Sunday, December 21, 2014

Reflections on Fire, Creativity and the Miracle of Chanukah


By: Ms. Shira Hecht-Koller, Judaic Studies Teacher

We strike a match, ignite a flame, gaze into the fire, reflect, think and celebrate. Like we do each week as we welcome and bid farewell to Shabbat, today, and for eight days, for a few moments we will pause from our hectic routines, put aside the “to-do” lists of our Google drives and stop to reflect on life through the lens of the flame.

I have always been mesmerized by fire. The allure and power of the dancing flame seems to stand at odds with fire as a most basic part of nature. It is an elemental force that is entirely natural, yet we know how to harness and control it, as is evident in some of our most basic behaviors: humans are alone in the world in cooking their food before eating it. With the help of fire, we turn inedible meat into a substance that sustains and nurtures us and one that has allowed us to develop in sophisticated and unimaginable ways. Fire, then, is a marker of our progress and a creator of our culture.

As we celebrate Chanukah, the symbol of the fire, so foundational in our tradition, is what we
focus all of our attention upon. Lighting candles is the one mitzvah that we are commanded to keep, and it is directly connected to the miracle related in the gemara (Shabbat 21b) – the candles commemorating the lights of the miracle that took place in the Beit ha-Mikdash 2178 years ago.

Interestingly, the gemara does not say that a festival was instituted because of the victory over the Seleucid army; instead, we commemorate a miracle, a small detail really, that took place within the broader context of that victory. Why does the gemara focus on this detail, rather than explaining the entire narrative? The light of the menorah was important, but it was the military victory, and the resulting political independence that were the primary events of the story of Chanukah! This is clear from the narratives as found in the two books of Maccabees, as well as from the brief version recited in ‘al ha-nisim, which focuses on the military victory, and the Rambam’s retelling of the story at the beginning of the laws of Chanukah, which focuses on the political accomplishments.

Rav Ezra Bick of Yeshivat Har Etzion suggests, that we focus on the candles as a way of framing the broader narrative, as providing a lens through which to see the whole story. At a time in our religious history when there appeared not to be enough spirit to continue, when the old ways were virtually dead, when the flame was almost entirely extinguished, a small spark survived and that was enough to fuel the flames of growth, potential and renewal.

When it comes to learning about, watching and celebrating the miracle of Chanukah with our children and with our students, we are reminded, day after day, and one creative achievement of theirs after the next, that all that is needed is for them to have the spark from within and then fan the creativity and watch it flourish. Immersing ourselves in the educational life, culture and spiritual community that is SAR High School allows us to witness this on a daily basis. Our building is constantly permeated with the noise of intellectual rigor, the depth of spiritual questing, and the colors, scents and sounds of creative accomplishments. One need only walk the floors, or stand in the middle of the Beit Midrash and look up, to feel it and sense it. One of our primary goals, then, as an educational institution, is collaboratively figuring out how to best inspire and ignite the passion and creativity.

This is done in varied and thoughtful ways by our community of educators. It is first and foremost reflected in our dual curriculum that is diverse and individualized, with multiple opportunities for student choice, as well as student input. Our upper-classmen are provided ample opportunities for elective classes, in both Judaic and secular studies, with many of those classes involving culminating creative projects and presentations. Students who are interested in song, can elect to take a class on niggunim and nusach tefilla; those who want to explore halakhic topics in a more hands-on environment, can opt to take a Halakha Lab class; students interested in art, can learn in the Drawing from the Text class, where foundational Jewish texts are analyzed and explored through the medium of charcoal and paint; students interested in media can take a Middot Through Media class which integrates contemporary culture with fundamental values and lessons of life; and students interested in science and ethics can opt for a class in Comparative Medical Ethics, and engage with broader questions of technology, medicine and Rabbinic law. The list is long and the offerings diverse, presented as a palette of different colors, affording the students a chance to pick up a brush and paint their own individual canvases.

Our Seniors have already started thinking about and planning for their capstone Senior Exploration projects where they can choose to do fieldwork, independently generate creative projects, or work on individualized research. We present them with options, pair them with faculty mentors, guide them and watch them flourish. In many ways, our robust faculty Professional Development program mirrors the desires, goals and expectations that we have for our Seniors. All faculty members are currently in the midst of either individual or collaborative projects, which cross disciplines, enabling us to tap into the ideas, creativity and strengths of our colleagues and friends.

While the creative and collaborative energy is felt on a daily basis, it is heightened and felt most acutely during the days of Chanukah, when we celebrated with our Macca “Bee”/Color War. The competitive energy and spirit burst forth in the form of song, music, animation, photography, poetry-slams, dramatic improvisation, iron-chef competitions, literature and sport, all framed within a context of Torah and values central to our mission. There is palpable energy and messy, creative wonder that builds strength and community. It is awe-inspiring in a way that is deeply rooted in our tradition. Students and teachers alike draw inspiration from one another to grow, flourish, renew and lead. We just need to stop for a moment, gaze into the dancing flames and remind ourselves of the opportunities. Seemingly miraculous, the possibilities are endless.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Creating a Service Community

By: Ms. Ora Meier, Chesed Coordinator, English/Art History Teacher

Many people often ask me: Why does SAR engage students and faculty in school-wide, organized group volunteering for over 25 partnering agencies? Couldn’t we just focus on student’s individual chesed activities or hours?  To answer this, it is important to consider how SAR’s model of collaboration in the classroom is applied to create a community of givers in the field.

Throughout the course of the academic year, SAR chesed activities include four grade-wide chesed days and over 50 advisory chesed trips, in addition to the ongoing activities of our eight different chesed clubs.  Each chesed day presents a diverse range of options where every advisory can choose a chesed trip that speaks to the group’s specific interests.  

SAR is unique because we allow individuals to select how they would like to spend their grade chesed day, and we invite advisories to choose their chesed trips.  At the very moment that an advisory group begins the conversation about how they would like to spend their time volunteering, they have created, within their group, a service-driven community.  During this initial conversation, a student may share a favorite memory about a previous volunteering opportunity, or an advisor may reveal a surprising talent that may benefit the service experience.  Some of these conversations often lead to students sharing honest concerns or fears that they might have when engaging with particular populations.  After this brainstorming session, the advisory selects their chesed trip and thus becomes more of a cohesive unit, inspired to give to others in a way that matches the talents and skills of the group members.  Ultimately, the key to successful team building is guided by the purpose of serving others. 

The strength of SAR’s chesed program is that the direct volunteering experiences are  transformative.  SAR partners with New York service agencies to address needs that include children’s supports, homelessness and hunger, hospitals and health, senior centers and nursing homes, and parks and nature.  At the start of the year, there is a planning meeting with each of the partnering agencies to both identify their respective specific needs for the year, as well as to discuss the opportunities and strengths that our students and faculty can provide.

