Thursday, June 13, 2019

My Closing Physics Lesson

By: Yarone Tokayer, Physics Teacher

At the end of each year in my physics classes, we spend a few minutes reflecting on the year: what we have learned and where it can take us. In closing, I share the following 5 points with my class, which I believe have broader relevance beyond physics. Points 1, 3, and 4 are modeled after a similar talk that my mentor and colleague, Mr. Ron Zamir, gives to his students. I attribute many of these ideas to him.

1. High schoolers and physics. According to the American Institute of Physics, just over one third of high school students in America study physics. Among those, just under one quarter have teachers with formal physics (or physics-related) backgrounds. Multiplying those together, we find that only 1 in 12 American high schoolers graduate with exposure to a physics course on any level taught by someone with direct experience in the field. Our students are privileged to be part of that group. Every student at SAR takes physics, and our faculty—in science as in all departments—bring formal training, expertise, and experience in their subject areas to their teaching. SAR students should understand that they are provided with a top quality education. They should feel empowered by what they learn, and should recognize the opportunities that their knowledge affords them.

2. Women and physics. I went to an engineering school where for every 7 men enrolled, there were 3 women. There we were told that in the field of engineering, the ratio is 9 to 1. Perhaps it is even more striking that interest in STEM fields among girls seems to diminish with age. Taking computer science as an example, according to Girls Who Code, 66% of middle-school girls in America answer “yes” when asked if they might be interested in pursuing a computing field. Among high-schoolers that number is 32%, and when college freshmen are asked, only 4% of young women say that they want to pursue computer science.
I do not share these statistics to be alarmist, nor do I think that students should make academic and career decisions solely for the purpose of changing statistics. Rather, I believe that at SAR we are close to being successful at creating an environment in which our female students can take for granted that they are perceived, by themselves and by others, as belonging to STEM in a way that is equal to their male counterparts. I am proud that we teach in coed classrooms that make explicit the message that the same opportunities for growth and success are accessible to all of our students. In particular, the young women in our classes should recognize themselves as capable and important potential contributors to physics and physics-related fields.
3. Why study physics? As a class, we come up with a list of reasons to study physics. Each class’s list is different, but some of the frequent suggestions are:

  • Physics helps us understand the world 
  • Physics helps us see beauty and structure in the world 
  • Physics is useful: with it, we can predict how things behave 
  • Physics provides necessary background for others areas of study (e.g., medicine, engineering, philosophy) 
  • Physics ideas are part of the common knowledge needed to understand references in popular and academic culture 
  • Physics can have religious meaning: it helps us understand God’s world and our place in it 
  • Physics sharpens broader cognitive skills 

Now that students have gone through the curriculum, they are in a position to make a case for the value of physics.

4. Goggles. Every time we learn something, we acquire a new pair of goggles, a way to see the world. For example, two years ago, when our robotics team went to Israel, we took a walking tour of Jerusalem’s Old City, with a focus on the 1948 War of Independence. Luckily, I had walked those streets many times before, but I saw them in a totally different way during that walk. I suddenly noticed little plaques memorializing casualties of the war. In an unremarkable wall that I had always overlooked, I could now see a crack that young soldiers used as a peep-hole. That tour gave me and my four students a new pair of goggles to wear whenever we are in the Old City.
Physics is a profound pair of goggles. One that comments on everything we experience, from the jerking of an accelerating subway car to the sight of an eagle gliding in the sky on a calm summer day. With it, a concert of numbers and vectors, of particles and waves, of order and chaos, is superposed onto our world.
For me, this technical knowledge does not detract from my everyday experiences, but enhances them. Physics provides us with a language. One that helps us communicate our experiences of the world in objective and precise terms. In this way, otherwise intangible parts of life find meaningful expression. Our students will live in the physical world for their entire lives, and they now have another lens through which to see it.

5. Academic love. I was first exposed to physics 11 years ago in Mr. Zamir’s class. That was where I discovered my first academic love. The material we learned felt so natural, as if it had implicitly been with me my entire life, and was only now being manifest. I remember the first time I had the giddy feeling of being part-way through a problem, and seeing a clear path to the end. I knew that this field would follow me through life.

Physics is an academic love for me, but it is obviously not everyone’s. I believe that everyone can find an academic love. It seems that many people, especially in the early stages of their adult lives, make the mistake of pinning all of their happiness onto one thing, be it a satisfying career, money, a romantic relationship, clothing, or sports. The reality is that there is no ingredient for a happy life. It’s more like a recipe. And each person’s will be their unique blend.
My message to students is: make learning a part of that. Be open to discovering your chelek, your piece, in learning, and dive into it. Find it in yourself and find yourself in it. Let yourself be fascinated by it and be emboldened to contribute to it. Challenge it and let yourself be challenged by it.

Teach it.

