Why baby-holding Israeli prof struck a chord
A study in child careA study in child care

Why baby-holding Israeli prof struck a chord

Parents worldwide impressed by Sydney Engelberg’s family-friendly teaching approach, which has some unique-to-Israel aspects

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Prof. Syndey Engelberg holds baby during his Hebrew University class. (Sarit Fishbaine/Facebook)
Prof. Syndey Engelberg holds baby during his Hebrew University class. (Sarit Fishbaine/Facebook)

The sight of an Israeli professor holding a student’s baby as he taught a class — an image that went viral last week — has prompted an intensifying online debate about the need for increased accommodation for parents who are trying to juggle it all.

The photo of Sydney Engelberg, a 67-year-old social psychology professor, was picked up by major news outlets around the world.

Here’s the scenario: You’re a graduate student, you’re a parent of a young child, and your childcare plans for the day just fell through. In many places, this would likely mean that you’d have to stay at home with your kid and miss class. But, this is not the case in Israel — at least not if Engelberg is your professor.

Women in the United States, a country notorious for limited, unpaid maternity leave and cases of mothers being kicked out of everywhere from courtrooms to casinos to concerts for breastfeeding their babies, appear to be especially in awe of a classroom in which infants and young children are welcome.

The photo was originally posted on Facebook on May 11 by Engelberg’s daughter Sarit Fishbaine (who herself has garnered some fame recently for saving her own life by seeking a second opinion about a lump in her breast based on something she had seen in an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”).

“There’s a lot of young moms and a lot of them have babies, and he encourages them to just bring their babies to class,” Fishbaine told BuzzFeed News. “My dad just loves kids and loves babies, he has five grandchildren, so he just takes the baby. He’s the one that’s in motion, he’s walking around the class. So he just takes the baby and continues teaching,” she said.

A follow-up Facebook post by the Israeli Students’ Union, encouraging people to post other photos of Israeli professors holding babies as they teach, has taken the subject further and has helped explain to non-Israelis various unique aspects of Israeli life that demystify the phenomenon of university professors with babysitting skills.

For instance, Israelis are older than most American and European students when they pursue their undergraduate and graduate degrees because of mandatory military service directly following high school. Also, Israeli parents must contend with a calendar packed with Jewish holidays. In many cases a lack of vacation day coordination between preschools and universities and workplaces wreaks havoc with parents’ schedules.

These factors, combined with the fact that Israel has traditionally been a family-oriented society, go far in explaining why while moms around the world may consider Engelberg a hero, he himself doesn’t think his lecturing with a baby on his hip is a big deal.

In an interview with Yahoo, the grandfatherly professor suggested that the photo struck a chord because of the times we live in. True to his discipline he looks at it through a social psychology lens.

“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. Apparently, the photo resonated with these needs,” he said.

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