Friday, November 2, 2018

A Fourfold Partnership

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal of SAR High School and Dean of Machon Siach at SAR High School honoring the memory of Belda K. Lindenbaum

Strong partnerships have strong impact. King Solomon taught, “a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Kohelet 4:12). What he meant: what we struggle to achieve alone is less daunting and more achievable through strong collaboration - vertically, across generations, or horizontally, across institutions and communities. Our communal efforts have a much greater chance of success when we marshall our forces, when we come together to teach the values and commitments that we hold dear, and when we work together to shape - or reshape - our community. 

When it comes to substance use and abuse, it has become increasingly important for us to leverage the collective strength of a fourfold partnership - school, shul, camp and community - collaborating across all of our ‘yeshiva league’ institutions to reshape culture regarding drugs and alcohol in our adolescent and young adult community. 

There are a number of points of entry to the conversation and they are not mutually exclusive. Each is independently important. One side of the work must focus on the area of substance abuse and treatment strategies. We are making progress in openly acknowledging that substance abuse exists in our community, the need for proper treatment, and the importance of establishing support structures for families tackling this enormous challenge. We are already seeing the impact of the efforts to increase awareness, thanks to the leadership of a few courageous members of our community. 

But we must also tackle this problem from a different angle. Substance use and its prevention is closely related to - but different from - substance abuse and its treatment. The former requires early intervention and its own set of strategies. The ‘fourfold partnership’ has a unique power and responsibility in this regard. Substance abuse and treatment requires the empathy and support of the community and its institutions. But tackling the growing culture of substance use - that gateway stage where alcohol and drugs shape the social environment of our children’s Saturday night parties and Friday night tisches, of Simchat Torah and Purim - that is not about being empathetic towards others; that is about each of us taking on the challenge of reshaping our community to be better and stronger than it is today. And there is a collective way forward. 

Some might balk at the idea of such a partnership. Yeshivot, they say, should focus on curriculum and skills, on imparting a love of Torah and general wisdom - but what happens outside the school building is beyond the educators’ purview. Not so! And for two reasons: first, such boundaries are illusory. What happens outside of school becomes part of the school culture in a moment. It shapes our children’s shared experience and informs how they think about life. It quickly becomes the stuff of students’ discussions within and between schools. But it is not just that. As educators, we are both supremely responsible for and uniquely positioned to impact the whole child. Each student is a world, created in God’s image, with hopes and fears, strengths and limitations. Each must learn how to take risks and cope with challenges. That is how one grows into oneself. Educators and parents must collaborate to ensure that the risks that our children take are the right ones and their coping strategies are healthy and balanced. The public conversation that began in our community earlier this year is about strengthening that partnership, establishing trust and investing our creative energies in tackling this challenge. 

The middle schools in our community have been involved in cohesive and comprehensive discussions regarding ways to tackle this issue. I share one initiative we have begun on the high school front. Over the course of the past year, several Yeshiva high school administrators met together to discuss the issue of substance use in our “Yeshiva League” community and to explore possible approaches to the issue. We precisely focused on ‘use’, not ‘abuse’. Our anecdotal sense was that the use of marijuana and alcohol was on the rise in our teen community in a manner that has, in recent years, invaded the social fabric of the community even more intensely than in the past. Students who were not - and largely would not become - abusers, had nonetheless begun to socialize around these substances more than they previously had. The strategy of yeshivot to tackle this issue has largely focused on education programs and speakers, and developing health curricula. These are undoubtedly important and we must continue to strengthen the educational programming in our schools and community. We wondered if there was a way for our network of yeshivot to marshall our collective strength to more effectively shift the culture.

What we found: a ‘public health’ approach to the problem, one that does not rely on classroom education and deterrence strategies alone but, in addition, places significant energy into making cultural change. This approach does not only focus on providing information that would affect the conscious decision making of teens - although that, too, is important. Rather, it seeks to shift the routine behaviors of the teen community - how they socialize with each other and what they do with their free time. 