That love can be incredibly gratifying and enriching.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Comfortable Limits

By: Yarone Tokayer, Physics Teacher (HS '09)
“SAR High School is a Modern Orthodox co-educational community of learners dedicated to challenging each learner to move beyond his or her comfortable limits”
This second line of SAR High School’s mission statement has always struck me as powerful, but somewhat vague. What exactly are our “comfortable limits” and what attitudes and practices do students that “move beyond” them exhibit?

Any meaningful learning is a journey beyond a student’s self—by its very nature it is an act of expansion beyond his or her current knowledge and abilities. In high school, students moving beyond their comfortable limits usually translates into things like struggling through difficult problem sets, drafting and redrafting papers, enrolling in classes they haven’t been exposed to, and being open to new people, ideas, and opinions. But I think it can mean even more.

This year, I have the privilege of teaching both Physics and Machshevet Yisrael (Jewish Philosophy) at SAR High School. While the two fields aren't typically associated with one another, I've found that they are intimately related, especially when it comes to moving beyond comfortable limits. Both subjects force students to reconsider their assumptions about the world: in physics, about the physical world, and in philosophy, about the world of ideas. This can be a challenge for students—it is hard for students to see new perspectives and even harder for them to challenge their own—but I would like to suggest the following encouraging approach.

Physics consists of two things: (1) a description of what is in the world, and (2) how those things behave. The former is called “ontology”: what exactly is it that makes up our world? We actually begin this inquiry as early as preschool in the classic Sesame Street sketch “Who are the people in your neighborhood,” where we go out to find postal carriers, bankers, and grocers. In ontology, we broaden that line of questioning to “What are the things in your universe?” Taking the Sesame Street approach, we can go out into the universe and find things like oceans, a moon, etc. Wilfrid Sellars, a 20th century philosopher, dubbed this the “Manifest Image” of the world. It consists of the things that we know about from our direct experience. It is how we grow up seeing the world, and it is the ontology that we have developed in order to survive as a species.

The problem with this naive approach to our question—the Manifest Image—is that the world as we experience it can be deceiving, and it’s not exactly right. For example, when we see a table, it looks solid all the way through, and so the Manifest Image says it is. In reality though, the table is made up of an untold number of atoms, each of which is mostly empty space (for those who remember their chemistry, this was the famous “Rutherford gold foil experiment”), and this plainly contradicts our Manifest Image of the world. Similarly, there are all sorts of things that science claims exist that humans never directly perceive. We mentioned atoms, but forces, radiation, and electric currents would all fall into the same category. So it seems that the “Scientific Image” (as opposed to the Manifest Image) of the world tells us that the “people in our neighborhood” are much stranger than we first thought. In particular, it claims that our world is replete with imperceptible entities that exist among us.

The purpose of scientific study science then (and, I suppose, my purpose as a physics teacher) is to modify a student’s Manifest Image of the world with the Scientific Image: to tweak each student’s prior conception of the universe into a more complicated, less intuitive, and very mysterious one. But why bother? They can operate just fine within the dalet amot (four cubits) of their Manifest Image. In fact, it’s probably more practical than the arcane chalkboard world depicted by the Scientific Image. Why should students be interested in twisting their minds to comprehend the strange objects postulated by science teachers when generations of people before them got along just fine without knowledge of electrons, quantum wave functions, or electric fields?

For many, the answer is that the Scientific Image has proven to be incredibly successful, despite its lack of intuitive appeal: much of electrical technology and modern medicine is thanks to the depth and intricacy of the Scientific Image. Personally, I think something much deeper is going on (after all, we do not teach science just in case a student becomes a doctor, the same way we do not teach ancient history just in case a student becomes a historian)—and it gets to the core of what SAR’s mission statement is about. To explain, I turn to one of my early Machshevet Yisrael lesson plans from the 1999 classic movie, The Matrix.

Neo, a reclusive computer hacker, is told that everything he has ever known is a lie. He is living in a dream world that was built to hide the fact that he is a slave. Neo is offered two pills. A blue pill will allow him to forget what he has learned. With its ingestion, he will live the rest of his life in blissful ignorance of the unfortunate reality of the world, and it won’t make the slightest practical difference that he is a slave. He will only ever experience his dream world, as he has for his entire life until now. However, if Neo takes a certain red pill, he can wake up. He can, for the first time in his life, experience the real world, but as a miserable slave in perpetual war with robot overlords.

Why does Neo take the red pill? Not for money or any other practical reason, but for a deeply spiritual one. Neo isn’t satisfied with the world as it is given to him. He has always sensed an emptiness to his life and he desires to live an exalted existence. He could never articulate precisely what it is he has been searching for his entire life, but now that he has learned about The Matrix, Neo knows that he has found it.

The good news is that while The Matrix’s world is deeply upsetting, the world that we offer students in our classes is sublime and exciting. That’s the power of the “Scientific Image.” Each time we expose students to part of that less comfortable picture of the world, we lift one more veil off of their reality. Thus, students of science are given the opportunity to lead richer, more informed, and more truthful lives with a greater appreciation of the world and their place in it. It’s less about preparing them for careers and more about preparing them for life.