Diverse options and collaborative team building is consistently our goal.  We want to make sure that there are volunteering options for every kind of student and teacher.  For example, there are students who are only interested in working with children (whether hospitalized, in a Head Start preschool, or a public school in an underprivileged neighborhood).  There are others who are committed to addressing poverty in New York City, through volunteering at soup kitchens or other food-related sites.  By the end of every month, we are proud to say that the SAR community has had a direct impact on helping those in need throughout New York City. 

Early last week, in preparation for the Twelfth Grade Chesed Day and an advisory chesed trip to Montefiore Children’s Hospital, Yoram Roschwalb and I began sorting the Thanksgiving-related craft items purchased from Oriental Trading.  For a brief moment, the colorful scratch leaves, fall stamps and “tree of thanks” frame kits didn’t seem as exciting in the box as when we had placed the order.  That instant of doubt dissipated when we began discussing each project and picturing our SAR students in action, transforming the basic items into an engaging, fun and memorable experience for the patients that they would soon meet.  I was invigorated by the knowledge that those who would lead these projects had requested one of their top choices for volunteering, and would, no doubt, accomplish its goals.

This Thanksgiving, consider how the SAR community chesed model can begin a new conversation about what it means to give, both individually and together, as a family.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Preparing For The Rest of the 21st Century

By: Rabbi Avi Bloom, Director of Technology Integration

For the last few months media has been rife with stories about the surge in one-to-one device programs in schools, and technology integration in general.  One-to-one, or 1:1, refers to a model in which each student is equipped with a computer, tablet, or other personal electronic device to use as part of his/her educational toolbox.  Often, the public conversation on these issues has focused on devices when it ought to be about effective education and pedagogy.

Technology can have a transformative impact on the way students learn, think, create, apply and concretize the knowledge and skills that we are trying to impart.  While the hardware is essential, it is not the most crucial element in ensuring educational success. Just purchasing iPads does not change education. The most important conversation is about educational impact, not technological change.  In order to use technology successfully, we must be committed to discussing how we teach, what we teach, why we teach it, and how technology can help.  We must grapple with the question of why is it important to bring technology into the classroom? 

At SAR HS, our technology strategy directly reflects our educational mission, which values the unique needs of each learner, and the importance of student creativity and collaboration in the learning process.  We are engaged in ongoing conversations about how technology can be used to help support our mission.  Our student 1:1 device initiative, currently in place in the ninth grade, is one example of the link between our strategy and mission. The program offers students and teachers opportunities for real-time collaboration, enhanced options for creative expression, and opportunities to individualize and personalize the learning to meet the needs of each individual student.  Each teacher decides how technology is best suited to his/her educational goals.  Our ninth grade Gemara classes are already using the iPads to record and practice Gemara reading, and digitally annotate Gemara text.  Similar technology innovation is happening across all                                                               subjects and departments. 

Ultimately, successful technology integration means having conversations in which technology and pedagogy cannot be separated.  We need to continue to talk about devices, and how to use them, in light of our goals and expectations for our students.  We also need to continue to develop new goals, based on emerging technologies that did not exist even as recently as a year ago.  We must continue to refine our goals and strategies in light of what technology affords us and the world in which our students live.  

Mr. Goodman's AP Biology class uses 3D modeling software
to explore 
secondary structures of proteins.
Putting devices in students hands is a critical step in creating a more individualized, creative, collaborative, learning environment.  However, it is only a piece of the process.  Ultimately, it comes back to the question of ‘how’.  How innovative, willing and flexible are educators and institutions to think in new ways about educational goals and practices?  How can we use technology to help us achieve our current goals?  How do our goals need to evolve in light of technology?  How can we continue to ensure that our students are best prepared for a world that is changing rapidly and difficult to predict?  How can we adapt our curriculum to reflect our changing world?  

These are some of the questions we have been asking and answering in our classrooms, meetings, and hallways and we invite you to join the conversation.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Reflections from My Summer in Israel

By: Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz, Tanakh Department Chair

When I asked my children what I should tell the students of SAR High School about our summer in Israel, I got two pieces of advice:
1. Don’t make it seem that scary.
2. Don’t get too emotional.

The truth is, since I got back from my summer in Israel just a few weeks ago, I have thought long and hard about what to share about my experience there. Of all the times that I have been to Israel, and thank God, I have been blessed to have been in Israel many times, this past summer was different. What I felt there and saw there and learned there were of a different order than any other trip, and I want to tell people about it, if only to explain why I feel and think differently now about Israel, about being Jewish, about chesed, about empathy, and about war.

But  most of the time, I have felt like a kid back from sleepaway camp, unable to find words to explain why I feel so changed, and looking at everyone around me like they just won’t get it.

But I will try.

This summer in Israel, I learned the true meaning of 90 seconds. What it feels like to hear a wailing siren in the middle of the night, a sound that rips me apart in the inside like the first blast of the shofar, to drag my sleeping children down to an underground bomb shelter, to hold them all as tight as my arms will allow, and to sing them back to sleep, even if it takes hours, when the only thing I have to help them is my voice and my presence.

And yet, this summer in Israel, I heard the knocks on the door from strangers in my building, eager and willing to help anyone with kids down to the miklat.  I saw the smiles of unfamiliar people in the bomb shelter, a woman who the next day brought down rugs and snacks and paint, for the next time, so the kids won’t be scared. I felt the connectedness of Am Yisrael, when everyone cares for each other during those 90 seconds, the ten minutes of waiting until it is safe, and the days that follow.

This summer in Israel, I spoke incessantly to my children about rockets and launching pads, about rifles and mortars, about safe rooms and Army service and guards and guns and dying children in Gaza. We watched a YouTube video about the Iron Dome. They asked questions that I could barely answer, and if I could, my heart was breaking while I did. My 7 year old asked: How does the Israeli army know who is Hamas and who isn't when they attack? Why don't we tell everyone who is not Hamas in Gaza to come to Israel, and then everyone who is Hamas can stay there to fight?

And yet, this summer in Israel, we returned from a week of traveling up North, learning about mosaics and hiking in water, imagining life from the time of the second Beit Hamikdash and eating as much ice cream as we could— and my children decided on their own to raise money for the soldiers who had been dying all week. On their own, they went to the makolet, bought lemons and sugar, and sold lemonade at our park למען החיילים. Young and old came over to see the stand run by American children, donated money, told them “kol hakavod”. They raised 100 dollars for the Lone Soldier Organization. They told me it was the best part of their summer.

