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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Stigma

A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of parents uniting and sharing ideas among themselves as there is “strength in numbers.” (By the way, if you are interested in pursuing such an idea, please be in touch as we have some plans in the works).  One other reason why uniting as parents is essential is we support each other.  Some of us have been through particular situations already with our children and we can be a source of guidance for our friends.  

This past week Rabbi Ari Zahtz and Dr. David Pelcovitz hosted a teleconference “You Are Not Alone: Parenting a Child With Mental Health Challenges” to launch their program Project Ometz to support parents raising a child with mental illness in our community.  Their efforts are to assist parents of children struggling with mental illness in getting the essential support that they often do not get due to the stigma that still exists in the Orthodox community when it comes to mental illness. (If you missed this presentation the link is:
 Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, in his groundbreaking article in a 2001 issue of Jewish Action “Dimensions of Torment: A Young Man’s Story of Surviving Depression,” spoke of breaking the silence.  He shared of young people who perhaps would have found help if there “was less shame turning to someone, if the community had created a culture where mental illness was not ‘someone’s fault’ or reflective of a personal flaw, but a disease to be treated and discussed in the same way and with the same empathy that one speaks of kidney disease, diabetes and high blood pressure?”  Today, 16 years later, “too many of us still speak in whispers about mental illness. The stigma perpetuates a climate where people who can be eased of their suffering are reticent to seek out the help and support they desperately need.”  

In the 1986 issue of Tradition, Dr. Shalom Feinberg and Mrs. Karyn Feinberg wrote “The Rabbi’s View: The State Of Mental Health Needs In The Orthodox Jewish Community.”  They then surveyed 454 members of the Rabbinical Council of America- an organization of Orthodox rabbis in the United States- as to their perception of the mental health needs of the Orthodox Jewish community.  They too pointed to the stigma, and hypothesized as to the root of this stigma.  One factor is that there is a perception that if one suffers from emotional difficulties one is  “weak or even crazy.”  Additionally, there is the “shidduch anxiety,” which was brought up in Project Ometz’s teleconference.  There is worry that this illness might hurt chances for marriage or for even the marriage of a family member.  Dr. Irving Levitz, in the Journal of Psychology and Judaism, Winter, 1979, described the “issue of gossip and its potentially destructive power in the Orthodox world.  Any information with a ‘spicy’ connotation may be quickly disseminated within the community.”  

Dr Bin Goldman, in his article   “Let’s Talk About Mental Health Stigma In The Jewish Community”  writes of the struggle that parents of children with mental illness live. If you are a parent of child with mental illness, “you may have to endure regular judgments, spoken and unspoken about your parenting. You may also have internalized the stigma from around you and are judging and belittling yourself.”  Project Ometz is meant to help parents out of the isolation that they often feel.  

In his introduction to the teleconference, Rabbi Zahtz shared that Adar is a time of joy, and sadly there are those who are unable to feel that joy due to life’s circumstances. They feel alone. Haman said that there is a nation that is “am m’fuzar u’mfurad.”  When Bnai Yisrael are spread  out, isolated and are alone they are weak.  The answer to combat this problem was “Leich knos hayehudim” -when we unite as a community we can “v'nahafoch hu”- we can turn around change the perception.  Uniting together to support each other is the cure.

What can we as parents do to de-stigmatize mental health issues and support those in our community who are struggling?

As you know, our middles schoolers are reading the book Out of My Mind, which tells the story of a severely disabled girl and her perceptions of that going on around her. As a follow up to this book, some of our English teachers have our students working on projects about various disabilities.  A few of our students  have taken on the topics of mental health issues.  For some, this is their first introduction to mental health issues. They are being educated about what mental illness truly is. As parents, we can play a role in making it clear that mental illness is a disease. We would never make fun of someone who has diabetes, or heart disease. We would support him in whatever he needs. Mental illness is no different. We need to say that very clearly.

