Thursday, September 11, 2014

Where Have The Lazy Days Of Summer Gone?

Whether you are raising your first teen or your last, when you are having one of those “teenage moments” with your child, I recommend picking up the comic strip Zits by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. They seem to pinpoint exactly the issues at hand, and the laughter is a healthy outlet. (I often show the comics to students, and even they appreciate them!)

Clearly, Scott and Borgman have battled the “WAKE UP!” morning battle as we have at our own homes. What is it about teens that make them so difficult to wake up in the morning? It is all about sleep deprivation.

From the age they reach puberty until age 22 teens need about 9 hours of sleep. Teens actually need more sleep than younger children- contrary to what one might think. According to a recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health only 8% of teens get the sleep they need and the rest of teens live with chronic sleep deprivation during the school year. Dr. Mary Carskadon, director of chronobiology and sleep research, at E.P. Bradley Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, found that half of the teens in her study were so exhausted in the morning that they showed the same characteristics who have the sleep disorder narcolepsy. Dr. Carskadon's research focuses on the interrelation between the circadian timing system and the sleep/wake system patterns of children and adolescents. Her research suspects that the delay in bedtime and later wake- up times may be produced by the brain development- the adolescent biology.

How does this lack of sleep affect our teens? This sleep deprivation puts teens at risk for depression, obesity and threatens their academic performance and their safety. Dr. Carskadon states that teens who lack sleep are walking around in a “gray cloud.” She continues with the image that since our teens are not “filling up their tank” at night they are starting their days with an empty tank. “It affects both their mood and their ability to think and their ability to perform and react appropriately. So, we have kids out there who struggle to stay awake when driving, who could do better at sports if they could react more quickly, who are feeling blue and having trouble getting along with adults in their environment, and also who are struggling to learn in the classroom.”

There are much higher rates of depression among teens than ever before. The lack of sleep most definitely affects mood and the ability to regulate mood. In the 2008 National Sleep Foundation study they surveyed 1600 adolescents. More than 56% said they felt “stressed out” or “anxious” or “hopeless about the future.” Less sleep correlated with higher levels of depression- a vicious cycle as lack of sleep affects mood, and depression leads to problems falling asleep.

Likewise, being tired adds to procrastination and time management problems, which in another vicious cycle leads to staying up even later to do work. The overscheduling of extracurriculars can also contribute to later sleep times.

Why have these sleep patterns gotten worse? Common sense indicates that teens have so much more available at night to distract them- computers, phones etc. all in their bedrooms. Additionally, culturally, there is little focus on the importance of sleep. In Health curricula we see units on nutrition, exercise, safety, but nothing on sleep.

What can we do for our sleep deprived teens? Even with teens, limit-setting around bedtime makes an impact, asserts Dr. Carskadon, Consistency as much as possible all week is helpful. Often teens do something called “binge sleeping” over the weekend. It does replenish our “empty sleep tanks, “ but it has a negative impact as it “gives the brain a different message of when it is nighttime.” On weekends, they may be telling their brains that night is midnight and morning is 11 am. However, on Monday, the brain is still in that mode, when they should be getting back on schedule. It is difficult to have a significantly different sleep schedule on weekends. (This is another benefit of going to Minyan even on weekends!)

All technology should be off at least an hour before bedtime. Electronic screens actually emit “blue light' which sends a signal to the brain to suppress melatonin, which prevents us from feeling sleepy. Aside from that, if the anxiety often created by social media can prevent falling asleep- i.e. a friend posting something distressful. Many parents have the practice of collecting all cellphones, iPods etc. at a certain time of night, and charging them in the parents' bedroom or a central location, so sleep is possible without hearing constant texts being received. Dimming lights all around the house also helps prepare our bodies towards sleep. Additionally, simply educating our teens about the importance of sleep can make a difference.

The research on teens and sleep has led to a growing discussion about start times for school in the teenage years. I have often wondered how it impacts Tefilla in the morning for teens. This thought most definitely argues for more engaged Tefilla with more singing and davening aloud.

The good news is that out teens' new found love of sleeping during the day does allow us adults to finally earn our Shabbat naps. As we know, Shabbat is the acronym for “shayna b'Shabbat taanug” “sleep on Shabbat is a pleasure.” Just a reminder, though, of what I wrote in a column a few years ago, “Those of us who are parents of teens have waited years for our children to be independent enough so we can leave them to their own activities and take a well-deserved afternoon rest. However, half- Shabbos reminds us that our teens still need us on Shabbat, as Dr. David Pelcovitz has stressed. It's never too late to start spending quality time Shabbat afternoon. Many 'half-Shabbos' teens have indicated that if their parents were around, they would not text on Shabbat.” So, after nap time, is quality time, as it says in the Shabbat night zemer “Ma Yedidut”

Your walk be slow;
Call the Sabbath a delight.
Sleeping is praiseworthy
when for restoring the soul.
Therefore my soul for you[i.e., the Sabbath] is longing,
to be content [on it] in love.
Fenced in like roses;
on it shall son and daughter rest

Notice it calls for son and daughter to rest as well! May this school year be one of restful and restorative sleep, and alert, soulful days.

