Thursday, October 2, 2014

From Stress to Serenity

 “From Stress To Serenity- Reducing Anxiety In The Home” was the topic of our parent workshop this past Wednesday evening. Dr. Norman Blumenthal, the Director of Trauma, Relief and Bereavement Response at Ohel was the guest presenter. Thank you to all those who attended. We know that it is never easy to run out of the house as children are clamoring for your attention. Or... perhaps since it is so hectic at home, coming to workshops is one way to acquire some serenity?

Throughout the ages, parents have been seeking serenity.  Even thousands of years ago, in the time of the Tanach, our patriarch Yaakov- father to a very large family (he definitely needed a break), sought serenity. As it says in Rashi on the 2nd Pasuk in Parashat Vayeshev, 37:2,  on the words from the first pasuk "Vayeshev Yaakov b'eretz migurei aviv b'eretz Canaan" - And, Yaakov settled in the land where his father lived, the land of Canaan."  Rashi says, Bikesh Yaakov leyshev b’shalva’” “Yaakov requested to dwell in peace and tranquility- serenity.”

Yaakov sought out serenity after fleeing from Eisav all those years.  Was Yaakov successful? Unfortunately not, as Rashi ends Kafatz alav rogzo shel Yosef’” “The tragedy of Yosef (and his sale) was thrust upon him.” Yaakov's family entered a new era of stress.

Likewise, as parents, this serenity in our homes is often elusive.  Even Yaakov was unable to achieve it. What is the secret? Let me first share with you some of Dr. Blumethal's ideas (in red), and then I will relay my own, as they relate to the Yamim Noraim (in blue).

Dr. Blumenthal discussed some reasons why anxiety in children is at an all-time high- higher than during World War II or the Depression. We are safer and more secure as a society and as Jews more than during any time in history. Then why are our children so anxious? Dr. Blumenthal asserted that our children are too safe. We “bubble wrap” our children so that they never experience failure or challenges, so when they need to face any difficulties they do not have the skills to cope. He gave the example of playgrounds nowadays where they have removed all high equipment, swings and anything that could possibly cause a fall. And, yet research shows that children who have small falls, have decreased fear of heights. We need to provide our children with reasonable challenges and difficulties in life.

Today's society is also full of parents who are hesitant to provide structure, rules and consequences to children. Children need structure, discipline and limits to feel secure. Dr. Blumenthal stressed that children are supposed to misbehave, and we are supposed to enforce limits.

Some other sources of anxiety for children today are the “cookie cutter” syndrome. We expect all of our children to be the same, receive the same education, and go into the same professions, without any regard for the need of every child to be unique. As parents, we need to accept our children for their talents and uniqueness and not push them to be what they weren't meant to be. And, along these lines, we often compare our children to others, which causes anxiety.

Dr. Blumenthal ended with three ideas. First, Nachat is a source of stress. Who said as parents we are entitled to Nachat from our children? Let's stop putting so much pressure, and allow them to perform for themselves. Second, living in the age of the internet, where they are exposed to information from which our parents sheltered us, creates a level of anxiety. They live in an age where they are “entitled to know,” and we need to tell them before they hear it from their peers. Additionally, as “helicopter parents” we feel we need to know everything about our children at all times. Cellphones, nannycams- we must always be connected. This creates a myth that we must always be aware of what our children are doing . We need to calm down as parents and realize that it is not realistic to know everything. Third, our children are living in “generation lockdown” with the threat of terrorism closer to home. This also creates anxiety. Dr. Blumenthal did end the evening stating that our children are strong and resilient, and they can deal with anxiety if we teach them how to cope.

In the tefilla “Unetaneh tokef” that we say on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur we also yearn for a year of serenity as we say, “Mi yishalev u'mi yityasar” “who will enjoy tranquility/serenity and who will suffer?” Just like Yaakov Avinu, we also seek out “shalva” But, the tefilla itself provides us with the key to achieving that serenity “Teshuva, Tefilla, U'tzedakah” “Repentance, prayer and charity.”

Repentance includes the Teshuva process and the fasting. Yom Kippur is a day, according to Rabbi Berel Wein, “of serenity and inner yearning for the better part of ourselves to assert itself. One of the great lessons of Yom Kippur is that inner serenity is achievable only be a degree of separation from the worldly pursuits that press constantly upon us.” As parents too, focusing on our own internal growth is essential. Likewise, our ability to push out the rest of the world, (and the work e-mails!), and truly be present with our children is one way to achieve serenity.