Brett Stephens expresses this well in his New York Times article entitled “Useless Knowledge Begets New Horizons” (thank you to Ms. Rebecca Wolf for sharing this with the SAR faculty):
in being the kind of society that [pursues science with no immediate application] we also discover the highest use for useless knowledge: Not that it may someday have some life-saving application on earth, though it might, but that it has a soul-saving application in the here and now.
And what about Machshevet Yisrael? Students enter with their “manifest” notions of faith in God, commandments, and morality. It can be profoundly threatening for them to learn about all the ways in which their thinking may be contested, or even be internally inconsistent. So why do it? Why don’t our students take the blue pill, and live with the peace of mind that an unreflective approach to Judaism offers? Because we want them to build a more gratifying and honest worldview. The red pill is harder, but it is deeper, and we have a faith that it ultimately strengthens religiosity.

My suggestion is that “challenging each learner to move beyond his or her comfortable limits” is not only a fundamental part of learning, but an effective and powerful tool that we give our students to set them up for meaningful lives. It’s an attitude toward the human experience and a disposition toward deepening it. It is a yearning for divine truth אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ ה’ אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ (Tehillim 27).

To me, the message of SAR’s curriculum is a reflection of its mission: take the red pill. Once we do, there is no turning back. We cannot unlearn things, and the enlightened thinker is rarely complacent with reverting to an unreflective existence. Especially for young students, for whom learning is “ink on new parchment” (Pirkei Avot), the Scientific Image is not easily erased. In this way, our classes have the power to take root deeply in the minds and souls of our students.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Voice and Choice: Empowering Students in Tefillah

By: Ms. Lisa Schlaff, Director of Judaic Studies

As adults, we take for granted the opportunity to craft our own tefillah experiences. Some of us prefer the quick hashkama minyan. Some of us prefer the “ruach” minyan with more singing that is, well, less quick. Some prefer a minyan that is absolutely silent, and some prefer a minyan tolerant of a little background noise. Each of these settings can provide meaningful tefillah experiences, and as adults, the very act of choosing can be a religiously defining moment. And yet, in our schools we tend to provide students with “one size fits all” tefillah experiences. We do this for good reasons, some theoretical, such as the desire to create a unified school community, and some practical, such as staffing limitations. But as educators we need to ask ourselves whether a “one size fits all” model of tefillah in high school is best serving our students’ long term religious growth.

If a group of students are moved by song, why not provide a tefillah experience that speaks to how they best connect? If a group of students would benefit from explanation of the words they recite each day, why not provide it? And if a group of students would prefer to slow down the pace and focus on each word, why not just slow down? As occurs daily in any well-functioning classroom, teachers of tefillah can be charged with considering the needs of different groups of students and creating structures that at once conform to norms and allow for individual expression. Such an approach entails knowing our students well and seriously considering their voices.  

When we allow students to choose among various tefillah experiences, we are entrusting them with some autonomy over their religious lives. Perhaps most significantly, such autonomy communicates that teenagers can and need to actively own the decisions they make around tefillah. What helps me focus in tefillah? What type of davener am I? These are the types of questions we want students to deeply consider as they mature. When we began offering a few different types of minyanim at SAR High School, we knew a portion of students would appreciate tefillah with explanation, or tefillah with learning, or tefillah with ruach. What surprised us was how much students appreciated just having a choice - the sheer significance of the autonomy itself. Most surprising is to hear from students who do not attend a specialty tefillah - the majority of our student body - that the choice itself communicates that there is more than one way to be a “good davener.”  In affording students some choice around tefillah, we tell students not only that their individual voices matter, but also that there are many paths to avodat Hashem.

Empowering students as shapers of their religious lives entails not only offering choice, but allowing students to take meaningful leadership in tefillah. Conventionally, this means that students lead tefillah and serve as gabbaim. We can expand these roles to include giving divrei Torah, making announcements, and ensuring that the space itself is ready and organized for tefillah. These are roles that can be shared across both sides of the mechitza. In addition to male gabbaim, we can appoint female gabbaiot who can set up a rotation for divrei Torah, make announcements, and model active engagement on the women’s side of the mechitza. We can empower seniors to take leadership roles in freshmen minyanim and work with individual students who would benefit from practice with an encouraging peer before they lead tefillah.