Advisory Update: (Each week I will be providing you with a brief synopsis of what we covered in Advisory class this past week). 

Sixth Grade- Our sixth graders have begun Advisory- a social/emotional class they have twice a week. This week's lessons focused on relaying what the goals of Advisory are and getting to know their group members and Advisors. Sixth Grade Advisory focuses on helping students succeed in middle school through academic, social and emotional skills through its theme, “Do You Want To Succeed In Middle School? Here's How...”

Seventh Grade- Seventh graders have been introduced to the theme of 7th Grade Advisory “Prepare Yourself to Change the World.” Lessons have highlighted how even teens can make an impact on the world around them, and how we plan to do so in Advisory this year.

Eighth Grade- Eighth graders began the year viewing interviews of graduates highlighting the challenges and excitement of 8th grade. Students have been introduced to the theme of 8th Grade Advisory “Preparing for Life After Yavneh.”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bringing Our Children Home Safe- An Important Conversation With Your Child

 As I sit here the afternoon of the last day of school, I envision the entire school together in the gym at 11:15 watching a video celebrating this year's accomplishments. This past week has been full of celebrations. The 6th graders had an end of the year Advisory “trip” where through team building activities we celebrated all that we learned in Advisory this year. Yesterday, after lunch, the 7th graders celebrated their efforts this year to “change the world” one act at a time. And, of course, our 8th graders had their grand celebration at graduation last week. We educators celebrated as well at our end of the year luncheon after school today. We shared success stories and inspirational accomplishments. (And, we too celebrated the arrival of summer vacation!)

At the end of that luncheon we took time to remember “al rosh simchateinu” “above our chiefest joy,” the three boys Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach who were kidnapped in Israel, by reciting Tehillim. As we busily pack up our children for camp, buy supplies and worry about new bathing suits and the right flip flops, all is put into perspective. And, as we get the report cards in the coming weeks, and perhaps see grades that we wish were better, all is put into perspective. The parents of these three boys wish they could feel harried by pre-camp preparations and annoyed by a bit of underachieving. They are in our tefillot.

When my second grader heard about the plight of these three boys she asked me what was happening. I did not want her to be scared about going to Israel so I responded, “These three boys went into a car with a stranger. Remember, we always talk about not going anywhere with someone you don't know or even someone you know without your parents' permission?” I turned the conversation into one about safety.

Our last unit in sixth grade Advisory was "Preparing for Summer." We discussed with the students some real life uncomfortable situations they may confront in camp and how to get help. Here are some scenarios we discussed:

The head counselor of your camp, a really great guy, asks you to go out to the woods with him to collect fire wood for the camp fire later. Everyone else is in the Cafeteria far away on the other side of camp.”

Some ideas we discussed were what is wrong with the above situations? It is clear that if you are uncomfortable that is it not okay. No one every has permission to make you feel uncomfortable- even as a joke or a prank. When should you go to an adult or a counselor? The moment you feel something is not right. Why do some campers not come forward? They are afraid of snitching and retaliation. We stress to students that a plan will be made to protect against retaliation, and sometimes we have to overcome that fear. What if the adult we go to does not make the situation better? Then find another adult. If the adult you go to minimizes the situation and says it's “no big deal” then find another adult. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, it is a big deal. We also stress the importance of involving your parents, even when you are away at sleepaway camp. What is our responsibility as bystanders to this incident? Clearly if something is bothering another camper, we need to help him/her.

In scenario two we stressed:

Is it okay and normal that Carla likes more privacy? Yes. Different people have different personal boundaries. We should respect that. Some people don't mind getting dressed in front of others and some do. No one should feel uncomfortable for that. And, we need do know our own personal boundaries. If we ever feel that someone is crossing our boundaries then we need to get them to stop (Ex. Some people don't like it when people pat them on the back to say, "Hi"- Some people don't mind. You need to make it clear that you don't like something when it involves your boundaries). Don't ever say to your self, "Hey, no one else seems to be bothered by this- so I shouldn't be either" If you are bothered, than it's no good. What should this girl do about the privacy in the changing area for the future? Do you think the head counselor might change the rules by allowing girls who want to change in the bathroom do that? How can he make that happen? (I have heard kids even tell me that they will avoid swimming just so they don't have to change in those locker rooms). Where was the counselor at the time? Why is there no adult supervision? (or at least supervision by older counselor) You might want to stress that part of feeling safe is knowing that someone is there to help and supervise. What if the counselor is joining in? It is important to report to the head counselor or get parents to speak to a supervisor. Counselors get tips- they want to be liked.