Tefilla” is truly an exercise in introspection. We know that the word “l'hitpallel” “to pray” really means to “judge oneself.” The Jews of older generations would spend an hour before tefilla preparing for prayer. Pondering ones spiritual status and where one is headed is a secret to achieving serenity. As parents, taking some “me time” for self-improvement is important to becoming better Jews and better parents.

The commentary on the Machzor of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that “Tzedakah” - charity- is an expression of selflessness, empathy and compassion. It is the opposite of sin, which is the result of “selfishness, when temptation overrules sacred principles.” The ability to connect with others and realize “it's not all about me” is another path to serenity. As parents, when we have the ability to realize that every time our child does not excel, it is not necessarily a reflection of our failings. If we are honest with ourselves, much of the pressure we put on our children and on ourselves to make sure all is “perfect,” is to ensure that people do not wonder about the quality of his/her parents. Once we are able to focus on them and not what their behavior reflects about us, calm can set in.

But, as Dr. Blumenthal added, some anxiety is good for a person. Just the right amount- not too much and not too little- spurs on effort and the will to perform. So too, during the Aseret Yimei Teshuva, when we are anxious about the decree for the coming year and being forgiven, we do “perform better,” and engage in mitzvot and in our Judaism as we probably should all year long. May the positive anxiety we feel during this Yamim Noraim season lead to increased serenity all year long.

Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade- Did not have Advisory this week due to Selichot and extended Tefillot.

Seventh Grade- Focused on the basic communication skills needed for effective interactions with others. They began to learn the importance of utilizing “I messages” in discussing with others.

Eighth Grade- They discussed the plot of “Who Moved My Cheese?” as a metaphor for learning how to cope with change and difficulties in life. The message of the importance of change is a timely one for this time of year.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Helping Our Teens Navigate The Maze Of Life

Last Friday I spent the day courageously traversing a giant Corn Maze (or Maize Maze) with the 8th grade. Split into teams, it was an exercise in teambuilding and perseverance. We made it out, (okay, we exited through the entrance!), but the experience caused me to think about the imagery of the maze and what it represents in life. Particularly at this time of year, as we approach Rosh HaShana, I found meaning in the maze.

At the same time, my son and I have been engaged in a mother/son bonding experience as we have been reading the Rick Riordan series of Percy and the Olympians. Although he is already done with the series, I coincidentally am at the end of the book The Battle Of The Labyrinth. In this book, Percy Jackson needs to find his way through the labyrinth and find its creator, Daedalus who held the secret to their salvation.  The labyrinth, similar, yet different from a maze, can also be a metaphor for life and Rosh HaShana.

There is another famous maze that I recently read about in the book Who Moved My Cheese: For Teens- An A-Mazing Way To Change And Win!.  by Spencer Johnson. In this book, a parable for dealing with change, the mice and the “little people,” (named Hem and Haw), live in a maze and search the maze for “cheese”- the metaphor for what we want in life.  What is the connection between these two mazes and the labyrinth that have been appearing of late?  What message can it help us provide to our children?  

Interestingly enough, a movie called "The Maze Runner" just came out, which is based on a book from John Dashner's young adult trilogy. In the movie, the main character seeks a way out of a maze that changes daily.  I have not read the book, nor can I vouch for whether the books or the movie are appropriate for our teens, but it is interesting to note another maze geared with some message towards specifically our teens. 

A maze is an obvious metaphor for life.  As we walk along, we see a path we think we should follow, but alas it is a dead end, and we need to retrace our steps and start again.   We meet with obstacles along the way, and at times we cannot decide which way to go. Each decision we make impacts on whether we find the right path.  Sometimes our paths take us farther away from our goals. Some seem to navigate the maze easily. For others, the maze is a series of wrong turns. The frustration we feel as we make our way through the maze is particularly felt in the teenage years.  One minute the teen feels that he has it all figured out- the path is straight, and then the next moment the path is unclear and all has changed. Sometimes, for teens, the maze changes daily. 

As parents, we model for our children the way we navigate through the maze.  As  learned in Who Moved My Cheese , (originally written for adults),  there are lessons we can relay to our teens about how to overcome the frustration of the maze, when things don’t turn out the way they plan.
1.      Often our emotions cloud the way we look at things which makes the maze more complicated and challenging. Ranting and raving about injustice does not solve problems.
2.     “It’s not right” “It’s not the way things are supposed to be”- we often get stuck in what we expect to happen. Often, life is unexpected, and we need to move on on the new path with which we have been “dealt.” Are we going to move on- "vayelech" or we will get stuck "nitzvavim"? (Even the parshiot hashavua connect!)
3.     In the book, Haw says, “Things are changing around here, Hem. Maybe we need to change and do things differently.”  “Why should we change?” Hem said.  Change is difficult, but often necessary.  We often have to leave our comfort zones. And, as Haw wrote, “Old beliefs do not lead you to new cheese.”
4.     Fear of failure often prevents us from finding success. Optimistically envisioning success, even when frustrated, is important for finding your destination.
5.     “Who moved my cheese?” Spending time blaming others is never beneficial. Taking control is better than letting things happen.
6.     Reflect on mistakes you made in the past and use them to plan for the future.
7.     “The biggest inhibitor to change lies within yourself, and that nothing gets better until you change.”
8.     Although you may not like it at the time, change from what you expect often turns out to be a blessing.

