Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Graduates and the Grand Conversation

By: Rabbi Shmuel Hain, Rosh Beit Midrash

We are often asked by prospective parents and community members: What does the “average” SAR HS Graduate look like? Five years ago, in conjunction with our first Bogrim (SAR HS Alumni) learning program, several alumni participants surveyed their peers to collect data to begin tackling the question. And while that data, now somewhat outdated, is informative (the big takeaway: almost all alumni closely mirrored their parents’ degree of commitment to Jewish values, Halakhic practice, and regular Torah study), I would like to answer the question with a photograph: 

This is a grainy picture of several of our Bogrim 2017 participants at a recent book launch at Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. That picture captures one story of what SAR HS graduates look like during their college years and beyond. 

Let me explain with some background: As Rosh Beit Midrash, I have had the privilege of directing our Bogrim program since its inception six years ago. Each year at the conclusion of the spring semester, a graduates’ cohort of 15-20 alumni spends an intensive mini-semester at SAR High School learning and giving back to the SAR High School community. During this time, the graduates engage in an intensive program of study with sessions prepared and taught by SAR HS faculty and guest lecturers while also interacting with students in the Beit Midrash, during Advisory, and through special programs. It has been extremely rewarding personally to remain in touch with our alumni and to continue to learn with them. But directing Bogrim has also challenged me to reflect on the essential question raised by devoting resources to this annual program. What responsibility does a high school and its faculty have to students after they graduate? 

Surely there are a number of reasons for all Yeshiva high schools to stay in touch with alumni. One motivation is to promote a sense of school pride/community by fostering a family-like feeling between the faculty, alumni and their families. These relationships are meaningful for students and faculty alike and are most manifest at lifecycle events long after high school graduation. A second reason for ongoing connection is to facilitate alumni participation at school shabbatonim and other informal educational settings. These interactions provide current students with relatable role models who inspire them in impactful ways. Staying connected may also help fortify the religious commitment of alumni during the college years and beyond, when some graduates are less anchored to formal, Jewish learning environments. A final factor- long-term institutional advancement- is another positive byproduct of ongoing engagement. But these reasons do not get to the core of SAR High School’s sense of responsibility to our graduates that animates our Bogrim program. 

To fully explain that sense of responsibility and the rationale for Bogrim requires reformulating the essential question in more particular (read: SAR HS Mission statement) terms: What unique role should our alumni play in shaping and enhancing the “Grand Conversation” within our “Community of Learners”?

We dedicate faculty time and energy to Bogrim because we feel an abiding responsibility to deepen our alumni’s connection to our mission and vision as they mature into modern orthodox adults. This feeling is one that is reciprocated by the desire expressed by our graduates to more fully integrate the messages and orientations that they were first exposed to while in high school. As maturing, more reflective adults, alumni strive to make the Grand Conversation a dynamic reality as they navigate new stages of their lives. The Bogrim program represents our signature effort to advance this important project and to further our mission to produce a new generation of committed, sophisticated modern orthodox Jews.

With this ambitious goal in mind, the teaching methodologies utilized and the material studied in Bogrim are not identical to the high school classroom. Sessions are often co-taught by SAR HS Faculty in a dialogical fashion to foster more robust discussion and reflective learning. Guest lecturers are brought in to challenge alumni, and faculty, with different perspectives. The theme of each Bogrim program is carefully chosen to correspond to the unique challenges that our alumni face. Topics explored have included Religious Zionism, Jews & Non-Jews, Tefillah & spirituality, and Jewish values & sexuality. Each of these subjects has been addressed during the four years of high school, but more advanced life stages demand a more comprehensive, sophisticated, and nuanced examination.

While the primary goal of Bogrim is to further our alumni’s identification with the Grand Conversation, the Bogrim program has consistently enlightened faculty as well. As any parent of an emerging adult can relate, we have experienced a particular revelatory pride and nachas from our alumni. Invariably, as we have examined these challenging and complex topics, our alumni share insightful perspectives that deepen the faculty’s understanding of these subjects. This, in turn, informs how we think about these subjects and teach them to our high school students. 

Perhaps the best example of this is in Israel education. When studying religious zionism in depth in our Bogrim program several years ago, the learning and conversations with our alumni pushed us to broaden our approach to Israel education during the high school years across different subject areas. A Machon Siach Faculty Beit Midrash cohort formed to further research and advance our Israel education. The alumni, then, through the Bogrim program, are a critical cog in our vibrant “community of learners.” That is, ultimately, the responsibility we feel towards our graduates. To deepen their understanding of the Grand Conversation and to encourage our alumni to further enrich our broader community of learners. 

