Saturday, May 13, 2017

Happy Mother's Day- A Lesson In Leisure

Do you know what I want for Mother’s Day? No flowers. No jewelry. Not even breakfast in bed. I want a nap.  My children would smile when they hear that, as they know that the only reason I stay up as late as I do is because they are still up!  (Okay, or working on Yavneh e-mails or Advisory!)  

I am actually in good company. An article “A Better Way To Work” in asserts that “Darwin, Dickens and some of the most accomplished people in history have one thing in common, said researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. They worked with intense focus- but for only four hours a day.”  These accomplished people shared a passion for their work, but only spent a few hours a day engaged in their work, and the rest of the time relaxing, taking naps, hiking or just thinking.  Perhaps the key to their creativity did not only lie in how they worked, but also in how they rested.  

Using Darwin as an example, he would begin work by 8:00 a.m. and work 1 ½ hours.  At 9:30 he would read the mail and write letters.  At 10:30 he would continue working until noon. He would then say, “I did a good day’s work,” and go on a walk.  He then had lunch, and answered more letters.  At 3:00 he would take a nap. Then he would take another walk and then have dinner with his family.  At this leisurely pace he wrote 19 books and probably the most famous book in the history of science, Origin of Species.   He made sure his days were filled with “downtime.”

Soojun-Kim Pang writes of numerous other “geniuses” who kept similar hours.  G.H. Hardy, a famous British mathematician said, “Four hours’ creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician.”  He quotes a survey of scientists’ work in the 1950s which indicated that scientists who spent more than 25 hours at work were no more productive than those who spent five hours at work. Those who worked 60 plus hours a week were the least productive of those surveyed.  

Similar results were found with musicians as well in the 1980’s in research by Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch- Romer.  Even among those who needed to practice more hours “they have more frequent, shorter sessions… with half hour breaks in between. What separated the great students at the Berlin conservatory from the good…how they rested.”  They took naps and slept more hours at night than their colleagues.

An increasing number of businesses are realizing the benefits of napping during the day.  Uber and the Huffington Post  have nap rooms. Google, Zappos and Proctor and Gamble have  nap pods which have found their way into businesses and even schools. Ben and Jerry’s and Pricewaterhouse Coopers allow naps for their employees as well. Napping during the day helps with concentration and boosts productivity. It can provide a memory boost.  It also reduces anxiety and depression and lowers blood pressure.  Napping enhances creativity and strengthens willpower.

Even if napping is not possible, it is important to take a break and to have some “downtime.” This is particularly true for students. Dr. Alejandro LLeras conducted a research study at the University of Illinois to determine “the effectiveness of prolonged work or study periods without a break.”  He determine that without short breaks performance dropped off.     In other studies, researchers from the University of South Florida found that the length of a break directly correlates with how long information is retained.  But, these breaks need to be taken effectively- not engaging in social media or texting.  Those activities can actually increase stress and reduces the student’s ability to focus and learn.  Aside from actual napping, exercise and “meditation” have been found to maximize the benefits of the break.

Although the research is recently popularizing the idea of taking a break, the Torah figured that out the first week of creation.  God created and “worked hard” for 6 days and then He rested- modelling for us the importance of rest.  On Shabbat we take a much needed break, as Dr. Yvette Alt Miller reports in her article “Shabbat and Good Health.” First, we take a break from technology on Shabbat.  Dr. Alt- Miller quotes a study of Harvard Business School Professor Leslie A. Perlow where she asked high- powered consultants to to turn off their phones once a week- just for the night. She soon found that “the participants soon reported greater happiness, satisfaction with their work-life balance, and feelings of empowerment.”  

We also eat dinner and lunch with our families on Shabbat.  Dr. Alt- Miller quotes the famous 16- year study at Columbia University which says that when families eat together “consistently found that the more often children have dinners with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs, and that parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children.”  Those meals also strengthen the bonds between husband and wife.

Let us not forget the actual rest on Shabbat- which at times includes that nap. As we sing in Shabbat zemirot, מַה יְּדִידוּת מְנוּחָתֵךְ, אַתְּ שַׁבָּת הַמַּלְכָּה,  “How beloved is your sweet rest! You the Shabbat Queen!”  As the song continues later on,
הִלּוּכָךְ תְּהֵא בְנַֽחַת, עֹֽנֶג קְרָא לַשַּׁבָּת,
וְהַשֵּׁנָה מְשֻׁבַּֽחַת, כְּדָת נֶֽפֶשׁ מְשִׁיבַת,
בְּכֵן נַפְשִׁי לְךָ עָרְגָה, וְלָנֽוּחַ בְּחִבַּת,
כַּשּׁוֹשַׁנִּים סוּגָה, בּוֹ יָנֽוּחוּ בֵּן וּבַת.