This summer in Israel, as we walked across Yerushalyaim on Shabbat, we took note of good spots to hide if there were a siren, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief every time we made it back to a building with a known miklat. Our itinerary kept changing, and there were places we were too scared to go. I did not go visit close friends in Beer Sheva, but with trepidation, paid a shiva call to an old friend in Ashdod. Every day, every choice came with it a low dose of anxiety, an unknown, and a sense of relief when all was okay.

This summer in Israel, I took long walks with my children in the streets of Yerushalayim, meeting friends whose husbands were fighting in Gaza, and who greeted us with strength, joy and love. On our walks, I told my kids stories about the people whose names were on the street signs, so that they would know that Jewish history and Jewish present permeate Jerusalem and Israel.



To view this on YouTube click here.

As I wrote in my journal in July:
In America, stories about Jews under attack and near annihilation are stories. Stories that generate holidays we love. Stories to tell at the table while we eat latkes and hamentaschen, and dip lettuce into delicious haroset.  But here, in Israel, the stories recede from the playbook and overcrowd the space. It is hard to tell what is now and what is then.

This summer in Israel, I felt like I was living inside Jewish history in a way that is unparalleled in America. And with the pain and the fear and the sadness, there was tremendous power in the connectedness, the sense of family that is a reality in Israel under crisis. As American Jews, we may live most of the time far away from Israel, but we are a part of the story, when we go, and when we call, and when we fight for Israel from here.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Parents as Partners

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal


Since Jews arrived on the great shores of the United States of America, Orthodox parents have worried about how to successfully transmit the values and practices of a rich Halakhic life to the next generation of American Jewish children. Of course, as the generations have passed, Jews have been increasingly accepted into American society. We and our children see ourselves as fully integrated into the surrounding culture, and freedom abounds. And with increased freedom and integration comes deep challenges. With each successive generation comes more choice, more comfort, greater freedoms. Religious transmission is more difficult than ever to achieve.

Or so we thought. In 2013, Vern Bengston, professor at the University of Southern California, along with two colleagues, published the results of a thirty five year study in which he interviewed over 3500 people spanning four generations of each interviewed family, exploring the challenges and successes of religious transmission in the U.S. (Here is a link  to the description of the book) The team interviewed members representing the major religions in the country. Some of the results were surprising while others confirmed our common sense. I share with you a few of the highlights.
  • The three religions most successful at transmitting their values to the next generation: Mormons (highest), Jews and Evangelical Christians, the so called "high boundary" religions. 
  • The team was surprised to find that 6 of 10 children follow in their parents religious footsteps, something they considered to be a high rate of success. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the high boundary religions did not see that statistic as very successful; the Evangelical minister quoted in the study focused on the 40%, the cup half empty, rather than on the success. We can relate...
  • Most importantly: the rate of success of families in transmitting their values to the next generation has not changed over the generations. That means that although we might think that kids don't listen to their parents as much as they used to, that is not the case when it comes to religious transmission. Today's children are following in the footsteps of their parents to the same degree that they did in the previous two generations. In fact, although there are more "nones" (non believers) than there were in the previous generation, even the nones, in a high percentage of cases, have actually internalized the skepticism or atheism of their parents; atheism, too, can be transmitted to the next generation!
Those are some interesting stats. Undoubtedly his most important conclusion: Family matters! Although many people think that family has less influence than in the past, Bergston concludes that family matters today as much as it ever has. Some children internalize family values immediately and others take a more circuitous route. But parents (and grandparents) are of crucial importance to religious transmission.

What elements are crucial for successful religious transmission? Here are three important elements that the team highlights:
  1. Parental warmth is key: Supportive, loving and present (i.e, available and not distracted) parents are crucial to successful transmission. (And “warm” does not mean “soft” or overly tolerant) This is not directly related to religious issues. Rather, warm parenting in general is, on its own, important for religious transmission. That's what makes it so powerful. The percentage of successful transmission decreases when parents are pressured to be less attentive because of financial difficulty, marital strife or illness. These are not always in our control. But it speaks to how diligent we need to be even during our most challenging times. 
  2. Role modeling, actual practice, is of great significance. Children internalize what they see their parents doing. The obvious corollary: hypocrisy is a big turn off for kids. 
  3. Striking the balance - too much parental pressure backfires; too little does not communicate the value or behavior. It is not easy to strike the balance but parents must be careful to watch for signs of either extreme. 
So what does this mean for us?

For me, as an educator, this study highlights the importance of school and family working together as we strive for religious growth for our children. Both school and family are dedicated to transmitting the values of a rich Jewish life to our children. We have shared aspirations for our kids. And the three key elements mentioned above are as crucial for teachers and administrators as they are for parents. For me, this points in the direction of increased partnership, of shared strategy and dialogue between home and school around the issue of religious transmission.

But we don’t talk to each other nearly enough about the successes and the real challenges of transmission. We talk about teachers and grades and curriculum. We talk about college and yeshivot in Israel. We talk about our new tefilah program or the new Beit Midrash curriculum. And all these are important parts of the puzzle. But we don’t yet talk to each other in a deep and trusting way, sharing our strategies, challenges and hesitations of religious transmission. Sometimes, a teacher or administrator in a school (any school) will say, “if the child’s parents would only….” No less often, parents might say “I wish the school would…”

Let’s take tefilah as an example. In school, we have our structures: we try our different minyanim, we teach the meaning of tefillot. We gather for hallel and we encourage students to daven three times a day. And parents have structures of meaning too: parents walk to shul with their children, daven with them, some remind their children to daven on the weekend, some push their children to go to minyan. This is something that is important, in a wide variety of ways to many of us.

But we have no opportunity to talk about it. To learn from each other. To build together.

Here’s what I think we should try: we should structure a dialogue, a “slightly-less-grand conversation” where small groups of parents and staff meet to talk to each other about tefilah. I imagine 10-15 people around a table in someone’s home, reading a shared text as a springboard to conversation about tefilah. And we talk. How do WE engage tefilah? What is OUR practice? What are OUR beliefs and hesitations? How many times a Shabbat do we go to shul? What do we expect of our children? How has that shaped the ways that we interact with our kids, as parents and teachers, around tefilah? How much do we push our kids to daven? Do we think it is their decision as to how to engage or ours to teach them how to engage?

There would be much to discuss. I suspect there would be enough to keep us going for a lifetime. It is something that goes to the heart of our Jewish beings. And we are so accustomed to attending classes and learning texts, of going to shiurim and listening to the rabbi, that we do not have opportunity to talk to each other, draw strength from each other, lean on each other, complement each other and develop a stronger shared mission and strategy to best achieve, as a community, the religious transmission that we strive to build.