Which brings me back to that picture. This year’s Bogrim program, in conjunction with the special celebration of Yom Yerushalayim, explored Jerusalem @ 50: Kedusha and Controversies. After a week of in-depth Beit Midrash learning and sessions examining the religious, political, and social significance of Jerusalem in Tanakh, Chazal and today, the last few sessions featured guest lecturers exploring Jerusalem from a number of different perspectives. These sessions, especially on the heels of the Beit Midrash learning, were remarkably impactful.

The highlight was a double session on the second to last day of the program. First, Ari Gordon, an academic and interfaith activist specializing in Muslim-Jewish relations, taught a session entitled “‘Ir HaQodesh, Aelia and al-Quds’: An Inter-religious history of Jerusalem” which considered, through careful text study, how Jews can think about Jerusalem in light of the veneration of the Holy City in other religious traditions. In the following session, alumni had the opportunity to dialogue with prominent Muslim academic, social commentator and author Haroon Moghul. Haroon detailed the dynamic place of Jerusalem in Contemporary Muslim culture and shared his experiences bringing North American Muslim leaders to Jerusalem and Israel. The scheduled 75 minute session extended for close to two hours as the conversation offered Haroon and the alumni the opportunity for candid and open discussion on a range of topics. The conversation was challenging at times, but it yielded a deep appreciation for Haroon and his perspectives. At its close, the Bogrim Faculty and participants resolved to explore additional venues for these kinds of dialogues to take place. 

Just a few weeks later, Haroon began a tour promoting his latest book, How to Be a Muslim: An American Story. The Bogrim participants- completely on their own- attended Haroon’s Book Launch and reading at Barnes & Noble as an expression of appreciation and support. Haroon was so moved by the intellectual and religious commitments of our alumni- coupled with their humanity- that he asked to take a picture with the Bogrim after the reading. 

So, what does an SAR graduate look like? That picture of our alumni posing with Haroon, whom they had forged a bond with through study and dialogue, tells one poignant story about what SAR Alumni look like in their college years.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Trust and Translation: A Teacher's Perspective on Machon Siach

by Mr. Simon Fleischer
English Department Co-Chair
Faculty Fellow, Machon Siach at SAR High School
Dedicated to the Memory of Belda K. Lindenbaum z"l

As a participant in one of the Machon Siach groups currently underway at our high school, I experience firsthand a number of different ways in which the program can be understood and explained. It is a kind of Torah study that blends the practical and the theoretical. It is a way of writing that is both academic and personal. It is a form of communal outreach intended to expand SAR’s mission beyond its student community. First and foremost, however, Machon Siach is a statement of trust.

As a high school teacher, even in a school without walls, I operate in a set of closed rooms. My primary responsibility is to my students; considerations beyond that scope take a back seat to the rhythms and demands of the school year. I grade papers, I write assignments, I meet with students. I go to meetings to discuss schedules, anticipate color war, organize beit midrash materials. Consequently, my professional identity is not oriented towards larger issues that emerge in the context of my teaching, in large part because I rarely have the time. My concerns become so relentlessly local, that as a result I begin to think of my potential contributions as correspondingly local. As deep and important as I believe my work as a high school teacher to be, most of the time I assume my reach is defined by the community of students that passes through these walls, during these four years. 

And yet, I also believe that as a high school teacher I have a perspective that is unique, a way of thinking that is unique, and a set of values that is unique. So much of my time is spent in classrooms that theoretical concerns come palpably to life; by virtue of the amount of face time I have with my students, I experience daily the fluid boundary between theory and practice both in my pedagogy and in my subject. Additionally, in part because my students are yet living at home, high school teaching unfolds in the context of a concentric series of communities, at the very least including my students, their families, their local Jewish communities, and the Jewish community at large. I am keenly aware of the personal nature of learning; for high school teachers, the academic is never academic. What all this means is that even while the realities of my job limit my reach, they simultaneously make possible a set of insights and a series of communications that extend beyond my classroom. 

Machon Siach represents a recognition of this potential. Its purpose is to create space and time in which high school teachers can share their unique perspective on larger theoretical concerns that typically are the province of professional academics. Its driving assumption is that high school teachers, precisely because they are high school teachers, are positioned to offer unique contributions to the social, political, and religious questions that are being asked in any thoughtful community. Our areas of study are inspired by our teaching experiences, given ethical and religious weight by our Talmud Torah, informed by academic writing, and sharpened in the crucible of our daily practice. We write not only for one another, but for all the communities we touch: our students, their parents, the Jewish community; consequently, our writing at its best is both analytic and self-reflective, formal yet personal. In the subjects we research, in the method of our study, in our goals, and even in the style of the writing itself, Machon Siach is a new effort in Jewish high school education.

