Monday, May 18, 2015

Bar/Bat Mitzvah Syndrome

            Before I came to Yavneh Academy, I worked in a high school for ten years.  When I came to Yavneh nine years ago, I was introduced to a phenomenon that I had known about, but had never really absorbed into my psyche- the Bar/Bat Mitzvah syndrome.  I have to be honest. My own children were not yet bnai mitzvah age at the time.  I had never worked intensely with 6th and 7th graders.  Although I myself had a beautiful bat mitzvah, I never truly appreciated the stress that comes along with the bnai mitzah years.

            There is, of course, the keriat haTorah, the learning/siyumim, the divrei Torah- all of which have to be studied and internalized.  There is the challenging nature of all of the above for all our students, and especially for our children who find learning challenging.   The pressure to perform is intense.  Some are shy about performing in public.  I encourage all parents and children to engage in a meaningful Judaic experience, while also allowing oneself the freedom to opt out of any of the above for the right reasons.  

            Then there is the intense social pressure of these years.  Aside from having to decide whom to invite, there is the social atmosphere of the event itself. Who will be in my carpool?  Who will I sit next to? Will I have someone to schmooze with at the smorg?   Will someone want to pair up with me for Coke and Pepsi?  Where will I stay for Shabbos for the affair out of my hometown?  What will I do Shabbos afternoon- will I have someone to be with?  For our children who don’t quite have their “go to group” a bar /bat mitzvah party can be very stressful, and often disappointing.   I have heard students over the years tell me they spent the affair in the bathroom because he/she could not navigate the social demands of the informal socializing at affairs.

            Additionally, there is the pressure that one’s own party should be one that is not “embarrassing.” Will they like my dress? My kippa that I give out?  The giveaways?  The band?  As parents, we struggle with providing our children with a memorable celebration while at the same time managing the finances.   We know that to children just entering the teenage years, being accepted by their peers is everything. There is significant pressure to have a party that all will think is cool. 
            In December, Erica Brown wrote an article for the Jewish Week called “Not Another Video, Please- Bat/Bar Mitzvahs should celebrate the Jewish people, not any individual child”  at  When I read the article, I tucked it away, (to use in a future column, of course).  She focuses on the famous video montage that we all create for our beautiful children. 
To quote, “But I want to focus on a standard feature of these events: the video…It is basically the narration of the child’s life as a toddler, kindergartener, elementary schooler and awkward middle schooler. The child’s friends will clap wildly when an image of one of them appears. There will be the great aunt who will give a smaller check because she did not show up in one slide. There will definitely be one girl sobbing in the ladies’ room stalls because she’s been left out.” (Here she highlights something of which I had never thought- the social pressure that surrounds the montage. Something to think about).
The story that is important — the narrative that a child joins on this occasion — is the story of the Jewish people. That’s the exciting, meaningful story. A bar/bat mitzvah is not a celebration of a child, in which case the photos of said youngster would be totally appropriate. The bar/bat mitzvah is arguably not a celebration at all. It is a marker of a major transition in the life of a Jewish person: when he or she takes on the adult responsibilities incumbent upon being a member of the Jewish community. 
If you want to make a video of that, go around taking pictures of people in need, of a pair of tefillin, of a soldier in Israel fighting on our borders and of an old woman praying at the Wall. Create a picture of Jewish life during the days of the Talmud, the Spanish Inquisition, the Renaissance and Poland in the 18th century. In that video put in a passage from the Bible and maybe a medieval commentator or two. Don’t forget to show an image of Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and some obscure everyday heroes of Jewish life.
Make this video aspirational because that’s what the bar/bat mitzvah is all about. It’s not about the child. It’s about our Jewish story. If we keep telling kids through videos and speeches how wonderful they are but forget to tell them how wonderful Jewish life is, then we will have failed them at this transitional time. Our job as Jewish adults is to welcome and inspire a new crop of Jewish adults to take their place in this majestic story. Don’t tell them that they are fabulous the way they are but just how fabulous they could be if they took one great meaningful leap into their own Jewish future.”
            As my son celebrated his bar mitzvah a few weeks ago, the words of Erica Brown came to mind. As I wrote the Dvar Torah and the message I wanted to deliver to my son, I thought, “Is my message to him ‘aspirational’?” For, even if our 12 and 13 year olds believe that they are adults, they have a whole life ahead of them where they need to know not only how fabulous they are,  (I disagree with Ms. Brown a bit- it’s good once a while for your child to be reinforced for his/her positive quailities!), and how fabulous they can and must become. 
            Now that I have been sensitized to Bar/Bat Mitzvah syndrome, every time I receive an invitation in the mail, I consider all that the “syndrome” brings with it mentioned above.  That is why, at the beginning of each month, I e-mail our middle school staff the names of children celebrating their simcha in the coming month so that they can keep it in mind.  This bnai mitzvah time is a wonderful, yet “bumpy” time for our children.  When you think about it, it is no different from the rest of adolescence. 
            On Chag HaShavuot the Jews accepted the Torah.  A bar/bat mitzvah is your individual child’s Kabbalat haTorah.  We know that even thought the Jews accepted the Torah willingly with Naasah V’Nishma (we will do and we will listen),  the Gemara Shabbat 88a states a famous midrash on the words, “And, they stood beneath the mountain.”    Rav Avdimi bar Chana bar Chisdah said, “This teaches that G-d held the mountain over their heads like a bucket and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, good. And, if not, your burial place will be there.’  Despite their excitement and willingness to embrace the Torah, there was some sort of pressure and stress surrounding the nation’s Kabbalat HaTorah.   Our children experience this same stress and pressure in their personal kabbalah on their bar/bat mitzvah day.  We hope they will all leave that kabbalah with a whole hearted “Naaseh V’nishma.”
I know that we as parents work hard on making sure these days are positive forces in our celebrants’ lives. But, I have to admit that sometimes I yearn for the good old days that my Zeidi used to tell me about- as he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in Europe with some kichel and herring in shul.  My Zeidi really knew how to throw a party!