Many years ago I was involved in starting a minyan with a group of friends. It wasn’t glamorous.  We did a lot of schlepping, setting up and taking down. But I will never walk into a shul again without a realization that someone put the machzorim on the shelves, straightened the tables, and made sure the tissue boxes were full. As they mature into members of a community, this is a realization I want my students to have, and can teach towards by letting go and giving students responsibilities. Two years ago, we were approached by a group of students who wanted to start their own minyan with minimal faculty supervision. They would run the davening, manage the space, and ensure each member of the minyan had a “job.” Students in this minyan work hard. They also know that tefillah is not just another area of their life run by adults and are proud of the environment they have created.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, we need to build in time for students to reflect on their own tefillah. We need to communicate that tefillah is not something we just do, but something we actively think about and work on. We can ask students to set specific goals for themselves in tefillah, write them down and return to them regularly. Encouraging students to set their own goals reinforces the idea that tefillah is not about adults telling kids what to do, but about kids stepping up and owning their tefillah lives. Along these lines, we can invite students to wrestle with the big picture questions embedded in the communal tefillah experience. How can we best engage those to whom tefillah does not come naturally? What is the appropriate balance between explanation of tefillah and tefillah itself? How can we ensure that tefillah is held to a high standard, while also affording a wide range of students the chance to lead, learn and grow? Teenagers have a lot to say about these questions, and they should be heard, be it through the medium of student government, or a special Vaad Tefillah established for this purpose.

As we strive to help teenagers become lifelong daveners, we need to create different experiences for different students, provide students with meaningful leadership opportunities, and communicate that tefillah is something we actively work on. With that in mind, we beseech “shema koleinu Hashem Elokeinu,” that Hashem listen to our voices and accept our tefillot with compassion.

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Fourfold Partnership

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal of SAR High School and Dean of Machon Siach at SAR High School honoring the memory of Belda K. Lindenbaum

Strong partnerships have strong impact. King Solomon taught, “a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Kohelet 4:12). What he meant: what we struggle to achieve alone is less daunting and more achievable through strong collaboration - vertically, across generations, or horizontally, across institutions and communities. Our communal efforts have a much greater chance of success when we marshall our forces, when we come together to teach the values and commitments that we hold dear, and when we work together to shape - or reshape - our community. 

When it comes to substance use and abuse, it has become increasingly important for us to leverage the collective strength of a fourfold partnership - school, shul, camp and community - collaborating across all of our ‘yeshiva league’ institutions to reshape culture regarding drugs and alcohol in our adolescent and young adult community. 

There are a number of points of entry to the conversation and they are not mutually exclusive. Each is independently important. One side of the work must focus on the area of substance abuse and treatment strategies. We are making progress in openly acknowledging that substance abuse exists in our community, the need for proper treatment, and the importance of establishing support structures for families tackling this enormous challenge. We are already seeing the impact of the efforts to increase awareness, thanks to the leadership of a few courageous members of our community. 

But we must also tackle this problem from a different angle. Substance use and its prevention is closely related to - but different from - substance abuse and its treatment. The former requires early intervention and its own set of strategies. The ‘fourfold partnership’ has a unique power and responsibility in this regard. Substance abuse and treatment requires the empathy and support of the community and its institutions. But tackling the growing culture of substance use - that gateway stage where alcohol and drugs shape the social environment of our children’s Saturday night parties and Friday night tisches, of Simchat Torah and Purim - that is not about being empathetic towards others; that is about each of us taking on the challenge of reshaping our community to be better and stronger than it is today. And there is a collective way forward. 

Some might balk at the idea of such a partnership. Yeshivot, they say, should focus on curriculum and skills, on imparting a love of Torah and general wisdom - but what happens outside the school building is beyond the educators’ purview. Not so! And for two reasons: first, such boundaries are illusory. What happens outside of school becomes part of the school culture in a moment. It shapes our children’s shared experience and informs how they think about life. It quickly becomes the stuff of students’ discussions within and between schools. But it is not just that. As educators, we are both supremely responsible for and uniquely positioned to impact the whole child. Each student is a world, created in God’s image, with hopes and fears, strengths and limitations. Each must learn how to take risks and cope with challenges. That is how one grows into oneself. Educators and parents must collaborate to ensure that the risks that our children take are the right ones and their coping strategies are healthy and balanced. The public conversation that began in our community earlier this year is about strengthening that partnership, establishing trust and investing our creative energies in tackling this challenge. 

The middle schools in our community have been involved in cohesive and comprehensive discussions regarding ways to tackle this issue. I share one initiative we have begun on the high school front. Over the course of the past year, several Yeshiva high school administrators met together to discuss the issue of substance use in our “Yeshiva League” community and to explore possible approaches to the issue. We precisely focused on ‘use’, not ‘abuse’. Our anecdotal sense was that the use of marijuana and alcohol was on the rise in our teen community in a manner that has, in recent years, invaded the social fabric of the community even more intensely than in the past. Students who were not - and largely would not become - abusers, had nonetheless begun to socialize around these substances more than they previously had. The strategy of yeshivot to tackle this issue has largely focused on education programs and speakers, and developing health curricula. These are undoubtedly important and we must continue to strengthen the educational programming in our schools and community. We wondered if there was a way for our network of yeshivot to marshall our collective strength to more effectively shift the culture.

What we found: a ‘public health’ approach to the problem, one that does not rely on classroom education and deterrence strategies alone but, in addition, places significant energy into making cultural change. This approach does not only focus on providing information that would affect the conscious decision making of teens - although that, too, is important. Rather, it seeks to shift the routine behaviors of the teen community - how they socialize with each other and what they do with their free time. 