Even your pace should be restful. Call the Shabbat a delight. The sleep on this day is praiseworthy, as it is necessary to restore the soul. Therefore, my soul craves You, to rest in Your love, surrounded by a hedge of roses. In this day will rest sons and daughters.  
מֵעֵין עוֹלָם הַבָּא, יוֹם שַׁבָּת מְנוּחָה,
The rest on Shabbat day is a taste of the World to Come.

Just like in the World to Come, when we take a break we reconnect with our spirituality and with true meaning.

So, on this Mother’s Day, I don’t ask for much.  I ask for a nap. A bit of downtime and just a taste of the World to Come.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade: Students began discussing the potential danger their phones can be when it comes to cyberbullying.

Seventh Grade: Students discussed the role of the U.N. and their position on Israel and Yerushalayim.

Eighth Grade:   Students focused on the dangers of alcohol and what it does to your brain in the long and short term.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Bullying Or Not... And, Why Does it Matter?

With the release of the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why there has been much discussion of bullying, social exclusion- its impact on and the role of children, and the role of the adults involved.  This coming month, (already planned before the Netflix series), we are spending time in all our Advisory classes discussing the topic.  (Please note that we are not discussing nor bringing up the Netflix series in class, as we do not want to encourage students to watch the show).

Some might ask, isn’t it a bit overkill to focus on the same topic each year? And, in fact, each time we mention the word “bullying” one can see the eyes of the children roll, meaning “Seriously? Not again!” That is why we need to become creative when it comes to covering this topic.

First, we only use the actual word “bullying” with our sixth graders- and transition them to new terms like harassment and social exclusion. When it comes to 7th and 8th grade we frame it differently.  For example, our seventh graders recently began a unit in Advisory called “Do Not Stand Idly By.” The theme of this unit is the importance of standing up to injustice and wrong when you see it.  We focus on becoming “upstanders” instead of “bystanders” (a theme we also begin in sixth grade).  Research on bullying indicates that to successfully stop bullying in its tracks we need to strengthen the bystanders- that is where the real work is.  But, instead of beginning the unit with teaching bystander skills through peer social interactions, we begin the unit with a political action.  Why?  If we have an obligation to stand up and do what’s right, we also have that obligation when it comes to injustice in the world around us.

This year we begin by briefing the students on the issue surrounding Jewish sovereignty of Yerushalayim and the danger that sovereignty is in. We engage them in discussions and briefing regarding the Palestinian efforts to erase all Jewish history from Jerusalem.  They learn about the the history behind our relationship with Yerushalayim and how the conflict came about.  They investigate the U.N.’s position on Jerusalem and Israel in general, which has recently been in the news.  Students are also familiarized with the position of the United States when it comes to Jerusalem.  Issues such as the fact that the American passport of a person born in Jerusalem just says “Jerusalem” and not “Jerusalem, Israel,”  or the embassy controversy are covered.  We want them to understand that Jewish sovereignty is at stake, and especially during the 50th anniversary of the reunification it is essential for us to become upstanders and do something about it through political action.  The highlight of this unit will be our visit this coming Tuesday by Congressman Josh Gottheimer who will meet with our entire 7th grade. We will have an opportunity to ask questions and present him with a gift on the theme of “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.”  

The political action component is followed by a discussion of the research of why bystander often do nothing when there is something wrong happening around them. We focus on the bystander effect, discuss why students tend not to come to adults as they deem that “snitching,” and go through practical scenarios of situations that happen in school, asking them what they would do.  The students are thus far engaged and interested, and the best part- they don’t even know they are learning about bullying!

Our sixth graders will begin learning about the LEADERS strategies developed by Dr. Rona Novick when it comes to what they can do as bystanders.  Here are the highlights. We go into more detail with the students. L.- Leave No One Out.  E. - Empower Yourself: Stand Up To Bullies  A.- Amuse With Humor- Make Light Of A Dark Situation  D.- Distract The Bully Or The Victim  E.- Enlist Help: Tell Someone Who Can Help R.- Rumors Stop With Me.  S.- Support The Victim.  This unit naturally followed from the unit before on Friendship and Popularity.  