Perhaps my own example will help bring these descriptions to life. For a number of months now, I have been reading and writing about sex education in the Modern Orthodox community. My interest in the subject is driven by my experiences here at SAR, as we have worked to create a series of programs that would animate our students in their halachic practice even while recognizing their specific psychological and developmental needs. Anyone who has spent time teaching teenagers about sex is familiar with students’ interest in poking at the boundaries of appropriate talk. Questions often blur the line between the clinical and the personal, pressing teachers to carefully evade or even chide students who ask about our personal lives. Even as we do our best to speak honestly with our adolescent students about sex, we face a central question: when are these conversations meaningful and helpful, and when are they titillating? In other terms, do we help our students develop healthy self awareness around their sexual selves, or do we contribute to an unhealthy excessive self interest that chips away at their potential to lead psychologically fulfilling sexual lives? 

In pursuing answers to these questions, I am leaning heavily on the work of Dr. Rollo May, an American existential psychologist, whose work I am using as a lens through which to read several narratives in the Talmud. These narratives serve as case studies, of a sort, with which I hope to consider the nature of dialogue in sex education. My ultimate goal is to better understand how to talk to our students about sex in a manner that integrates religious practice with psychological health. 

At times, sometimes when sitting around a table discussing the paper I am writing with colleagues, sometimes when reading and rereading a difficult sentence I can’t quite understand, I struggle with the feeling that I am in over my head. I wonder: who am I to be doing this? Let me go back to grading papers, writing assignments, meeting with students. I keep on keeping on, however, for two reasons.

First, I believe the work I am doing in Machon Siach will ultimately bear fruit in the grading I do, the assignments I write, in my meetings with students. That is, implicit in this work is an important act of translation: the real value here will only emerge when the theoretical concerns are manifest in the basic work I do. I face my students every day, and my experiences with them are the litmus test with which I evaluate everything about my professional identity. This is who I am as a high school teacher.

Second, because Machon Siach’s very existence is a message to me, encouraging me to contribute to more global educational and religious conversations, telling me that precisely because I am a high school teacher I have a unique contribution to offer. As such, it does not represent an external obligation layered onto my professional identity, but a natural and inevitable outcome of the expertise I have developed during the course of my teaching. It is as much my responsibility to participate in Machon Siach as it is to teach my classes. 

In short, when I doubt myself, I remember: Machon Siach is a statement of trust.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Science as a Narrative*

By: Mr. Yarone Tokayer, Science Faculty (HS '09)

There is an unfortunate gap in confidence between so-called “math-science people” and “humanities people” in science classes. I am not sure where this notion came from, but true or not, it is perhaps the most toxic and limiting nomenclature that has been adopted by educators. Science, especially at a high school level, ought to engender excitement, not fear. Furthermore, we should be teaching and modeling life values in all of our classes, not just in Judaics and the humanities. I believe that teaching science, not as a laundry list of immutable facts, but as a narrative is a small step toward addressing these important issues.

When I was in engineering school, I took a class on drafting, in which we learned how to draw pedantically precise schematics of parts by hand. We were introduced to the T-square, different types of pencils, and all sorts of tools to make perfect circles and clear drawings. Points were deducted for noticeable erasures, improper notation, or lines that weren’t just the right shade. It would take up to 7 hours to complete just one draft. Halfway through the semester, our professor introduced us to CAD software, which helps with doing all of this on the computer. My classmates and I felt betrayed, and could not believe that we had spent so much time on drawings that could be done in minutes using computer programs. However, we soon discovered that without that intimate knowledge of the old method, we would not be able to use the CAD software correctly, nor would we have any idea what a proper draft looks like, since it evolved from the manual techniques. Our professor showed us that to fully understand and appreciate the new technology, we had to understand how it developed and what it aimed to do. I believe that the same is true of the sciences: to truly understand them, we must understand their development as well.