Recently, in current events, there are some stories that brought mental health to the fore. February 2017 was launched by Princess Kate and Prince William as Children’s Mental Health Week. Their goal was to change perceptions about mental health. And, for those Star Wars fans out there, Carrie Fisher died at the end of December. She was known for being open about her struggle with bipolar disorder, and did play a significant role in destigmatizing mental illness.  These are two current event stories to discuss at the table with your children.

Lastly, as we come off of Parent Teacher Conferences, I want to encourage parents to share mental health concerns with us at school- with whomever you are comfortable. If your child is struggling with anxiety, depression or any other mental health concern, we want to create an environment in school for him or her that is as safe and comforting as possible.  We will do anything and everything we can to support your child and you.  Please do not hesitate to reach out as we are stronger together.

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade:  
Students finished their unit on Time Management learning how to prioritize their work.  They also did a mini-unit on effective partner work and inclusion during recess.

Seventh Grade:
Students focused on managing the many stressors we have day to day.
Eighth Grade-  
Honesty and ethics- how do we view the importance of those qualities in the “real world?”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Are Worries Something To Worry About?

This past week we were privileged to have Dr. Ethan Ehrenberg present on Worries And Stress- How To Help Our Children Manage.  Dr. Ehrenberg had presented to our middle school faculty earlier in the year on anxiety in children and how we as teachers can help. The feedback was so positive that we felt we needed to bring him back to present to parents.  I want to highlight a short piece of his presentation with some nuggets we can all apply in our own parenting.

We are all wired for fear which is necessary to protect ourselves from danger. Anxiety is when an object which is not dangerous triggers the same fear response.  

Children with anxiety often:
  • Avoid the feared stimulus (say they are sick when there is a test),
  • Feel impending doom,
  • Have fearful thoughts and anticipate problems
  • Have a low belief in their own competence- they don’t believe they can overcome these problems.

What is the cause of this anxiety? Dr. Ehrenberg discussed a numbers of factors that contribute to anxiety.  Some of it is temperament. It has been found in the research that infants that tend to get fussy when exposed to new stimuli tend to have anxiety as they grow older.

Another possibility is that somehow the fear response gets paired with stimuli that are not truly fearful. To explain this phenomenon Dr. Ehrenberg used the example of Pavlov’s dogs.  Dr. Ivan Pavlov rang a bell every time he fed the dogs. After a while, simply ringing the bell stimulated the dogs’ salivating.  Any person or object the dog learned to associate with food triggered the response. So, too with anxiety. Any object associated with fear somehow triggers anxiety.  For example, simply seeing a test paper can trigger anxiety despite not even seeing the questions.  So, the goal in that case would be extinguish the reaction. Ala Pavlov his goal would be to continue ringing the bell without giving food and eventually the salivating behavior would extinguish itself.  

This research presents a truism which is counterintuitive to what many of us are inclined to do as parents. When our children are anxious about something, we do everything in our power to help them avoid the cause of their anxiety.  In actuality, exposing themselves to the anxiety provoking event- to the extent that they can tolerate it- will help extinguish the anxiety when they see that nothing actually happens when they are exposed to it.

Some of us swoop in and save our children when they seem worried, not allowing them solve their own problems and tolerate discomfort.  When our children express worry, it is important we that we listen and not rescue. I too often find myself in school torn between helping children feel better in the moment, and helping them overcome a source of anxiety long-term.   (Please note that parents of children who suffer from true anxiety disorders should be consulting with a mental health practitioner for advice as to when to push children and when to cushion them).  When we swoop in and rescue, there is a clear behavioral pattern. When there is a trigger (the test), anxiety goes up,  and our child tries to avoid trigger, (fake being sick so won’t go to test). Then, we as parents rescue and give into child and allow him/her to stay home (just today). Then the  child’s and parent’s anxiety go down and therein is the negative reinforcement. When we take away the negative stimuli  it  burns a pathway in brain which causes a reaction which is  hard to extinguish.

Just to add here, Dr. Wendy Mogel, author of the book The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee, which I often quote, states that in recent years college deans have reported that growing numbers of incoming freshmen are “teacups” as they are so fragile and break down anytime things do not go their way (as reported in the article “How To Land Your Kid In Therapy” by Lori Gottleib). “Well- intentioned parents have been metabolizing their anxiety for them their entire childhoods, so they don’t know how to deal with it when they grow up.”  

