Monday, March 24, 2014


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: 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?