In 1996 the city of Reykjavik, Iceland discovered that their teen community had a significant alcohol problem. A survey at the time showed that 42.5% of Reykjavik teens had gotten drunk in the recent past. Eighteen years later, in 2014, the number responding affirmatively to the same question was down to 5%. How did they achieve such substantial change? The Iceland model is a multi-pronged strategy: 1) surveys were scientifically designed and administered to gather meaningful data from teens; 2) the team developed pledges for parents to commit to increased quality time and shared curfews; and 3) the government invested in social programming so that teens had interesting things to do with their time. And the city was in it for the long haul. These types of steps resulted in real cultural change. 

Such public health models require community organizing and they demand long term commitment. ‘Long term’ means thinking in terms of 5, 8, and 10 years of determined and consistent effort in order to make real cultural change. It requires a process that includes gathering student data via an extensive survey, developing a data-based community profile followed by a community action plan (that would allow us to partner with parents in this effort), and then implementing and evaluating the plan. It involves shifting the parent community toward increased and more open communication with each other about our children’s social lives. Data gathering, is the first step of the process. We have been very encouraged by the interest and support of yeshiva high school principals in this process and hope to collaborate with middle schools as well. We hope that continued support will allow us to begin a data gathering process across the Modern Orthodox high school community later this year. 

I am proud that the Bergen County community has taken a leadership role in raising awareness about and directly confronting the challenges of substance use and abuse directly. The Community Education Event this Sunday evening at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, NJ reflects that leadership, collaboration and communal concern. I look forward to participating in the event as we begin to build this fourfold partnership together. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Pedagogy in the Driver's Seat

By: Rabbi Avi Bloom, Director of Technology and Dr. Gillian Steinberg and Ms. Shira Schiowitz, Professional Development Coordinators

One of the biggest questions in educational technology today is whether the education or the technology drives our decisions. As educators committed to integrating technology into our pedagogy, we sometimes fear that technology will be the driver, usurping or distracting from our educational goals. During this past summer’s ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference in Chicago, we were inspired to see most tools presented with a primary focus on pedagogy. In fact, many speakers and sessions only mentioned technology tangentially, in service of educational goals.

Why, then, is technology so important in education in 2018? Beyond efficiency, how does it open educational opportunities? Technology affords us the ability to make students more active, hands-on, and generative. Students can be creators instead of simply responders. David Eagleman, neuroscientist and author and a keynote speaker at ISTE, encouraged the audience to embrace the realities and opportunities of technology instead of fearing or resisting change. Instead of becoming repositories of information, our students have more opportunities than ever to analyze, synthesize, and deepen their understanding with information available at their fingertips.

Students feel empowered by seeing connections among their disparate
classes and recognizing how they can share their learning. Students today can consider not only how they absorb information but also how they share it with their classmates and their teachers. We’ve begun thinking, for example, about how to include genres like podcasting and video production in the study of literature, not just to maintain students’ interest but also to recognize that literary interpretation can meaningfully include visual and auditory media as well. By recognizing the ways that certain skills translate across fields, we can offer students a more comprehensive education for the modern world while also demonstrating for them the synergies across various disciplines.

We can also reframe our assignments so we aren’t just thinking about the location of information -- how students “do research” -- but also about the quality of the information. Doing so allows students to be more active in their learning. In every class, we can redirect students from merely locating information to evaluating its reliability, bias, and comprehensiveness. Teaching students to be critical consumers of information is essential to their skills in every field, from their study of the history of slavery in America to the effects of clinical depression to contemporary theologians’ views on this week’s parasha.

As students transition from passive listeners to active learners, and teachers shift from information presenters to learning facilitators, students feel empowered and motivated by the collaborative opportunities that technology affords them. Students work together, both in person and remotely, to solve problems, share ideas and demonstrate mastery creatively. Whether writing on a shared Google doc, crafting interactive presentations, building a website, editing a movie, programming a robot, drafting a digital music score, exploring virtual reality and augmented reality environments, shared creative expression deepens student understanding, creates meaningful connections to knowledge and to their learning communities, and prepares them for life beyond school.

When used well, technology can widen the scope of our students’ knowledge, provide more opportunities to collaborate, and enhance their ability to share ideas. As educators, our challenge is to capitalize on these opportunities by encouraging our students to be discerning, analytical and thoughtful with all of the tools and information around them.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

How do you teach Tzedek?

By: Rabbi Danny Kroll, Assistant Principal

While the Torah implores us to pursue tzedek, telling us to chase after it (תרדף), over these past several months I have found myself running from it.  Allow me to explain. Every year SAR High School has an educational theme which guides our educational programming - the schoolwide Shabbaton, Macabee (Color War), and several theme programs interspersed throughout the year - and this year’s theme is tzedek.  Toward the end of our last school year and throughout the summer I, along with the rest of the administration, have been working with our educational programming team to plot out this year’s course of action.  From the very beginning, it became abundantly clear that this year’s theme would require more careful navigation than last year’s theme of tikkun hamidot, character refinement.  For the tikkun hamiddot theme we were anchored by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s 13 admirable character traits.  Students learned about the different middot through experiential and educational programming including a Martin Luther King Jr. Day program and the popular “middah moments” where students emailed in examples of their peers displaying exemplary middot; this was capped off by Rabbi Harcsztark’s weekly announcement of the “middah moment of the week”, which was so popular and impactful on school culture that it will continue and become a permanent fixture of pre-Shabbat announcements.

