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.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Reflections on The Miracle Worker

By: Yarone Tokayer, Physics Teacher

This past March, SAR High School’s Drama Society performed a deft and moving performance of The Miracle Worker, the story of Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s lifelong tutor.  The audience was taken on a journey through Sullivan’s profoundly frustrating, but ultimately graftifying, approach to education: an unwavering faith in Helen’s abilities and a refusal to let anyone sell her short.  Seeing the play in the school where I teach, being performed by students I teach, was a very powerful experience for me, since it highlighted a tension I feel deeply every day at SAR. It is a tension between two beliefs.  I believe that my students are unique, that each has particular strengths and weaknesses, and that therefore, each ought to be taught toward distinct goals. I also believe that every student in my class can be successful—that is, (1) feel gratified from an understanding of the course, (2) prepare work they are proud of, and (3) feel a sense of belonging—within a relatively standardized program.

Three scenarios (corresponding to each of the three metrics of success listed above) that illustrate how these beliefs can work against each other:
(1) My class is taking a test and a student is stuck in the middle of the problem.  My first belief would have me ask guiding questions to point him toward the right approach.  My second belief has me worry that in doing so, I am depriving him of the satisfaction of solving the problem, and moreover, that the student will not retain the skill as well since he did not come to it on his own.  It also has me worry that I am reinforcing the student’s belief that he could not have done the test without help. (At least once every exam, I have a student approach me with a lot to say, but without a question or apparent difficulty.  It is as if he is looking for my “permission” to write his response.)
(2) I receive a sloppy, unstapled homework assignment from a student.  My first belief will have me consider the fact that the student might struggle with executive functioning difficulties or dysgraphia, and has 9 other demanding classes, and therefore I should grade the work with no penalty.  My second belief asserts that if the student was forced to, she would hand in legible and neat work that she is proud of, and that once she sees that she can produce quality work, will demand that of herself in the future. In that case, I should not accept the homework and should ask for a resubmission.
(3) A student is consistently late to tefillah in the morning.  My first belief is understanding of the fact that the morning rush is unpredictable and that waking up is a very difficult part of the day—especially for teenagers.  Furthermore, structures that work for one student can be seen as pedantic or arbitrary by another, who can then be turned off from prayer and religious community involvement by strict rules.  My second belief sees value in the student being part of a school community, and hopes that with enough enforcement, the student will also come to value his own participation in community prayer, whatever that may look like.  Everyone is capable of making it a point to be on time on a regular basis. At best, our policies will help the student internalize how important we think tefillah is, and will foster a profound sense of belonging in our religious community.

Students often want handholding.  As an educator, I often ask myself: when do they actually need guidance and when can they be pushed to try again on their own?  How much frustration should I allow a student to experience when learning? At what point do I concede that not every student has it in them to be another Einstein or Curie?  How do I distinguish between genuine effort and complacency with mediocrity? (When am I, the teacher, making a justified exception, and when am I just being expedient?) I think that these questions can be unified succinctly as follows:  How are we to balance a deep respect for our students’ particularity with a faith that they can be pushed to become more than they think they can be?

There is a fine line between validating a student’s struggles on the one hand, and underselling them on the other hand.  One opens doors and the other closes doors; one gives a student the sense of self-worth and support to move forward, while the other reinforces low self-esteem and stifles growth.  It seems to me that teaching is an exercise in walking this line: without support, a student has no starting point from which to begin the learning process; without aspiration, no education will take place.  

At the climax of The Miracle Worker, Ms. Sullivan succeeds in training Helen to sit at the dinner table with proper manners.  The parents are thrilled, but Ms. Sullivan is dissatisfied. She continues to expect more of Helen.  She believes that Helen’s education must continue beyond behavior, into an ability to understand and communicate with others, despite her disabilities.  Had Ms. Sullivan been content, it would have undermined her entire approach: her goal was not to raise the bar that separated Helen’s abilities and inabilities, but to remove the bar entirely.  Imagine then, the possibilities for our students, who are so apparently talented and capable. When we look at them, do we take what’s in front of us at face value, or do we see what’s still unlocked?  We should aim to strike the right balance of understanding, nurturing, and demanding, to open up worlds of possibilities for our students during these formative years of their lives.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A View from the Office

By: Dr. Rivka Schwartz, Associate Principal

In these post-Pesach months, we read Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) on Shabbat afternoon. A number of mishnayot in Pirkei Avot begin with “hu haya omer”--he used to say. “He used to say” carries a different connotation than “he said”--it implies repetition, frequency. This wasn’t just a one-off--it was something that particular sage repeated constantly, the idea or phrase he was identified by.