In 1996 the city of Reykjavik, Iceland discovered that their teen community had a significant alcohol problem. A survey at the time showed that 42.5% of Reykjavik teens had gotten drunk in the recent past. Eighteen years later, in 2014, the number responding affirmatively to the same question was down to 5%. How did they achieve such substantial change? The Iceland model is a multi-pronged strategy: 1) surveys were scientifically designed and administered to gather meaningful data from teens; 2) the team developed pledges for parents to commit to increased quality time and shared curfews; and 3) the government invested in social programming so that teens had interesting things to do with their time. And the city was in it for the long haul. These types of steps resulted in real cultural change. 

Such public health models require community organizing and they demand long term commitment. ‘Long term’ means thinking in terms of 5, 8, and 10 years of determined and consistent effort in order to make real cultural change. It requires a process that includes gathering student data via an extensive survey, developing a data-based community profile followed by a community action plan (that would allow us to partner with parents in this effort), and then implementing and evaluating the plan. It involves shifting the parent community toward increased and more open communication with each other about our children’s social lives. Data gathering, is the first step of the process. We have been very encouraged by the interest and support of yeshiva high school principals in this process and hope to collaborate with middle schools as well. We hope that continued support will allow us to begin a data gathering process across the Modern Orthodox high school community later this year. 

I am proud that the Bergen County community has taken a leadership role in raising awareness about and directly confronting the challenges of substance use and abuse directly. The Community Education Event this Sunday evening at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, NJ reflects that leadership, collaboration and communal concern. I look forward to participating in the event as we begin to build this fourfold partnership together. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Pedagogy in the Driver's Seat

By: Rabbi Avi Bloom, Director of Technology and Dr. Gillian Steinberg and Ms. Shira Schiowitz, Professional Development Coordinators

One of the biggest questions in educational technology today is whether the education or the technology drives our decisions. As educators committed to integrating technology into our pedagogy, we sometimes fear that technology will be the driver, usurping or distracting from our educational goals. During this past summer’s ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference in Chicago, we were inspired to see most tools presented with a primary focus on pedagogy. In fact, many speakers and sessions only mentioned technology tangentially, in service of educational goals.

Why, then, is technology so important in education in 2018? Beyond efficiency, how does it open educational opportunities? Technology affords us the ability to make students more active, hands-on, and generative. Students can be creators instead of simply responders. David Eagleman, neuroscientist and author and a keynote speaker at ISTE, encouraged the audience to embrace the realities and opportunities of technology instead of fearing or resisting change. Instead of becoming repositories of information, our students have more opportunities than ever to analyze, synthesize, and deepen their understanding with information available at their fingertips.

Students feel empowered by seeing connections among their disparate
classes and recognizing how they can share their learning. Students today can consider not only how they absorb information but also how they share it with their classmates and their teachers. We’ve begun thinking, for example, about how to include genres like podcasting and video production in the study of literature, not just to maintain students’ interest but also to recognize that literary interpretation can meaningfully include visual and auditory media as well. By recognizing the ways that certain skills translate across fields, we can offer students a more comprehensive education for the modern world while also demonstrating for them the synergies across various disciplines.

We can also reframe our assignments so we aren’t just thinking about the location of information -- how students “do research” -- but also about the quality of the information. Doing so allows students to be more active in their learning. In every class, we can redirect students from merely locating information to evaluating its reliability, bias, and comprehensiveness. Teaching students to be critical consumers of information is essential to their skills in every field, from their study of the history of slavery in America to the effects of clinical depression to contemporary theologians’ views on this week’s parasha.

As students transition from passive listeners to active learners, and teachers shift from information presenters to learning facilitators, students feel empowered and motivated by the collaborative opportunities that technology affords them. Students work together, both in person and remotely, to solve problems, share ideas and demonstrate mastery creatively. Whether writing on a shared Google doc, crafting interactive presentations, building a website, editing a movie, programming a robot, drafting a digital music score, exploring virtual reality and augmented reality environments, shared creative expression deepens student understanding, creates meaningful connections to knowledge and to their learning communities, and prepares them for life beyond school.