But tzedek is different.  It is most commonly translated into English as social justice and when we speak about social justice it is difficult to avoid becoming entangled in partisanship.  One option would be to avoid the topic altogether - why get involved in something so fraught with disagreement that has the potential to be alienating? I think this would be the wrong course of action; tzedek is not a partisan ideology that one chooses to ascribe to based on political ideology - it is a Torah value, which God implores us to carry out.  Social justice might also be an inaccurate definition of tzedek.  Consider, for example Dyonna Ginsburg’s definition of tzedek as she put it in her Orthodox Forum paper, in which she defines tzedek along with tzedakkah, chesed and tikun olam.  She writes:

While admittedly, in the classical sources, these terms contain a range of definitional possibilities, for our purposes they mean the following: (1) Chesed - individual acts of loving-kindness, (2) Tzedakah - individual and/or communal acts of philanthropy, (3) Tzedek - the pursuit of justice through systemic and structural reform.
Chesed, Tzedakah, and Tzedek describe three different means at our disposal to help people in need, whether they are Jews or non-Jews.  If we encounter a hungry person, whether or not he is Jewish, we can either choose to feed him (an act of chesed), give him money to buy food (tzedekah), or ask why he is hungry in the first place and lobby for governmental reform so that fewer people go hungry in the future (tzedek).

So how do you do this?  How do you teach a value that so many misconstrue as being partisan, in a way that is safe for everyone regardless of their political leanings?  How do we get past the mischaracterization that tzedek belongs to the so called “left?”  More basically, is tzedek something we should be focusing on in a Modern Orthodox high school? Shouldn’t we be focusing more on furthering students’ observance of and dedication to Torah and mitzvot?

This summer in reading to prepare for our theme, I came across two pieces that I found helpful in answering these questions.  The first comes from the Jewish German-American philosopher, Michael Wyschogrod, who explains why teaching tzedek is a necessity.  In the essay Wyschogrod rails against the notion that the essence of Judaism is its ethics (the essay can be found in a collection of essays edited by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter in memory of Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung).  He writes,

The view that the essence of Judaism is its ethics is primarily a secularization of Judaism...The specifically Jewish in Judaism is not mainly the ethical, which Jews share with many others.  The specifically Jewish is the cultic: the Sabbath, the dietary and menstrual laws, etc. As the Emancipation made it possible for Jews to stop being different from others, and as many Jews strove desperately to become like others, the transformation of Judaism into a rational ethics made it possible to shape a Judaism that diminished the difference between Jew and Gentile.” 

While this would make it seem that Wyschogrod’s feelings are more in line with those on the so called “right”, it is what he writes next that I found particularly striking.  He concludes,

However much the reduction of Judaism to ethics is a distortion, it is not a distortion without biblical roots.  The prophets who criticize those eager to bring sacrifices while oppressing the poor do not mean to denigrate sacrifices but only to object sacrifices accompanied by injustice.  But because there are no prophetic condemnations of those who feed the hungry but do not bring sacrifices, it is fair to conclude that between the two, feeding the hungry is more important than feeding God. Nevertheless, the former without the latter is also incomplete and does not yield a viable Judaism.

According to Wyschogrod, Judaism cannot be reduced to a religion of ethics. The essence of Judaism is in the ritual, but the ethical is also necessary - “feeding the hungry is more important than feeding God.”  Yes, to reduce Judaism down a religion focused exclusively on ethics is a secularization, but to not focus on it at all is also a distortion of God’s will.

The other item I read over the summer that will guide how we teach tzedek came from a collection of sermons from Rabbi Shai Held.  In a sermon on Parshat Re’eh, Rabbi Held takes a deeper look at chapter 15 of Sefer Devarim, which details many of the tzedek related laws (shemitah, tzedakkah, treatment of a Jewish bondsman).  Rabbi Held notes that Torah repeatedly refers to the poor as “brother” (see 15:2,3,7,9,11,12).  Certainly this teaches us that we should treat those who are less fortunate as family, to act generously and with empathy.  But Rabbi Held goes further and writes:

Consciously or not, explicitly or not, it is extremely easy for people to imagine that socioeconomic inequality points to some real, deep, metaphysical inequality as if the rich were in some ultimate way worth more than the poor.  The Torah exhorts Israel to remember that socioeconomic status tells us nothing at all about the real worth of people.