I’ve been a high school teacher in Orthodox high schools for around twenty years now, and I have my own “hu haya omer”--the thought that I repeat often, a distillation of my years of experience. When I began high school teaching, I had no children. Then I had young children (and distinctly remember once, at a Parent-Teacher conference, when a mother asked for my counsel in dealing with her teenage son, thinking, “My oldest is 6. What do I know about parenting teenagers?”) Now I am the mother of three teenagers, and while I find this advice far harder to live by and implement than it is to dole out, it is no less true for that.

The most frequent parenting and educational problem that I see takes many guises, but it has one common root: the inability to accept that our children are the people they are, not the people we might have designed them to be. Our kids come to us not as mini-mes or projections of our hopes and dreams, but as bundles of DNA, further shaped by their epigenetics, their environments, and their experiences. And for all of the power of parenting, and of education, we can’t make them be anything other than what they are.

I have seen this play out in a host of ways: in parents or educators disappointed by their children’s levels of academic ability, interest in their schoolwork, choices about where to go for college or yeshiva, religious inclinations, or other personal characteristics. Conveying to our children that we are disappointed or dismayed by who they are or who they’ve become--because they’re too religious, or not religious enough; because they don’t want to go the college we went to or because they don’t want to go to the college we wish we went to; because they have academic or emotional health challenges; because of their sexual orientation--won’t change any of that. That’s simply not within our power. All it will do is make our children sad, angry, or alienated.

That is not to say, of course, that we don’t get to set boundaries or parameters. As parents, we can and should do that, saying for example that I will only financially support your choice of college if it meets certain standards for Orthodox life. But even then, we should be prepared to honestly face the reality of who our children are and what they need, and adjust accordingly. You might have hoped that your child would go to Yeshiva/Stern, or Harvard, or your alma mater. But look at the person in front of you. Does that make sense for your child? And even if you’re sure it does, is it what your child wants?

Sometimes, when we get caught up in the strength of our vision of what our kids need, of what’s best for them, an outsider can provide a needed reality check. “I know you want your son to be an engineer. But he loves history and literature.” “I know you want your daughter to be a doctor. But she loves learning Torah.” Sometimes our children themselves provide that reality check, if only we’ll listen: “I don’t think that academic program/yeshiva/career path is the right one for me, and here’s why.”

It can be hard to hear sometimes, that the dream that we always had of the path that our children would take in their careers, in Judaism, in life, isn’t going to be what we anticipated, or planned for, back when our kids were theoretical constructs and not real people. But they are real people, with their own identities that we cannot change. What we can do is understand the particularities of who they are, their strengths, the areas in which they need to grow, and do our best to help them develop as people and as Jews along their own paths.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Investing in Investment

By: Ms. Shira Schiowitz, Tanakh Teacher
and Dr. Gillian Steinberg, English Teacher

SAR students are held to a high standard, with many expectations placed upon them. Aside from the academic pressure of papers, tests and homework, SAR’s teachers and administrators expect students to invest in their own learning. In many ways, this focus on intent and not only on the final product adds an extra burden to our already overextended students.

Yet this focus on investment is one of our core values and one that, we believe, can be as important as content knowledge. While we want our students to leave high school with the disciplinary skills and the information to move forward on their educational, professional and life journeys, those goals capture only a part of what we endeavor to develop in our students. The importance of preparation and attentiveness are integral to the skill set that allows our students to maximize high school and future opportunities. More fundamentally, cultivating respect for the opinions of others and developing the ability to take initiative for one’s learning are critical skills for the lifelong learner.

These values, distilled in the new “Investment in Learning” rubric, are both separate from and connected to a student’s quality of work. Certainly, each student’s investment impacts the work that he or she produces. At the same time, investment in learning is a value unto itself, and the separate “investment in learning” grade honors that achievement. The separate grade also allows us to acknowledge the effort put into being a student regardless of academic performance in any given subject.

The values we espouse in the new rubric are closely related to our theme for the year: middot.
We aim to help students see that investment behaviors, like middot, are within students’ control. Students who may simply see themselves as perpetually late can begin to envision ways to work towards punctuality, for instance. By maintaining self-reflection as one of the rubric measures, we aim to help students think about themselves as learners and reflect on their own strengths and challenges.