In scenario three we stressed how it is similar to the above examples, even though it is via phone. Often kids forget that it can be a crime even if it is not face to face. They all have learned about cellphone safety and the legal issues.

The last scenario leads to a more frank discussion regarding sexual abuse. Please stress with your children that it is essential, even if the perpetrator is someone he/she likes, that they must come forward to someone he/she trusts. Our goal is not to scare them, but to ensure that they know what to do. Most camps now train their counselors in child safety, but it is imperative that we prepare our children. The Association of Jewish Camp Operators has created a list of topics to review with children before sending them to camp:
  1. Teach your children that no one, not even a Rebbe, counselor or a relative has the right to touch them in a place ordinarily covered by a bathing suit.
  2. Let your children know that they should tell the Camp Director, Head Counselor or Division Head if they are not comfortable with how they are being treated or spoken to.
  3. Teach your children that it is ok to say to such a person, "No, Get away."
  4. Tell your children that they should not listen to anyone that tells them to keep secrets from parents or camp administration.
  5. Tell your children that they should not be afraid of threats from such a person. The adults will protect them and will not let anyone hurt them.
  6. Tell your children that they can tell you or another trusted adult anything and you will always be supportive.
  7. Be alert for changes in your child's behavior that could signal abuse, such as sudden secretiveness, sleeplessness, withdrawal from activities or increased anxiety.
  8. Above all, let your children know that they can always tell you anything without fear of blame. Communication is critical.

As I send away my children to sleepaway camp, the above conversation becomes even more critical, as we rely on them to stay safe and do the right thing when we are not with them. How can we ensure that our children do the right thing when we are miles away? When Yoseph was in the house of Potiphar, far from home and his family, he faced the difficult situation of the wife of Potiphar. The Gemara in Sotah 36b describes, “It was taught in the School of R. Ishmael: That day was their feast-day, and they had all gone to their idolatrous temple; but she had pretended to be ill because she thought, I shall not have an opportunity like to-day for Joseph to associate with me. And she caught him by his garment, saying etc. At that moment his father's image came and appeared to him through the window and said: 'Joseph, your brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stones of the ephod and yours amongst theirs; is it your wish to have your name expunged from amongst theirs and be called an associate of harlots?' Immediately his bow abode in strength.”

Clearly Yoseph's father was far away in Canaan- how could he have seen the image of his father Yaakov in the window? That image of Yaakov that he saw was the voice in his head. Over and over he had heard his father say, “Good boys don't act that way. In our family, our values are...” And, of course, like any teenager, (Yoseph was just 17 when he went to Egypt), he said to his dad, “I know, I know- why do you keep on telling me the same thing?!” And, yet, Yaakov continued sending those messages. That is why, when faced with challenge to his morality, he heard that voice in his head.
Each year when we have the “safety talk” with our children they say to us, “I know, I know- enough already!” And, yet when they are faced with challenge- whether scenarios like those above, or peer pressure to do the wrong thing, they will hear our voice in their head, and practically see our image before them reminding them of what they should do.

We pray that our children will always be safe when they are not with us and when we are unable to watch them. We hope they recall the safety rules and values we have “drilled” into them. It is a comfort to know that they are always being watched over by Shomer Yisrael, the Guardian of Israel. May that Shomer Yisrael bring Naftali, Gilad and Eyal home safely. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Shavuot- "That's What Makes You Beautiful"

            “If you can get through middle school without hurting someone else’s feelings, that’s really cool beans,” asserts Summer Dawson in the book.  This book was number one on the New York Times Best Seller List.  Now, all your middle schoolers have read it.  Some of you might remember when I wrote about the book Wonder after I had read it.   For some months now, the Administration and English department have been speaking about having the entire middle school read the book Wonder, culminating last week in a middle school- wide Wonder Day.  Throughout each nook and cranny in the middle school, wherever one would go in the past month, one could see the light blue book being read. Even our students who struggle the most with reading were devouring the book.   (That, in of itself was a wonder!)  The sense of unity created by virtue of all reading the same novel was palpable.   Students were asked to focus on the themes of social exclusion, bullying, and the power of the bystander.  They discussed the difficult position that most of us who are not the "bullies" are in, and how we have the obligation to do something when we see someone else being hurt.  They were then each asked to write a piece in their English classes- either a story, a blog or a behavior they would do differently based on the book.

