Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Slow Parenting Summer

You know the Beginning of School Enthusiasm? When the pencils are fresh and the notebooks are new and the kids’ backpacks don’t look like they lined the den of a pack of filthy hyenas? Moms, remember how you packed innovative and nutritional lunches and laid clothes out the night before and labeled shelves for each child’s work and school correspondence and completed homework in a timely manner?
I am exactly still like that at the end of school, except the opposite.”
        These are the words of Jen Hatmaker in her article “Worst End of School Mom Ever.”  You can read this humorous, but realistic, article at I promise that all parents will laugh.  She describes how as a parent she has lost steam and is limping towards the finish line, as a tired, worn-out parent unable to still supervise and oversee the work and even sign papers.   So, it’s not just our kids who are ready for vacation. We parents are too.
The good news is that both parents and students have the summer vacation to recharge. We worked hard this year too and deserve the time to simply enjoy our children.

Katherine Martinko, in her article “I’m Opting For A Slow Parenting Summer” writes about what Slow Parenting is- “The philosophy behind slow parenting is exactly what it sounds like – that kids need time and space to explore the world on their own terms; that they learn to entertain themselves, play outdoors, and enjoy hanging out with their families; and that they receive sufficient down time to process what’s going on their lives.” She says that we tend to overburden our family’s free time.    “The ‘slow parenting’ movement is gaining traction in opposition to the chronic ‘fast forward’ mode that drives so many North American families nowadays. At a time when childrearing feels more like ‘a cross between a competitive sport and product-development’, it feels really good just to say ‘no’ and detach from the rat race.”

Carrie Contey, the founder of Slow Family Living stresses that children need moments of “doing” and moments of “being.” We tend to overschedule with doing and do not allow for being.  Children who can simply “be” are more comfortable, secure and often more content.  They do not need to be entertained at every moment of every day.

The bell just rang and the last minutes of the school year have passed. I am making a commitment to some slow parenting moments this summer. I hope that you are too.  You deserve it!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Being An "Upstander" And Not A "Bystander"

 Two weeks ago, the town of Shawano in Wisconsin passed a new anti-bullying ordinance. Under this ordinance, if a child is found to be involved in bullying another the parents will be warned. The parent then has 90 days to “address the bullying.” If the behavior does not stop after 90 days, the parents will be fined $366. This ordinance is not the first of this kind. We presented our 7th graders in Advisory with this new ordinance. What did they think? Can parents be held responsible for the behavior of their children? That was most definitely debatable. But, clearly, they can be held responsible if they “stand idly by” and let it happen without attempting an intervention.

“Do not stand idly by” was a theme in the most recent unit in their Advisory class. We were proud to spearhead and share our B.I.G. Day- Buy Israeli Goods Day- in local supermarkets and in school. This effort was part of their standing up to the BDS movement and not “standing idly by” while Israel is maligned and boycotted. We hope that our students got the message that each of us as individuals can do something to stand up to injustice.

The proximity of Yom HaShoah and Yom Haatzmaut has always struck me. “Out of the ashes,” as some might maintain. This year, with our B.I.G. Day, the students were able to see a more direct connection. The theme of the importance of the bystander standing up to injustice is abundantly clear with the Holocaust, as demonstrated by this quote we discuss in our Advisory class.
In 1933 Martin Niemoller, a leader in the Confessing Church which was  begun by Niemoller and several other ministers, voted for the Nazi party.  By  1938, however, he was in a concentration camp.  After the war he was believed to have said,

"In Germany, the Nazis came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up  because I wasn't a Communist.  
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak  up because I wasn't a Jew.  
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,  and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.  
Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to
speak for me."  

I have spoken about the impactful bonding opportunity presented by reading a book that your teen is reading. My son and I are now reading The Book Thief. I actually just finished the book today- a truly incredible read! It is replete with messages of “Do not stand idly by” as Hans Huberman and his family hide a Jew, or as he reaches out to give bread to a Jew and suffers the consequences, or as he paints over the anti-Semitic graffiti found on a Jew's store.