Our intuition, I think, tells us this: when we work together, when we problem solve together, when we talk, we are that much stronger. What I am suggesting: I propose the idea of “communities of dialogue”, small groups to talk about both theory and practice, adults and children, texts and contexts, about tefilah and about other issues of religious transmission. I think it will make us stronger.

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Crash Course in Jewish Identity

By: Ms. Adina Shoulson, History Department Chair

You could call them crash courses in world history. In ninth grade we start with paleolithic life and end in medieval times. In tenth grade we cover the period from the Renaissance to the Cold War. In all survey courses, time is precious.  As I begin and end the Russian Revolution in a flash, a student always asks, “why do we spend only a day on this important event, but so much more time on Jewish History?”  In our integrated approach to teaching global and Jewish history, students and parents often ask -- why bother inserting the Jewish perspective into the global narrative?  Why take time away from Napoleon to study Jewish emancipation in France?  Why flit from Franz Ferdinand to Balfour?  The flip side of this question is, if Jewish History is so important, why doesn’t it deserve a course of its own? 

It's no secret that as a Modern Orthodox high school, SAR has an agenda in teaching Jewish History, and it’s more than just teaching kids to think critically and read primary texts.  History is identity.  When teaching history we aim to arm students with critical thinking tools, but we also know that we can better understand our own story and identify more strongly as Jews through learning Jewish history. It's no different from our approach to teaching Tanakh and Talmud.  In those subjects we are, of course, invested in teaching the kids the skills and the content.  But an equally important goal is to teach the kids to love these sacred texts, and through them, to love Judaism. 

Jewish history is our story.  By learning our story we can feel closer to it.  My students say as much: “it may sound cliche, but it’s good to know where you come from.”  Students often relate better to the Jewish history units because they have more context for the discussion.  Not only do they feel closer to our past, but the study of Jewish history becomes an access point through which students can enter the Jewish narrative and view themselves as a part of the Jewish people’s future. 

This doesn’t mean it has to be an uncritical, simplistic view of our history either.  Students can study the role of Jesus and the origins of Christianity as a window into the tensions and aspirations within the Jewish community under Roman rule.  They can debate whether Moses Mendelssohn led the way to Reform Judaism, or whether that is a misreading of his ideas.  They can consider how Hasidut, which is viewed as such a traditional expression of Judaism today, could be viewed as innovative and even radical in the 18th century. 

The very act of debating our past and questioning the decisions of historical figures, even Jewish leaders, forces students to place themselves in the chain of Jewish history.  They come to realize that they share many of the values and the struggles that Jews of previous generations faced, and perhaps they disagree with their decisions.  After the French Revolution, as Jews were emancipated and able to live outside the reach of rabbinic authority for the first time, they confronted the challenge of balancing their Jewish traditions with the new and appealing secular values.  Nineteenth century Jews had many creative responses to this quandary ranging from Reform Judaism to the Ultra-Orthodoxy of the Hatam Sofer.  We don’t only ask the students to learn the philosophies of each approach, we ask them to think about where they fit in this spectrum and why.   

Now to answer those who believe in the importance of Jewish history as a component of building Jewish identity and question why it does not merit a class of its own.  What are the benefits of an integrated curriculum?  Jews never lived in a vacuum, isolated from the world around them.  We cannot understand anything about our contemporary Jewish world, from the phenomenon of the secular Jews, to the proliferation of Jewish denominations, without understanding the impact of the French Revolution and the reach of Napoleon who spread the ideal of equality throughout Europe.  Only by understanding the historical context can students appreciate the origins of Modern Orthodoxy and the historical moment in which Torah im derekh eretz (Torah and Western values) was an innovative, even revolutionary way to preserve tradition but also integrate into secular society.  As a final example, while Jews have been longing to return to Zion since they were exiled, modern Zionism cannot be fully understood without appreciating its context in 19th century nationalism. 

So, is it a crash course in World Jewish History?  Of course.  How could we cover thousands of years of history in two years any other way.  However, by including Jews, we give the Jewish People the place they deserve in that history, and we allow our students to find themselves by studying it. 


ARTICLE OF INTEREST:
Although the author of this article is doubtful about the integrated approach, he too believes that teaching Jewish history can be used to shape mature and thoughtful Jews.  He offers additional examples of topics and questions that can help develop our students’ critical thinking as well as their connection to their Jewish identity.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Senior Exploration: The SAR Final Frontier

By: Mr. Michael Courtney, Associate Director of College Counseling

How is senior year different from all other years?  Eight years ago, before the first senior class of SAR High School, a committee of faculty members and administrators sat to plan what senior year should look like.  With a desire to make senior year a bridge between high school and post-high school, and a healthy appreciation of how much seniors in May of senior year want to be sitting in classes, doing homework, and taking tests (answer: not very), one of their ideas was Senior Exploration.  Despite many refinements in the ensuing years, the idea of Senior Ex. remains the same: after three and a half years of us telling the students what we think they should learn, this is their opportunity to direct their learning to their own areas of interest.
      For five weeks following Pesach and before graduation, the curriculum is modified and seniors are released for a considerable number of hours to work on Senior Exploration. The majority of students pursue some type of fieldwork, a large number independently generate creative projects, and a select few conduct advanced research.  Regardless of the topic, the seniors incorporate the Grand Conversation within their project.  They spend time learning with Judaic Studies faculty on how to incorporate a piece of Talmud, Tanakh, or other prominent Judaic source within their individual theme.     
      The fieldwork options are limitless as students shadow working adults in professions like medicine, law, advertising, architecture, non-profit management, education, real estate, and many others.  Some of the creative projects that SAR seniors have produced have been quite memorable.  Most of these fulfill the –ing gerund: building, painting, designing, writing, filming, recording, etc.  Last year, two students (Noam Spira and Daniella Herman) embarked upon a novel Senior Exploration concept: raising chickens.  One senior raised his chickens within the SAR High School building, to Nick’s boundless delight, while another in the backyard of her home (we did not ask her parents how they felt about that.)  Gabriel Santoriello created a chainmail armor shirt, meticulously spending hundreds of hours stitching together the medieval garment.  In event of a siege by archers and lance-wielders, he will be well-protected.  Two years ago, Alex Katz decided to film a documentary about Senior Exploration; it ended up being featured in the initial presentation of Senior Exploration to the following year’s 12th grade class.  This year, many members of the Class of 2014 have mesmerized the faculty with their creativity.  Kayla Roisman decided to combine her passion for photography and desire to build community through her Humans of SAR Facebook page.  Arielle Firestone wrote, produced, and sang original songs in Gaelic.  One of her faculty judges, school nurse Russi Bohm, exclaimed, "I didn't understand the words she was saying but I wanted to buy the CD.  The music was beautiful."  Finally, a number of seniors are given the approval to spend their hours in the library where they research and write a paper about a subject that they are passionate about and have not yet had the opportunity to study in depth.  
      One of the highlights of the Senior Exploration program is that it pairs the seniors with many of our faculty members.  The students have the opportunity to work with a mentor throughout the second semester.  The faculty mentor acts as a guiding hand, offering advice and insight while ensuring that the student stays on top of his/her Senior Exploration requirements.  At times, the mentor has connections to a field where the student ends up spending the required hours.  In fact, Zevi Blumenfrucht (class of 2008) parlayed his phenomenal Senior Exploration placement in the business industry, courtesy of a Mr. Alon Krausz contact, into a full-time job offer.     
      In addition to working together with the faculty, many of the 12th graders have the privilege of shadowing SAR parents other than their own during these five weeks.  Over the years, scores of SAR parents have generously opened their offices to our students, educating them on their respective professions, enabling them to sit in on important meetings, and delegating essential tasks.  The students gain a great appreciation for how hard SAR parents work!    
      As the culmination of his or her project, every senior presents her or his Senior Exploration in front of their mentor and two faculty judges.  Family and friends are invited to observe the senior’s final graduation requirement, which becomes not just an evaluation but a celebration of what the senior has achieved.  It is typical to find seniors sitting in on their fellow classmates' presentations throughout the day.  Senior Exploration is a unique capstone to students’ experiences as members of Sting Nation.
           