            Auggie, the main character in the book, had a physical, facial deformity, (a craniofacial difference, as Palacio states), which made him the victim of hurtful behaviors.  The story is not only about Auggie, but also about those who were courageous enough to support him. The author, R.J. Palacio ends the book with a series of quotes.  One such quote is, "When given the choice between being right or being kind choose kind." "Choose kind" has become the slogan of the book.  It was there that Wonder Day was born.

            "Choose Kind" was to be our theme.  They were bracelets that stated, "At Yavneh We Choose Kind "  and a banner with those words welcomed them to school in the morning.  Students were challenged to think about how they plan to "choose kind."  A committee of dedicated students created an original video, where they highlighted the themes of Wonder and how it applied to real life. (It was incredible! See it at  A Wonder hallway was designed where the pieces written by every middle schooler were hung. Most students focused on the everyday things we can do to ensure that everyone is treated with respect.

            Very few highlighted the physical component that was the cause of Auggie's isolation.  I have been thinking about this aspect for some time- although I do believe that the author's intention was for us to generalize the story beyond those with physical abnormalities. I have been contemplating about the impact of the way we look "on the outside"  mostly because I have been spending the past weeks teaching the Adolescent Life Workshops (Health) to our middle schoolers.  Middle schoolers are known to be notoriously self- conscious about the way they look- even more than high schoolers.  Research indicates in the most logical fashion that this is the case because their bodies are changing so rapidly, they are gaining weight, voices are changing, acne may be sprouting, and they are not feeling comfortable in their "new skin." And, therefore, the way they look "on the outside" becomes the focus of their lives- more than how they are "on the inside."'

            This is exactly the opposite message of what we want our children to get. They are more than their bodies.  Beauty is more than skin deep.  Those students in Wonder who grew to adore Auggie and support him got that message.  We can very easily judge a person by the way he/she looks.  We discussed in class how shallow and unfair that can be.  One focus of the 7th grade workshops was the importance of the message we send to others by the way we dress and act.  Do we exude self-respect?  Do we make it clear that we want to be admired for our intelligence, character and character traits and not for the way we look?  What messages do we get from the media and culture that surrounds us about which is more important?   These are ideas that both boys and girls need to consider. 

            It goes without saying that the above themes are not only discussed in psychological research, but are rooted in Judaism's view of true beauty.   As it says in Avot 4:20, 
אַל תּסְתּכּל בּקּנְקַן, אֶלּא בַמּה שׁיּשׁ בּוֹ. יֵשׁ קַנְקַן חָדָשׁ מָלֵא יָשׁן, וְיָשׁן שׁאֲפִלּוּ חָדָשׁ אֵין בּוֹ       
"Do not look at the jug, but rather what is in it. For there are new jugs full of old, and old which does not have new within it."   The Jewish version of, "Don't judge a book by its cover."  We want our young women and young men to know the meaning of true internal beauty and integrity. 

            The company Dove some years ago began what they call their “Campaign for Real Beauty.”  This video they created that I showed the students truly made an impact on their view of true beauty. You can view it at

            I ended the girls' workshop by showing a video that Mrs. Ronit Orlanski sent to me some months ago.  The musical parody video "Virtue makes you beautiful" was created by a Mormon choir, but I thought spoke most directly about the importance of true beauty.  Interestingly enough, it speaks very directly about the rationale behind the laws of tzniut (they call "modesty").  (I since noticed that posted it on their website as well).  "You light up the world like nobody else, by the way that you speak and respect yourself" is the message it provides our teens regarding true beauty.  You can see the video at

            On Shavuot we know that the Torah was given on the mountain deemed the least physically beautiful of all the mountains, as it was the smallest (Sotah 5a) and was desert-like without blooms until the giving of the Torah.   Yet, we know that famous Midrash from when we were children that rather than choosing the most majestic looking mountains, Hashem chose Har Sinai to give the Torah.  Har Sinai was known for its humility- that was the "inner beauty" that was chosen for Kabbalat HaTorah, rather than the outer, surface, beauty.   Only through that understanding could the "wonders" of Hashem and Kabbalat HaTorah occur.  As R.J. Palacio states in Wonder, "What is beautiful is good, and who is good will soon be beautiful." - That's what makes you beautiful. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Do Something Bigger Than Yourself- Hearts and Hoops Hoopathon

“The Me Generation” was coined in the 1970's to refer to the Baby Boomers. However, we as parents of today's teens are raising what sometimes feels like to us a whole new “Me Generation.” In fact, a recent 2012 study examined the empathy levels of 14,000 university students and found that since 1979 students are becoming less empathic. Narcissism, which negatively correlates with empathy, is on the rise. They are “seeing others in terms of their usefulness rather than true friendship.” This reminds me of the 2006 study that I once quoted where 81% of 18-25 year olds think getting rich is an important goal, 64% say it's the most important goal, and only 30% believe that helping others is important. What is missing with this young adults and older teens? Somewhere they missed the skills needed to empathize and become less self-centered.