We have asked students to consider the following questions as they strive for investment in their learning:

  • Am I working hard to grow as a student?
Do I:
    • Consider and implement feedback?
    • Take initiative in addressing problems?
    • Communicate with the teacher as necessary?
  • Am I engaging with my class community respectfully and with kindness?
Do I:
    • Wait for my turn to speak?
    • Consider the opinions of others?
    • Express my disagreement civilly?
  • Am I paying attention to my behaviors and adjusting them as necessary to ensure optimal learning?
Do I:
    • Reflect on my effort and performance?
    • Use technology to help rather than hinder my development?
    • Choose working partners carefully?
  • Am I involved?
Do I:
    • Take notes as needed?
    • Stay focused during class discussions?
    • Track and listen to the speaker?
    • Move seats if I’m distracted?
  • Am I prepared and ready to learn?
Do I:
    • Bring the right materials to class?
    • Complete in-class and homework assignments?
    • Use provided resources effectively?
  • Do I arrive on time to class and turn in assignments on time?
As teachers, we can pose these questions to a full classroom, to individual students, and to ourselves. When students ask what they can do to improve their grades, for example, we can point to some of these questions to see if they are taking an active role in their learning. We can also use them for our own self-reflection, helping us to ensure that we are teaching both content and vital student skills.

To that end, many of us have begun experimenting with creative ways to bring this Investment in Learning rubric into our classrooms. In addition to posting a colorful infographic of the six measures in every classroom around the school, we are sharing and experimenting with new lesson plans that incorporate the Investment in Learning measures into their classroom activities. For example, SAR’s Tanakh teachers asked students to examine both Moshe Rabbeinu and B’nei Yisrael’s behavior on each of the six Investment in Learning measures and bring p’sukim to support their analyses. The English department, after hearing a presentation on this activity, tried something similar with characters from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

At the same time, the History department engaged students in a self-evaluation that asked them to consider their own engagement in history using the separate measures, a practice that has since been adopted by others across the school.

Ultimately, we hope that our focus on these “best practices in classroom investment” will help students to feel less burdened by the demands placed on them because they will see that select small behaviors can result in big improvements. We also hope students will see that these behaviors are not unique to student life but to every life well lived. We can all benefit from being more invested -- more attentive, more respectful, more prepared, more self-reflective, and so on -- at work, in our families, and in our Judaism. By demonstrating the significance of these qualities both inside and outside the classroom, we hope that students will both carry these tools far beyond SAR and help them invest meaningfully in life.  

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Physics and Humility

By: Mr. Yarone Tokayer, Physics Teacher

Light moves astonishingly fast: so fast that it can travel around the world 7 times in one second.  But however fast light is, its speed is not infinite.  That is how I begin my lesson on the speed of light each winter.  It sounds so innocent, that light travels at a finite speed.  But once I point out one consequence, a whole can of worms opens up.  Bear with me: For us to see anything, light from the object must hit our eyes.  Now, that light needs to travel from the object, which takes time.  Meaning, the image that appears to us is outdated:  for close objects, by a fraction of a second; for the Sun, by about 8 minutes; for most stars, by eons.  Think about it: if the Sun disappeared, we would not know about it until 8 minutes later.  If an alien on some far away planet pointed its telescope to Earth today, it may see dinosaurs from 200 million years ago!

One student last year found this particularly troublesome.  She raised her hand and said “No!  That is too crazy to be true.”  Each step of the logic made sense to her, but she could not accept the conclusion that we see objects not as they currently are, but as they were in the past.  When she found me in the hall the following day, I expected another challenge to the lesson, but to my surprise, the student said, “You know I was thinking about the light thing last night, and I realized that we can be seeing stars that no longer exist!”  She was 100% correct, and we went on to discuss how astronomers use this fact to map the history of the universe.  The farther away we see, the closer to the beginning of time we get.

My colleague and mentor, Mr. Ron Zamir, has taught me that the best lessons elicit a sense of wonder from students.  These are the ones that challenge students to face their initial disbelief, and then push them to discover far-flung implications on their own, as they slowly digest the new information over the course of days.  By grappling with the notion of the speed of light, my student had a profound discovery.  She internalized the lesson in a way that can only be done through a sense of wonder.  In his television program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the great Carl Sagan considered why people find the phenomenon of the finite speed of light so compelling.  He conjectured that our inability to seize the present speaks to the limits of our reach.  Furthermore, the existence of an entire universe before life on Earth formed undermines our self-importance.  We are “johnny-come-latelys” of the 13.7 billion year old universe, he said.

