In light of the upcoming school year, which will hopefully be a relatively normal one, I decided to write about a most unusual teacher, who happens to be a cousin of mine: Evan Leibowitz, 40, is an Orthodox Jewish man who teaches at P.S. 140, an elementary school in the South Bronx.
What makes this all the more astonishing is that Evan, like other Jews from Orthodox backgrounds (myself included), did not personally know many non-Jewish people while he was growing up; and because he attended Yeshiva University, his first real encounters with non-Jews occurred only in graduate school. And yet Evan has dedicated his professional life to educating the children of the South Bronx.
It all began for Evan with a realization that he would like to work with children, and this led him to teaching. At first, he resisted the idea of teaching elementary school because of stereotypes suggesting it’s not “manly” to do so. However, it turned out that because there is a dearth of male teachers in primary school, Evan was highly marketable, and he was hired precisely because his principal wanted a male teacher as a role model for the children.
Not that Evan’s entry 15 years ago into the New York City public school system was always smooth sailing.
“I had tough conversations with colleagues when I first started out,” he says. “It took me time to adjust and to understand the lives of the students and where their families are coming from.”
For example, at first he couldn’t understand why his students did not do their homework. But his colleagues told him, “You have absolutely no idea about what is going on in their lives.” Evan grew to understand that they were right: “Until you put yourself in that situation, you cannot really judge anything. Empathy is really important in this job. ”
Over the years, Evan says, “I have come to learn about the lives of the families more,” and since his start in teaching Evan himself has become a father of four children. Now, he says, “I understand more if a child does not do their homework—there’s so much stuff going on.”
Being a father also encouraged Evan, about 10 years ago, to start wearing a kippa to work. His oldest child was entering Jewish day school and was wondering why Evan took off his kippa. Evan has not heard a single negative comment about his kippa in the decade that he has worn it to work, and he feels that it’s important for his students to know about other religions.
During the spate of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York area a few months ago, Evan recalls, “As I walked to my car in the South Bronx after finishing my day at school, I thought about taking off my kippa–but it was a fleeting moment.”
Evan teaches public school as opposed to Jewish parochial school primarily for financial reasons. However, he does not have the luxury of enjoying what teachers are often envied for: a summer-long vacation. He says that unlike most of his colleagues, he has to work during the summers (at Jewish day camps) because of the high cost of Jewish life. This, even though his wife is a pediatrician.
Asked about teaching school in a particularly challenging neighborhood, Evan says, “You realize quickly that all children are the same. Even though they are exposed to a lot of things, in real life they are kids and at heart they want to learn and grasp knowledge.”
Evan enjoys being “a role model for future generations.” “I get excited when kids that I have taught come back to say hello; it gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
The passion that first led him to want to work with children is still there.
“I like the idea of helping children, of molding them, of helping them make choices. You always want to be that teacher where they talk about you at graduation.”
I have a feeling that there is much talk of Mr. Leibowitz come graduation day at P.S. 140.
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.