As we raise our teens we see this self- absorption exacerbated. First, we know that developmentally it is absolutely normal for teens to be self-absorbed. Often, teens focus on what is important to them, to the exclusion of everyone else. Despite the fact that we know this is normal, it is not easy to witness and experience. However, if we carefully observe the change happening in them, we can adjust our expectations and not take it personally.

Second, in today's social media society, self-centeredness is encouraged. In the Journal of Computers in Human Behavior a study highlighted how social media contributes to narcissism. College- age subjects who scored higher in narcissistic personality traits used frequent updates on their status as way to receive social approval. They found “the incessant need to gain approval at all costs.” Jean Twenge, co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living In The Age of Entitlement, surveyed 1,068 college students who were asked about their social media use. 57% of subjects stated that their generation uses social networking for “self-promotion, narcissism and attention-seeking,” characteristics they said were helpful for success in a competitive world. Twenge added, “College students have clearly noticed the more self-centered traits of their peers- it's fascinating how honest they are about diagnosing their generation's downsides...And students are right about the influence of social networking sites- research has shown that narcissistic people thrive on sites like Facebook, where self-centered people have more friends and post more attractive pictures of themselves.” We expect adolescents to be self-absorbed, but it is surprising how much longer adolescence lasts today.

What can we do as parents to make sure our children are gaining the requisite skills to combat life-long self- absorption?
  1. Make teens accountable for their actions so they see how their actions affect others.
  2. Twenge suggests, “Giving encouragement to our children is good, but teaching narcissism -- specialness and automatic superiority -- is not. If our children are to be successful, we must teach them anti-narcissistic skills such as hard work, having respect for others, empathy, and taking responsibility.”
  3. New studies conducted by Dr. Dacher Keltner show that awe helps students develop empathy. Examples given are, learning about the great work of Ghandi or experiencing an incredible piece of art. Awe makes us feel small and that there is something greater than ourselves. We then, “lose awareness of our 'self' and feel more connected to the world around us.” Adolescence is particularly a time when it is essential for us to help them “see themselves as deeply connected to the world around them, not the center of it.” (This does make me consider the time we spent in Judaic Studies highlighting the awesome events in Tanach as imperative. Additionally, the concept of “Ma rabu maasecha Hashem” “How great are your creations, Hashem” even in science class or in pointing out a wondrous events in history). Somehow awe has been seen to make people feel less impatient and more prone to volunteer their time to help others.
  4. Volunteer work- and not just to get “chesed hours” or fulfill a school requirement, as Twenge notes.
    This is where tomorrow's Hearts and Hoops hoopathon for Project Ezrah comes in. This hoopathon is a project of our 7th grade, whose Advisory curriculum is “Prepare Yourself To Change The World.” This idea for a hoopathon comes from the real-life story of Austin Gutwein who created an organization called Hoops of Hope when he was a pre-teen. He has since raised millions of dollars for the underprivileged in Africa. Austin's motto is “Do something bigger than yourself.” When we ask our students to think about the plight of others and empathize, we teach them, in essence, that there are things out there that are “bigger” than they are. As our 7th graders help run hoopathons in grades 1-8 tomorrow we know that they will be putting into practice the idea of thinking of others- not just focusing on themselves. For isn't that what the message of the mourning period of sefirah that we ended today is all about? “V'ahavta l'reacha kamocha” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Someone who is truly self-centered cannot love the other as he does himself- or want for the other what he wants for himself.
 Project Ezrah is truly an organization that assists so many in our community. As we tell the students tomorrow about Project Ezrah we want them to see how essential it is to worry about others and not just ourselves.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day- The Payback?

“What would it take to pay back Mom for all she does?” is the question that Annaliza Kraft- Linder asked in an article published by Bank of America. According to's 2014 Mother's Day Salary Index, it would cost at least $62,985, (up from $59, 862 last year!), to replace all that she does. Broken down it looks like this:
  • Cooking and cleaning, $12,230
  • Child care, $21,736
  • Homework help, $7,290
  • Chauffeur, $5,672
  • Shopping, yard work, party and activity planning, finances, etc., $15,019
  • Finding out what the kids are up to (paid in the equivalent value of a private detective), $1,036. states that mothers are worth even more, in its 2014 Mother's Day salary survey stating that “stay-at-home moms were worth $118,905 and working moms worth $70,107 (this does not include any paid salary from their job), with both groups putting more than 56 hours of overtime at home. These numbers are all up from last year's survey.”

