Jerusalem professor Sydney Engelberg is inspiring joy and praise from parents all over the world this week due to his simple yet revolutionary gesture: holding a baby.
It wasn’t just any baby, mind you, but that of a student in his class, and he held him during class, while lecturing a roomful of students.
Someone snapped a photo, and it’s quickly gone viral, making the 67-year-old Engelberg a total rock star in Israel, Russia, France, Brazil, and beyond.
“He’s gotten love letters,” the professor’s very amused wife, Fredi Siskind Engelberg, tells Yahoo Parenting, noting that he’s been getting nonstop calls from radio and TV stations.
“He’s pretty blasé about it, and we just find it all very funny. I think it must have happened on a no-news day.”
But the millions of celebratory fans who have shared the photo on Facebook and Twitter would disagree, as they’ve lauded the father of four, grandfather of five, and 45-year teaching vet as something of a feminist hero.
“It takes a village,” notes one woman on Facebook, lauding the professor for opting to “stand by their students who are mothers, and do what it takes so that they can study while raising families.”
On Imgur, where the photo’s social buzz seems to have originated, one fan says, “This is a professor who truly cares about the education of his students. Seriously.”
The situation unfolded when the baby of a student in Engelberg’s Hebrew University class — open to students’ kids by a matter of the professor’s policy — began to cry.
Engelberg scooped him up into his arms to calm him, continuing on with his lecture on organisational management without missing a beat.
Someone in class snapped a photo of him holding the boy, who was wearing blue footie pajamas covered in stars, and posted it to social media. The rest is history.
Engelberg says he not only allows infants and occasionally older kids to tag along to class (and breastfeed whenever necessary), he encourages it. “The reason is that education for me is not simply conveying content, but teaching values,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. “How better than by role modeling?”
The social psychology professor, a native of South Africa who is also on the faculty of Ono Academic College, says he’s not the only educator to allow babies in class. “It is certainly not uncommon, but I wouldn’t say it is the norm,” he says. “It does seem to be much more acceptable in Israel, which is a very family oriented society and culture.”
Jonathan Kaplan, vice provost of the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, tells Yahoo Parenting, “Israel is a very familial society, and it is not at all strange for young mothers to bring children to classes. Babies are often brought to weddings or formal occasions, and during school holidays it is not uncommon to see children running through the halls of office buildings or university departments.”
Indeed, a new Facebook post seemingly inspired by the photo of Engelberg — dedicated to photos of Israeli professors holding babies while lecturing — has recently appeared.
The creator, the Union of Students in Israel, calls it a “phenomenon” that’s “the sweetest thing alive,” and requests that people post any similar photos that they have. They’ve so far included snaps of professors from Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University. Another similar page, created by a BuzzFeed reader, has also just popped up.
It’s all a far cry from the reception given to an American University anthropology professor and single mum who breastfed her sick infant while teaching a class one day in 2012, sparking a national controversy.
Fredi, a New York native, points out that “Israeli students are older than American students,” because of the country’s requirement to serve in the Israeli army for three years starting at age 18 — right when teens in the U.S. are typically heading off to college.
She also theorises that professors in Israel could be uniquely understanding to mothers because the country has many Jewish holidays that can make finding childcare a challenge — as well as many religious women who are both students and moms to large broods.
When it comes to his photo’s buzz, though, the professor has a very basic explanation. “I think the photo went viral in a world with so much inhumanity — ISIS, corruption, Ferguson, and so on — and people are looking for symbols of decency, humanity, caring, integrity,” he says. “Apparently, the photo resonated with these needs.”