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade-  Students have been learning about L.E.A.D.E.R.S. strategies to combat bullying and social exclusion.
Seventh Grade-  Students are completing their empathy unit called Operation Respect where they learn about what it means to be homeless and about poverty in our own community. 

Eighth Grade-  Students have been focusing on the dangers of the abuse of alcohol and other substances.  

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Four Sons- Which One Is The Teenager?

The fours sons are typically explained as representing four different types of people in Klal Yisrael, and how each deserve a different explanation of the Pesach story. We call this in the world of education "differentiated instruction," or as Dovid Hamelech said centuries ago,  "Chanoch la'naar al pi darko..."  “Educate each child according to his way.”

I would like to suggest, that the four sons are not four types of people, but rather four stages of development in a child's life.  When a child is in the "early childhood years"  he is "sh'aino yodeah l'shol."  As he grows into the lower school years he becomes the tam- a bit more educated, but not quite there yet.  And, then we have the words of the "rasha"  “Mah haavodah hazot lachem” “What is this work to you?!.", which sounds something like your teenager might say to you when irritated by something you are attempting to impose upon him.  

Of course, I am not implying that teenagers are "wicked!"  Most teens give us much nachat most of the time. But, often their comments try our patience, and we have to seriously consider how our responses will impact on their view of and love for Judaism as they grow older.  

As we know, the four sons are taken from the Chumash where it indicates in four different places how to respond to our children regarding the Exodus.  The first son who receives a response is the "rasha."  Rabbi Yisrael Rice, in his article "Your Inner Teenager," identifies the teenage qualities in the rasha and puts an interesting spin on the pesukim in Shemot 12:25-26. "' And it shall come to pass when you come to the land which G-d will give you, according to His promise, that you shall keep this service of observing Passover.  And, it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, "What the heck are you guys doing?'” (Instead of “What is this work to you?” Clearly not the words of the pasuk).  “The whole family is together doing one thing; in walks this child and rejects whatever it is that is going on.  Sounds to me like an archetypical teenager...And even before we leave Egypt, G-d is telling us that in the future, your kids will give you lip." 