Ms. Kraft- Linder adds that there is also what economists call the “opportunity cost” where mothers often give up time to do other things in favor of mothering. “Decades of lost wages, lost contributions to Social Security, and missed chances at career advancement” are some examples. Americans spend about $168.94 per year on their mothers. Clearly there is no way to literally “pay her back” and mothers don't expect that. (Although, does have a pretend check you can print out to give to your mom for all she has done!)

On top of the free labor she is providing, Rabbi Tzvi Gluckin unabashedly proclaims, “Your Mom should hate you!” in his article, “Why Your Mom Doesn't Hate You Even Though She Should.” “Your mom gives you everything. That is all she does. She gives and she gets nothing back. Not from you. You take. She's a giver. You're a taker.” He goes on to describe how even before you were born you lived in our mother's womb and fed, kept warm and yet all you did was kick. Then you were born in a painful childbirth. Even then you did not say, “Thank you!” All you did was keep her up all night, and cry a lot. As you grew you continued to be ungrateful, until the “moody teenage” years. “You were difficult. You were resentful. You had to be told to do things. Twice. More than twice. And, maybe mom found you frustrating or challenging or difficult to understand, but she loved you anyway, because, well, that's what moms do. Being a mom is a thankless job.” Rabbi Gluckin then continues to say when it was time for the older child to move out on his/her own, one would think that mom would be happy and relieved- she's “free”! Yet, she is devastated. That is what unconditional love is all about.

Unconditional love, stems from undconditional giving. The word for love in Hebrew is Ahava, the root of which is Hav which means to give. To love, is to give. And the more you give of yourself, the more you are "invested" in the other person, and the more you love that person.

So, what gifts can our children give us to make it all worthwhile? I don't know about you, but all I want is to enjoy my children more. We spend so much time doing all of the above “mothering” tasks that we don't simply take the time to enjoy our children. How do we make this happen? Do we just frankly say to our children, “Help me enjoy you- that's the payback!” Dr. Vincent Monastra writes that mothers, and fathers, need to think about how much time a we spend “saying something 'nice' with” our children. For at least fifteen minutes a day, he asks us to be in a room with each one of our children and interact with him/her without peppering them with questions or correcting them. In this way, we let our children know that we are not only interested in being around them when they are in trouble or need to do a chore, but rather we “actually enjoy being her or his parent, that you love and want to be with your child, and that your child is more than just a burden to you.” And, we need to do this quickly before they don't want us around!

 Sara Debbie Gutfreund asserts that there are four gifts she says children do naturally give to their parents, as we enjoy them: 1. The Gift of Play 2. The Gift of Stories 3. The Gift of Giving 4. The Gift of Growth, all of which we could not have imagined before we had children. Ms. Gutfruend ends, “Maybe we have this whole Mother's Day thing backwards. Perhaps it's a day for mothers to appreciate the gifts our children have already given us...And, I whisper my secret to my children as I watch them sleeping, a sliver of moonlight falling across the floor, 'I love being your mother. Thank you for the gift of your presence in my life. It's a blessing that I am going to keep just for me.'”

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Heard It Through The Grapevine- Let It Stop With You

 “I heard it through the grapevine…People say believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear…” These are the words of a 1968 song sung by Marvin Gaye…and a point of discussion in our sixth grade Advisory this week. This lesson was part of their unit on Bullying and Social Exclusion as it focused on the harm of gossip and spreading rumors. One of the L.E.A.D.E.R.S. strategies the students learn about is “Rumors stop with me.” We discussed why people gossip, the harm it can inflict, and what we can do to stop the cycle. Through a humorous video by Netsmartz, we also discussed how gossip and spreading rumors is so much more powerful in the age of texting and internet. These are some things we asked them to think about:

1. When you hear something you have the urge to pass on don’t think about whether or not it’s true. Think about:
  • Why do I want to pass this on?
  • Would I want people to know this kind of information about me?
  • How will this person feel if he/she knows this information will be spread?
  • Will spreading this rumor reduce his status or cause exclusion?
2. Make the rumor stop with you. Take a stand.
3. Don’t be an audience. “I’m not interested. Thanks.”
4. Respect privacy. If it’s private, don’t spread it.

Our 7th and 8th graders also experienced the power of gossip when Ms. Debbie Nehmad came to speak to them on Wednesday. She shared her first- hand story of how she was in 8th grade and through a chat group, gossip was spread about her and made her an outcast. For 1 ½ years she experienced bullying and social exclusion in person and on the web, which even followed her to her new high school. She shared the terrible emotional state she was in and how she even began to believe that the way she was being treated by others was actually how she deserved to be treated. Debbie shared her story with the students as a reminder of how powerful their actions can be, even if their intention is to “make a joke” or only inflict a “little” harm. There was an overwhelming reaction from the students. They had numerous questions to ask, and when she left they shared with me what an impact she made on them. Here was a real-life person who experienced such pain and actualized for them much of which they learn about in Advisory.