These are the messages that we want to transmit as parents to our children. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
The Gemara in Sotah 11a tell us that when Pharaoh was plotting against the Jews he asked his three advisers, Yitro, Iyov and Bilaam their opinions. Bilaam was eager to exterminate the Jews. Yitro, rejected Pharaoh's idea and expressed his opposition. He, therefore, had to escape Egypt and ended up in Midyan. Iyov, was against killing the Jews, but he remained silent. One can only hypothesize why he did not speak. Perhaps he was afraid of suffering the consequences. He may even have rationalized that if he is not an adviser, he cannot help the Jews as time progresses.

Each adviser received a consequence from G-d. Bilaam, was killed by the Jews whom he wanted to kill. Yitro was rewarded by becoming the father-in-law of Moshe and an important in the history of the Jewish people. Iyov, who remained silent, lived a life of pain and suffering. Why such a terrible punishment for remaining silent? The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik stated, that when Iyov was struck by tragedy after tragedy he finally raised his voice to cry to Hashem- the same Iyov who had stayed silent with Pharoah. The difference was, that here he was personally affected and with the Jewish decree he was not. Because he was unable to cry out when others were impacted, he was destined to cry out now.

To come back to Wisconsin, what can we as parents do to ensure that we do not stand idly by and raise children who will not stand idly by when they see injustice in their day to day lives- like bullying, even when it does not affect them directly? This Shabbat's parasha had the answer. In the first pasuk, Vayikra 21:1, it states, “And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people.” Rashi asks, why the need for “speak” to them and “say” to them? Rashi answers, “Speak to the kohanim: אֱמֹר וְאָמַרְתָּ “Speak [to the Kohanim …] and say [to them],” lit. “Say…and you shall say.” [This double expression comes] to admonish the adult [Kohanim to be responsible] for the minors [that they must not contaminate them (Mizrachi)]. — [Yev. . 114A].” In essence, we adults need to be responsible for the minors. How? By having a zero-tolerance policy and not tolerating any teasing, picking on or joking about other children in our homes. By reminding them that sometimes we need to include others even if it is not the most fun for us, but because it is the right thing to do. And, most importantly, by serving as models ourselves of inclusiveness, respect for others, and keeping others in mind who may seem left out.

Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade: Students began to learn about the L.E.A.D.E.R.S. Strategies to combatting bullying.

Seventh Grade: Boys focused on body image for boys and girls on “Odd Girl Out” and social exclusion among girls.

Eighth Grade: Our almost graduates wrote about each other for the inscriptions that will appear on the sefarim that they receive at the Graduation Dinner. Students were trained for how to write the most meaningful inscriptions to their friends. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Key To A Magical Mother's Day And A Chodesh Tov...All Year

Happy Mother’s Day.  Chodesh Tov.  Rosh Chodesh and Mother’s Day fall out on the same day this year.   The moment I noticed that the two did coincide this year I knew that it was not by chance. After all, we know that Rosh Chodesh is a holiday for women.  It is a day that reminds us each month how much women are appreciated.  Why? When Aharon was trying to delay the building of the Gold Calf he requested they collect their jewelry and gold, as it says, “’And Aaron said: Take the earrings from your wives, sons and daughters, and bring them to me’ (Exodus 32:2). The women heard and refused to give their jewelry to their husbands, but said: ‘You want to make a calf with no power to save? We will not listen to you.’ God gave them reward in this world that they keep Rosh Chodesh more than men, and in the next world they merit to renew themselves like Rosh Chodesh.”  (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, 45) There are women who actually abstain from certain types of work (no sewing, heavy house cleaning). (Hey, I’m game for any holiday on which I don’t clean!).   