Rabbi Rice continues to point out how the teenager has similar qualities to the rasha.  "Let us look at our archetypical teenager.  S/he is at a remarkable stage in life of seeking self-definition. In order to adequately experience this stage s/he does not want to be part of the norms of general society.  This may manifest itself in many shapes and forms. But the common denominator is that they are now, in some way, apart from the world of their childhood years.  And if you don't go through this stage, well then, you are still a kid."  

We know that teens need to go through this stage of individuation when it may appear as if they are rejecting the values of their parents.  As parents of teens, how do we help our teens when they may feel that Judaism is too “confining, leaving little room for individuality and self- development,” as noted by Rabbi Steven Katz in Jewish Action?   “They view the halachos of Shabbos and Yom Tov as restrictive, depriving them of ‘fun.’”  What do we do when those qualities demonstrated by the rasha rear their heads?

Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, in his article “Why Aren’t Our Kids In Shul?” sees this phenomenon evident in teens’ shul attendance.  I believe that Rabbi Goldmintz’s answer to this tefilla problem can relate to all areas of religious resistance we often find in teens.  Many assume that the sure way to drive a child away from Judaism is to “force” him or her.  Rabbi Goldmintz states that the research indicates just the opposite.  On research done on teens and church attendance, Dr. Kenneth Hyde notes, “Most children regard worship as uninteresting and boring, nevertheless, it is the children who have been regularly involved in it who are more likely to retain the habit of church attendance when free to abandon it.”  In Rabbi Goldmintz’s words, “many children don’t want to attend religious services, but those adults who end up attending services on their own are those who went as children even they didn’t want to .  Simply the more you force your child to go to shul, the more likely it is that he or she will continue to go to shul later in life.”   

One might seemed shocked at this idea- won’t forcing turn him/her off?  Rabbi Goldmintz continued that developmentally it makes perfect sense.  Teens are trying to figure out who they are, but that search must happen within the system.  Don’t we “force” our teens to do many things which they would not do otherwise, such as chores, homework, visits to relatives etc.?  We hope that as they grow they will come to appreciate these values.  But, if we simply let them off the hook now, they may opt out altogether.  We need to “keep them in the ‘game.’”  He is not advocating never being flexible, and of course there are exceptions, but in general the message should be “in this family, going to shul is a value that we will not concede.”  (Rabbi Goldmintz continues in his article to share some important ways we as parents can make davening a meaningful experience for our teens).  Rabbi Goldmintz’s message is a fitting one for the rasha. 

One might have wondered, why do we even bother having the rasha at our seder if he is so resistant and argumentative?  That is Rabbi Goldmintz’s point as it relates to all areas of religious growth. He may not appreciate the laws and statutes now, but if he keeps on returning to the seder each year, he will eventually come to it on his own.

Rabbi Rice continues to ask, Why is the rasha the first one who is who receives a response in the Chumash?    The Chumash is pointing out that there are definitely qualities of the teenage years that we as adults and Jews can emulate.  As observant Jews we often fall in the routine and rote of practice.  We settle into "mediocrity" and allow "norms to box us in."  The theme of Pesach is to ability to break free from the shackles of slavery, "being defined as a nation, developing an identity and rejecting all around us to experience something new and sublime."  Pesach is about redemption and change.  All things the teen does well.

The teen turns to us and says, "Do you see what I am about? I am about change! However life has been until now will not do.  My life is a point of departure. A redemption, as it were. I may need to wear different clothes, talk funny and be less accessible in order to facilitate my change.  But what about you?  You have all the rules printed up, all the recipes followed, and songs sung with proper cadence and melody- but no soul.  I don’t see anyone changing.  I don’t see anyone experiencing redemption.”

What does the response in the haggadah mean, “So too, shall you blunt his teeth?”  Remove the sharpness of his argument in your mind- view it in a different way.  What the rasha is telling us is not so bad. When your teen is resistant, change your viewpoint.  Maybe we need to be a bit more like our teens, according to Rabbi Rice and emulate their ability to change. Or, maybe, in a more basic way, when our teens are resistant every so often, we need to remind ourselves that it’s just a passing stage. In a few more years, they will be the chacham .