     
Testimonial from Josh Gurin (SAR HS '13):
"Senior Exploration gave me the opportunity to think outside the box and do something memorable and special. I built a basketball court because it was something I could put my heart in and it is only because of the opportunity given to me that my project was successful, and I will have that forever."

      

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Call to Reveal: Developing Self-Knowing and Empathy within our Students

By: Dr. Mark Shinar, Director of General Studies

For the past five years, I have taught a twelfth grade English elective called Contemporary American Short Stories. This past year, in addition to the traditional literary analysis that rests at the foundation of the course, I was very interested in studying how the stories that we read and wrote would provide the students with a different type of understanding: an understanding of self. I wanted the stories to teach the students a deeper sense of empathy for others and inspire within them a willingness to share their own personal truths as a way to connect. I have dubbed this notion “The Call to Reveal.” 

As a person who is deeply committed to stories, I have learned that narrative, all narrative, inspires this call to reveal. We make meaning of our lives through the stories that we tell, and when we tell these stories, we also make personal connections. As such, there is not one uniform understanding of any story, and that is how we reach an appreciation for multiple, valid interpretations. By telling stories and revealing pieces of themselves, students learn that they are storied people. They bring their narratives to the table as a way of understanding themselves and their peers, as well as the stories that they have read in class.

To punctuate this point, I added a Performance Poetry unit to the second semester of the course, a time that could easily become less rigorous and demanding for graduating seniors. When I first introduced the unit and its goals to the students, I admit that they reacted with a mixture of incredulity and disdain. There was no way, they almost collectively claimed, that they could write, memorize, and perform a piece of poetry in front of the class. This was not what they had signed up for, and given the fact that it was second semester, the time commitment seemed too high and the task too daunting. 

We persisted, and in doing so, I am proud to say that the students were met with tremendous success. After learning and practicing the skills of performance poetry, which included in-class writing exercises and peer reviews, and watching countless video performances on YouTube, the students received their assignment. 
  • The Topic of the Poem: “You Don’t Know Me”
  • The Assignment: A 2-3 minute performance piece, written and memorized. Students were required to incorporate rich language and poetic devices, pay attention to the elements of performance that they had learned, and most importantly, honor The Call to Reveal.
  • The Promise: Over the week of performances, the class would transform into an audience; all readings were met with gentle snaps instead of raucous applause, and all voices and ideas were honored and supported.
On the whole, the poems, which ranged from charmingly funny to seriously poignant, were extremely moving. The support that the students gave one another throughout the process was also remarkably noteworthy. After the performances, I asked the kids to write self-reflective pieces that also evaluated the effectiveness of the unit itself. Here are a few of the comments that I received from the seniors:
  • By showing us videos of performances, I got very excited about creating my own poem, and I was motivated to do so. At first, I did not think that I could do it because it seemed impossible, but in the end, I learned a lot about myself and what I can do.
  • The performance poetry unit was amazing. I wish it went on for longer. That week was very special for everyone in the class because everyone opened up, and it taught us so much about each person and about ourselves. Public speaking is difficult for me and so was performing the poem, but I am so happy I was able to do it. I really feel like I accomplished something. I think performance poetry is such an amazing art and it really lets the poet open up in a safe space – which is the same goal as short stories, and all literature – the call to reveal. 
  • I was able to uncover more about myself than I would have thought. I also didn’t realize that I could write good stories that meant a lot to me. But, I was really able to know myself when I wrote my slam poem. I was able to show the class something about myself that I really care about.
  • I do not have to tell you, because you already know, but performance poetry was SUCH a hit. I can admit it now, because the assignment is over, but I wrote my poem two days before performing it. The weeks before that I was working on an entirely different poem that I planned on performing. It was not really a call to reveal, it was not so personal, but it was safe. Your class has taught me that “safe” rarely produces a powerful paper. Being risky and vulnerable is what makes a topic endearing.  
  • One of the most surprising units in the course was the poetry unit. Most of the class was appalled by the idea, and I was no exception. I rarely voice my personal opinions or take time to reflect on myself. The poem made me think about certain aspects of my character that I have never given time to think about. The poem may have been intended to educate my classmates on who I am, but it simultaneously educated me on who I am. 
  • Of course, as with most of my classmates, the performance poetry unit was my favorite because it combined writing ability, creativity, and empathy all in one assignment.           

When writing creatively, students tend to place themselves as the heroes in their own stories, but the narratives that help them grow the most are much more grueling and uncomfortable. They are the ones that push them to reveal their shortcomings, as well as their victories; to acknowledge and honor the valleys, not just the peaks. What surprised me most about this unit is not how well the students did with the assignment, but that it showed us, myself included, how the writing of story can reorient students towards a better understanding of themselves and their peers. Stories, whether they are fiction or not, help us make meaning out of our lives. They push us towards a heightened level of awareness of how we listen to others, empathize with them, and understand their perspectives to be as equal and as valid as our own. In the end, the students’ lives became that much more enriched by truly listening and learning from the stories that surround them every day.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Seeking the Right Jewish Fit for My College Experience

By: Ms. Marjorie Jacobs, Director of College Counseling

College choice is a matter of much discussion in the College Counseling Center at SAR High School and tailoring that choice to the religious life of our community is perhaps the greatest challenge confronting observant Jewish students.  While many are enticed by the choice of college as an opportunity to select the ‘best’ (most selective) college, after reflection that broad choice narrows down significantly to focus on colleges that are the ‘best’ fit, ones that offer lifestyle options that more seamlessly match the traditions of our community.  