Rosh Chodesh, we know, is determined by sanctifying the moon.  There is a special connection between women and the moon.  Dina Coopersmith, in her article “ Rosh Chodesh|,” explains that Rosh Chodesh has a human element as you need two witnesses to testify the the Jerusalem high court that the moon was seen.  “The determination of this calendar is placed squarely in human hands.  Thus if the moon were to appear, in fact, on a Monday, but no on actually saw it until Tuesday, ‘seeing is believing’ and the court would decide that the first of the month was on a Tuesday.  As a result, G-d, as it were, follows the decision of the court and acts accordingly, so in the case of Rosh Hashana, He would push off His judgment of the entire world by one day!”  What message is G-d giving the Jews, as He gives them their first mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh?  Up until then the Jews were slaves and time was not their own. Now, they are becoming masters of their time and taking control. The moon reminds us that we can be in control of our time.  Who better to relay that message than a mother?  She somehow can multi-task better in a short amount of time, as brain research has clearly indicated.  She is a master over time.

The moon also causes me to consider what we mothers do with our time.  Is there anything more magical than the moon?  The moon looks as if it has disappeared, and then the next day it comes back! As parents of small children we read Good Night Moon, or sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”  In those days, they didn’t need any special effects or cool videos. Just looking at the moon and the night sky was magical enough.  What message can the moon relay to us mothers on Mother’s Day Rosh Chodesh?

Bummi Laditan, in a Huffington Post  article “I’m Done Making My Kid’s Childhood Magical” makes us nostalgic for those good old days when looking at the moon was magical enough. She reminisces about her own childhood and compares it to the way we “mother” today.  (Thank you for Dr. Feit for forwarding the blog!)

“If our grandmothers and great-grandmothers could see the pressure modern mothers put on themselves, they’d think we were insane.  Since when does being a good mom mean you spend your days creating elaborate crafts for your children, making sure their rooms are decked-out Pottery Barn Ikea masterpieces worthy of children’s magazines, and dressing them to the nines in trendy coordinated outfits.  I don’t believe for a moment that mothers today love their kids any more than our great-grandmothers loved theirs. We just feel compelled to prove it through ridiculously expensive themed birthday parties that have do-it-yourself cupcake stations with 18 types of toppings and over-the-top gifts.
For a few years, I got caught up in the ‘Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better’ parenting model, which mandates you scour Pinterest for the best ideas, execute them flawlessly and then share the photo evidence with strangers and friends via blogs and Facebook posts.
Suddenly, it came to me: We do not need to make our children’s childhood magical.  Childhood is inherently magical, even when it isn’t perfect.

            Laditan recounts her own childhood.  They played.  Parents were not responsible for entertaining them.  They just had fun. Today’s parents ask “What do you need my precious darling?  How can I make your childhood more amazing?”  We do not need to make their lives magical.  “Seeing the world through innocent eyes is magical.  Experiencing winter and playing in the snow is magical…”  Today, we put so much pressure on ourselves to create magical experiences.  We want our children to learn that the magic of life is not something that comes beautifully wrapped, but it is something you discover on your own.

            That is something to consider on Mother’s Day.  As a mother, Rosh Chodesh is a time each month that asserts that I need not wait until Mother’s Day to remind myself how appreciated I am. As a mother, the moon reminds us that we can control what we do with our time, and spend it not making magic for our children or competing with other mothers, but rather helping them create their own magic.  The pressure is off. 

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade: Sixth graders began a unit on Social Exclusion, Harassment and Bullying. They spent some time identifying what those terms are.
Seventh Grade: Students spent time discussing political action and how they can get involved as teens standing up to injustice through contacting politicians.

Eight Grade:  Students began a unit based on the move The Wave which depicts a high school classroom experiment regarding peer pressure based on how the Nazi movement became so popular. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Imagination And Our Teens- A Message Of The Pesach Seder

There is an obligation as stated in the haggadah, "B'chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k'ilu hu yatzah miMitzrayim" "In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt."  (Pesachim 116b). As it says in Shemot 13:8 “And, you shall explain to your son on that day that it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.” One must imagine oneself as experiencing the Exodus.  This brought to mind an article I recently read in Time Magazine by Joel Stein "Inside the Box" on the world of virtual reality that is upon us.   