SAR High School’s motto is “It’s not just what you learn.  It’s who you become.”  This adage is not just an aspiration for our students, it is also a directive for teachers.  It challenges us to frame our curricula in terms of character goals, in addition to the knowledge and skills that we hope to impart.  As a physics teacher, I constantly ask myself: what kind of growth can I hope for in my students?   What values can I teach in the physics classroom?

For me, the speed of light lesson highlights two ways in which physics can teach us humility:

1. In physics, and in science in general, we learn about the world beyond ourselves and our place in it.  The laws of the universe are not subject to human desires, and their existence is independent of our own.  Indeed, as we look into the night sky, we see thousands of stars that, if they could see us back, would look at an Earth devoid of any human life at all.  I teach my students that physical phenomena cannot be “good” or “bad,” they simply “are.”  They are not questions of politics or interpretation, and do not get “invented” by scientists.  We do not work to break them, but to operate within them.  The study of physics is a sobering reminder that even the most powerful among us, like the mythical Icarus, are bound to the physical world and subject to its laws.

Furthermore, since the scientific revolution, Western culture has shifted from seeing the Earth as the center of the universe to seeing the Sun as the center of the universe; from seeing the Milky Way (our galaxy) as the only galaxy to our current understanding that our galaxy is 1 of 100 billion, and that there is, in reality, no center to the universe.  We do not have a “special” place in the physical world.

Once we internalize these harsh truths, we can move forward as responsible citizens and servants of God to work within our physical confines to change the world for the better.  Each year, I choose an epigraph for my course outlines, which I share with my classes on the first day of school:

When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You set in place, what is man, that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that you have taken note of him? Yet You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty; You have made him master over Your handiwork, laying the world at his feet. (Psalms 8)

As the psalmist discovers and experiences the world, his sense of wonder is two-fold.  On the one hand, he has an existential crisis: he perceives himself as insignificant compared to the vast universe.  On the other hand, he remembers that as humans, we have access to the universe and to knowledge—it is “at his feet”—which itself is a tremendous gift and responsibility.

Werner Heisenberg
2. In physics, we learn about the inherent limits of humanity’s access to knowledge of the world.  We cannot observe the present: remember, even the Sun is on an 8 minute delay.  We also cannot see arbitrarily far: physicists call the parts of the universe that we can see the “observable universe”—it would take longer than the age of the universe for light to travel from farther, so we cannot possibly see anything there.  At the beginning of the 20th Century, we found that there is also a limit to how small we can see: Werner Heisenberg formulated the “uncertainty principle,” which describes the maximum precision with which we can observe things on a small scale.  This is a limitation embedded into the fabric of the physical universe that we find ourselves in.  As part of that universe, we are inherently restricted.

The hasidic master Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa was famous for teaching that everyone should keep two notes, one in each pocket.  One should read “The world was created for my sake” and the other should read “I am but dust and ashes.”  Physics balances these two perspectives by being at once empowering and humbling.

Our high schoolers are in an environment that puts them at a high risk for narcissism.  As 11th and 12th graders, they are encouraged to accumulate accolades and grades for their transcripts, and to sell themselves to colleges.  We champion students’ “achievements,” which can inadvertently nudge a child to a self-serving attitude about school.  Outside of school, we live in an age of personal branding (sometimes quite literally, such as in the case of bar/bat mitzvah logos).  Every teenager is expected to have Facebook and Instagram pages to help perfect their personas.  Furthermore, as society becomes more and more divided by class, community service becomes more formalized and turns into “personal experiences” as opposed to genuine neighborly giving.  None of these observations have to be all bad; we need to instill a sense of self-worth in our students so that they develop a sense of agency to live happy lives.  However, we must remember to balance that with messages of humility and responsibility toward others.  We can allow students to celebrate who they are as teenagers, but we must also set their gaze forward at what they aim to become in their lives as Jewish adults.