Dr. Ehrenberg discussed other parenting practices that tend to increase anxiety. One of which he called “intrusive guidance”- “parents who are  constantly correcting their children and redirecting them. This conveys a sense of incompetence that they cannot do anything on their own. This makes them more nervous to go into the world.”   

The first step as parents is to allow our children to experience anxiety provoking events and learn to tolerate the discomfort and problem solve solutions.

What else can we do as parents? Another technique Dr. Ehrenberg suggested was Cognitive Restructuring:
  1. Thought awareness- since the anxiety happens so quickly they not even aware they are thinking it.  Help them be aware of the internal chatter.  Teach them the good coach versus bad coach in their heads. The bad coach tells you the worries.  You want the good coach in your head.
  2. Externalize the worry- That bad coach-  Are you going to listen to him? This helps them control it their anxiety.  There tends to be shame with anxiety. Stress that everyone has that bad coach. It’s just a question of whether you listen.
  3. Alternative thoughts-  Cognitive distortions- is that true- do you always fail? Our instinct is to go here first. We need to be careful and hold off on this step until our child is comfortable at working at feelings, and can calm down.  If we do this step too quickly, children see it as invalidating their feelings.

How does one know if a child’s stress level or worries are more than they should be? Their anxiety is getting in the way or interfering with their lives.  Dr. Ehrenberg stressed the importance of notifying the school when a child’s anxiety seems too intense. Perhaps the school can help the child manage.

It says in Mishlei 12:25, “Da’agah belev ish yashchenah, vedavar tov yesamchenah”   “If there is worry in a man's heart, yashchenah, and a good word will make it cheerful.”  Shlomo HaMelech was the wisest man that ever lived. What does yashchenah mean? One way to understand it is to pronounce it as yesichenah- speak of it, discuss it, articulate it.  Dr. Ehrenberg provided us with some basic tools to help our children speak of their fears, and tips regarding some “good words” we should say in response to help them view life with more cheer.  

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade: Students were introduced to the MyHomework app to help them organize their time and prioritize their work.
Seventh Grade-  Students focused on the power of upbeat thinking in promoting resilience.
Eighth Grade-  Students began a unit on the temptation of cheating.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Super Bowl Party of Life- Because Everyone Belongs

Traditionally, this week  would be my super bowl take-aways column.  This super bowl was an easy one.  Never give up.  The power of persistence and resiliency.  It’s not over til it’s over, (some of you probably turned it off before the end!)  Do cheaters sometimes prosper? Deflatgate and all the lessons that go along with it that we have previously discussed.  All teachable moments with our teens.

This year, I’d like to focus on a super bowl related topic and not focus on the actual game itself.  I had referred to it in passing in last week’s column.  I know that I sent out my last week’s column a few hours before the super bowl, and most probably did not get the chance to read it.  (Please feel free to catch up and read it this week! I also write about the 7th grade presenter last week).  It was dedicated to my father, a”h, whose 14th yahrzeit was last week.  I focused on joy versus happiness, and maintained that we do not actually want our children to be happy. We want them to be joyful.

One example I gave of joy- living a life of meaning and giving- was “by thinking about and reaching out to others...Did he think about the boy who was not invited to any super bowl party and reach out?” I wrote that example with no one boy  (or girl) in mind, but rather in thinking about all the boys I’ve worked with in the past 21 years of working as a psychologist in schools.  Every year there is someone not invited to a super bowl party.  Every year there is someone worried that he will not be invited. Every year there is someone embarrassed to admit he hasn’t been invited. Every year someone is excluded and sitting on the sidelines.

It need not be particular to the super bowl.  Every year there is a girl who had no partner in Coke and Pepsi at that bat mitzvah.  Every year there is a boy who has no one who requests to room with him at Frost Valley.  Every year there is a girl who feels as if she has nowhere to sit during lunch. Every year there is a boy who is not invited to get together Shabbat afternoon.  It is all about inclusion and ensuring there is not social exclusion.