Advisory Update

Sixth Grade-  Students tackled some real-life friendship dilemmas and how they would solve them.

Seventh Grade-  Tattling verus telling? Are we hesitant to tell someone when something wrong is happening? What are the consequences for coming forward? How do we withstand those fears?

Eighth Grade-  Students had the opportunity to discuss their experience in the Holocaust play – how it changed their views, what went well and what could have gone better?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Freaky Friday And The Pesach Seder

As we prepare for Pesach, we are reminded of the Mishna in Pesachim 116b which states, "Chayav adam lirot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza me-mitzraim -one is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt."   Based on this mishna, Pesach is the holiday of empathy- where we imagine what it would be like to be slaves in Egypt.  The Rambam’s text has a different version as he states, "Chayav adam le-harot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza me-mitzraim - one is obligated to show himself as if he left Egypt."  We know that based on these words of the Rambam, some actually act out the Exodus, as they parade around the table with matzot on their backs. They actually “pretend” to leave Mitzrayim.  This play acting is perhaps to make that empathy even easier.   Is it hard to truly feel something unless you have been through it yourself.  As free American Jews we have a difficult time relating to the slavery, and fulfilling the obligation to “see oneself as if he left Egypt.”  But, if we physically act out their pain, we can empathize more easily.    
This difference between the mishna in Pesachim and the Rambam is similar to the discussion the 8th graders went through this past week in Advisory.  This unit is about the changing Parent-Child relationship they are now encountering as they enter adolescence.  As part of this unit we show clips from the movie “Freaky Friday.”  In “Freaky  Friday,” a teenager (Anna), and her mother simply cannot get along.  It is clear that they do not understand each other- they cannot empathize with each other’s position. Mom cannot understand how the Anna can get in trouble in school, be disrespectful or fight with her brother.  Anna cannot understand how mom needs to discipline her, and how Mom would like her to make her upcoming wedding a priority over Anna’s music band.  When they go out to eat in an Asian restaurant one of the owners witnesses their inability to understand each other and  puts a “spell” over them. The next morning, each wakes up in the body of the other- they have literally switched places.  In the next days, Anna begins to understand the pressures her mother has, and Mom begins to understand the challenges faced by Anna.
In essence, the challenge of every parent-teen relationship is the “obligation” to “see oneself as if he himself was a teen/parent.”  A mother must be able to empathize with her teen’s experiences, and a teen must be able to empathize how difficult it is to be a parent. Only with the true empathy can the relationship flourish. “Freaky Friday” maintains that they only way to do so is to actually live the life of the other- the Rambam’s view, as it is truly hard to feel something unless you have gone through it yourself.
Chances are, (or hopefully), none of us will wake up tomorrow morning in the body of our teen.  So, how can we “l’harot et atzmainu ke’ilu hayinu” teenagers?  (A bit of poetic license there!)   Well, the good news is that if we dig deep back into the recesses of our minds- we actually were teenagers at one point.  Yes, there are facets of that life that we have blocked out of memory, but some of it we can recall.   Every so often when engaged in a struggle with our teens, we need to take a step back and say, “Hey. I was a teenager too.  What did it feel like to feel when I was his age?” That is one path to empathy. The ability to see the perspective of the other- without having to actually switch bodies.   For now, teens themselves have a hard time with empathy, as even neurologically they are just beginning to have the ability to empathize. We, therefore, as parents need to help them see the perspective of others. We do this by continually highlighting in a casual way how the other is feeling.
Or, maybe on the next “movie night”, you and your teen should watch “Freaky Friday” together- (I cannot vouch for the appropriateness of the whole movie, as I only show clips-so you probably want to check it out first).  After the movie, having a chat about what it’s like to switch places is probably the second best thing to actually waking up in the body of the other.  