When used well, technology can widen the scope of our students’ knowledge, provide more opportunities to collaborate, and enhance their ability to share ideas. As educators, our challenge is to capitalize on these opportunities by encouraging our students to be discerning, analytical and thoughtful with all of the tools and information around them.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

How do you teach Tzedek?

By: Rabbi Danny Kroll, Assistant Principal

While the Torah implores us to pursue tzedek, telling us to chase after it (תרדף), over these past several months I have found myself running from it.  Allow me to explain. Every year SAR High School has an educational theme which guides our educational programming - the schoolwide Shabbaton, Macabee (Color War), and several theme programs interspersed throughout the year - and this year’s theme is tzedek.  Toward the end of our last school year and throughout the summer I, along with the rest of the administration, have been working with our educational programming team to plot out this year’s course of action.  From the very beginning, it became abundantly clear that this year’s theme would require more careful navigation than last year’s theme of tikkun hamidot, character refinement.  For the tikkun hamiddot theme we were anchored by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s 13 admirable character traits.  Students learned about the different middot through experiential and educational programming including a Martin Luther King Jr. Day program and the popular “middah moments” where students emailed in examples of their peers displaying exemplary middot; this was capped off by Rabbi Harcsztark’s weekly announcement of the “middah moment of the week”, which was so popular and impactful on school culture that it will continue and become a permanent fixture of pre-Shabbat announcements.

But tzedek is different.  It is most commonly translated into English as social justice and when we speak about social justice it is difficult to avoid becoming entangled in partisanship.  One option would be to avoid the topic altogether - why get involved in something so fraught with disagreement that has the potential to be alienating? I think this would be the wrong course of action; tzedek is not a partisan ideology that one chooses to ascribe to based on political ideology - it is a Torah value, which God implores us to carry out.  Social justice might also be an inaccurate definition of tzedek.  Consider, for example Dyonna Ginsburg’s definition of tzedek as she put it in her Orthodox Forum paper, in which she defines tzedek along with tzedakkah, chesed and tikun olam.  She writes:

While admittedly, in the classical sources, these terms contain a range of definitional possibilities, for our purposes they mean the following: (1) Chesed - individual acts of loving-kindness, (2) Tzedakah - individual and/or communal acts of philanthropy, (3) Tzedek - the pursuit of justice through systemic and structural reform.
Chesed, Tzedakah, and Tzedek describe three different means at our disposal to help people in need, whether they are Jews or non-Jews.  If we encounter a hungry person, whether or not he is Jewish, we can either choose to feed him (an act of chesed), give him money to buy food (tzedekah), or ask why he is hungry in the first place and lobby for governmental reform so that fewer people go hungry in the future (tzedek).

So how do you do this?  How do you teach a value that so many misconstrue as being partisan, in a way that is safe for everyone regardless of their political leanings?  How do we get past the mischaracterization that tzedek belongs to the so called “left?”  More basically, is tzedek something we should be focusing on in a Modern Orthodox high school? Shouldn’t we be focusing more on furthering students’ observance of and dedication to Torah and mitzvot?

This summer in reading to prepare for our theme, I came across two pieces that I found helpful in answering these questions.  The first comes from the Jewish German-American philosopher, Michael Wyschogrod, who explains why teaching tzedek is a necessity.  In the essay Wyschogrod rails against the notion that the essence of Judaism is its ethics (the essay can be found in a collection of essays edited by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter in memory of Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung).  He writes,

The view that the essence of Judaism is its ethics is primarily a secularization of Judaism...The specifically Jewish in Judaism is not mainly the ethical, which Jews share with many others.  The specifically Jewish is the cultic: the Sabbath, the dietary and menstrual laws, etc. As the Emancipation made it possible for Jews to stop being different from others, and as many Jews strove desperately to become like others, the transformation of Judaism into a rational ethics made it possible to shape a Judaism that diminished the difference between Jew and Gentile.” 