Bullying has become a hot topic over the past number of years. I admit I do see bullying from time to time, but more of what I see is a particular type- social exclusion.  Dr. Rick Lavoie, in his book Last One Picked First One Picked On notes that 15 out of 20 times a parents has put his/her head down to cry- it is not about a child’s academic struggles in school. It is about social rejection.  Dr. David Pelcovitz shared that when looking at the research, people rarely can recall physical pain. They almost always recall the emotional pain of being excluded.  And, conversely, the ones doing the social exclusion almost never recall doing so years later.

And, it is not just about the directly nasty things kids can do to each other. It is often more about the nonverbal messages that children send to one another.  Smiling, or choosing not to smile at another can change a whole child’s day.   Tone of voice- how you speak to another. Initiating warm greetings- especially in a group, is quickly interpreted as sending a message that this child belongs.  We need to explain to our children that sending social inclusion messages- non-verbal ones as well, can help a child feel as if he or she belongs.  Your child can then can become a leader in his demonstrating compassion.  One need not be a close friend to deserve a smile, a greeting or a kind tone of voice.  The message should be the same to all- you have a responsibility to make sure everyone feels welcome.  

I know I have discussed this before, but it bears repeating.  Social media is a powerful tool when it comes to social exclusion.  Snapchat, instagram- again, without directly being “mean” to another, one can hurt others.  Every time a child posts a photo of party he’s gone to or a shopping expedition with friends, another realizes he was left out.  I am not saying that one is not entitled to go out with a few friends. But, why rub the faces of those who were not invited in it?   “I thought I was her friend. But, then I realized I must not be, as everyone was there except for me.”  How hurtful can one be?

I know there are children who make it hard to befriend them due to their behavior.  Some children experiencing this exclusion fall under that category and some do not. Either way, I teach my children that every child deserves to feel included.  No matter what.  I do invite parents and children to share with me if there is a child who could use some help with some of those behaviors that do make it difficult- those do need work. But, at the same time, no one deserves to feel left out.

I spent this last Shabbat in Fair Lawn in Congregation Ahavat Achim with some of our 8th graders and Yachad for the developmentally disabled.  Yachad’s slogan is “because everyone belongs.”  When looking around the room at the Shabbaton, this slogan applied to the Yachad members themselves. However, it also applied to our Yavneh students. It gave me such joy to see some of our students who do not always feel that they belong shine and connect with their classmates. Everyone belonged this Shabbat.  No judgemental preconceptions. It did not matter who had the coolest clothes or who was the best athlete.  Sitting with the Yachad members, playing a game or singing a song was all that mattered.  If only all of life was a Yachad Shabbaton.  

Tonight I ran a piece of a  Friendship Circle orientation.  We discussed a song which was composed for Friendship Circle which states, “Every single person in this world is a gem.”  That is the message of inclusion that our children get when they involve themselves in Yachad and Friendship Circle.

Our children will need to learn the skills to bounce back from rejection and social exclusion. Life is not truly a Yachad Shabbaton.  Despite that, as parents, we need to remind them that life each day is a giant super bowl party. We can’t invite everyone.  There is an abundance of social pressure to fit in- especially in the middle school years.  Somehow, everyone deserves an invitation.  What role can we play in making sure everyone has a party to go to?

Advisory Update:

Sixth Graders-  Students discussed what are the obstacles they face in managing their time well.
Seventh Graders-  Students spoke about the difference between those who are resilient (super ball people) and those who crush under failure (egg people).  How does one persevere?

Eighth Graders-  Students prepared and discussed the admissions news they will be getting this coming week and the best way to react.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Pursuit of Joy

This coming Tuesday is the 14th Yahrzeit of my father, HaRav Yisrael Mordechai Dworken, Rabbi Steven Dworken, a”h.  For those of you who have been reading my column for some time, you have probably gotten a small glimpse of him when I have written about him close to his Yahrzeit.  One area for which my father was known was his simchat hachayim, the happiness and joy in life that he exuded. My father was the type of person to whom others were drawn, as his cheerful approach to life was contagious.  You just wanted to be around him, as it felt good to be surrounded by that positivity.