Stein spent some months going to virtual reality conferences and interviewing scientists involved in virtual reality techonologies. Yes, one can experience climbing a mountain in virtual reality, or one fly a plane. One can even feel motion sickness.  Google has set up a virtual-reality program called Expeditions where classes can go on a virtual field trip and never leave the building.   As a psychologist, the work of Xavier Palomer Ripoll interested me. He created animated situations that allow therapists to use with immersion therapy to treat anxiety disorders.   "'They currently use imagination.  They hold a picture of a plane and they say, 'Imagine you're in a plane.'" Using Ripoll's work a person can actually feel like he is on a plane.  But, as a psychologist, I'm not exactly sure I like the use of virtual reality for therapy.  What happened to good old fashioned imagination?  

Jeremy Bailenson founded Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab in 2003.  "He runs psychological experiments where people become aged versions of themselves to help them save for retirement; in a video how to deal with harassment, the user can become a young black woman being interviewed by an old white guy. After people fly like a superhero and deliver medicine to a sick child, they are more helpful when an assistant pretends to accidentally drop her stuff in the hallway...VR, he believes, is an empathy machine and should be saved for that purpose."  I'm not sure about this one either.  Why do we need an empathy machine?  Why can't we simply imagine the pain and feelings of the other without a “machine”?  

Virtual reality technology is incredible, but I worry when we depend on it to relay social/emotional skills.  I feel that the increasing use of such technology takes the place of encouraging the development of imagination in our children.

 Imagination is the key to success, as one can see that most successful people in life have vivid imaginations.  The greatest inventions of all time are the result of imagination. Imagination is also the key to finding creative solutions to problems.  It is fundamental to many aspects of cognitive development- creativity, cooperation, leadership, problem solving and even developing a good memory. According to Dr. Rosa Aekler and Janet Stanford, in their article “Imagination: The Gift That Keeps On Giving,” imagination allows us
  • To envision what doesn't yet exist, but could become possible.
  • To come close to experiencing alternative realities without risk.
  • To rehearse goals we will attempt to achieve.
  • To visualize solutions to problems.
  • To test a hypothesis in our mind.
  • To fulfill wishes and obtain gratification.”
 Children need to learn the ability to "creating pictures in their mind's eye that help them learn how to reach a desired goal," says Dr. Charlotte Reznick, author of The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How To Transform Stress And Anxiety Into Joy And Success.  We all know of the healing power of play for children where they enact scenarios from their real lives. It also helps them with empathy, as they can play the roles of others.  Research on preschoolers indicated that the more TV they watched, the less imaginative they were.  Television, for teens as well, needs to be paired with discussion, reading and critical thinking.

One example of the importance of imagination to success is Dr. Reznick's view of the importance of imagination for success in sports.  To combat thoughts like "I'll never be perfect" or "I'm afraid I'll let my teammates down" positive visualization techniques are essential. Some basic steps the involve one's imagination are:  1.  Concentrate on the feeling that gives you confidence. Imagine what it looks like. Which is bigger- fear or confidence? 2.  Then imagine filling one's whole body with confidence.  3.  Have  a chat with whatever fear is left.  Ask him what he is afraid of and what it needs form confidence. 4.  Imagine a calming place. Invite an "imaginary friend" to encourage you.  5.  Imagine in one's head each part of the action you want to accomplish.  6. Imagine being a spectator and what it looks like to see oneself succeed.  7. Visualize success using as many senses as possible- For example, when making a foul shot, what does the ball feel like? What sounds do you hear? What is the taste in your mouth? Smells in the gym? 8. Make sure to see success. When going up to bat, see yourself hitting that ball. 9. Use positive language when visualizing, “I can do it!”