While this would make it seem that Wyschogrod’s feelings are more in line with those on the so called “right”, it is what he writes next that I found particularly striking.  He concludes,

However much the reduction of Judaism to ethics is a distortion, it is not a distortion without biblical roots.  The prophets who criticize those eager to bring sacrifices while oppressing the poor do not mean to denigrate sacrifices but only to object sacrifices accompanied by injustice.  But because there are no prophetic condemnations of those who feed the hungry but do not bring sacrifices, it is fair to conclude that between the two, feeding the hungry is more important than feeding God. Nevertheless, the former without the latter is also incomplete and does not yield a viable Judaism.

According to Wyschogrod, Judaism cannot be reduced to a religion of ethics. The essence of Judaism is in the ritual, but the ethical is also necessary - “feeding the hungry is more important than feeding God.”  Yes, to reduce Judaism down a religion focused exclusively on ethics is a secularization, but to not focus on it at all is also a distortion of God’s will.

The other item I read over the summer that will guide how we teach tzedek came from a collection of sermons from Rabbi Shai Held.  In a sermon on Parshat Re’eh, Rabbi Held takes a deeper look at chapter 15 of Sefer Devarim, which details many of the tzedek related laws (shemitah, tzedakkah, treatment of a Jewish bondsman).  Rabbi Held notes that Torah repeatedly refers to the poor as “brother” (see 15:2,3,7,9,11,12).  Certainly this teaches us that we should treat those who are less fortunate as family, to act generously and with empathy.  But Rabbi Held goes further and writes:

Consciously or not, explicitly or not, it is extremely easy for people to imagine that socioeconomic inequality points to some real, deep, metaphysical inequality as if the rich were in some ultimate way worth more than the poor.  The Torah exhorts Israel to remember that socioeconomic status tells us nothing at all about the real worth of people.

When teaching tzedek we must heighten our students’ sensitivity to and encourage self-reflection about how we view those with a lower socioeconomic status.  So how do we implement tzedek? While there is a lot interesting data about the intersection of religion and politics, I think it is fair to say that Hashem does not have a party affiliation and that His Torah leaves room for people on both sides of the aisle.  We can debate and disagree on how to implement tzedek, but we cannot disagree on the value of tzedek.  The poor, the disadvantaged are our brothers - the policies we should implement to help them is open to debate.  Rabbi Held eloquently and firmly makes this point in that same sermon when he writes:

The Torah’s simple but radical claim is that the plight of the poor is our responsibility.  A society in which there are no economic second chances, let alone one with a permanent underclass, is intolerable to God.  To be sure, it can be difficult to discern just how the Torah’s vision should guide us in modern times.  Ideological polemics notwithstanding, there is no one-to-one correspondence between Deuteronomy 15 and any particular contemporary social policy.  But we must avoid the temptation to domesticate the Torah, to admire its dream even as we silence its message. It is a religious imperative to build a society in which the poor are seen and treated as truly equal, and to work to ensure that entrenched poverty does not rob people of the dignity of opportunity.  Well-intentioned people will no doubt disagree about how best these goals can be achieved, but we are nevertheless obligated to keep them firmly in mind...Deuteronomy makes clear that only a society truly committed to alleviating the suffering of those ravaged by poverty is worthy of God’s blessing.

This past week during teacher in service, Rabbi Harcsztark led a learning session with the entire faculty about our theme, opening a conversation about how to educate toward this important value.  What emerged from that discussion is the need for civil discourse amongst teachers, students and the entire SAR High School community surrounding our theme. Teachers pointed out that we will need to teach students how to have respectful conversations when we disagree with one another by learning and practicing how to listen to one another.  We should seek to understand the viewpoints of others, even, or especially, when we disagree. Come Wednesday, and when we officially kick off our theme on Tzom Gedaliah, this conversation will expand to include over 560 unique voices. We will learn together that the Torah calls upon us to perform the ritual and cultic along with the ethical and so it is incumbent upon us to practice tzedek by pursuing justice through systemic and structural reform.  As educators, we have the obligation to create space for all students in this pursuit and I look forward to an enriching year, where we examine together ways in which we can make our community and world an even better place.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Jewish Continuity in America: A Call to the Modern Orthodox

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal

We are all creatures of habit. And as such, we tend to develop routines, consistent expectations and steady patterns of behavior. But every so often, it is important to take a step back and reflect - on ourselves, our peers, the community within which we live. I would like us to take yet a further step back and take an even broader look. Something large, something that should affect our self understanding as a community, requires our attention.

