Matt Schneeweiss found himself facing a crossroads at the beginning of his sophomore year in high school and chose the path of Torah.
That year, he met a group of students from Northwest Yeshiva High School at a Shabbaton hosted by the Seattle kollel. “I was shy and didn’t talk to them very much,” he recalled. “They were talking excitedly about classes. They were normal kids, not super religious or nerdy.”
He said that he noticed “something profound” as he listened to their conversation, that they loved learning, both Torah and secular subjects. “They glowed about their teachers, they excitedly engaged in philosophical discussions and actually enjoyed telling me about their homework.”
That Rosh Hashana he confronted his parents with his decision to switch to NYHS, and that he would do it even if he would have to live away from home. But they joined him in his choice and uprooted themselves, replanting themselves into Orthodox Judaism.
And on May 21st Schneeweiss will be valedictorian at the commencement of Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, not only validating his path but also instructing his fellow graduates on his philosophy of education.
Matt Schneeweiss was born in Hawaii to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, both irreligious. After a brief stay in Baltimore, they moved to Yakima, a small town in eastern Washington State. The family became involved in the local Reform temple, but after studying their theology, Schneeweiss’ father determined that it was “morally, spiritually, and intellectually bankrupt.”
When Schneeweiss was 14, his father met two Orthodox rabbis two hours from Yakima, near Seattle and began to learn with them, finding this “more stimulating and fulfilling than any other intellectual endeavor he had experienced.” They rented a Shabbat home there, spending Shabbat there a few times a month. At age 16, Schneeweiss realized that neither he nor his brother nor his mother were halachically Jewish. They all decided to convert. When Schneeweiss chose to switch schools, his family eagerly went along with him even though his father had to “start his career from scratch,” his mom “had to learn how to create a Jewish home,” and his brother “just didn’t want to change the status quo. But we did it, and never for a moment regretted our decision.” During his two years at NYHS, he “learned Hebrew and rose to the top shiur. More importantly, I was instilled with the love of learning I had seen in those students at the Shabbaton.” He gives credit to the teachers there.
He said that he noticed a clarity in certain teachers and sought out their education under Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Israel Chait at Yeshiva Bnei Torah (YBT) in Far Rockaway, New York. He learned there seven years, three full-time, three part-time while completing a BA in psychology from Touro College, and one year full-time in the smichah (Rabbinic ordination) program while enrolled in Azrielli. Starting in 2009, he taught part time at HAFTR High School, then in 2010 he taught full time, nine different classes, in HAFTR High School and Midreshet Shalhevet, a girls’ high school. This year he is teaching full time with four classes at Shalhevet, Navi, halacha (Jewish law) and Chumash, and a hashkafa (Jewish philosophy) class at Rambam Mesivta.
This will be Schneeweiss’ third stint as valedictorian. He said he was surprised and laughed when he found out. His first speech to his high school graduating class was about education as a tool for good or bad, his second when he was graduated from Touro dealt with the question of Torah learning for its own sake or for utility rather than love of knowledge. “Now I have the opportunity to formulate part three, my educational views, and present them to my peers and teachers. I’m looking forward to it.”
He discussed his philosophy on education. “How ironic. They don’t know that my dream is to overthrow the schooling system and start from ground zero. I really believe that human beings naturally love learning. I try to facilitate the exercise of freewill in the student, to use his or her own mind to learn. If you approach the Torah the right way it is the medicine of life, the wrong way it is the medicine of death. Torah means freedom if the right way; if the wrong way you are enslaved, it inhibits thought, learning by rote, animal as opposed to the image of G-d. The right way is freedom of choice the wrong way is locking in routine, habit and absence of thought.”
His passions, he said, are learning, teaching and writing. Schneeweiss said it’s a “fused process, you learn best when helping others understand. Talmud Torah is learning and teaching; it’s one mitzvah.” He also pointed out that his most important accomplishment is “realizing the pitfalls of seeking accomplishment. It is one of the biggest causes of problems. I was very driven in high school. I learned to break that through Torah.”
His current goals, he said are “right now to teach, a possible doctorate and work on becoming a better teacher.” Earlier in his life, he said, he thought to “change the world through teaching; now not so much. I’m more interested in self-actualization rather than achievements, to understand myself and my potentials, rather than achieve a goal or certain image. Other than raising a family, I have no grandiose goals.”
His favorite books are Mishlei (proverbs)--“I would like to teach it all day,” he said--the Chumash (Torah) and Rambam’s Mishna Torah. His idea, he said, “is that Torah is one whole system; to dissect it and use the American educational model is wrong. I view Torah as a system; it has to be cross-referenced, it’s not one book. You can’t just learn about a leaf; you have to learn about a whole tree and its ecosystem.”
He noted that the current educational model where the bell rings and learning must stop and students are forced to take courses they don’t like is “oppressive.” The bais midrash, he said, fosters the act of “learning for the love of learning.” Teaching has “to minimize schooling and maximize education. The best days are when kids forget they are in school and follow their minds, exploring chochmas Hashem, the paradigm of learning, appreciating knowledge.”