Enchanting Education: What Harry Potter Still Teaches Us
Tue, 08/23/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Harry Potter and the Jewish Pedagogy: The values of the vaunted Hogwarts students can be a vehicle for carrying Jewish values.
Harry Potter and the Jewish Pedagogy: The values of the vaunted Hogwarts students can be a vehicle for carrying Jewish values.

As the lines to see “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” thin out, and the final movie of the remarkably successful series makes its inevitable way to pay TV channels and DVD shelves, millions of Americans who grew up with Harry, Ron and Hermione are experiencing Wizarding Withdrawal. The prime symptom of this malady is acute anxiety at the thought that there will be no more Potter books forthcoming and no more movies in the offing. Even J.K. Rowling’s mysterious Pottermore website has not sufficed to soothe the afflicted.

As an elementary school Judaic studies teacher, I have my own reason to mourn the end of this phase of the Potter phenomenon. When the Harry Potter books are just another title on the school’s library shelf, I will have lost a common language that I have shared with my students for over a decade, a language that helped me convey Jewish values more vividly and more effectively than many other educational tools.

Through Harry Potter evenings, essay contests, writing clubs and, ultimately, a book of my own, my students discovered many Jewish ideas by connecting to their parallels in the books they loved. They, like Harry, have learned that each of us has a personal responsibility to stem the tide of evil in the world. Like Harry, who could only dispel the Dementors -- magical creatures who thrive on despair -- by focusing on a happy memory, these kids have learned that joy is the product of effort, and that we can be happy despite circumstances, not merely because of them. From their reading they understand that the fight against evil exacts a toll, and that sometimes the cost is high.

They have internalized that although we cannot stave off death forever, we can face it on our own terms, consistent with our values. And just as Harry learned how to cope with the murder of his parents, students have learned that it is possible to be resilient in the face of loss, and to continue the work of those whom we mourn. How valuable these lessons can be at a time like this, when our children are forced to confront inexplicable evil that took the life of a child in a seemingly safe neighborhood.

I know of a child of a terror victim in Israel who found comfort in comparing himself to Harry Potter in his fight against evil. Closer to home, three of the most courageous members of my synagogue are a boy and two girls whose parents passed away within a span of four years, leaving them orphaned and living with their uncle and aunt in my community. One of the things that has made the transition a little more bearable for them is their attachment to the Harry Potter books, which their mother used to read to them every night. At their mother's funeral, I referred to the books when speaking directly to the children. When little else could reach them, this could.

When Harry Potter was the rage, it was easy to discuss these topics; the kids were primed, and they made the connections themselves. But it doesn’t have to stop now. There is a formula to be followed here. We must be aware of what our kids are reading, and leverage that literature to the hilt. Though we often cannot tell them what to read, we can show them what to see in what they are already reading. The idea is not new, but its application to Jewish studies classrooms is all too rare.

In some circles there is a reluctance to resort to material outside of tradition even to reinforce traditional ideas. It is also an additional burden on educators to be familiar not only with standard curricular materials and the latest teaching techniques, but with an entire new body of literature. But the rewards are immense, in terms of receptivity, independent discovery, enjoyment and retention.

And it doesn’t have to stop at books. Popular culture today encompasses music, videos, and social media, all of which are waiting for the bold and creative educators who will not see them as dangers to be avoided, but opportunities to be embraced, albeit with great care. Every educator has his or her personal comfort zones, and many contemporary artists produce material too objectionable to redeem. I can relate to the books my students read; I find it much harder to use their music as a tool, but I am sure others can.

In an age of educational ferment, when schools are struggling to keep up with the curve of technological advance, and when most of the content that students are taught will be obsolete when they try to enter the workforce, it is all the more important that we succeed in conveying that which is eternally relevant in our curriculum. And if we are willing to incorporate smart boards, Prezi, Google Docs and all the rest of the modern means of presentation, surely we cannot afford to ignore the powerful tool of popular culture. By training our children to find morality in the world of muggles and wisdom in the world of wizardry, we just might keep them religiously spellbound for a lifetime.

Moshe Rosenberg, Rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, teaches at the SAR Academy, where his Harry Potter activities culminated in his book, “Morality for Muggles: Ethics in the Bible and the World of Harry Potter” (Ktav, 2011).