While each year the options for Jewish life on campus broaden and colleges are adding kosher meal plans one-by-one, the heart and soul of a Jewish community is not merely the dietary requirements of our community; it resides in the day-to-day experiences of our students.  The opportunity to venture beyond the twenty or so colleges that are known to have vibrant Jewish communities is enticing; yet, realistically, our students who select these options often find themselves confronting unsustainable and unacceptable lifestyle choices. Parents look to the college counselors for support in the perplexing, seemingly daunting, process. Students, on the other hand, are more adventurous, more inclined to experiment and more confident that they will ‘make it work’ on diverse campuses.  It is not unusual for students to go to Israel for a year and return deeply concerned about the campus they have selected.  Perhaps the year of maturation, living independently for the first time and/or the religious connections reinforced during that intense experience have transformed their view and tempered their certainty.  

At SAR, our guidelines for college selection include a strong focus on the Jewish community. Students are encouraged to spend a regular Shabbat on campus instead of or in addition to an organized Shabbaton experience.  We suggest that our students connect with other observant students on campus, not merely SAR graduates, but also those who represent a cross section of Jewish students.  Since daily life does involve tefillah and kashrut among other things, dining as well as joining in the daily communal experience sheds light on the life of students.  Given the luxury of a strong Jewish community both at school and at home, it is sometimes difficult for students to imagine life in the secular world of college.  Respecting diversity and seeking to interface meaningfully with those from other communities are values that SAR nurtures, but we do so within a context of a meaningful Jewish communal experience.  We see the Jewish community on campus as both a support and a guide through the college journey, a journey that represents the passage from adolescence into adulthood.

The ‘Right Jewish Fit for My College Experience’ is truly the most serious consideration students have as they seek to match their intellectual, social and ultimately career goals through their college experience.  The SAR college counseling team is acutely aware of the important role we play and are committed to helping our students through this process.

Friday, May 2, 2014

אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וצונו On Teaching Commandedness


By: Ms. Lisa Schlaff, Assistant Principal



              My favorite pasuk in Tanakh to teach is Devarim 5,13:

Here’s why: In Sefer Devarim we are commanded to keep Shabbat in order to let our slaves rest. We are not going to let our slaves rest if we are not resting ourselves; the commandment that everyone must rest is only to ensure that the weak in society are looked after. Shabbat, often thought of as the ultimate mitzvah between man and God, is defined here as a means for fulfilling our mission to create a just society.

This is a powerful concept to teach. The notion that underlying many of the mitzvot we often categorize as between man and God is God’s call for us to better the world gives us a deeper sense of their purpose. Kashrut can be understood as a condemnation of cruelty; the laws of purity can be understood as testifying to the value of life, and even tzizit can be understood as a statement that in the eyes of God all members of society are equal. In fact, I find the categorization of mitzvot into those “between man and God” and those “between man and man,”  which we now take for granted, to be an unhelpful one. It obscures the powerful expressions of justice inherent in the mitzvot. It leaves us to understand certain mitzvot as arbitrary rituals of obedience when in truth they are really about our mission to better the world.

Students love learning this pasuk because it makes sense. They love learning it because it helps redefine something we do blindly as something that has societal value. And they love learning it because it is fascinating to engage in discussion about what it means to keep Shabbat nowadays in order that “our slaves may rest.”

And yet, as much as this approach to mitzvot speaks to all of us, it concerns me. My responsibility as an educator is to convey to students a sense of how mitzvot further our mission in the world, and that at their core, mitzvot are about being good. But it is also my responsibility to convey a sense of commandedness; that God instructs us not only to be good, but that God sets the parameters of what good is, that we are not left to determine for our individual selves what we think good should be. Our understanding must be grounded in the teachings of God’s laws. I am commanded to create a just society. While I may have my own ideas of what a just society would be and how to go about creating it, the society I am commanded to create is the one that embodies justice as defined by God. And I am part of a tradition that for thousands of years has been trying to define the contours of that path.

So I try not to draw a distinction between mitzvot that are God-focused and mitzvot that are more overtly ethical in nature. My starting point is helping students understand that mitzvot are about goodness, and my ending point is that we alone don’t define what goodness is. The beginning is easy and affirms our inherent sense of justice; the second is difficult and rails against our sense of individual autonomy. Especially if you are a teenager.

How do we teach commandedness in a world in which individual autonomy is paramount? I do not pretend to have the answer to this question, but I will offer two suggestions that have been percolating lately.

1. Increase our focus on halakha: We need to teach halakha not only so that students know how to properly observe shabbat or kashrut, but so that they see themselves as insiders to an intricate system the very basis of which is commandedness. The more discourse there is about halakha, the more natural it becomes to feel “commanded.”

2. Say “I don’t know” more often: We need to model the notion that we don’t have all of the answers. There are certain things we do simply out of a sense of obligation and it is important to make that explicit to students. Showing our students that we live our lives with a sense of commandedness resonates powerfully, because it is true.

And so when I teach Devarim 5,13 we discuss what it means to create a just society, but also how different and more powerful that meaning becomes when the creation of a just society is a commandment. We discuss the notion that mitzvot are so much greater than my individual needs, and yet protect my individual needs. And we discuss the fact that while we bless God for the commandments, being commanded is in itself, a blessing.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

TEACHING BY EXAMPLE

By: Mr. Yair Daar, Judaic Studies Teacher

While learning the laws of Shabbat with one of my classes, I encountered the following challenge: As important as it is to discuss the values behind and purposes of certain mitzvot, what happens when many details of a mitzvah don’t support its purpose (or at least not in an obvious manner)?  I didn’t want my students to get the impression that halacha is disconnected from and ignorant of the purpose of each mitzvah.

For example, we learned in class that an essential part of Shabbat is shifting our focus from what we create to focusing on simply being. This accounts for the definition of melacha (literally: “work” - the word used by the Torah for the actions prohibited on Shabbat) as being creative activity, and not simply hard work. However, refraining from ripping toilet paper doesn’t exactly scream “existential awareness,” and sorting a pile of socks does not exactly come across as creative. To many students, this might mean that Hilchot Shabbat are as “out of touch,” and “outdated” as the Rabbis who initiated them. Although we might intuit that this critique is unfair and untrue, how do we properly defend the detail-oriented practice of Halacha?

I presented two solutions to my students. I would like to share one of the answers here, as it is intimately connected with the chag of Pesach.