Science is more than a list of interesting facts. It develops out of a complex web of collaborations and feuds, false hypotheses, serendipitous findings, and religious dogma. In its theories lies a profoundly human story—of curiosity, achievements, and failures. I have tried to tell this story in my physics classes. For example, in our recent unit on planetary models, we did not only study the Solar System as we view it today, but we discussed the earlier models as well, together with their flaws and how they were revised. We learned that astronomers through the ages were driven by a fervent belief that the universe is symmetric and neat. Reconciling that belief with what was seen in the night sky every night proved very difficult. It took until the 17th Century for a model to finally be developed that abandoned these convictions (as it turns out, orbits are more like ovals than circles). In this way, students understand astronomy as a narrative; a story of natural philosophy that spans centuries and connects fascinating characters, and one that continues today as we are still researching and better understanding the heavens.

On last month’s Junior shabbaton, a couple of students approached me with questions about astronomy (we had just finished the unit). What began with me trying to explain why the sky is blue very quickly evolved into questions of how we are to understand the vast expanse of the universe: “Why would God make all of that if it has nothing to do with people?” Needless to say, I could not provide satisfactory answers to their insightful questions, but it started a conversation that lasted into the next week at school about how our understanding of nature feeds back into our understanding of ourselves. Science raises many difficult questions of this nature, and as citizens that are in touch with the intellectual world, our students will encounter them sooner or later. I am proud that our students intuited this profound intersection between science and values, and I am thrilled to be introducing them to these questions in the safe and non-threatening setting of the classroom. Which brings me to my last point.

Part of SAR’s mission is for its students to be “participants in the grand conversation between Torah and the world.” We teach that our tradition should illuminate our understanding of the world, and our understanding of the world should feedback into our Torah and religious experience. In science classes, this usually translates to something like, מָה-רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיך ה כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ, “How manifold are Your works, God! In wisdom You have made them all” (Psalms 104:24). This is a powerful message to be sure, but we can do better. One more example from the planetary models unit in physics: In the 16th Century, Nicolaus Copernicus presented a heliocentric model of the universe, which had the Earth rotate around the Sun instead of the Sun around the Earth. After teaching his model, I mention the verse from sefer Yehoshua “the sun stood still, and the moon stayed” (10:13), which implies that usually the Sun moves, not the Earth. This Biblical passage was one of the primary objections that the Christian Church had to heliocentricity. Since our students study tanakh and understand what it means to value text, they can appreciate the tension that people at the time felt between Church teachings and scientific theory. The history of science is intricately intertwined with that of religion; as Torah educated Jews, our students are uniquely situated to understand the interactions between the two.

Science classes today are very similar to the type that my parents and grandparents sat in: a series of facts about nature are presented, demonstrations and examples are used to convince students of those facts, and then students are tested on how well they know those facts. This model has succeeded in teaching science to generations of students, but I believe that it gives an inaccurate picture of what “science” is. More importantly, this model misses out on an opportunity to give students that might not conventionally be turned on by the sciences an appreciation of how rich those subjects are. By emphasizing the narrative of science, we can expose its human elements, and give all students ownership of these beautiful and rewarding subjects.

* this formulation is inspired by my teacher, Professor Stuart Firestein

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Purposeful Journey through the "Eternal Abyss" - Gemara Study as an Exercise in עבודת השם

By: Rabbi Akiva Block, Judaic Studies Faculty

"במחשכים הושיבני כמתי עולם (איכה ג:ו)" - אמר רבי ירמיה, זו תלמודה של בבל. (סנהדרין כד.)

"God has made me dwell in darkness like the eternally dead (Eicha 3:6)" - R. Yirmiyah said, this refers to the Babylonian Talmud. (Sanhedrin 24a)

I remember vividly the first time in my life I was able to understand a passage of Gemara on my own. Not because of how smart it made me feel or how hard I worked to master it - though both were true - but because of how palpably I felt God's presence during the experience. No Artscroll, no dictionary, no teacher there to hold my hand through it; just me and my chavruta (study partner) alone in a beit midrash. Words became phrases. Phrases became sentences. Sentences became arguments and questions and answers -- and then, voila! We had ourselves a sugya, an entire passage. Admittedly, what took me literally hours then would probably take a matter of minutes today. But for as long as I live, I'll never forget the euphoric feeling I had when I finally "got it." I'd swear that, at that very moment, I could almost feel God's hand on my shoulder.

As a teacher of Torah Sheba'al Peh, I constantly struggle to make the case to my students that God is to be found in Talmud study. To be sure, there is much that stands in the way of an enjoyable high school Gemara experience, let alone a spiritually meaningful one. Whether it's the constant back and forth without ever arriving at a conclusion, the seeming irrelevance of the subject matter, the language barrier that Talmudic Aramaic presents, or the simple and inescapable fact that the words of the Gemara themselves are multiple steps removed from the revealed word of God, in contradistinction to Chumash - finding God in the convoluted and unwieldy texts of Gemara is an elusive goal indeed. 

