we do to create a different narrative? And what can we do, not only for those individuals, but also for our Jewish community as a whole? I think it’s extremely tragic that our Jewish community isn’t more thoughtful, and I think we’re pushing the envelope—not just us here at JTS, but a lot of wonderful activists out there—to think about why it’s really important to include more people in our spaces.
And not only the benefit for them, but the benefit for all of us. And what does it mean to really thoughtfully and intentionally create diverse communities.
SBB: You obviously have this passion behind your research. Could you tell me about what you were thinking when you first embarked on your studies, going to grad school?
AU: So I would say two things really stood out for me. One is, I have a very incredible father who’s in a wheelchair. So I think that always made me very sensitive to issues of access. Not specifically in terms of educational access, but just access more broadly. And that, I think coupled with the fact that I was a day school teacher, I was a 5th grade teacher. A lot of the research shows that by the time kids are in 5th grade, if they have any sort of a learning issue, if it has not been addressed by the time they’re in the later elementary years, the effects are just far more devastating, and it’s very tough for kids to catch up, and to be academically successful in the way that they would want. In the way that anyone would want.
So I was a 5th grade teacher, by the time kids came to my class, it was really, really tough for them, for the kids that had any sort of a learning issue. It was hard for them to keep up academically, and it was also this point where they had to decide if they were going to continue on with the Jewish day school education in the middle school, or if they were going to find an alternate educational program. I think the school that I worked at was actually especially thoughtful and intentional about how they included a diversity of learners in their classrooms, and also how they worked with families. That being said, I think day schools in general just have a hard time figuring out how to do this. And there are a lot of things that make it complicated and challenging for them.
So it was actually a really tough point for families. And for me as a teacher, to see the struggles that families would go through, in deciding how to continue to provide their kids Jewish education, when they knew that many times the day school did not offer the types of support and resources that their kids needed to be successful.
And that was tragic on two fronts. One was that the day school didn’t generally do a good enough job at the beginning, in terms of remediating or at least addressing and accommodating their educational needs. And two, that moving forward, they’d been part of this community. They’d been part of the day school community—day schools are pretty intentional about creating family communities. I think for most schools, they see part of their mission as creating these school communities where everyone is part of it.
The research on day schools shows that it’s really a family affair, and that when you make the choice to be in a day school, it’s as much about parents as it is about kids. And it became really part of their lives and part of their Jewish stories. And when families had to make the decision, either in consultation with the school or on their own, whether or not to continue, that was really painful for a lot of families.
And that was, as a teacher in the school, I felt saddened and also frustrated at sort of my lack of agency in helping them to make these decisions, and helping to create schools where these things were more possible. And I taught at an amazing school. There are some real limitations that made it hard for the schools to address the needs, but the confluence of those two things, those two experiences, one being just my family growing up, and always thinking about issues of accessibility, and then thinking about educational access and what kind of learning opportunities we provide for all of our children.
SBB: I think it’s amazing that you were inspired by the work that you did in the day school, and that you’ve carried it through your career in academia. Especially because you were talking about day school, I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the other research that you’ve been doing in other educational settings.
AU: So I’ve been working with my colleague Jeff Kress, and also my colleague Barry Holtz, who’s doing more of the thought leadership in this area. But we’ve been thinking a lot about what inclusion looks like in a diversity of settings. So we’ve spent the past two years working with the Foundation for Jewish Camp, with inclusion coordinators at Jewish camps across the country. In that research, we had the opportunity not only to work with these incredible individuals who are doing amazing work in inclusion in all of their camps, but also to think about what’s happening at Jewish summer camps in terms of inclusion. What are the staffing needs? And also what are the camper experiences, and how that could be a touch point for Jewish life and Jewish living for families that may or may not have the opportunity in their home communities.
SBB: It’s really exciting for me to hear about your research and camp. I actually met you when we were together for Foundation for Jewish Camp, a zillion years ago. Professor Uhrman, it was really awesome to talk to you today. It’s such a gift to be able to think about the practical applications of the research that you get to do at JTS. So thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me.
AU: Thank you so much for having me. It was such a gift to be able to be part of this podcast, and to really articulate what it is that we’re trying to do here when we think about building a better future for the Jewish people. I get to do this every day, and I feel really, really lucky to be a professor at JTS and working with future rabbis, future cantors, future Jewish educators, and helping further our mission of how we can make Judaism come alive, be relevant, and meaningful for learners of all ages. It’s really a pleasure for me. So thank you.
SBB: Thank you.
What now, Dr. Uhrman? When I think about Dr. Uhrman’s work, making space, expanding space, adjusting space for learners who need it in our community, I think about the campers and students that I haven’t been able to support, the staff members I haven’t known how to manage. And I also feel the pain, the tragedy, of not having the right structures in place to support all of the members of our community. This reckoning, stepping into thinking about a more gradual and dispersed kind of communal tragedy, was a good way for me and I hope for all of us to think about not just the whiney, why me? But to look around and say, okay, but why not all of us? Why can’t we figure out ways to be more inclusive and welcoming to people of differing abilities? And while we’re at it, different skin colors and countries of origin and languages spoken and ways of engaging in Jewish life, and, and, and…
And yet, here we are. I’m still banging my head against the wall. More professors, more questions. And now I want to know, why not all of us? And sometimes, I still want to know, why me? And why tragedy, why? And since tragedy doesn’t stop, neither will I.
What Now? is produced by Michal Richardson, and editorial oversight is by Rabbi Tim Bernard. Funding for this series is provided by JTS’s Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, and suffering is provided constantly by the human condition. What Now? is recorded by JTS’s delightful and kind new media staff, Larry Cameola and Brian Hart.
Hit subscribe, give us a review, help more people find answers to the big questions. This has been your host, Sara Beth Berman, JTS Davidson School class of 2009. It’s been real banging my head against the wall with you.