In thinking about it, I believe that focusing on the harmful effects of gossip was perfectly timed to occur the week before Pesach. In essence, gossip or Lashon Hara is what brought us to Mitzrayim in the first place. In the Haggadah it describes that Yaakov went down to Egypt “Anus al pi hadibbur.” We usually translate those words as “compelled by the Divine decree.” In a haggadah called the Commentator’s Haggadah , by Yitzchak Sender, he quotes the Maggid of Plotzk, (a student of the Vilna Gaon), from the Siddur Shaar Rachamim, to explain these words differently. He says that the words al pi hadibbur mean “because of the words/speech” of Lashon Hara that Yoseph spoke against his brothers. He adds that Yoseph got the sin for speaking it and Yaakov sinned by listening to it. (Which is an interesting point to share with our children. We encourage them not to pass on gossip. How about not listening to it in the first place!) The Maggid says that the punishment for this Lashon Hara was the exile in Egypt.

In 2008, it was also was a Jewish leap year. Rabbi Mayer Twerski pointed out then that this allowed the parshiot of Tazria and Metzora- parshiot that deal with the halachot of tzara’at (a leprosy- like disease), which was a punishment for speaking Lashon Hara, to be closer to Pesach. It is very fitting that we focus on the sin of Lashon Hara and its consequences before Pesach, as he also states that the exile of Mitzrayim was caused and prolonged by Lashon Hara. He refers too to the Lashon Hara of Yoseph. He then quotes another proof from Shemot 2:14. After Moshe killed the Egyptian he then sees two Jews fighting and tries to stop them. One of the Jews says, “Are you going to kill us like you killed the Egyptian?” The pasuk then states that Moshe was afraid, since “…behold the matter is known.” The pshat is that the matter was now known that Moshe killed the Egyptian. The Midrash says something different. Moshe had been wondering what terrible sins the Jews had committed to be worthy of such slavery. Now he understood! Clearly people had been gossiping about the crime he had committed. This nation was full of people who speak Lashon hara. How will they ever be redeemed?
Rabbi Frand quotes the Chofetz Chayim on this puzzling Midrash. We know the Jews had sunk to the 49th level of impurity- why could Moshe not figure out the cause of their exile? The Chofetz Chaim states that Lashon Hara is THE sin that causes G-d to not to be able to overlook all of our other sins. “If you focus on the negative, I will focus on the negative as well.” The way we judge others is the way G-d judges us. Once Lashon Hara was prevalent among the Jews, He could not overlook their other sins, and they were worthy of Exile.
In fact, this issue of Lashon Hara appears elsewhere when Moshe received his mission from G-d. Moshe was worried no one would believe him and Hashem told him to do three signs before Pharaoh when he first came to him- To turn a staff into a snake, the water into blood and place his hand in his bosom and remove it and it would be full of tzara’at. But, that last sign of tzara’at was not shown to the Egyptians. Why? Hashem said to Moshe that it should be a sign for “you.” Rashi 4:6 comments why the tzara’at? “A hint for Moshe that he spoke Lashon Hara about the Jews when he said, “They will not listen to me.’” (A snake also often represents Lashon Hara- a loose tongue).
In these days before Pesach as we clean our house from Chametz, we also need to cleanse ourselves from bad character traits and sin. Gossip causes much pain on the interpersonal level and on the national level. This past week, our middle schoolers had the opportunity to think about how they can prevent bullying and gossip, and how they can bring the Redemption one step closer.
L’shana haba’a b’Yerushalayim!
Advisory Update:
6th Grade- Focused on the topic of gossip in today’s world of technology.
7th Grade- As part of their political action unit “Do Not Stand Idly By” they have learned about the BDS movement that threatens Israel and the role they can play.

8th Grade- As part of unit on The Changing Parent-Child Relationship in Adolescence they discussed, “What if they could switch places with their parents?” Would we understand each other better? What issues is the other facing? 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Everyday Miracles