In Iggeret HaRamban, Nachmanides writes to his son:
עַל כֵּן אַפָרֵשׁ לְךָ אֵיךְ תִּתְנַהֵג בְּמִדַּת הָעֲנָוָה… עֵינֶךָ יַבִּיטוּ לְמַטָּה לָאָרֶץ, וְלִבְּךָ לְמַעֲלָה;
“This is how to be humble: your eyes should gaze down toward the land, and your heart upward.”  Humility starts by probing the world around us.  When we gain an understanding of who and where we are, we can turn our hearts upward and aspire for greatness.  That is my hope for our students, and I believe that learning physics can play a small part in that development.  SAR’s theme of tikkun hamiddot (character development) reminds us that as educators, we are not just conduits of information.  We are molders of young men and women.  Ideally, this is manifest implicitly in our personal behavior as dugma’ot ishit (role models), and explicitly in our classes as we guide students as to how they can internalize what they learn and help it shape who they become.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Character Ambition

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal

Text from Rabbi Harcsztark’s teshuvah drasha to the school before Yom Kippur.

Here’s how it happened: I had already been up for over an hour; it’s Sunday morning, had my coffee, read the headlines and had learned for a while. Figured I would go with my boys to the 9am minyan. It’s 8:45, time to wake them up. I got the usual groan and then the turn over. I said to myself, “I will come back in five minutes for round 2”. As expected. At 8:50, another wake up call, another groan, another turn over. Now it’s 8:55 and no one is moving yet. “They are getting up, right?” By 8:59, I start to get agitated: why can’t you just get up? You do realize that I am coming with you to shul today! Why can’t you just get up on time?” My irritation grows, kids grumbling and finally, we get out to shul. At this point, mutual aggravation, and now none of us really in a davening mindset. And so, it has happened again - my irritability, my desire for things being just so, has taken over. It made a shul moment with my kids and with God, into a not-so-sacred moment.

When I think about my irritability, I feel bad. I don’t want this to be true about me. But at some point, I made a decision to work on it: I wanted to change, to grow. It wasn’t easy. But it was important and it made a difference. 

In these moments that we have together before Yom Kippur, I want to focus on an aspect of our theme, tikkun hamiddot, but in a specific way. I want to talk about ambition. Our SAR community, is very ambitious - we have driven and hard working students, driven and hard working faculty and driven and hard working parents. We want to get good grades, do well on SATs, get into a good college, get a good job. We want to win our championship games and be popular with our friends.

But I want to talk about a different kind of ambition. I am going to call it Character Ambition. What I mean by character here: the moral and ethical qualities that are particular to who we are and how we live our lives. So Character Ambition means having ambition, a desire, to develop our moral and ethical character in the best way - and putting in the planning and hard work that is necessary to achieve it. For me in my story, it means cultivating patience so I won’t be so irritable. For you, it will mean something else. And in regard to this type of ambition, I want to make two claims today.

My first claim is that while we are all nice people, and we all want to do the right thing, being nice is not enough. We want to be the very best possible versions of ourselves. My second claim is that sometimes we get a little lazy, and forget to make choices that would help us become the people we want to be. If we want to grow, we need a plan.

As I was preparing for this talk, Shoshana Kattan (better known as Shoco) shared a video with me and I would like to share thirty seconds from Drew Dudley’s talk on leadership (:09-:38). Drew Dudley is saying something so important, so memorable-- that HOPE IS NOT A PLAN. We need to be more concrete.

How do we figure out a plan? How do we decide what to work on? The truth is that we have a long history of thought about this. The Torah has high “character expectations” for us. The Torah’s mitzvot push so strongly for ethical and moral sensitivity. 

I know what we tend to say: we’re just being high school kids, that’s what high school kids do. And our teachers give us too much work for us to think about character, about working on my middot. And faculty, will say, we are so busy doing important things that we don’t have the luxury to think about tranquility, humility, wasting time or money. But that’s why we need to talk about it. Having ambition means wanting to be better. We need to believe that we are not yet at our best and we need the drive, the desire to be the best that we can be. Ambition, by definition, means never saying “I am good enough”. Maybe everyone around me thinks that I am ok. But I am not doing it for someone else; I am doing it for me.