Over the course of the past year, three academics, two of whom are part of the SAR family,1 have used the data from the famed 2013 Pew Research Center’s study of Jewish Americans to further project population trends of the American Jewish community in the coming decades. Their analysis was presented in a series of articles in the Forward in September 2017,2 recently revisited this past month in the same publication.3 Their projections suggest significant decline in the non Orthodox Jewish population in the United States and significant growth in the Orthodox population in the coming decades. Even if you are not excited by data and population trends, keep reading. I think there is something here that is very important for us to consider as we raise the next generation of Jews - many of whom, we hope, will make aliya but also undoubtedly many who will be living in the Diaspora. 

Here are some significant data points from their projections:
  • The numbers suggest overall decline in the number of Jews ages 30-69 in the coming decades.
  • In the Pew data, the number of nondenominational Jews aged 20-29 is much larger than those 30 and above. That number then gets much smaller for those below 20. That suggests that Jews are becoming unaffiliated and then not reproducing themselves.
  • The number of Conservative and Reform Jews ages 30-39 are about half of Conservative and Reform Jews ages 60-69. Together, that means that the Non-Orthodox community in America is going to decline precipitously in the coming decades. 
  • In contrast, Orthodox Judaism in America is growing very rapidly: as of the 2013 data, there were 40,000 Orthodox Jews in their 60’s, 120,000 Orthodox Jews in their 30’s and 230,000 between 0 and 9 years of age. That is enormous growth. 
  • There will be more Orthodox Jews in America than Reform and Conservative Jews combined in about 40 years, and more than all of non-Orthodox Jewry in almost 70 years.
The message to take from their analysis: 
  1. The overall number of Jews in America will decline over the coming decades.
  2. The number of Non-Orthodox Jews will decline dramatically. 
  3. The Orthodox population in America will increase significantly in the coming years. 
This sounds like good news for the Orthodox - and it certainly makes for a strong argument on behalf of endogamy (in-marrying) and shemirat hamitzvot. When Jews marry Jews and when Jews observe mitzvot, Jews and Judaism flourish. We, of course, are strong supporters of both endogamy and mitzvot - on theological and on practical grounds. But we should dig a little deeper. A major restructuring of the American Jewish community appears to be on the horizon. And while the numbers look positive for the Orthodox, there is the potential for a decline of hundreds of thousands of American Jews in the coming decades. That, on its own, must give us pause. I also believe that this data presents a specific challenge for our Modern Orthodox community, one which we should carefully consider.

When seen from a distance - from Israel, for example - these trends can tell the story in a particular way, one that splits the American Jewish community into two separate groups, a divide that can ultimately create distance between the Zionist, and especially the Religious Zionist, community in Israel and the Jewish community in America. I have heard this story told a number of times in recent years by different scholars. It goes something like this: the Jewish community in America is on the decline. Fifty years from now, there will be two Jewish communities, one that is largely halakhically-not-Jewish and one that is Haredi. In this narrative, non-denominational Jews are increasingly distanced from Judaism, as they do not practice Jewish ritual and they do not connect with the ethnically Jewish State, while Haredi Jews do not, at their core, identify with the Zionist mission. As such, we can expect the American Jewish community to be increasingly irrelevant to the future of the Jewish State and, by extension, the Jewish people. I worry about this narrative; it is not one that we can live with. Both the Israeli and the American Jewish community need to believe in the future of American Judaism. 