When teaching tzedek we must heighten our students’ sensitivity to and encourage self-reflection about how we view those with a lower socioeconomic status.  So how do we implement tzedek? While there is a lot interesting data about the intersection of religion and politics, I think it is fair to say that Hashem does not have a party affiliation and that His Torah leaves room for people on both sides of the aisle.  We can debate and disagree on how to implement tzedek, but we cannot disagree on the value of tzedek.  The poor, the disadvantaged are our brothers - the policies we should implement to help them is open to debate.  Rabbi Held eloquently and firmly makes this point in that same sermon when he writes:

The Torah’s simple but radical claim is that the plight of the poor is our responsibility.  A society in which there are no economic second chances, let alone one with a permanent underclass, is intolerable to God.  To be sure, it can be difficult to discern just how the Torah’s vision should guide us in modern times.  Ideological polemics notwithstanding, there is no one-to-one correspondence between Deuteronomy 15 and any particular contemporary social policy.  But we must avoid the temptation to domesticate the Torah, to admire its dream even as we silence its message. It is a religious imperative to build a society in which the poor are seen and treated as truly equal, and to work to ensure that entrenched poverty does not rob people of the dignity of opportunity.  Well-intentioned people will no doubt disagree about how best these goals can be achieved, but we are nevertheless obligated to keep them firmly in mind...Deuteronomy makes clear that only a society truly committed to alleviating the suffering of those ravaged by poverty is worthy of God’s blessing.

This past week during teacher in service, Rabbi Harcsztark led a learning session with the entire faculty about our theme, opening a conversation about how to educate toward this important value.  What emerged from that discussion is the need for civil discourse amongst teachers, students and the entire SAR High School community surrounding our theme. Teachers pointed out that we will need to teach students how to have respectful conversations when we disagree with one another by learning and practicing how to listen to one another.  We should seek to understand the viewpoints of others, even, or especially, when we disagree. Come Wednesday, and when we officially kick off our theme on Tzom Gedaliah, this conversation will expand to include over 560 unique voices. We will learn together that the Torah calls upon us to perform the ritual and cultic along with the ethical and so it is incumbent upon us to practice tzedek by pursuing justice through systemic and structural reform.  As educators, we have the obligation to create space for all students in this pursuit and I look forward to an enriching year, where we examine together ways in which we can make our community and world an even better place.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Jewish Continuity in America: A Call to the Modern Orthodox

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal

We are all creatures of habit. And as such, we tend to develop routines, consistent expectations and steady patterns of behavior. But every so often, it is important to take a step back and reflect - on ourselves, our peers, the community within which we live. I would like us to take yet a further step back and take an even broader look. Something large, something that should affect our self understanding as a community, requires our attention.

Over the course of the past year, three academics, two of whom are part of the SAR family,1 have used the data from the famed 2013 Pew Research Center’s study of Jewish Americans to further project population trends of the American Jewish community in the coming decades. Their analysis was presented in a series of articles in the Forward in September 2017,2 recently revisited this past month in the same publication.3 Their projections suggest significant decline in the non Orthodox Jewish population in the United States and significant growth in the Orthodox population in the coming decades. Even if you are not excited by data and population trends, keep reading. I think there is something here that is very important for us to consider as we raise the next generation of Jews - many of whom, we hope, will make aliya but also undoubtedly many who will be living in the Diaspora. 

Here are some significant data points from their projections:
  • The numbers suggest overall decline in the number of Jews ages 30-69 in the coming decades.
  • In the Pew data, the number of nondenominational Jews aged 20-29 is much larger than those 30 and above. That number then gets much smaller for those below 20. That suggests that Jews are becoming unaffiliated and then not reproducing themselves.
  • The number of Conservative and Reform Jews ages 30-39 are about half of Conservative and Reform Jews ages 60-69. Together, that means that the Non-Orthodox community in America is going to decline precipitously in the coming decades. 
  • In contrast, Orthodox Judaism in America is growing very rapidly: as of the 2013 data, there were 40,000 Orthodox Jews in their 60’s, 120,000 Orthodox Jews in their 30’s and 230,000 between 0 and 9 years of age. That is enormous growth. 
  • There will be more Orthodox Jews in America than Reform and Conservative Jews combined in about 40 years, and more than all of non-Orthodox Jewry in almost 70 years.
The message to take from their analysis: 
  1. The overall number of Jews in America will decline over the coming decades.
  2. The number of Non-Orthodox Jews will decline dramatically. 
  3. The Orthodox population in America will increase significantly in the coming years. 
This sounds like good news for the Orthodox - and it certainly makes for a strong argument on behalf of endogamy (in-marrying) and shemirat hamitzvot. When Jews marry Jews and when Jews observe mitzvot, Jews and Judaism flourish. We, of course, are strong supporters of both endogamy and mitzvot - on theological and on practical grounds. But we should dig a little deeper. A major restructuring of the American Jewish community appears to be on the horizon. And while the numbers look positive for the Orthodox, there is the potential for a decline of hundreds of thousands of American Jews in the coming decades. That, on its own, must give us pause. I also believe that this data presents a specific challenge for our Modern Orthodox community, one which we should carefully consider.