The Rambam wrote in his Shemoneh Perakim: “The ancients maintained that the soul, like the body, is subject to good health and illness”. That is a very deep idea. Our inner beings can be healthy or ill just like our bodies. Think about it - when it comes to my body, what people around me do is not necessarily what is good for me. People eat too much, become unhealthy. I know it will make me physically unhealthy so I shouldn’t do it. People need to exercise their bodies. It will help us live longer, healthier lives. We need to think of our souls, our inner beings, in terms of health and sickness. In what ways are we healthy? In what ways sick? What must I do to make myself as soulfully healthy as I can be?

When it comes to character ambition, here is the point: If we take tikkun hamiddot seriously, then it requires action and determination. I want to outline the beginnings of a path towards working on that. And I want to do that by taking that which we know - planning and hard work for our grades, our teams, our college applications - and applying those same strategies to our middot, to our most daily interactions with others, with God and within our own selves. So I share with you my four steps of character ambition.

Four Steps of Character Ambition
  1. Set a practical goal - think of what this looks like in regular school life. I am imagining my kids writing an essay - for class or for a college application - or deciding that they wanted to make a team. In all of those cases, there is a concrete goal. So when you do it once - write the essay, play ball - you don’t feel that you’re done. You look at it again, assess what you’ve done, find out how it can be done better. Over the course of time, you get better and better at it. I have been amazed to watch my kids’ essay writing or foul shooting improve in just that way. Having a goal propels you forward. We should set goals for ourselves in middot and character growth in just the same way. Pick a middah and work at it; for a while. For me, my goal is to seek מנוחת הנפש, an inner peace, where I don’t get quickly irritated when talking with someone. When that happens, I don’t listen to others with patience and I can speak to them disparagingly. Often it happens because I am feeling bad about myself or upset about something else or angry at the other person for not totally accepting my own point of view. And often it happens with the people closest to me. I actually think that this is one of the על חטא’s - שחטאנו לפניך בלצון that we sinned before you by scorning others. And when I am not at peace, I mistreat other people, I fail myself and the whole situation becomes less Godly. But I need to be practical-- I can’t leave this as an idea. There has to be a plan, and a goal. So I would say this: every time I become annoyed about getting to davening on time with my kids, every time I feel that sense that I’m somehow not a good enough Jew unless I get to minyan on time and find myself channeling that insecurity toward my children, I say to myself: take a breath, I’m ok. I might say it twice: take a breath, I’m ok. This becomes my mantra. It helps me because it’s a concrete step I can take that gets me closer to my goal: patience, tranquility. I ask you to do the same. What middah do you want to improve? To work on over the next 6-8 weeks? Lesson #1: Set a goal for yourself.
  2. Get a coach - Pursuing the analogy further, in pursuing my goals and ambitions, if I really want to to do my best, I get a coach. That is obviously true for sports. That is also true when writing a paper or an application or preparing for the ACT’s or working on a robot car in engineering or if you are in the play or doing art. We always turn the coach. How can we expect to learn how to do it better without a coach? The Baalei Mussar were very clear on the importance of a coach - a rabbi or a chavruta to work with, to give pointers. If I start getting irritable, my rebbe should point it out to me or I should try to unpack the moment with my middot chavruta, or my best friend, or my spouse. The Rambam was very serious about this. He saw the Rabbi as a doctor - there are medical doctors for the body and there are spiritual doctors for the soul. The Greeks thought that too. It’s hard to develop strategies on my own, to teach myself to listen patiently all the time under all circumstances. And it’s not good enough to just “do my best”. Tikkun HaMiddot means working in earnest. And if we are serious about growth, we should get ourselves a coach - just like we have for our other ambitions. And I am pretty sure that your middot partner will do it free of charge.
  3. Third, pay attention to detail - when we pay attention, when we learn about a middah and about ourselves, we begin to see the nuances that make all the difference. So I worked to find other places where the mantra would help. Working on this middah then made me experience davening and making brachot in a new way. I found davening to be a peaceful space carved out in the day to take a breath, take stock and recenter myself. And, here again, it impacted on my relationship with myself, with Hashem and with others all at once. So that’s step 3: pay attention to detail.
  4. Finally, practice! The Rambam says in Hilchot Deot: “How can one train himself to follow these temperaments to the extent that they become a permanent fixture of his personality? He should perform, repeat and perform a third time the acts which conform to the standards of the middle road temperaments. He should do this constantly until these acts are easy for him and do not present any difficult. Then these temperaments will become a fixed part of his personality.” Whatever we are serious about-- we don’t just do it once! After I started working on it, I began to enjoy going to shul with my kids on a whole new level. I was more accepting, we enjoyed each other’s presence - and my davening was more meaningful and more peaceful. It helped in my connection to those around me, to God and to myself.
So these are the four steps—set a practical goal, get a coach, pay attention to detail, and practice.