Our eighth graders have just finished a discussion of the movie The Wave which impactfully connects the Holocaust theme, about which they have been learning, to peer pressure and social exclusion. They have also been engaging in periodic Quality Circles which they experienced for the first time in sixth grade and do in 7th and 8th grade.  A quality circle was created by Dr. Rona Novick as part of her BRAVE anti-bullying program.  It is modeled after a practice in automotive industry where all those who work on building the car sit and evaluate their product at the end of production.  The product we at Yavneh evaluate in a Quality Circle is the atmosphere in our school. We evaluate- is it an atmosphere where people feel respected?  This week they are engaging in a meaningful activity where they write about the special qualities of their classmates to create an inscription which will be placed in the sefer they receive from the school at their graduation dinner.   Before they begin writing, the students discuss the impact of the words that they say about their classmates can have, without their even knowing.  

We are trying our best to educate our students. But, of course, that does not mean that we do not still need to be vigilant and that children will not still do the wrong thing at times. As parents,  we cringe when we hear a story about our child feeling left out or picked on.  We hope you know that we, the school, are partners with you in helping in any way we can.

One important aspect of all this training is that we educate our children what bullying is and what it is not.  The definition we use is “Bullying is  if a person  a. Acted willfully and intentionally, with a clear purpose to do harm b. Cause physical, emotional or social damage    c. Abused their power (either their physical size, social status, intelligence or other factor that makes them powerful).”  We ask them to think about questions like: Is it bullying if someone hurts you by accident? What is the difference between teasing a friend and harassment? Is bullying always physical? Is it bullying when two people are having a fight with each other?

When thinking about this definition of bullying as parents, an article in The Huffington Post, forwarded to me this week by Mrs. Barbara Rubin, comes to mind,   “Rude Vs. Mean Vs. Bullying: Defining The Differences” by Signe Whitson, who does bully prevention training for a living.  She described that after coverage about her workshop appeared in a local newspaper she received many letters from parents and students about bullying they had experienced. She was horrified over and over by some of the painful stories she heard.  But, she then shared, “I also want to be honest and share that some of the stories are...well...really not so bad.”

Whitson continued to describe one of the stories received from a mother who shared that  a boy from the neighborhood threw leaves in her daughter's face. When Whitson asked, “Was she very upset when she got home?”  The mom answered, “No, she just brushed the leaves off and told me they were having fun together.”  Whitson thought then perhaps the girl was downplaying her feelings of being victimized due to embarrassment or shame (or I add, fear of retaliation if she tells).  But,  the mom stressed that the daughter did not seem to be upset at all. “She really seemed to think it was fun” and threw leaves back at him.  Whitson then probed further, “Is he usually mean to her? Has he bothered her after school before?”  The mom said, “No. I don’t think so at least. It was the first time she ever said anything about him… But, it better be the last time! I won’t stand for her being bullied by that kid. Next time, I am going to make sure the principal knows what is going on after school lets out!”

Whitson continues that she never minimizes the experiences of others, but there needs to be a distinction between rude behavior, mean behavior and bullying. These are the definitions she provides. “Rude= Inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else.” It is thoughtless, but spontaneous, “unplanned inconsideration based on poor manners, narcissism or thoughtlessness, but not meant to actually hurt someone.”   

“Mean= Purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice). The main distinction between ‘rude’ and ‘mean’ has to do with intention.”  Mean behavior aims to hurt another.  While mean behaviors can be very hurtful, and children need to be held accountable for that behavior, but the intervention would differ from bullying.

“Bullying= Intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involved an imbalance of power.” These are the three key elements identified in the research as comprising bullying. It is intentional, repeated and the perpetrator does not show remorse. (Whitson goes on to list the different types of bullying, I’ve covered before in my column, physical aggression, verbal aggression, relational aggression and cyberbullying).

What is the difference, one might ask, if we misidentify meanness or rudeness as bullying? I would call it the “rolling eyes syndrome”- exactly what we see with our students. As Whitson so eloquently states, “...I have already begun to see that gratuitous references to bullying are creating a bit of a ‘little boy who cried wolf’ phenomena.  In other words, if kids and parents improperly classify rudeness and mean behavior as bullying… we all run the risk of becoming so sick and tired of hearing the word that this actual life-and- death issue among young people lose its urgency as quickly as it rose to prominence. It is important to distinguish between rude, mean, and bullying so that teachers, school administrators, police, youth workers, parents and kids all know what to pay attention to and when to intervene.  As we have heard too often in the news, a child’s future may depend on a non-jaded adult’s ability to discern between rudeness at the bus stop and life- altering bullying.”

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade; Students finished up a unit on what it means to be popular and whether the characteristics they admire now in middle school are long- lasting for future happiness in life?

Seventh Grade:  Students have begun to understand the issues behind the battle behind Yerushalayim and focusing on our obligation to combat the world’s views.