As we model the above skills, when we face challenge in life, our children learn how to cope with adversity and dead ends.  Often, our ability to navigate the maze depends on our attitudes. If we treat obstacles as a natural part of life and surmountable, we can overcome. .   How will we deal with difficulties in life, and bumps in the road? Will we give up, sit down and cry? Will we cope and try again?  Will we remain optimistic? 

A labyrinth and a maze are different.  A labyrinth has only one path (unircursal) and the way in is the same as the way out.  The only choice you need to make is whether to enter or not.  We are never truly lost, but can never see where we are going.  It is a long path, even though only one path.  It is a metaphor for the journey to the center of “your most deepest self with a broadened understanding of who you are.”  

We can choose to view the maze as a labyrinth with no tricks or dead ends

The labyrinth is also a wonderful metaphor for Teshuva. The word Teshuva means to return.  A straight path to the center- returning to where we began without sin. We can return to who we really are. This path can be difficult like a maze or easier like a labyrinth, walking a path to our “spiritual centers.”  We have the map to navigate these yimei ratzon-   “Teshuva, Tefilla, U’Tzedakah.”   One might think that there is no challenge in a labyrinth, and yet it takes time to achieve our goal. Why?  We need to choose when to move closer to the center, and often we choose not to. There are things in life distracting us from the center.  But, as we know, if we wish to find our “center” it will become easier as “Haba l’taher misayin oto” (Yoma 38b)’ “He who seeks to purify himself, will receive Heavenly assistance.”   

There is also a trick to navigating through life and achieving the right path, as provided by the Mishna in Avot 3:1.  Akavya ben Mehalalel states that if we look at three things then we will not come to sin, i.e. we can reach the center of the labyrinth,  “Ma’ayin bata, u’le’an ata holech, u’lifnei mi atah atid litein din v’cheshbon”  “Know where you come from, where you are going, and in front of whom you will stand in judgment.”  During the Yamim Noraim, we ask ourselves,  “From where have we come and we are going- spiritually?”  We need to examine the path we have taken and our choices.  Most importantly, while walking the path of life, remember that we walk before G-d who sees and knows all.

Teshuva is about change- the ability to do something different this year and to overcome the fear of change of which Spencer Johnson speaks.  Often we know we must change, but we are not exactly sure what sort of change we need, A Chasidic parable talks of a man lost in the woods- similar to a maze.  A man went walking in a forest, only to find himself lost. Each time he thought he was getting somewhere, he found himself even more lost. This went on for days and days, wandering in the thick woods. Eventually, this man ran into another just like him; someone else had been wandering lost in the forest. "Hello!," said the first man, "Thank God! Now that I have found you, you can show me the way out," he said. "I don't know the way out either," said the second. "But I do know not to go the way I have come from, for that way is not the way. Now let us walk on together and find the light.

As we begin Selichot, and sit days before Rosh HaShana, I think of the words of A.J. Cronin writes in the foreword of Who Moved My Cheese?”, “Life is no straight and easy corridor along which we travel free and unhampered, but a maze of passages through which we must seek our way, lost and confused, now and again checked into a blind alley.  But always, if we have faith, a door will open for us, not perhaps one that we ourselves would ever have thought of, but one that will ultimately prove good for us.”

May this new year be one of unobstructed paths and the strength to cope when obstructions come our way.  May we merit change for the better and Teshuva to our true centers.

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade:  Sixth graders through a creative puzzle making activity focused on forming a cohesive group and highlighting how despite their differences they can become a unit.
Seventh Grade: Through the life story of Austin Gutwein, a teenager who truly changed the world, the seventh graders considered what character traits are needed to make an impact. They highlighted that first focusing on changing oneself is often the key to changing the world- a timely message!
Eighth Grade: Students learned what S.M.A.R.T goals are, and set social, emotional, family, and spiritual goals for this year. They sent themselves an e-mail containing these goals utilizing the website which will arrive in their inbox on graduation day. They will then be able to see if they actualized their goals.  What better time to focus on goal setting than during this 

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.'”