When seen from a distance - from Israel, for example - these trends can tell the story in a particular way, one that splits the American Jewish community into two separate groups, a divide that can ultimately create distance between the Zionist, and especially the Religious Zionist, community in Israel and the Jewish community in America. I have heard this story told a number of times in recent years by different scholars. It goes something like this: the Jewish community in America is on the decline. Fifty years from now, there will be two Jewish communities, one that is largely halakhically-not-Jewish and one that is Haredi. In this narrative, non-denominational Jews are increasingly distanced from Judaism, as they do not practice Jewish ritual and they do not connect with the ethnically Jewish State, while Haredi Jews do not, at their core, identify with the Zionist mission. As such, we can expect the American Jewish community to be increasingly irrelevant to the future of the Jewish State and, by extension, the Jewish people. I worry about this narrative; it is not one that we can live with. Both the Israeli and the American Jewish community need to believe in the future of American Judaism. 

But it is not only about the connection between Israel and the Diaspora. It is also about the nature of the observant Jewish community in America. Both Zionism and Modern Orthodox Judaism - each in its own way - express belief in a Jewish People deeply engaged with the modern world, in building an ethical society, in bringing the spirit and value of Torah to the material world, in nurturing the Grand Conversation between Torah and the world. If our community bifurcates into a liberal, assimilated Jewish community and an insular Haredi community, then, following this narrative, in half a century, a vibrant, integrated Jewish option will exist only in Israel and not at all in the United States.

There are those who will celebrate this and say, “of course that is so!”. The future of the Jewish people is in Israel - and we now have data to prove it! But we must be more careful. Let’s take our own community as an example. I am proud to say that in our short history, about 85 SAR High School graduates have made aliya. I wish we could triple that number - and I hope that happens. But even should that happen, the large majority of graduates will still be living in the US in twenty five years. We must ensure that the American Jewish community continues to thrive in the coming years. By the end of the 21st century, there will still be over 4 million Jews in America! That being so, our Jewish community in America must continue to nurture a dynamic and vibrant, modern and observant, religiously distinct and culturally engaged Jewish community. That is vital for the future of the Jewish People in the United States. And it is central to ensuring a thriving relationship between the Jewish community in Israel and the Jewish community in the United States. 

We know all too well that projections and trends do not accurately predict the course of Jewish history. Were this so, there would be no State of Israel - and Orthodoxy in America would have suffered its demise long ago. Jews pay attention to the projections and predictions - and then work as hard as we can to defy them. Half a century ago, our parents and grandparents gave all of themselves to building a network of schools and shuls and camps; they worked as hard as they could to ensure the continuity and growth of the American Jewish community. They, miraculously, defied the odds. They took note of the projections and chose to act. I believe that our time has come. It is now our turn to pay it forward.

Which brings us to our modern, halakhically observant community. We currently comprise only three percent of the American Jewish community. But we have an extremely important role to play to keep the Jewish community strong. Two of our communal tendencies work against our assuming this role in a full-throated way: 1) our Zionism directs our religious idealism to the State of Israel and 2) our assimilation anxiety makes us insular, pushes us to direct our energies inward, and this for good reason. But it cannot allow us to ignore the significant restructuring that is happening around us. We need to think more, to care more about the broader Jewish community. And we have what to share - and what to learn. The Modern observant community does not have its version of a kiruv movement, an effort to reach out to get to know and understand different types of Jews; to make connections and build bridges; to share the beauty of our way of life with other Jews - with confidence, passion and love. 

We must begin to see ourselves - our small three percent - as an anchor and a bridge, connecting to American Jews on either side of us and working to bring the Israeli and American Jewish communities closer together. We should be an anchoring community that is both rooted and integrated, able to bring Torah and society together in a most inspiring way; and a bridge, bringing liberal and Haredi Jews together, arguing, through our presence and our practice that we are committed to and care about the entire Jewish community and will do what we can to keep it strong. 

For some of us, that might mean redoubling our efforts to maintain and even strengthen our commitment to halakhic practice; for others among us, it might mean opening ourselves up to better understand the diversity of the Jewish community, to do what we can to strengthen Jewish education and practice across the community. For schools, that might mean learning about and getting to meet more Haredi and less observant Jews; for our shuls, it might mean taking on serious outreach programs, developing ways for Jews to respectfully and openly get to know each other. As a modern, observant community, we need to be more mission-driven and goal oriented - not simply focused on maintaining our own communities and providing for our own needs. 

The Modern Orthodox community in America has an important role to play in ensuring the vitality of the Jewish community in America and the strength of its relationship with Medinat Yisrael. It requires broad vision and a long term strategy. I certainly do not have the answers; but I think we have to try.

1 Professor Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, grandfather of Yair Wall, class of 2021. Professor Eidieal Pinker is a professor of Operations Research and Deputy Dean at the Yale School of Management. He is also the father of of Zev Pinker, SAR HS class of 2021. Dr. Mickey Gussow z”l served at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.