Eighth Grade-   Students began a project where they wrote “compliments” to their classmates which will be compiled to create the inscriptions in the sefarim they receive at the graduation dinner.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Israel- One Of The Happiest Places On Earth!

Israel is one of the happiest countries in the world! The World Happiness report just came out on March 14  published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, in advance of World Happiness Day. Among the 155 countries surveyed, Israel is number 11!  The United States was number 15.   Interestingly enough, some of the top countries were Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Netherlands.  As  Rabbi Joshua Hammerman pointed out, the closest these Scandinavian countries “ have come to war lately was Prince Hans Westergaard’s royal coup in Disney’s Frozen.”  Humorous, but true.

As we approach the celebration of Yom Haatzmaut this Monday evening, how does Israel do it? How is a country surrounded by threat, with a mandatory draft and war after war since the state’s founding, become the 11th happiest country on earth?  How does is rank far ahead others in the region, (Jordan- 74, Lebanon- 97 and Egypt- 130),  and even ahead of the United States?  What lessons can the growth of the State of Israel teach our children about their own growth?

And, then there’s the United States.  The U.S. was ranked third happiest in 2007. By 2016, it ranked 19th. Why?  This year’s report attributes the decline to “declining social support and increased corruption.”

Some characteristics noted in the top countries were caring, freedom, generosity, honesty (Yes, Israelis never hold back what’s on their minds!), health, income, and good governance.  Some other characteristics noted were “having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, trust.”  All good qualities to reinforce with our children.  

Some other lessons this survey can  we relay are:  Money does not buy happiness.  As Polly Mosendz wrote in her article “Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness (in America)” “Even as the country pulled off an economic turnaround, with increases in income and unemployment falling to historic lows, Americans are becoming less happy”  Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the SDSN, points out, “This is a very strong message to my country, the United States, which is very rich,has gotten a lot richer over the last 50 years, but has gotten no happier… The message for the United States is clear. For a society that just chases money, we are chasing the wrong things.  Our social fabric is deteriorating, social trust is deteriorating, faith in government is deteriorating.”  Money does not buy happiness- an essential lesson for our children. Need I say more?

Next lesson: Learn from Israel. How do Israelis, living in a constant state of potential war, intifada, rockets etc. achieve happiness?  Professor Zahava Solomon of Tel Aviv University highlights this psychological paradox.  This “culture of conflict” which makes Israelis constantly aware of the dangers they face makes them fearless and willing to take on risks that lead to self-growth.  If each day might be your last, you would enjoy that day. This leads to a more fulfilling life.  We need to demonstrate to and teach our children that each day can be life- changing, so don’t waste a moment.

Israelis have much to fear, so they fear nothing, points out Tifanie Wen in her article, “Why Are Israelis So Happy?”  She quotes a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association which demonstrates that Israelis recover from PTSD faster than other Western nations. Israelis have continuously shown to be able to habituate to new conflicts. The level of anxiety may be higher in Israel, but the level of clinical anxiety is very low.  “By experiencing more anxiety on a daily basis, they’ve become inoculated against bad things when they do occur and habituate to them rapidly. They are able to function in spite of them.”  If one can be resilient in the face of potential war, then economic and social issues are easy to deal with by comparison.  It is okay and important to express stress, and it helps us develop resilience. Thus, the importance of allowing our children to fail, brush themselves off and get up again.

Israeli psychologist Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar,  (whose work I have mentioned before in this column), author of the books Happier  and Being Happy, and former professor of a popular course in Harvard, “The Science Of Happiness,” returned to Israel after being abroad for 15 years. He found himself happier when he returned.  Ben-Shahar believes it is the Israeli’s focus on family and friends which is one cause of the happiness that Israelis feel.  Time spent with those we care about is the number one predictor of happiness.  Creating those close ties with family is essential for growth- more family time!

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to think that something about this happiness has to do with God.  Geulio Meotti, in her article, “Why Are Israelis So Happy” notes, “While Israel’s social fabric is deeply divided between ultra-Orthodox Jews and ‘Hellenistic’ Israelis, nationalists and leftists, two-thirds of Israelis believe in God, therefore maintaining the hope and feeling that there is higher meaning and purpose to their lives. There is also the attachment to the Jewish land, while love for one’s land is a nationalistic taboo in the West.”

Here, in America, we try to relay to our students and children that intense connection to the land, the people and to God that one feels in Eretz Yisrael. “It is a Land that the Lord your God seeks out; the eyes of the Lord your God, are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” (Devarim, 11:12)  It is a country of miracles. A country of resilience, meaning and mission.  A country of family.   It is one of the happiest countries on earth! Yom Haatzmaut Sameach!