Advisory Update:
6th Grade-  Students discussed different “friendship problems” and some possible ways to solve them.
7th Grade-  Students highlighted one reason why people tend not to stand up to injustice- the fear of “snitching.” Does such fear exist among us?
8th Grade-  Continuing the parent-teen relationships unit, students discussed segments of “Freaky Friday” and the importance of perspective taking.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Live Long And Prosper- The Challenge

            Recently, with the passing of Leonard Nimoy,  Star Trek fans suffered the loss of their dear Mr. Spock.  Although I am not a Trekkie, (but I have been known to use Star Trek episodes for a good Advisory or NCSY program!), it hit home as Leonard Nimoy was a Jewish boy from Boston whose father owned a barber shop. My father, a”h, was also from Boston and remembered that barber shop well.  (Although a Yankee fan myself, my father was an avid Red Sox fan, as was Nimoy, so that also creates a sense of affinity).  I have often thought of his famous Vulcan salute, based on the hands of the Kohanim and his catch phrase, “Live long and prosper,” which he stated was based on the Birchat Kohanim.
            This phrase, “Live long and prosper” struck a chord after three pieces I have recently read.  First, is an issue of Time Magazine  from February 23  which featured numerous articles on, “This Baby Could Live To Be 142 Years Old- Dispatches From The Frontiers of Longevity.”  This special double issue targets the research on longevity and the secret to “living long and prospering.”  Whether it is a compound called rapamycin, which has been injected into mice and is slowing aging and damage to cells or manipulating genes, there are solutions related to finding a “cure for aging.”  There are, of course, lifestyle changes we can make to extend life, as the articles note. Some areas focused upon in Time are more exercise, wearing sunglasses, wearing sunscreen, stimulating your mind, specific diets, being married etc.  
            As a psychologist, the research on how mindset and attitude affect the physiology of aging has always been of interest to me. Dr. Ellen Langer, a psychologist at Harvard, who has been studying aging and the mind stated, “Let’s treat mind and body as just words.  Let’s put them together as one thing and say anywhere you put the mind, you also put the body.”  “Meditation, optimism, resilience and social connection” all apply to the “mind” arena.  A gene that codes for inflammation, one cause of aging, is regulated by meditation.  Reducing stress reduces cellular damage.  Then, of course, there is the optimism effect.  Those who score higher on tests of optimism also have lower rates of heart disease, cancer and mortality.   Cynics tend to have higher risks of death. 
            How would the wise Mr. Spock relate to the above research on the strategies to “live long and prosper?” Well, one might maintain that Spock the rationalist would not believe in the effect of the emotions on life expectancy, but then again, he was a scientist and science does clearly demonstrate its efficacy.  
            The second piece of reading, to which I referred above, was a book that my daughter is reading for class, which I picked up to read as well. (I recently have been making an effort to read the books my children are reading so that we can discuss.  I have been finding it a good way to share experiences with my children- without even helping them with assignments related to the book. I highly recommend it!)  Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit, tells of the Tuck family who drank from a spring whose waters, unbeknownst to them, prevented them from aging or suffering any physical harm. They do not perceive their being able to live forever as the blessing one might imagine.  Winnie Foster discovers them, has the opportunity herself to drink the waters, and chooses not to do so.  The question of aging comes to mind.  Do we want to live forever?   Which is more important- to live long or to prosper? If one lives long without “prospering,” as Jesse states in the book that he wishes to do something important, then is it worth living?   Or, as Judaism maintains in Megillat Eicha 3:39,  Mah yitonen adam chai” “Why does a living man complain?” That all life is precious- no matter what the quality.
             The third piece of reading, (again read due to the fact that my son was reading it), was The Giver , by Lois Lowry.  In the Giver, the elderly are “released” when the community feels they have lived long enough.   Such an idea is antithetical to the Jewish ideal of respect to the elderly, and the sanctification of life.  Who are they to decide that their elderly have “lived long” enough?
            In thinking about the questions regarding aging and living a prosperous life, I have been considering,  What is the message we as parents can relay to our children?
In Bereishit 47:8, Pharaoh asks Yaakov how old he is.  Yaakov answers that he is 130 years old and “few and bad have been the days of the years of my life.” Yaakov is indicating, uncharacteristically, that he has “lived a long life” but has not “prospered.”  The Daat Zekenim M’Baalei HaTosafot states that Yaakov was found at fault for complaining thusly, and therefore, the Midrash states, 33 years were deducted from his life due to the 33 words he uttered.   Perhaps, I would like to maintain that the deduction of years was not a punishment. Rather,  like the research on optimism and attitude, due to his negative attitude the deduction of years was a natural result of a negative mindset.  He did not see his life as “prosperous.”  “You are as old as you feel.”