An intriguing aspect of the Pesach Seder is the encouraging of kushyot. As opposed to presenting questions asked out of curiosity, the required reading of the night challenges the practices of the seder. When we ask why this night is different, we are actually asking “Why would we act this way if it’s out of the norm and seemingly senseless?” The four questions challenge us to defend the mitzvot of the night and explain the purpose of our aberrant behavior. Is this really a prudent approach to promote among our youth?

The solution to this problem provides us with an critical aspect of chinuch. Namely, if we teach by example, we need not fear challenges to faith; if such is the case, we can actually encourage kushyot.

To me, teaching by example is the number one pedagogical lesson of the Seder. The Haggadah is replete with examples. We eat marror to teach about the bitterness and we recline with wine to demonstrate freedom. Our actions represent both slavery and freedom because the transition from one to another is the story. These represent just a few instances; viewing the rituals of the night through this lens helps us appreciate the meaning behind a number of the parts of the Seder.

If we teach our students and children by showing them the beauty of a life of Torah and Mitzvot, the positive effects should be numerous. We will not only demonstrate how to act, but we engender positive feelings. A deep sense of respect and appreciation for Judaism is essential to remaining a committed Jew. Additionally, a cycle of positive outcomes is at play here; when we set the right example, it strengthens our own commitment and creates an even more powerful example. This is exactly why the knowledge of the participants is irrelevant at the Seder. The Haggadah is about strengthening our own appreciation for becoming God’s faithful people; the goal is not to simply learn what happened.

Now we can solve our original problem. How do we expect our children and students to appreciate intricate halachot with such a wide gap between each detail and the overall mitzvah? One solution is to help them develop a general sense of appreciation. Understanding the meaning behind each detail should then become irrelevant, or at least less essential. When you know that something works, you don’t need to concern yourself with asking “why”. Or, if you do feel the need to ask, not finding the answer shouldn’t derail your faith.

So, before discussing Hilchot Shabbat, I asked my students to raise their hands if they were happy to have Shabbat in their lives. Every single student in the class concurred and provided reasons other than not having school. If their appreciation for Shabbat is a given, they should have a resulting respect for all the laws that make Shabbat what it is. Moreover, whether or not someone living in a halacha-oriented community keeps all the laws of Shabbat is not essential to appreciate these laws. The conscious and unconscious impact the laws of Shabbat have on each individual and the community as a whole is immeasurable. We may not understand how it all works, but we can still trust that a certain seder exists.

At this point, the lesson is clear. For our children and students to appreciate the rituals and beliefs of a Torah lifestyle, we must first demonstrate to them the beauty of such a life. Understanding this principle can help us turn contentious discussions into edifying experiences.  A life full of faith-challenges can become a nuanced and meaningful existence. As success in this endeavor is crucial, we all - parent and teacher alike - should feel responsible to set the right example.

Monday, March 24, 2014

GOD IN THE CLASSROOM

By: Mr. Simon Fleischer, English Teacher and Co-Department Chair

As a card carrying member of our school’s “Grand Conversation” club, I embrace the idea that my English classes-- and not just my Jewish Philosophy classes-- must become spaces for spiritual as well as academic growth. I foreground this value in the work I assign, the conversations we have, and the language I use. I am not uncomfortable with this emphasis, and I do not ask myself whether to present my classroom as a space for spiritual growth; in fact, this emphasis is part of why I am so proud to teach at SAR. I do wonder, however, about the language with which I introduce this emphasis. 

An example: I have a student who excels at giving feedback to his peers. When his classmates share their work, he is often the first to offer praise, which he does with an open heart, out of a genuine desire to express his admiration. Watching him respond to his classmates, I am aware of how he helps transform our class into a sacred space, a space of listening and connection. Moved by his comments, and picking up on our school’s religious guidance theme this year, I finally said: “I am so impressed by the anava you show when you support your classmates.” And while true and good and relevant, this response did little to direct our sensibilities toward greater religious wakefulness; rather, it was more of a feel-good moment, a pat-yourself-on-the-back moment. As a response, I worry that it left us feeling far too comfortable to be meaningful in a lasting way.


I imagine what it might have felt like to respond more directly, to say, “when you speak to your classmates soul-to-soul, like you just did, you bring God into our classroom and make it a more holy space.” I am less comfortable speaking this way, and I think my students would be less comfortable if I spoke to them this way. This language feels paradoxically familiar and distant. On the one hand, I am an English speaker through and through; English is the language that most directly expresses my inner world. On the other hand, both because of this directness, as well as because of its associations with the Christian world, this language makes me uncomfortable. It is both too intimate and too foreign. 

In my classes, however, discomfort is a powerful tool; in its absence, there is no growth. If I want my students to really hear the message of the Grand Conversation, then I need to frame it in terms that make them uncomfortable-- and, certainly, my own discomfort is a good litmus test for theirs. 

In this spirit, I recently decided to start using the word “God” in lieu of “Hashem”; I just don’t think “Hashem” is as potent. “Hashem” is so axiomatic that it is almost idiomatic. As a word, it folds into our Jewish discourse so naturally, it tends to slip by without challenging me. Worse still, I worry that it is too easy for me to hide behind “Hashem”; the rhetoric of frumkeit sometimes obfuscates spirituality. “God,” by contrast, is comparatively startling. I can’t help but look at it. On some level, I associate “God,” as a word, with the Tim Tebows of the world, neither Jewish enough nor sophisticated enough. But it is precisely because of these associations that I want to start using the word “God” in my classes. 

In Baba Bathra, Rav Shesheth is described as believing that although the Shechinah is in all places, when he davened he used to say to his attendant: “ ‘Set me facing any way except the east.’ And this was not because the Shechinah is not there, but because the Minim  prescribe turning to the east.” Rav Shesheth’s view symbolically prioritizes the promotion of religious truth over the representation, in our tefillah stance, of God’s omnipresence. This perspective, however, simultaneously creates a symbolic space empty of God’s presence; in the east, we do not see God, because we are reluctant to look for God there. 

I am not interested in becoming what my father would have called a “holy roller,” so invested in the rhetoric of God’s presence that it becomes comical. But I am invested in the productive discomfort that might arise in my classes when I direct my students gaze toward God, as well as my own, in a more self-conscious manner. I worry that the academic routines and demands that are the necessary backdrop of my classes willy nilly transform them into a space in which we fail to look for God, analogous to Rav Shesheth’s “east.” I do not want to abdicate the potentially sacred spaces of my classrooms. 

The question, then, is not theological but strategic; what words can best direct our attention to God’s presence in our classrooms? Perhaps more broadly stated, how can we speak in a way that brings God more fully into our world?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Adolescents and Alcohol: What Exactly Is At Risk?