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade:  Students continued their Friendship Unit focusing on- What does it mean to be popular? Are those qualities admirable? Who determines what’s considered “cool?”

Seventh Grade: Students began a new unit on “Do Not Stand Idly By” - the power of the upstander. They are beginning this unit focusing on  political action for Israel in defense of a united Yerushalayim.

Eighth Grade:  Students began to investigate the topics of peer pressure and bigotry by watching the movie The Wave.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Teachable Moment -Harassment Prevention

The New York Time’s revelation that Bill O’Reilly paid five women $13 million in response to sexual harassment charges against him has been in the news all week. This following Roger Ailes’ being let go last year due to his own sexual harassment.  Regardless of one’s political leanings, this follows the 2005 Access Hollywood tape in which President Trump admitted his own sexual harassment.  A 2015 survey shared that 71% of women who are harassed at work do not come forward, fearing retribution.

Each year we focus on sexual harassment with both our 7th grade boys and girls in their Adolescent Life classes.  Additionally, right before the summer, we cover potential harassment/abuse issues that can happen at camp.  The goal of these classes is to educate both our boys and girls as to what sexual harassment is, and how to react when they feel they are victims of it. Additionally, it may be difficult for teens to differentiate between flirting and harassment- and we want them to understand the importance of not perpetrating “unwanted flirting,” and not tolerating being the receiver of it, as it is considered sexual harassment.  The students are shown the New Jersey law regarding sexual harassment.  Perpetrators are often peers, but we also highlight the potential for teachers, coaches, counselors, who are in positions of power, to harass.  We discuss why is it that teens often don’t come forward, and the fear of retaliation. Whether the harasser is a peer- and they are afraid of the social repercussions.  Or, if the perpetrator is an adult, there is the fear of the impact on their grades, their status on the team, being threatened, and even that no one will believe them since the teacher/coach etc. is so beloved.

Students learn that sexual harassment can be physical or verbal. In the age of smartphones, texting and social media, the potential for harassment via technology is even stronger.  It becomes a form of cyberbullying. This includes unwanted sexual comments directly towards the person, inappropriate photos or even a sexually suggestive joke passed on.  Sending sexual messages or images is called “sexting,” and teens need to understand why their sending these inappropriate messages, even while in what they think is a relationship with another, can be forever damaging. Things you meant to be private, can find their way into the wrong hands.  As with all of our messages regarding cyber safety, no matter how many times we relay this message to our children, there are those who still  take those risks.  That is why, the message needs to come often, from both school and home.  

The key is - anything that makes your child uncomfortable should lead him/her to talk to a trusted adult.  And, no one ever deserves being a harassed. We also stress the important role that the bystander plays.  If a child is worried about a friend, he/she needs to come forward to an adult.  

We invite you, as parents, to take this O’Reilly current event and use it as a “teachable moment” to review with your children and to reinforce the above messages. It is hard for us to bring up sensitive topics such as these “out of the blue.”  Having a current event as a springboard for discussion makes the discussion much more natural.

As we discuss the issues with our students, we also stress the Torah’s view when it comes to sexual harassment and abuse. Our middle schoolers all learn the story of Amnon and Tamar in their Navi classes. When we learn that story we explain, (Avodah Zarah, 36b),  that as a result of Amnon’s rape of Tamar,  Dovid Hamelech instituted the laws of Yichud for an unmarried woman (expanding the biblical law, which did not include single women).  I ask my students why they think Dovid felt the need to do so- to protect women from being abused, and to protect us from being overcome by our evil inclinations which often lead to sexual misconduct.  The Torah clearly feels that no one should ever be forced into any behavior which makes him/her feel uncomfortable.  This is a Torah value, and in some ways centuries ahead of the rest of society.   (Interestingly enough, all of today's curricula on the topic of harassment and abuse stress not being alone in an isolated location with even someone you know well).

Margaret Sullivan, in her article, “O’Reilly’s Downfall Teaches A Wonderful Lesson To Working Women” states another issue important to discuss with our girls, as noted by Micheline Maynard.  “As Women, we are taught not to speak out, not to ruffle feathers, to just be good and work harder.”   In a lesson we did in seventh grade girls’ Advisory we discussed gender stereotypes- and what are the gender roles that are assigned to us by society? From where do we learn these gender roles?  Is there pressure to not act a certain way due to these stereotypes? By age 6 gender stereotypes affect girls. How did gender stereotypes affect the presidential election this year?  When sharing those “teachable” moments with our daughters, we need to constantly reinforce that there is nothing wrong with women speaking out- especially when experiencing harassment.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Free At Last!

As we approach Pesach, זמן חרותנו,  the season of our freedom, I recently finished reading a book that provided me with a meaningful view of freedom. (Plus a dvar Torah at the Seder table!)