But it is not only about the connection between Israel and the Diaspora. It is also about the nature of the observant Jewish community in America. Both Zionism and Modern Orthodox Judaism - each in its own way - express belief in a Jewish People deeply engaged with the modern world, in building an ethical society, in bringing the spirit and value of Torah to the material world, in nurturing the Grand Conversation between Torah and the world. If our community bifurcates into a liberal, assimilated Jewish community and an insular Haredi community, then, following this narrative, in half a century, a vibrant, integrated Jewish option will exist only in Israel and not at all in the United States.

There are those who will celebrate this and say, “of course that is so!”. The future of the Jewish people is in Israel - and we now have data to prove it! But we must be more careful. Let’s take our own community as an example. I am proud to say that in our short history, about 85 SAR High School graduates have made aliya. I wish we could triple that number - and I hope that happens. But even should that happen, the large majority of graduates will still be living in the US in twenty five years. We must ensure that the American Jewish community continues to thrive in the coming years. By the end of the 21st century, there will still be over 4 million Jews in America! That being so, our Jewish community in America must continue to nurture a dynamic and vibrant, modern and observant, religiously distinct and culturally engaged Jewish community. That is vital for the future of the Jewish People in the United States. And it is central to ensuring a thriving relationship between the Jewish community in Israel and the Jewish community in the United States. 

We know all too well that projections and trends do not accurately predict the course of Jewish history. Were this so, there would be no State of Israel - and Orthodoxy in America would have suffered its demise long ago. Jews pay attention to the projections and predictions - and then work as hard as we can to defy them. Half a century ago, our parents and grandparents gave all of themselves to building a network of schools and shuls and camps; they worked as hard as they could to ensure the continuity and growth of the American Jewish community. They, miraculously, defied the odds. They took note of the projections and chose to act. I believe that our time has come. It is now our turn to pay it forward.

Which brings us to our modern, halakhically observant community. We currently comprise only three percent of the American Jewish community. But we have an extremely important role to play to keep the Jewish community strong. Two of our communal tendencies work against our assuming this role in a full-throated way: 1) our Zionism directs our religious idealism to the State of Israel and 2) our assimilation anxiety makes us insular, pushes us to direct our energies inward, and this for good reason. But it cannot allow us to ignore the significant restructuring that is happening around us. We need to think more, to care more about the broader Jewish community. And we have what to share - and what to learn. The Modern observant community does not have its version of a kiruv movement, an effort to reach out to get to know and understand different types of Jews; to make connections and build bridges; to share the beauty of our way of life with other Jews - with confidence, passion and love. 

We must begin to see ourselves - our small three percent - as an anchor and a bridge, connecting to American Jews on either side of us and working to bring the Israeli and American Jewish communities closer together. We should be an anchoring community that is both rooted and integrated, able to bring Torah and society together in a most inspiring way; and a bridge, bringing liberal and Haredi Jews together, arguing, through our presence and our practice that we are committed to and care about the entire Jewish community and will do what we can to keep it strong. 

For some of us, that might mean redoubling our efforts to maintain and even strengthen our commitment to halakhic practice; for others among us, it might mean opening ourselves up to better understand the diversity of the Jewish community, to do what we can to strengthen Jewish education and practice across the community. For schools, that might mean learning about and getting to meet more Haredi and less observant Jews; for our shuls, it might mean taking on serious outreach programs, developing ways for Jews to respectfully and openly get to know each other. As a modern, observant community, we need to be more mission-driven and goal oriented - not simply focused on maintaining our own communities and providing for our own needs. 

The Modern Orthodox community in America has an important role to play in ensuring the vitality of the Jewish community in America and the strength of its relationship with Medinat Yisrael. It requires broad vision and a long term strategy. I certainly do not have the answers; but I think we have to try.

1 Professor Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, grandfather of Yair Wall, class of 2021. Professor Eidieal Pinker is a professor of Operations Research and Deputy Dean at the Yale School of Management. He is also the father of of Zev Pinker, SAR HS class of 2021. Dr. Mickey Gussow z”l served at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Reflections on The Miracle Worker

By: Yarone Tokayer, Physics Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A View from the Office

By: Dr. Rivka Schwartz, Associate Principal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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