HEBREW NAME: Binyamin Mikhael
CURRENTLY LIVING IN: Somerville
ALMA MATERS: Gann Academy ’07, Binghamton University ’12, will begin studying for rabbinical ordination at Hebrew College in fall 2019
FAVORITE FOOD: Jewish soul food – I’m talking bagels, lox, schmear, capers, crusty noodle kugel, egg salad … the best Kiddush spread.
FAVORITE MUSIC: Bass music, a genre of [electronic dance music]. My favorite artist is a woman named CloZee.
FAVORITE MOVIES: “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
FAVORITE BOOKS: “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt; “How to Change Your Mind” by Michael Pollan; “Thank You For Being Late” by Thomas Friedman.
FAVORITE TV SHOWS: “Dragon Ball Z” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
FAVORITE TRAVEL DESTINATION: A place called “Electric Forest” in Michigan – it’s a four-day music festival.
PLACES YOU WANT TO GO TO NEXT: In Tasmania, they have these giant caves that are full of bioluminescent glow worms that hang from the ceiling that do this incredible light show. Pretty much anywhere I’m gonna see a lot of bioluminescent wildlife.
FAVORITE JEWISH PERSON NOT IN YOUR FAMILY: Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, Mezz Mezzrow
FAVORITE JEWISH HOLIDAY: Pesach
WHAT WAS YOUR JEWISH BACKGROUND GROWING UP?
I was raised in Salem in a household that was full of interesting dichotomies. My mother is a master Jewish educator who comes from a line of Jewish educators and Jewish thinkers. And then I had a father who was and is more of an atheistic kibbutz Brit who feels very disconnected and suspicious of traditional religious existence, and for the institution of religion, and the existence of a God … but being a kibbutznik, his Jewish identity is profoundly connected to the land of Israel and the State of Israel. So in one sense I had a very holistic experience, but there was a lot of philosophical and theological tension growing up in terms of – what was the real thing? Was it about people, or was it about God? I spent most of my childhood in Jewish educational settings – at Cohen Hillel Academy, at Gann Academy, going to Camp Yavneh, Camp Simchah, so I was getting a lot of everything, and yet I had this sense that things were more nuanced and complex than they appeared.
WHAT LED YOU INTO JEWISH EDUCATION?
[At Binghamton University] I was doing Hillel and Chabad, and Jewish a capella, and as part of my history degree I was taking classes in medieval Jewish history. But under all of it, there was nothing spiritual going on. There were semblances of spiritual growth, but nothing was really connecting me to Hashem or spirituality, and that was really eroding me over time. That erosion led to a feeling of deep resentment and rejection of – am I going to be just another Jewish educator like everyone before me? What am I trained to do other than be a Jewish teacher? But if I don’t feel connected to Judaism, then why am I teaching?
I was on a plane with my dad, and a religious man wanted me to put on tefillin, and I hadn’t done that in years, and I forgot all the Baruchot, and it was super embarrassing, and I thought, ‘Do I even know what I’m giving up?’ But that began a long process for me of reestablishing a connection to me of my spiritual heart of Judaism. I was working at Temple Emunah [in Lexington] for the last four years. Before that I worked at Temple Isaiah [in Lexington] part time, and I also worked at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley – I did stuff with NFTY and USY, and BBYO for one summer, I worked at the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, N.C., out of college.
I’ve done so much professionally, educationally, with Judaism, but something I wasn’t putting myself in the place to do is straight Jewish learning for myself. I’ve left my position at Emunah, and this fall I’m starting rabbinical school at Hebrew College.
WHAT IS YOUR JEWISH EDUCATIONAL PHILOSOPHY?
I think something that’s been very much missing from many places of Jewish education has been what one of my rabbis, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, calls ‘playfulness’ – this idea of being lighter and looser while also remaining connected to the core things that are important. This gets placed on the keva – the format and the structure of halakhah through which we’re able to pass these things down. Something I’m more invested in and interested in is the kavanah – the intention behind all these things – and trying to bring the kavanah, both in the way that I interact with the kids that I teach, but also in what I decide to teach and how I decide to teach those things.
I really tried to make sure that my door was always open, and I was encouraging teens and young people to come talk to me with their questions and really giving them one-on-one time, on top of in the classroom environment, bringing energy and playfulness and lightness and humor and curiosity, and making them partners in learning.