By: Dr. Russell Hoffman, School Psychologist


With Purim fast approaching, it makes sense for us to pause and consider the messages we send - directly as well as unintentionally - to our children/students about alcohol. When parents and teachers express concern about adolescents’ recreational use of alcohol, what are we really worried about?  If we recall times when we experimented with alcohol or drank socially as teenagers without incident, does that mean that it would be hypocritical to deny our kids the same opportunity?

There are few certainties or 1:1 correspondences in Health science and education.  Health education means playing the odds and seizing opportunities to skew the odds in your favor.  In other words, adolescent alcohol use does not necessarily mean that teens who drink will run into trouble, but it does mean two important things: (1) drinking in adolescence raises the risk of alcohol-related problems, and (2) abstaining from alcohol during adolescence actually increases the odds that you will have a healthy developmental outcome.  As we tell students during Health class, deciding to abstain from drinking alcohol (and using other drugs) during adolescence is one of the few things that they can actually do to minimize their risk for substance related problems in life (i.e., addiction, legal trouble, relationship problems, etc.)  Teenagers often have a distorted sense of what they can control - they believe (erroneously) that they can partake in drinking or drugs and avoid the negative consequences that they have been warned about.  Those consequences are based on factors - such as genetic vulnerability, bad luck, random coincidence, etc. - that are not within their ability to control. This illusion of control often leads teenagers to minimize the risks inherent in some of the choices they make and to devalue or ignore important information in their decision-making. When we discuss this issue with students in school, we try to emphasize that while using alcohol is not the worst thing a person can do, the decision to not use alcohol or other substances, at least until they are older, is the one thing that has actually been shown to correlate with positive, healthier developmental outcomes later in life.

During a recent discussion with students in school, an astute student pointed out that this correlation may not be so important.  Couldn’t it simply mean, asked the student, that the group of people who choose to use alcohol as teenagers are just more predisposed to make the kinds of choices in life that also lead to those negative outcomes?  In other words, how do we know that the early use of alcohol has any causal connection to problems later in life.  Great question!  Most researchers validate the causal relationship between these two variables based on what we know about adolescent brain development.  The brain is one of the last bodily organs/systems to fully mature.  Furthermore, the last area of the brain to reach full developmental maturity is the prefrontal cortex, which is the brain region responsible for, among other things, critical reasoning and exercising judgement.  During adolescence and into early adulthood, the brain is still developing and establishing neural networks in this crucial area; full brain maturity is typically achieved during one’s early-to-mid 20’s.  So, for teenagers, using alcohol or other drugs means introducing a mind-altering substance during a developmental stage of growth - a time when their brains are more vulnerable.  This is very likely the reason for the correlation between the early onset of alcohol use and the negative outcomes in adulthood.  When teenagers abstain from substance use and postpone it until early adulthood, they not only protect their brain development, but they also benefit from the additional years of life experience that they accrue in the interim, experience that they can draw on to make wiser decisions as adults.

Just as Esther had to take a risk and engage the king in an awkward but vital conversation, we urge parents to talk to their children about the role of alcohol in the upcoming holiday of Purim and about their values and expectations for their children's behavior.  The information above is intended to help facilitate these conversations between parents and children.  May we all enjoy a joyous and uplifting Purim!



Sunday, March 2, 2014

What is Your Jewish Identity Story?

By: Rabbi Shmuel Hain, Rosh Beit Midrash


Second semester of senior year presents some well-documented educational challenges. But instead of surrendering to senioritis, SAR High School utilizes the freedom of this post-college acceptance/pre-graduation stage by offering seniors the opportunity to grow intellectually, emotionally, and experientially. One way we do this is through our innovative Jewish Identity course, a staple of second semester senior life at SAR High School.

Jewish Identity is comprised of two curricular pieces. The Modern Jewish History class, taught by our outstanding History teachers, examines the Holocaust and the advent of the State of Israel, with an eye towards how these events shape who we are as Jews living in America today. The Jewish Identity curriculum, developed by Mr. Simon Fleischer and taught by Limmudei Kodesh and General Studies faculty, consists of readings and discussions around several topics central to what it means to be a college-age Modern Orthodox Jew in the world today. These topics include: Chosenness and its implications for interactions with non-Jews, Torah Mi-Sinai and Biblical criticism, how to relate to Jews across the religious and denominational spectrum, and feminism and Orthodoxy, among others. The readings encourage thoughtful discussion about each of these topics and are usually followed by a written component which helps students summarize their own thoughts on each unit.

This year, our Jewish Identity class has engaged in a new and meaningful ritual: personal Jewish Identity moments. During readings or discussions, students or teachers may share their family's Jewish Identity story. During a discussion about philosophical Modern Orthodoxy vs. behavioral Modern Orthodoxy, one student began telling the story of his great grandmother in communist Russia who ate fowl once a year when her family had the opportunity and fortitude to perform ritual slaughter in private. The student related how this family story shaped his parents’ decision to live by their ideals and become more observant Jews in America. While reading about different views on what the Jews actually received at Sinai, we encountered the perspective of R’ Mendel of Rymanov, a Hasidic master who also happens to be the great, great, great grandfather of one of the students in the class. To help students understand the shift in denominational numbers, I shared with students some of the obstacles my father faced as a young Orthodox Rabbi in Houston, Texas in the 1970’s and added details of his upbringing in Danville, VA in the 50’s as contrasted with my mother's youth in Scranton, PA.

These personal narratives have added a powerful dimension to our Jewish Identity class. In addition to empowering students to navigate the issues they will confront in the future on college campuses and beyond, students are capable of looking back at their own family lore to see how these narratives have shaped their own Jewish identity. 

There are additional benefits for students who share their family narratives. Recent research has demonstrated the importance of families developing strong narratives. Several studies have shown that families who develop these narratives by sharing even the "hard-to-tell" stories are much more likely to develop more resilient children as well as closer bonds with each other. See several research papers here: http://www.marial.emory.edu/research/. For an excellent summary, see: the-family-stories-that-bind-us-.

These Jewish Identity student narratives have also reinforced for me what makes the Seder and the telling and re-telling of the great national Jewish story such an important, and compelling ritual. The Seder represents the great oscillating narrative of the Jewish People, with moments of ignominy alternating with moments of triumph and joy which together, help perpetuate our Jewish identity. 

So whether you are a parent of a senior about to graduate or of an 8th grader about to embark on the high school journey, reflect on, and share with your loved ones, your family's Jewish Identity story: What family events and values brought you to this particular moment and how can these narratives inspire you and your loved ones to lead lives suffused with meaning and mission?