This is the message I want to relay to my children.  It is not enough to “live long,” but one must also “prosper.”  It is a conscious decision to see life as prosperous, rather than as a failure. One can see the cup as half full or half empty.  “Half full” people do not just live long- (as science has proven), but they have made the choice to see themselves as prospering.  The more one visualizes that success, the greater the chance one has to actually be successful.   So, “Live long and prosper,” is not just a blessing, it is a challenge we present to our children to live life with optimism, hope and a successful mindset.  

Advisory Update:

6th Grade-   Sixth graders began a unit on the topic of "Who is a friend?" What is true friendship? What qualities do we look for in a friend?

7th Grade-  Students discussed the "bystander effect" and why so many do nothing when they see injustice.

8th Grade-  Students continued a unit on the changing relationship between parents and teens.  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

To Thine Own Self Be True

Honesty- such a lonely word… and the focus of this unit in 8th Grade Advisory. Stemming from current events- “Deflate-gate” and A-rod finally, officially pleading guilty to using steroids- we discussed the topics of cheating and honesty in sports, in school and in interactions with others. 
Aside from considering why it is wrong to be dishonest, we wanted the students to think about the following issues:
1.     How does behavior affect the impression others have of us even if it is in the past? (Past deceit- does that make us “untrustworthy”?) How does one develop a good reputation?
2.     Loss of trust- how essential is trust in our relationships? If we lose it, is it easy to get back? How about in parent- child relationships? Friendships? Teacher-student relationships?
3.     Why is “success at all costs” antithetical to our moral beliefs?
4.     Why do people cheat?  Do we ever feel like we are in that position?
5.     How does it feel for those of us who do not cheat? Is it frustrating?
6.     “Everybody does it”- does that excuse behavior?
7.     “No harm done”- is that true that no one is impacted by our deceit?
One issue we discussed with the students is whether in the age of technology people are more dishonest or less.  Some data from 13-17 year olds from 2009 indicated:
·        More than 35% admitted to using their cell phones to cheat.
·        52% admitted to some form of cheating involving the Internet.
·        38% said they copied text from Web sites and turned it in as their own work.
·        65% of students with cell phones say they use them at school, but only 23% of parents think their children use cell phones during school hours.
·        69% of schools have policies that don’t permit cell phone use, but more than half of all kids ignore them.

Jeffrey Hancock, on CNN, wrote in his article “The Internet Might Help Keep You Honest” that technology has made possible three new forms of deception.  The first he calls the “butler lies” “Little lies we tell one another to avoid social interaction.”  For example, claiming one is in a tunnel and is losing reception, or saying you just received a text when you read it hours go, and did not want to respond. In this way we use technology as a “social buffer.”
The second form of deception he calls “sock puppets.”  “Individuals who provide reviews or commentary about their own work, usually highly positive, of course.” On the internet one can choose any identity one wishes.   This second form leads to the “Chinese water army” where thousands of people are paid to get together to write the same reviews. 
On the other hand, Hancock quotes research which indicates that technology actually makes us less likely to be dishonest to each other.  In these studies, people were less prone to lie via e-mail that in person.  Why? This is similar to why we often find that people write e-mails that are more caustic than they would say in person.  There is no risk of having to see the person’s reaction. (This is the same reason why children find it easier to bully via the internet). 
We asked our students this week to consider “Are you a truthful person? Do you intentionally mislead others?”  We asked them to be honest with themselves.
As parents and educators, we model the importance of honesty.   Whether it is honesty at work, in our relationships or even with them.   The way we interact with our teens in an honest, but caring way, fosters trust between us.
In this week’s parasha the description of the Aron (ark) is found.  In Shemot 25:11 it states that the Aron is to be made of wood and to be covered in gold on the inside and the outside.  Why use gold on the inside where no one will see it.  The ark exemplified the midda of being “tocho k’baro”- one’s external behavior should reflect one’s inner essence.
In fact, this character trait is so important that the Gemara in Berachot 28a states that Rabban Gamliel denied entry to the Beit Midrash to anyone who was “ein tocho k’baro”- his outside was not like his inside.  Why was this kind of honesty so important to Rabban Gamliel? It is the same type of honesty we want in our students.