Upon thinking about this unique happiness that he conveyed to all who met him, I was struck by an article in the Jewish Week  last weekend.  Hannah Dreyfus wrote an article “Forget Continuity, Keep Teens ‘Happy” and begins, “How do you keep today’s Jewish teens engaged?  Keep them happy, urges David Bryfman… While in the past, Jewish education has stressed the transmission of knowledge, skills and literacy, that approach ‘no longer works,’ said Byrfman. The Jewish Education Project ...released a study in April highlighting that members of Generation Z- the cohort right behind millenials- prize personal happiness above all else.”  The article goes on to describe a recommendation to stray away from content, skills and text and move towards what Judaism can do for them.  “Loyalty to the past and sense of communal responsibility are no longer motivators. The motivator is being part of a larger project that does something for you.”

After reading this article I began thinking. Is that what Judaism is all about- happiness? Is that what we want our teens to think that life is all about?  

Lori Gottleib in her article, “How To Land Your Kid In Therapy-  Why the obsession with our kids’ happines may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods,” highlights that parents throughout history have hoped to raise happy children.  That which has changed is that it is not enough to be happy, if you can be even happier. Our definition of happiness has changed.  “The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way.”  She quotes a professor of social theory, Dr. Barry Schwartz.  “Happiness as a by product of living your life is a great thing.  But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.”  As we know, it is not realistic to be happy at all times.  Such a belief only sets one up for disappointment and dissatisfaction.

In the United States,  a Gallup poll reported while the happiness levels of Americans are at all time high, the Center for Disease Control reports that 4 out of 10 Americans “have not discovered a satisfying life purpose.”  They do not think their lives have a “clear sense of purpose.”  In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, 400 Americans ages 18-78 were asked if they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy.  Researchers found that while being happy and feeling life was meaningful did overlap in some ways, they were found to be different.  Leading a happy life “was associated with being a ‘taker’ while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a ‘giver.’” Happiness is about feeling good.  But is “relatively shallow, self- absorbed and even selfish.” All animals can be happy- you have a desire, you satisfy it and then you are happy.   People who are happy get benefits from others. People who lead meaningful lives get joy from giving to others.  “Meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants.”

If our children should not be living life to only pursue happiness, what should they be pursuing?   Emily Esfahani Smith, in her article, “There’s More To Life Than Being Happy” speaks about the life of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who was transported to a Nazi concentration camp.  In 1946, he published his book Man’s Search For Meaning describing his experiences in the Holocaust.  Frankl noted the difference between those who were able to survive and those who did not- meaning.  Those who were able to find meaning in the most desperate situations were more resilient when it came to facing suffering.  He gave examples of two inmates who were suicidal, thinking they had nothing to live for. “In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them,” Frankl wrote. (He helped one man focus on his son who was waiting for him in another country and the other on a series of books he was in the middle of writing).  “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.  He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”

Smith maintains that Frankl’s philosophy focusing on meaning and the responsibility to do something greater than oneself is at odds with American culture which focuses more on the pursuit of individual happiness than the search for meaning. “ is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to be ‘happy.’  But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy,” Frankl wrote.  “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”  

In America, we are obsessed with being happy. Unfortunately, spending your life trying to become happier often gets in the way of becoming happy.  Studies have shown that people who value happiness the most and put the greatest emphasis on being happy “report 50% less frequent positive emotions, 35% less satisfaction about their life, and 75% more depressive symptoms than people who had their priorities elsewhere… and 17% less psychological well-being.”  