The book, Unbroken Spirit- A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival, is the autobiography of Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich.  Rabbi Mendelevich was the famous refusenik who spend twelve years in the  Soviet gulag imprisoned. Released in 1981, he now lives in Israel.

What can more clearly depict a modern slavery to freedom story than that of Mendelevich and his oppression and then freedom? His story begins with a plot he hatched with some fellow Zionists to hijack a plane to fly to Israel.  They clearly knew that there was a chance their scheme would fail.  Mendelevich writes (p. 335), “Before our fateful arrest at the airport, I told my friends, ‘There is no meaning in the life of a slave who cannot be true to himself.”   In essence, he shared that even though they were “free” they were truly slaves if they could not practice their Judaism and yearn for Israel under Russian rule.  
The irony of Mendelevich’s story is that it is when he was in prison, he felt more free.  “I must confess that my eleven years in prison were not at all grey and wearying.  Each day brought a new discovery, a new joy.  Appearances were to the contrary: an onlooker who saw me would have pronounced me miserable. Indeed, what joy could be left to a starving slave laborer in the freezing expanses of Siberia?  And yet, I experienced it differently...Even in prison, I knew how not to be a slave.  I knew that a slave is not one who is physically hemmed in by bars, but one who is controlled by external forces that consume him and rob him of his life and from which he cannot escape...I consciously aimed not to indulge in self-pity, not to falter, but to carry on normally: prayer, exercise...One day I was in solitary confinement, doing nothing. I no longer felt like I had to do anything in order to sense His closeness...That is the secret of inner fortitude.”  As it notes in the introduction to the book, “The refuseniks were determined to live life as free men even in a totalitarian country.”

As long as Mendelevich was able to be true to himself and connect with God, he was free. He then continues that, ironically again, “Thirty years later, I am living the life a free man in Israel. As everyone knows, the life of a free man possesses at least as many difficult challenges as the life of a prisoner or a slave.”  Why is that?  How can one say that a free man lives a life more difficult than that of a slave?

In order to answer this question, we need to better understand what freedom is.  In his article, “What Is Freedom?” Rabbi Tauber explains that typically we define freedom as the absence of slavery.  So, too, we define “rest” - that we are to do on Shabbat, as the absence of work. But, in reality these definitions are not correct. There is a positive, active definition of freedom.

Let’s start with “rest.” God created rest on the 7th day.  What is rest? “ ‘Rest’ is the endeavor to focus inward, to withdraw to the quintessential core of one's being...So Shabbat is not a day of inactivity, but a day devoted to the activity of rest.” That is why Shabbat is a day of increased spirituality and connection to God.  

So, too, Pesach’s freedom is not just the absence of slavery, but the presence of an active freedom. Moshe did not simply say, “Let My people go.”  Rather, he said, “Let My people go so that they can serve me.”  How does a human achieve freedom?  “That to attain true freedom he must therefore transcend his humanity - his emotional, intellectual, even spiritual self - and access the ‘spark of G‑dliness’ that is his infinite, supra-human self.”

Yosef Mendelevich accessed the spark of Godliness within him. He was therefore free.  On Pesach, our challenge to access that inner spark as well.

Dr. Alex Pattakos, author of Prisoners of Our Thoughts, wrote in his article, “Escaping Your Inner Mental Prison” of the conversations and interviews he has had with prison inmates.  Dr. Pattakos quotes Dr. Viktor Frankl’s  “Will to Meaning.” “This principle asks you to “commit authentically to meaningful values and goals that only you can actualize and fulfill.” With physical freedom being taken away from them, these prisoners have time for self-reflection and self- discovery on the path to finding meaning in their lives.  

Thus, Dr. Pattakos asks us, “Now let me ask you: if inmates in a real prison are able and willing to search for meaning in their lives, as well as exploring ways to change and grow, are you? Remember, we don’t really create meaning; we find it. And we can’t find it unless we look for it.”  He then quotes a country music song, by Rodney Crowell, It’s time to go inward, take a look at myself. Time to make the most of the time that I’ve got left. Prison bars imagined are no less solid steel.”

As parents how can we relay this message of true freedom to our children- the ability to look inward and access that spark? Mrs. Slovie Jungreis Wolf writes in her book, Raising A Child With Soul,  that when it comes to raising our children, “We worry that they receive the proper nutrition, cultural experiences and an excellent education.  What is most painful to me is the fact that rarely have I heard parents discussing their plan to develop their child’s soul… We have become so consumed with thoughts of our child being in the right place, with the right crowd, in the right clothing, but what have we done to to help this child become a spiritual being? The problem becomes more acute as our world becomes more obsessed with materialism.”