We particularly want to encourage this type of honesty during the teenage years when our children are developing a sense of self.  We want them to be true to their “insides” “tocho”.  During this age making choices by “honoring their true selves”  rather than basing decisions on their peers’ behaviors takes a significant amount of courage. We proclaim “let your bar be like your toch.” The first step, which they are learning to do during this time of adolescence, is to help them find their true selves, and be proud of who they are.    We encourage our children to be individuals and to have the courage to be so.  “To thine own self be true.”  


Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade- Students focused on what are the activites that distract us from maintaining good time management and what are some solutions to avoiding those distractions?

Seventh Grade- Students understood the sensitive situation in Gaza and the world view.  

Eighth Grade-  A unit on honesty ended with a lesson on lying and its impact. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Real Strength For Men- Super Bowl Style?

 For those of you who have been loyal readers for some years now you know that I typically write a Super Bowl column after the game. Now, you might be thinking that since I mentioned the Super Bowl in the column right before the game I fulfilled my obligation. Right?

Not quite. I know that in last week's column I mentioned some of the commercials during the game for their negative impact. I wanted to mention another commercial presented by Dove they call “What is real strength- for men.” You can view this commercial at

I use the Dove campaign for real beauty in lessons with my female students as they have developed these wonderful videos regarding body image and true beauty. Based on the findings of a major global study, The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report, Dove® launched the Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004. The campaign started a global conversation about the need for a wider definition of beauty after the study proved the hypothesis that the definition of beauty had become limiting and unattainable. Among the study’s findings was the statistic that only 2% of women around the world would describe themselves as beautiful. Since 2004, Dove® has employed various communications vehicles to challenge beauty stereotypes and invite women to join a discussion about beauty.  In 2010, Dove® evolved the campaign and launched an unprecedented effort to make beauty a source of confidence, not anxiety, with the Dove® Movement for Self-Esteem.” They have also created a curriculum for students to help young girls improve their body images.

Now, Dove is seeking to bring their campaign to males. As you can see in the commercial, caring is true strength. Why did they launch their campaign during the Super Bowl? Jennifer Newsom contributtor to the documentary 'The Mask you Live In – exploring American masculinity, answers this question in her article “What are boys learning from the Super Bowl?” “It is difficult to imagine a more hypermasculine public ritual than the Super Bowl. Muscular men shoving and slamming against each other, seeking dominance over one another, and being revered and rewarded for violence while scantily dressed women dance on the sidelines.” She shares that “hypermasculine norms” lead to dangerous consequences for boys, like the fact that half of boys and men who experience depression or anxiety will not get help. She notes increased drinking in boys under 17 and other at-risk behaviors. Newsom attributes much of these behaviors to the fact that we raise boys by telling them that “real men don't cry” or express their feelings.

In a new study in 2014 “Care Makes a Man Stronger,” Dove partnered with masculinity expert Dr. Michael Kimmel which revealed:

  • 86% of men say that the idea of masculinity has changed versus their father's generation
  • 9 out of 10 men today see their caring side as a sign of strength.
  • Only 7% of men around the world can relate to the way the media depicts masculinity
    Dove's goal is to express to men that is is okay to care and to show emotion. It is our job as parents of boys to raise boys who realize that demonstrating and expressing emotion is not a weakness, but rather a strength.