Going back to Dreyfus’ article, if they are trying so hard to attract teens to Judaism through happiness, how does that mesh with Judaism’s view of whether happiness is important? (This might sound like a strange question as you may have read my article regarding how to achieve happiness according to the Torah or even attended a shiur I once gave on the topic. This article is a new spin).  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his article “The Pursuit of Joy” asserts that unlike Artistotle, who stated that happiness is the ultimate goal to which humans aspire, Judaism does not think it so. Rabbi Sacks differentiates between “happy” which he says is found in the Tanach as being the word “Ashrei” versus joy which is “simcha.”  We say Ashrei three times a day, and the word ashrei is found throughout Tanach- many more times than “simcha,” but is is not a “central value” of Judaism.  

Rabbi Sacks continues to point out that happiness is the state of an individual.  Simcha “is never about individuals...  It is always something we share.”  When a newly married man does not go to the army for a year it is to share joy with his wife.  When we go up to the Beit HaMikdash during the Shalosh Regalim, we have joy as it is a “collective celebration.” “It has to do with a sense of connection to other people and or to God.  It comes from a different realm than happiness… It is the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others...The pursuit of happiness can lead, ultimately, to self-regard and indifference to the suffering of others...Not so, joy.  Joy connects us to others and to God.?

And, so Dreyfus and her compatriots have gotten it all wrong.  Stressing “happiness” might actually create teens who are farther from God and from community.  They need to stress “joy”- and encourage their students to search for meaning in life.  It would then be hopefully obvious to them in  relatively short time that Judaism can input into their lives joy and meaning.

This past week, our 7th graders were privileged to hear a presentation of Rabbi Yitzy Haber to launch their new unit in Advisory “When Life Gives You Lemons”- coping with difficulties in life.  Rabbi Haber shares the story of how he battles and conquered cancer as a 13 year old and the impact it had on the joy he feels in life. As the students (and faculty) listen to his presentation, they cannnot help but laugh at the humorous anecdotes he shares about his illness and despite his illness.  Rabbi Haber ends the presentation explaining that he knows that his illness shaped who is today. He volunteers for Chai Lifeline and meets with ill children, and consequently has found true meaning, and joy.  

As parents, we need to help our children find joy, not happiness. Help them find meaning by thinking about  and reaching out to others.  Did she look around the cafeteria this week to notice the classmate who had nowhere to sit and invite her to sit at her table?  Did he think about the boy who was not invited to any Superbowl party and reach out? Will he come wearing pink this coming Wednesday for Pink Day and help raise money for Sharsheret?  Is her bat mitzvah chesed a one-time event, or the beginning of many acts of chesed in her life?  Our hope as parents is to not raise happy children, but joyous children who live lives full of meaning.

My father, a”h, was truly a joyous man, not a happy one.  He spent his life in the rabbinate and in his personal life living for others.  We, his family, continue to strive to live each day following in his joyous footsteps. Y’hi zichro baruch.

Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade- Students began a unit on Time Management.

Seventh Grade- After hearing Rabbi Haber’s inspiring and humorous presentation,  students began learning about resiliency.

Eighth Grade- Students viewed  and discussed graduate interviews describing what high school is truly like as we begin the 2nd half of the year- Preparing for Life In High School.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Color Your Life- Color War 2017!

As you all know by now, Color War is here!!!  The anticipation (by the faculty) and the surprise (by the students) was palpable. The run to Party City last night to get the team colors is a yearly tradition loved or dreaded by parents.  Our middle schoolers arrived here this morning donning the color they were assigned.  

But, color can impact our overall lives, aside from this three day battle.  We draw with color. Coloring used to be just for kids.  In 2013, a Scottish illustrator, Johanna Brasford, came out with her first adult coloring book.  They initially printed 13,000 copies.  Today their worldwide sales is 13 million.  U.S. sales of coloring books in the United States, says Sarah Begley in Time Magazine, have jumped from 1 million in 2014 to 12 million in 2015.  Why are adults suddenly coloring?

Anecdotally, it has been seen to reduce anxiety and increase mindfulness. Dr. Nikki Martinez says that even the psychologist Dr. Carl Jung, founder of the school of analytical psychology, used to recommend  coloring to his patients as a way to access their subconscious and new “self- knowledge.” Some see it as an alternative to meditation and a relaxation technique used to achieve calm. “It can help the individual focus on the act of coloring intricate pictures for hours on end, vs. focusing on intrusive and troubling thoughts.”