          This would explain why Mendelevich felt that the life of a free man has as many challenges as a life of a slave/prisoner.  A free man is surrounded by a world of materialism and temptations which are antithetical to a life of introspection.  I often think about all the time I used to spend in doctors’ waiting rooms just thinking.  Now, I am constantly on my phone (answering work e-mails!)  In this age of constant connection we are never really free from distraction to truly connect with God and develop our souls.  The world we live in is not set up for introspective thought or spiritual reflection. We are never free.

As parents, just as we carefully plan their paths to the Ivy Leagues, or to the right high school, so too we need to carefully plan our children’s soul development, or their freedom.  Do we want them to be enslaved or free?  This inability to achieve introspection and self- analysis is not only harming their spiritual development, but also impacts on their overall contentment in life and their ability to achieve fulfillment (connected to spirituality).  

Dr. Lisa Miller, director of Columbia University’s Clinical Psychology program, wrote a book called The Spiritual Child: The New Science On Parenting For Health And Lifelong Thriving. Children, for example, who have positive and active relationships to spirituality are 40% less likely to abuse substances and 60% less likely to suffer from depression. She writes, similar to Mrs. Jungreis- Wolf, describing the various conversations we have as parents regarding teams, studying for tests, camp etc., “And, yet all of those conversations, elaborate schedules of extracurricular activities, and high aspirations often miss the single most crucial ingredient of all, the only thing that science has show to reliably predict fulfillment, success and thriving:a child’s spiritual development.”  The child needs to feel part of something larger and an experience an “interactive two-way relationship with a guiding, and ultimately loving being.” Children are born with this capacity and yearning. We are biologically hardwired for spirituality, as research of functional MRIs has shown. Interestingly enough, Mendelevich shares that when his atheist father was imprisoned, he, with his atheist upbringing, still prayed to God- as if it was inborn. But, Dr.  Miller points out, that this ability for spirituality is a use it or lose it type of thing- it needs to be developed.

So, back to our question, how do we help our children develop this spirituality? Some of you might be wondering, we are Orthodox Jews. We send our children to Yeshiva. We go to shul every Shabbat and even every day- of course our children are spiritual!  Not so.  Spirituality may not exist despite religious practice, we must shamefully say.

Dr. Miller points out that a child’s spirituality is developed by encouragement and show of support from us. Every time they have conversations with us about big life issues or life’s little events, we should model for them a spiritual lifestyle.  We show them that we need not fill a quiet moment with diversions.  We talk to them about how and when we see hashgacha pratit- the involvement of Hashem in our individual and daily lives.  Adolescence is the time of life where there is a “developmental surge period for spiritual development.”  Ask them to reflect on where they have seen the hand of Hashem in their lives.  It can be simply something like, “I couldn’t find my math homework, but at the last minute the teacher gave the class  more time”- that was God intervening!  

At the Pesach seder we discuss how we see the hand of God through the various miracles He performed. As parents, let us point out that we too need to see ourselves as if we have left Mitzrayim. We too experience miracles.  We too connect to Hashem.  As parents, we can help our children see that same hand of God in our daily lives. This leads to a more free life- free from the pressures and distractions of the world around us, and free to connect with God, leading to more content and successful lives as well.

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade: Students focused on common difficulties one might have with a friend and how to problem solve.
Seventh Grade:  Seventh graders had an wonderful presentation by Mrs. Shifra Srolovitz, a child life specialist, who spoke about how she goes about encouraging ill children with whom she works. Students then decorated stuffed dogs with encouraging messages to be given to ill children.  Girls also focused on a lesson on gender roles and how that impacts girls.
Eighth Grade: Students debriefed their Holocaust play experience to discuss what it meant to them and what they gained.  They also experienced a lesson on bigotry and racism- does it exist in the U.S. today? What would they do if they witnessed it? Does it exist without our knowing among us as well?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

We Dine Together

This past week I read of the story of Denis Estimon of Boca Raton Community High School. He remembers what it was like when he was a freshman and a new immigrant from Haiti. He felt lonely and isolated at lunch.  “It’s not a good feeling, like you’re by yourself. And that’s something that I don’t want anybody to go through,” said Denis. Now that Denis is a senior, and considered part of the popular group, he started a club called “We Dine Together” to make sure that no student has to sit alone at lunchtime. Members of the “We Dine Together” club seek out those who are alone, strike up a conversation and invite them to sit.  “The club has sparked hundreds of unlikely friendships since it formed last fall, and jocks and geeks now  sit side by side.”

