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.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Let's talk...and listen

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal

As we begin the fifteenth year of SAR High School, I have found myself, over the past few months, asking: if I were charged with opening a new school today, what would it look like? Having confronted that question fifteen years ago, it feels useful to ask it anew. In what ways would our thinking be similar and in what ways different? More than a blog’s worth can be said in response to that question. Much has changed over this relatively short period of time, changes that have significantly impacted the lives of high school students - the uses of technology and the nature of the college process are two such examples. But something else keeps coming to mind as I consider the question, something that is crucial for us as members of the Modern Orthodox community in America.

Over the course of the past decade, our community has experienced increasing polarization. We have become more divided over many issues and the political climate of recent years has helped draw those dividing lines even more thickly. And I am concerned that we are not the better for it.

Unless we use this awareness to make us better. If we acknowledge from where it comes, this polarization can help serve as a check and an opportunity for meaningful exchange within our community. Allow me to share some of the theoretical work that has been done in this regard.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, published an oft-cited book, The Righteous Mind (Vintage: 2012). In that work, Haidt describes the results of his research on the nature of moral development. He suggests that just as there are five taste receptors on the tongue, people operate with six foundations of moral intuitions. He calls this Moral Foundations Theory. The categories people use for moral consideration, in pairs, are: care/harm, fairness(equality)/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Seen from this vantage point, Haidt shows that, just as people have natural tendencies when it comes to taste, the same is true regarding moral judgment. Applied to politics and religion, he describes that conservatives tend to endorse all six foundations more equally overall while liberals tend to prioritize the care and equality foundations over the others. That means that conservatives grant more value to the foundations of loyalty, authority and sanctity than liberals do, while liberals grant more value to care and equality. 

Most important in this analysis: we all value all of these foundations. At the same time, it is not surprising that we are each invested in some more than others of these foundations, according to our personal dispositions and inclinations. Given that understanding, each of us can benefit from interacting with a peer who prioritizes certain of the moral foundations more than we ourselves do. If I naturally prioritize fairness and equality, I might gain from hearing someone speak of the importance of loyalty, or the necessity for an authority figure to help guide us. Haidt suggests that we can “disagree more constructively” when we are both aware of the foundations that are shared most broadly, and understand that we each have our own way of prioritizing them. These acknowledgements allow us to become vulnerable, to consider other perspectives, knowing that those perspectives are rooted in the same moral foundations that I, too, believe in. 

The national and communal polarization has of course affected our school too. Last spring, a group of parents asked to meet with me to review the events at school over the past year and a half surrounding the Presidential election. The people in the room were coming from different political perspectives. And the conversations were purposeful. Purposeful, because we were able to consider the range of values that we all shared - and the different ways that we prioritized them. This did not bring everyone to agreement on the political issues; however it did provide context for a constructive exchange. 

Interestingly, I also found that my awareness of the political debates occurring in our school community informed my response to our senior Jewish Identity curriculum, a seminar that I have taught numerous times over the years - one that is not focused on politics. The curriculum focuses on many of the communal and theoretical issues and challenges that an engaged Jewish adult should be familiar with: denominations in American Judaism, Jew and non Jew, Biblical criticism, sexuality and other topics. It is impossible to be totally neutral on such matters. The act of putting any of these topics into a curriculum is, itself, not a neutral decision. And we should be proud of that, and be able to articulate why we choose to incorporate them into the curriculum. Yet, more than once, I felt that we would do well to present a second side: why would someone choose to reject Modern Orthodoxy and become Haredi? What is the concern of someone who sees feminism as a challenge to Orthodoxy? Might Jewish chosenness indeed be a sign of Jewish exceptionalism? I have spent time thinking about these topics and feel that it is my role to share what I believe and what we, as a school, stand for. At the same time, there are instances where we could and we must do better to ensure that we are teaching towards the issues with binocular vision, emphasizing the range of moral foundations in our teaching. 

And the same holds true for religious practice. SAR is a school which prides itself on providing women with the opportunity to learn and teach Torah on the highest levels and participate in tefillah to the degree that halakha allows. This has been a culture-shaping value of the institution since its inception. And those who emphasize certain moral foundations will find that quite resonant. Still, even if one agrees halakhically (and some do not), the foundations of loyalty and authority might lead one to disagree with a particular decision promoting female participation in tefillah. And both should be respected and engaged. This is not a matter of compromising on convictions but of sharing our convictions in the interest of a more constructive exchange. 

Which brings me back to where I began: SAR High School should be a thinking, courageous institution, prepared to stand tall in its beliefs. It is also a ‘big tent’ institution as yeshiva high schools go, home to a range of modern observant families. This is both an opportunity, and a challenge. It is my hope and prayer that our students become adults who are committed to halakha, confident in their beliefs and, at the same time, aware of the range of members in our community and able to engage constructively with them. Our students and faculty must develop a deep understanding of our Modern Orthodox community and the range of people and views that populate that community. To develop that capacity, we must practice listening carefully to and disagreeing respectfully with others. We should be the model for how best to hold a diverse community of committed Jewish men and women together in discourse and practice so that the next generation is prepared to engage, shape and strengthen our community spiritually, religiously and ethically. 

On a personal level, I feel this as well. I have learned from the constructive exchanges that I have had over the course of last year. As principal of this great school, it is my responsibility to do so. I will work to ensure that in the classroom, conference room and beyond, SAR is a space where we listen, we respect, we learn and we grow. 

We look forward to a wonderful year of learning and growth together at SAR High School. May we all be blessed with a year of health and growth - physical and spiritual - a year of peace, happiness and well being for our families, our community, the Jewish people and the world.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Graduates and the Grand Conversation

By: Rabbi Shmuel Hain, Rosh Beit Midrash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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