Ben Wacks, 31, grew up near Ft. Lauderdale, in Cooper City, Fla., and came to Washington almost 10 years ago to intern on Capitol Hill. He later worked in the sales department for a commercial real estate company and now teaches preschoolers and seventh-graders at Adas Israel Congregation. One of his classes is Pop Culture and Judaism, in which he helps students understand Jewish texts through film.
What was your Jewish background?
I did USY, Camp Ramah and went to Hebrew day school. And after eighth grade, I went to a public high school and that was kind of a tipping point for me where I really got to appreciate my upbringing more. In Hebrew day school it’s just thrown at you and everyone has that same background. But when you go to a public high school you get questions about your Judaism, and you feel like, “Oh, I should probably have a good answer for that.”
Did a teacher ever look to you as the “Jewish authority?”
We were reading “Night” as a class, and I remember there was a part in a chapter where [Elie Wiesel] says the Mourner’s Kaddish and so the teacher always had a hard time pronouncing it. So she was like, “Is there anyone who’s Jewish who can read that?” And then she asked me more about what that prayer means. So I remember being the token Jew in that situation.
Do you enjoy working with preschoolers or middle schoolers more?
What I like about the seventh-graders is that this is the age where they’re starting to talk about real things and they start to become exposed to the real world. They’re at that bar mitzvah age and they have a very difficult time in middle school, so they’re balancing a lot. I think you can have a real meaningful conversation one on one.
On the other hand, working with 2 or 3 year olds, you get to really mold their minds and learn about how to teach valuable lessons to kids who are just learning about life. They’re so different from each other. Both require patience and with both you have to learn how to think on your feet.
Tell us about the pop culture class you teach.
I love movies and TV shows. I’m a Star Wars nerd. I think there’s a lot of movies that we see that you can look at through a Jewish perspective. They all have some kind of valuable lesson or moral. So what I like to do is I like to take what I’m into and look at the Jewish text simultaneously, whether it’s about lashon hara [evil speech] or Pirkei Avot [The Ethics of the Fathers].
What was the last lesson you gave?
We talked about the Torah portion of Jacob wrestling with an angel. There’s different interpretations of whether he was wrestling with God, or an angel or himself. So we talked about that a little bit and then we watched a clip from “The Lion King” when Simba looks in the pond and sees Mufasa, and then Rafiki says, “Your father’s alive.” Simba’s like, “No that’s me,” and then he’s looking at his father but he’s looking at him and he realizes he has to go back. Then the second clip we watched was in “The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s the scene where Yoda’s training Luke and he goes into the cave and he sees Darth Vader, and it’s like a dream but we don’t really know what it is. When he chops off Darth Vader’s head we see it’s his own face. So I took those two clips and compared them with the Torah portion, and I was like “yeah.”
Do the kids like it?
Sometimes. The key thing is making it relevant to them and sometimes it’s not as easy as it sounds. So some of the kids like it and others are like, “Yeah, we’re watching clips and I sort of see it.” So I think it’s about trial and error. But that’s the fun part about teaching, because you learn and you also see different styles. The main thing is that they have a positive experience in a Jewish environment because the last thing you want is for them to be bored. As long as they’re having fun and they’re with their friends, that’s the most important thing.
Will you make a career out of teaching?
I’m still exploring right now, to be honest. What I’d like to do is something where I nurture relationships with people. So whether that’s in the Jewish community or outside the Jewish community I’m still kind of figuring that out.
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