Martinez also notes that coloring helps with anxiety and stress as it calms down our amygdalas- the part of the brain that controls our fight or flight response, keeping us in a “heightened state of worry, panic and hyper-vigilance when it is active.”  Coloring actually turns that response down and allows the brain go rest and relax.   Coloring also brings us back to simpler times of our childhood when we did not have so many responsibilities and we “could do something because we wanted to, for the pure joy of it.” She also notes the intellectual benefits of coloring as it utilizes the areas of the brain responsible for focus, concentration, problem solving and organizational skills.

Begley describes her own experience coloring as she got lost in the act. “In a world that’s constantly interrupted by the beeping and buzzing of notifications, I found myself getting pleasantly lost in the intricacy of the ornate pages.”  

Color also affects our state of mind in another way. Color has been found to impact one’s mood.  Chromology is the study of the psychology of color and is used in advertising, decoration and in fashion. Different emotions and even physical reactions have been found to be triggered by colors.  Red, for example, has been found to increase pulse, heart rate,and appetite and raises blood pressure. It is active and aggressive.  (I once mentioned in a shiur I gave that it is interesting to note that Eisav was “red”and ate a red soup. What was the color trying to convey?) If one recalls the movie Inside Out, Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness were each different colors.

Lindsey Gurson, in her article, “Color Has A Powerful Effect On Behavior, Researchers Assert,” shares that  “When children under detention at the San Bernardino County Probation Department in California become violent, they are put in an 8-foot by 4-foot cell with one distinctive feature - it is bubble gum pink. The children tend to relax, stop yelling and banging and often fall asleep within 10 minutes, said Paul E. Boccumini, director of clinical services for the department.”  In a study in Edmonton, Alberta, of interest to us as educators, “the walls of the schoolroom were changed from orange and white to royal and light blue. A gray carpet was installed in place of an orange rug. Finally, the fluorescent lights and diffuser panels were replaced with full-spectrum lighting. As a result, Professor Wohlfarth reported, the children's mean systolic blood pressure dropped from 120 to 100, or nearly 17 percent, The children were also better behaved and more attentive and less fidgety and aggressive, according to the teachers and independent observers. When the room was returned to its original design, however, the readings gradually increased and the children once again became rowdy, he said.”

We apparently parent by color as well. I actually came across a website called Family Colorworks where each member of the family discovers his/her “natural color” and what it represents about their interaction style and  their “needs, values, motives, stressors, and stress behaviors.”  (I know nothing about this website and am in no way recommending it). Then you choose what color your parent with- blue, green, orange or gold. For example, blue parents “value relationships, communication and understanding and their biggest stressor is conflict. They are intuitive, communicative and sensitive. I focus on others’ needs. I seek for balance. I enjoy nature, spiritual things, friends and family. I say, ‘I feel’ a lot and tend to use touch to communicate…”  

In Judaism we know that color also has meaning. In Sotah 17a, Rabbi Meir asks regarding the color techelet , "Why was the color blue chosen from all the other colors? Because the blue resembles the sea, the sea resembles the sky, and the sky resembles the Throne of Glory.”  There is something about color that inspires us.

So, as we engage in color war, we are trying to relay many lessons to our children, as we hope they learn something from the experience.  One color lesson we relay to them is “Sometimes you have to see people as a crayon.  They may not be your favorite color, but you need them to complete the picture.”  Color war is a lesson in working with others and making it work, even when the other may not be your particular friend.  

As parents, let us remember to pay attention to the spectrum of colors in our lives and to take some time to just color.

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade  -Students discussed placing themselves in the role of teacher. If you were teacher, how would you expect students to act?

Seventh Grade-  The boys focused on a unit on foul language and the importance of watching what one says. The girls discussed social exclusion and gossip- forms of bullying.

Eighth Grade-  Student reflected on the “post holiday blues” that often stem from the materialism of the “holiday season.”  How does materialism affect us?