            "An amazing instance of right place at the right time..." stated The Week magazine. I beg to differ.  This past week, in Burbank,  California,  Konrad and Jennifer Lightner were moving and carrying their mattress out into the street.   Suddenly, they looked up and saw a three year old boy dangling from a chord out of a third-floor window.  Konrad positioned the mattress under the boy, and broke his fall.  Amazing, yes. How about the Hand of G-d?
            Months ago, Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons retired.   "Thirteen years ago, Gonzalez was tackled out of bounds and sent crashing towards photographer Mickey Pfleger."  Gonzalez's 240 lbs practically flattened the much smaller Pfleger, knocking him unconscious.  Gonzalez felt terrible and checked in on Pfleger.  He found out days later that Pfleger had had a seizure, and the medical team performed an MRI.   The MRI revealed a brain tumor  which was life-threatening.  Over the years, when Gonzalez and Pfleger would see each other, Pfleger hugged Gonzalez and reminded him how he was supposed to be leveled by Gonzalez, supposed to have a seizure and all that to save his life.  Coincidence? I think not.  The Hand of  G-d.  At the time, no one could have realized G-d's plan, as Yonatan Rosenblum reported.
            These newsworthy items are "teachable moments" for our children.  How can we help them see the Hand of G-d in their daily lives?  It need not be the saving of a person's life.  It can be the small things that often go unnoticed- the forgetting of your jacket  only to run in and see you also left your homework on the table.  Phew! Or, how about not making it on to the basketball team, only to be available for the new soccer team that was just started and thereby becoming the star player? 
            When I was in seventh grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Naomi Sutton. I will never forget many of the activities and assignments we did that year.  One such activity was a "Hashgacha Pratit" (Divine providence) journal where we had to record when we saw the Hand of  Hashem in our lives.  It absolutely changed the way I perceived G-d in my life. It also changed my relationship with G-d. More importantly, it changed the way I davened.
            Helping teens connect to Tefilla has been a topic on my mind for some time.  Over the years, I have been privileged to be involved in a number of activities that I believe did make a difference in the ability of adolescents to connect to Davening. I am always searching for new answers.
            In a recent article found in the Jewish Action magazine of the OU, written by Steve Lipman, they discussed why students have such a hard time with Tefilla. In fact, Chana Tannenbaum of Bar Ilan University surveyed more than 350 Yeshiva Day School graduates who were spending their year in Israel.  When she asked them whether "Tefilla was a spiritually uplifting event," only 16.4% said it was in contrast to the "20% ... who found participation in a sports team to be fairly or extremely meaningful to their religious growth."  In truth, rather than davening by rote, we want our teens' Tefilla to be "a genuine connection with,  a conversation with, the Creator." 
            The best way to have them think about that connection during Tefilla is to have them think about it often.   I want my students to think about G-d - not only when they are in shul or in Chumash class.  I want them to search Him out  in their daily lives.
            The story of Eldad and Meidad in Bamidbar 11:24-29, struck me in a new way this past week, (as I tested my son on his test material!) .  The new elders appointed to lead the Jewish nation were to go to the Mishkan and the Presence of Hashem dwelled upon them and they prophesied.  But, two elders, Eldad and Meidad, who felt they were unworthy, stayed in the camp and prophesied there.   When he heard, Yehoshua wanted to imprison them.  Moshe, on the other  hand, disagreed and said, "If only all of Hashem's people could be prophets and Hashem would put His spirit upon them."   If only we all could speak to Hashem as a prophet does,  and feel His presence at all times.  We would be able to see Him daily, and we would be better "daveners" and better people.  We would want to do the right thing if we truly felt Hashem was watching.
            The holiday of Pesach is full of miracles and obvious demonstrations of  the Hand of Hashem. The climax of the Exodus is Keriat Yam Suf- the splitting of the Red Sea.  Rabbi Tzvi Sobolofsky points out that one may notice that that incredible miracle is found in Parashat Beshalach- the same parasha as the man(manna) , slav (quail), the finding of  water in the desert and the battle against Amalek.  This is not merely a lesson in chronology.
            There are two ways to respond to the outright miracles of the Exodus.  One could be like Amalek "asher karcha baderech" who claim that everything is "mikreh" a coincidence.  Even the splitting of the sea could be explained away with unusual natural phenomena.  They are skeptical.
             The other way to respond to a miracle is by saying that it was a one time demonstration of Hashem's daily involvement in the world.  The Ramban in Parshat Bo explains that "the ultimate purpose of a revealed miracle is to enable people to realize that they are surrounded by miracles every day. What the world calls nature is also a miracle." To prevent one from saying that he/she recognized miracles such as the splitting of the sea, but not everyday miracles,  the story of Keriat Yam Suf is immediately followed by the events of the slav, man, and the finding of water in the desert. Hashem, who performs great miracles, also provides for our daily needs such as food and water. As we say daily in Shmoneh Esrei,  "...for Your miracles which are with us daily, and for Your continual wonders and beneficences."

            Rabbi Knapp, (I hope it is okay that I share without his permission), mentioned that he often does an exercise with his own children, "Where did you see Hashem in your life today?"  Do we ever ask our children to seek Him out?  Pesach is the holiday where the Jewish people create and craft their relationship with G-d.    May the lessons of  Pesach last all year long, as we continually challenge our children to find the Hand of G-d, create a relationship with Him, and to talk to Him, at least three times a day.