This story brought to mind another current event that we shared with our sixth graders in Advisory.  In Hardin County, Kentucky they initiated the “Buddy Bench” program during recess. They found that some kids were alone during recess.  There came the idea of the “buddy bench”- actually initiated originally by a 2nd grader!  “If you are sitting on the bench …You are looking for a friend. When someone asks you to play, join them, and always remember to glance over at the school's Buddy Bench to invite new friends to join in on the fun.” If you are not sitting on the bench …Ask your classmate on the friendship bench to play, and make a new friend today! Keep growing your circle of friends until everyone has someone to play with. :)”  Although this concept might sound like it’s meant for younger children, the idea was one we presented to our sixth graders. We wanted them to focus on- what are they doing to notice those who are excluded?

How many of our children are looking to see who is left out during lunch or recess?  A familiar theme, as you have read in my column before. But, I could not pass up the opportunity to mention it again, as I read of Estimon’s story.

As we begin our Pesach preparations,  (I vacuumed under one bed today!), Pesach is the holiday of “We Dine Together” “Kol Dichfin Yesei V’Yeichal; Kol Ditzrich Yesei V’Yifsach.” “All who are hungry let them come and eat; all who are in need, let them come and celebrate Pesach,” as it says in the Haggadah. And, we know  there is a Mitzvah to count others into a single Korban Pesach- a Chabura. Even though one may bring and eat the Korban Pesach alone - one should do so with a group. This is the message of Vayikra 25:36,  ”V’chai achicha imach” – your fellow shall live with you. This is the message of inclusion.

We know how Judaism feels about the importance of making sure that people are not alone. Rabbi Yossie Ives points this out in regards to the death of a stranger on the road. In Devarim 21:4 it states that if a person is found dead on the road and it is not possible to discover the cause of death, then the elders of the nearest town need to enact a ceremony of penance in which they declare “Our hands did not spill this blood.” Upon this the Gemara in Sotah 45b: “Does anyone really think that the Elders of the Beth Din were murderers? Rather, for them perhaps not having left him without provisions or not having accompanied him along the way.” He was left alone, which made him more vulnerable.  

Our next unit in Advisory with our sixth graders includes the topic of popularity. Who is popular? What makes someone a leader? It is clear that in Judaism, a leader is chosen based on how he ensures that everyone is included and cared for. Moshe, the leader of the Pesach story, begins his path to greatness when Hashem witnessed how he cared for a lonely stray sheep.  (Shemot Rabba 2:2).  “ Moshe was shepherding his father-in-laws' sheep one day, when one of them bolted. Moshe followed the runaway animal until it reached a body of water where it stopped for a drink. Moshe compassionately said to the sheep, ‘If only I had known that you thirsted for water. You must be exhausted from running…’ Saying this, he scooped up the animal, placed it on his shoulders, and headed back to his flock. Said God: ‘If this is how he cares for the sheep of man, he is definitely fit to shepherd mine…’”

At the seder was pray “L’shana habaa b’Yerushalayim.” What will bring the redemption? We know that even the actual destruction of the Beit HaMikdash was the result of a story of exclusion,  The destruction of Jerusalem came through Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. A man had a friend Kamtza and an enemy Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamtza. The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the host found him there he said, “You tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out”. Said the other: “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” He refused. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. He refused. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still declined, and he took him by the hand and put him out. “( Gittin 55b) The pain of being excluded led to his reporting on the Jews and led to the destruction.

One in six children report being victims of social exclusion.  Although it relates to all ages, adolescents are particularly vulnerable to feeling excluded and feeling rejected by peers. During this time period, children typically become increasingly independent from their parents and more dependent on their peer group.  Their identities are formed in relation to their peer groups. Therefore, the experience of not being a part of group is so much more traumatic. “Studies on the neurological profile of children suggest that their brain areas for emotion become more activated in response to peer rejection with age, and peek at adolescence”  (Bolling, Pitskel, Deen, Crowley, Mayes & Pelphrey, 2011). Students who are excluded have lower immune function, reduced sleep quality, difficulty calming themselves down when distressed, reduced self-esteem, increased anxiety and increased depression.

These children are “hungry” and they are waiting to be invitee to come and eat- literally and metaphorically.  We need to make sure that all who are hungry can come and eat. We need to dine together. We need to make sure whoever is on the buddy bench is invited.  As parents this is a message we need to stress with our children and model for them.  

Advisory Update

Sixth Grade-  Students began a unit on Friendship discussing “What qualities make a good friend?’

Seventh Grade-  Students learned about positive self-talk and upbeat thinking in developing resiliency.

Eighth grade-   A discussion about stereotyping was begun