As I commemorated the 12th yahrzeit of my father, Rabbi Steven Dworken a”h, last week this message came to life. My father was truly emotional and never afraid to shed a tear in public. As a pulpit rabbi, he often cried during a stirring Dvar Torah, or even at a simcha. In fact, on my wedding video, if one listens closely, one can hear me saying to him under my breath, as he recited the berachot as m'sader Kiddushin, “Daddy, don't cry!” as I was afraid he would set me off. My father was known for his incredible “heart,” (which he would pronounce “haht” with his Boston accent), and his wonderful ability for empathy and connecting with others. I grew up understanding that “real men do cry.” It has allowed me to grow as a more sensitive human being myself, and reminds me daily of the importance of raising my own sons with the strength to care.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

One Thing For Parents To Do Before The Super Bowl

            A new law took effect in Israel on January 1st that models need to have a body-mass index of at least 18.5.  They call it the “Photoshop Law” as it also demands that if photoshopping is used on an image, it must be noted on the bottom of the photo.  The purpose of this law is to prevent models from losing too much weight and endangering their health.  More importantly, this law protects those who view these models and are therefore influenced to emulate them. This law was initiated by Israeli fashion photographer Adi Barkhan who was inspired to make a change after he lost his friend Hila Elmaliah, a model, to an eating disorder.   A research study published in Pediatrics noted that about “two thirds of American girls in the fifth to 12th grades say that magazine pictures influence their image of an ideal body; about half of girls in those grades said the magazine images made them want to lose weight.”
This past week we begin our series of Adolescent Life Workshops with our seventh graders.  The girls’ workshop focuses on the impact of the media on body image.  What are the messages that the media sends to girls about body image? Today’s children are more and more dissatisfied with their bodies, from as young as the age of five.  The media clearly has an impact on this trend.   As Common Sense Media states, “Unrealistic, sexualized, and stereotypical images and messages about bodies and gender are rampant on the media your kid consumes.”  If our children are exposed to these unrealistic body types, they come to believe that they are ideal.  87% of female television characters aged 10 to 17 are below average in weight.  
            In my workshop with the seventh graders,  we speak of the unrealistic images to which we are exposed daily.  We discuss the photoshopping done on every ad they see.  We focus on the over-sexualized images they see daily in the culture around them.  Most importantly, we discuss the definition of “true beauty.” 
            With the advent of social media, now our teens are not only comparing themselves to celebrities, but also to their peers.   Young girls are constantly posting pictures of themselves for the world to see and comment on.  “In Youtube videos, innocent girls are asking Internet audiences to tell them if they are pretty or ugly.  They are rating each other on Instagram.  They bare themselves and beg for feedback on   They edit their selfies and drink in advice about how to improve their online image.”  Teens are turning to the Internet for body image validation.  The Internet is like a “super-peer.”  Research has just begun to ascertain the negative impact this criticism and judgment have on a young girl’s body image.  “In a world where the feedback is constant, often negative, frequently public and interactive, it can’t be good.”   (Note, that this all affects boys as well as girls, although my focus is girls in today’s article).
            I eagerly rushed to get this article out before the Super Bowl as an article I read on Common Sense Media urged me to do so. (I have quoted Common Sense Media before.  Just a reminder, it is a great resource if you want to see if a movie, book, tv. show is appropriate for your child, as it provides detailed ratings of violence, sexual content etc.).  The Super Bowl is another example of how the media affects our children.  In their video “Three things to talk to kids about before watching the Super Bowl” they highlight important discussions to have with your child regarding body image, stereotypes and sexism and even violence before watching the game.  Please take the time to watch the few minute video before the game at :
            Additionally, Caroline Knorr writes an article at where she discussed the sexism and impact even the commercials our children watch during the Super Bowl have on them.   Her points are essential as we note that 80% of ten year old girls have been on a diet.  What messages are they getting?   Please take the time to read this very quick article before the game, as it highlights some recommendations for parents at the end.
            I know many of you are saying to yourselves, “Why can’t she just relax and enjoy the game?”  Okay, I’ll try, but I’ll be able to relax a bit more if I know we are helping our children withstand the dangerous impact the media can have on them.

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade:  Our sixth graders began their Time Management unit as they were introduced to how time management can help them avoid procrastination and handle their workloads.
Seventh Grade:  Seventh graders focused on the situation with Hamas in Gaza to better understand how they can make an impact.  They also had their first lesson in the Adolescent Life Workshops series where the boys focused on physiological development and the girls on body image.

Eighth Grade:  Eighth graders continued their unit on honesty in school.