Picking a Middah

Can you imagine if everyone picked just one thing to work on and actually worked on it with a partner following these four steps? We would be a community of עובדי ד׳, people working hard for a kinder, more sensitive, more principled community. It would be amazing!

I asked faculty members to share with me the middah that most inspired them - and a role model who embodied it. I am sorry that I can’t include them all but I would like to highlight two responses that really resonate with me. 

Ms. Schlaff: When I think of tikkun hamiddot, I think of someone I actually don’t know well at all, and of a very small act.
Here’s the story:
From time to time I speak in my shul. I’m pretty used to public speaking, but no matter how many times I get up in front of an audience, it is always good to have a “nodder” - one person amongst the crowd who looks right at me when I am speaking, and smiles, and nods. When I have one nodder in the audience, I feel perfectly fine about whatever I have to say. So there is this one woman in my shul who is a nodder. I do not know her well at all. I say good shabbos to her every week, but that is pretty much it. But after the last time I spoke, I went over to her to thank her for always smiling when I speak, and to tell her how confident it makes me feel. And what she said totally amazed me. She said that a few years ago, she decided that anytime she heard anyone speak - anywhere - she was going to make it her business to make them feel comfortable by making eye contact with the speaker, and smiling and nodding. She said it was her small contribution to the world. What amazed me was that I had always thought it came naturally to her - something she did without thinking. I was so impressed to learn it was a conscious decision. She had translated an interest in treating people with respect, the middah of kavod, into a specific action. 

Ms. Dweck also responded, and her answer blew me away because she suggested her coach wasn’t some intellectual or even a grown up, but a toddler. She wrote: “A toddler learning to walk. Failure is part of the learning process and perseverance, I believe is the key to embracing the failure. When a toddler is learning to walk it is a process. He/She falls many times and each time he/she gets right back up and tries again. And again. And again. I wish we could bring this resilience with us into adolescence, adulthood and beyond. We are born with perseverance. In our very first breath of life we need to figure out how to manage in gravity. We don't give up. We persevere.”

Perseverence, like מנוחת הנפש, is also one of R. Yisrael Salanter’s thirteen middot.

I mentioned earlier how powerful it would be to have a community of people all thinking about a personal middah, working to better themselves in a kind of shared project that was yet so individualized.

And in this spirit, I want to talk about John Allman. He was just written up in the NY Times this past weekend. He is the principal of the Trinity School, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Manhattan. He wrote a letter to his school community at the beginning of this school year suggesting that they needed to rebuild the culture, that it has become too self serving, too narrow and not enough about personal character and the greater good. 

An excerpt: “consistent with our mission, how ought we to educate our students so that they leave us with a commitment not just to advance their own educational interests, but also serve the common good and to give generously to others for the rest of their lives?..As we have learned in recent years...our students’ default understanding of the purpose of their schoolwork becomes to make good grades, gain admissions to a highly selective college, set themselves on a path of lifelong superior achievement. And this default setting -- one of narrowly individualistic self-advancement -- has been locked into place by a frenetic pace of life and expectations of perfection that devour the energy and time students need to reflect on the meaning of their schoolwork...We need to actively develop in our students compelling alternative understandings of the socially redeeming purposes their knowledge and skills could and should serve. If we do not...” 

What he’s saying is so fitting for this season, for religious life, and it’s this: if we take the idea of being a Jewish school seriously, then our goals have to extend beyond the academic to the ethical and spiritual. We have to work at least as hard at bettering ourselves ethically and spiritually as we do at our classes. 

So I will end as I began. In my family, like many of us, we have the minhag of giving brachot to our kids right before we go to shul for Kol Nidre. You can find those berachot in the machzor. It is no longer a frazzled moment, calling them to get ready, hastily giving them brachot, rushing everyone out the door. I know that my family, Hashem and my own neshama will be with me in peace as I, with מנוחת הנפש, bless my family as we pray for a blessed year together. In that spirit, I challenge you: as you sit in shul, ask yourself: what’s my middah? What’s my real goal? Who can help coach me? Let me dedicate time to practice. Turn every day into a day that will effect real change in your life.

Gmar chatima tova to all.