This challenge is compounded in the mission-driven environment of SAR. In our community's unending pursuit of the Grand Conversation, one of our most sacred tasks is indeed making the case that all our learning contributes to a fuller spiritual life; that my English class can be a place for spiritual growth just like any Judaic studies class can. In many respects, we've been successful. Even if not always in practice, students at SAR understand at least in theory the concept of the Grand Conversation, and the term is bandied about in classroom discussions all throughout the building. Faculty, parents and students are attuned to the concept, which leads inexorably to our question in an even more pronounced form: what contribution can Gemara make to my religious and spiritual make up? Where is God in the study of Gemara? How is learning Gemara עבודת השם?

This question is different from the equally important question of why study Gemara. Many good answers can conceivably be given to that question that do not involve God. We can talk about how Gemara study cultivates and sharpens our critical thinking skills; we can show how Gemara trains us to look at virtually every issue from multiple perspectives, even ones that we would intuitively think are clear-cut; we can mention how understanding the inner workings of the halakha, instead of just the perfunctory dos and don'ts, immeasurably enhances our performance; we can even speak of the Talmud as informing our mission as Modern Orthodox Jews today, what Yaakov Elman incisively calls "a microcosm of Torah society in formation." But do any of these help me find God in its study?

Now that we've sufficiently developed the question, you may be surprised to discover that I have no good answer. Moments of transcendence are, by their very nature, personal. But as I think back to my experience in the beit midrash all those years ago, I am moved to ask what it was about that experience that caused me to feel God's presence.

On the one hand, perhaps, our ability to sense God in our study, any study, can be directly commensurate with our desire and willingness to do so. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk famously once asked his students: where is God? When they responded, "Why rebbe, God is everywhere," the rabbi said, "That is incorrect. Where is God? Wherever you let God in." If we truly wish for learning to be what Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein calls, "a dialogic encounter with Ribbono shel Olam," then the nature and extent of that encounter will be a function of our attitude. I'm not sure it had ever occurred to me before that I could feel God's presence in my learning, and therefore I had never attempted to let God in and make that a reality.

Beyond this however, what characterized that experience was that more than at any time in my life I felt as though I was a part of something larger, deeper, and richer. Although in that beit midrash on that day I didn't (yet) love learning Gemara, I realized then you don't need to love something for it to be spiritual. You do, however, have to invest in it. You have to immerse yourself in it. You have to care about it. 

And on that day, I cared. I cared enough to work hard at it, and to reflect upon the experience. There I was, having mastered a small portion of a text that has been the birthright of my people for the better part of two thousand years. I was taking my place, and have since continued to firmly entrench that place, among centuries of learners who immersed themselves in this text and made the pages of the Gemara their spiritual and intellectual home. I was learning what Jews who learn learn, what they've always learned. Even if I didn't then understand why, the sense of perspective and context that moment provided, that my world was part of a larger world that extended forth both vertically and horizontally in either direction, was more empowering and inspiring than anything I had ever felt.

And I continue to feel that way. Not all the time, perhaps not even most of the time, but on occasion, I am able to recapture the euphoria of that experience, and see yet glimpses of it in others. Aside from in my own learning, I feel it when I see students' faces light up as they finally understand a challenging passage in the Gemara, a line in Rashi, or a difficult conceptual question, all through hard work and toil. I feel it when I see and hear of parents studying Torah with their children. This, in my view, is the essence of עבודת השם.

In accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George Bush in January 1993, Ronald Reagan said of America that, "this is the land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming." As a Gemara teacher, I have the same wish for my students; that they never become anything, but continue to engage in the act of becoming. Care about the endeavor. If learning Gemara is frustrating, keep at it. It may be hard, but, to quote Tom Hanks, it's supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great. 

Are God and spirituality to be found in Gemara? Definitely. How? That I can't definitively say. Like many of my life's most basic and fundamental truths it is rooted more in intuition, and can't really be proven. But it's there. Would that our students care enough to keep looking...

במחשכים הושיבני. The prospect of a life of Gemara study is daunting indeed, like, R. Yirmiyah teaches us, being placed in a dark abyss. But the thing about a dark place is, when you care enough to find your way out, when you work hard and get to a point where you've let in just a bit of light, the reward and sense of accomplishment are immeasurable.