In this world of technology, children spend most of their days paying attention to outside stimulation and little time paying attention to what is “inside,” which is essential for development of self-soothing, intuition and deep inner trust. Dr. Reznick said that it is imperative that parents make a "time to go 'inside' rather than 'outside' for information, stimulation, entertainment and knowledge for their children.  “I often tell kids that as much as there is on the outside, when they shut their eyes, relax, breathe slowly and deeply, connect to their 'inner computer' and let their imagination fly, they can go places they never before imagined."  She suggests that children need to take 3-5 minute breaks during technology use.

In today's world, there is no need to be creative or use one's imagination as one can simply google solutions to any issue.  Sitting around playing video games, watching television all day, does not do much for one's imagination.  

How often do our children say, "I'm bored?" Boredom can be constructive or destructive, as an opportunity to get into trouble. Sergio Diazgranados in his article on teenagers and boredom states, "Boredom plays such an imperative role in the growth of your teenager as it allows them to solidify their relationship with their imagination."  When one is bored, if one is able to take initiative and come up with something that is considered a sought after skill when it comes to careers.  But, when feeling bored, our teens often run to technology, not allowing themselves to feel boredom. “Boredom is recognized as a gateway to creativity, so if we can't be alone with ourselves and are unable to tolerate a lack of stimuli then we actually block out the opportunity to feel boredom and the possible creative thinking that comes out of that.”

The mitzvah of reliving the Exodus, is different from the daily mitzvah of remembering the Exodus (Devarim 15:15) as it requires that empathy component and the ability to imagine oneself in a circumstance without virtual reality.  The Rambam in the Laws of Chametz and Matzah 7:6 describes that he must act as a slave who is now experiencing the Exodus by engaging in actual behaviors that symbolize slavery and freedom.  Laws like reclining, eating matzah are meant for that purpose.  And, as Rabbi Naftali Hoff, in his article, "Reliving The Exodus" he notes that the Maharal adds in Gevurot Hashem 61, that one must view his generation as if it was the one leaving Egypt.  And, as the Rambam additionally states in his version of what we read in the haggadah, "In each and every generation a person is obligated to display himself (l'harot et atzmo) as though he just now left the slavery of Egypt." He says, "to display himself”- "L'harot et atzmo" instead of "lirot et atzmo" to see himself, and adds the word "now."  

We know that there are certain communities where they actually wrap matzah in a sack, and toss it over their shoulders.  They may even have seder participants call out "Where are you from?" "Mitzrayim," they answer.  "Where are you going?"  "Yerushalayim."  The actual enacting of the event is one way to trigger the imagination so that one can see oneself as leaving.

I am often grateful for the opportunity to take my teens to a shiur on Shabbat- when there are no smartboards, videos or interactive technologies. They must simply listen, imagine, contemplate and create with their minds. It is quite a challenge for many young people, and adults in today's world, but an essential skill.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb in his article, “Imagine That!” points out the difficulty that some have in fulfilling the mitzvah of seeing oneself as leaving Egypt. In fact, he told the story of a young rabbi he heard state that he sees this mitzvah as impossible to do. He then quoted the words he once heard from the Klausenberger rebbe, Rabbi Halberstam, who was a Holocaust survivor. Rabbi Halberstam said that before the war his mentor, (whose name Rabbi Weinreb could not recall), told him that he had no difficulty imagining himself being a slave in Egypt. In fact, he could clearly remember being there- the “burdensome work...the sighs and groans of his companions. He could even still see, in his mind's eye, the cruel face of his tormentors as they sadistically whipped him for not producing his daily quota of bricks.” The rebbe said there are two psychological processes needed for fulfillment of the mitzvah seder night- koach hadimyon- imagination and empathy. But, what the rebbe added was, “we are often restricted by our own tendencies to rely upon our reason, rationality and intellectuality. We underplay the powers we have to fantasize, to imagine, to dream freely. In a sense, we are slaves to reason and need to learn to allow ourselves to go beyond reason and to give our imagination free rein.” Rabbi Weinreb shared these words of the rebbe with the young rabbi, who responded, “But, the Klausenberger rebbe didn't say that learning to imagine and to empathize were easy.”

The Pesach seder is replete with parenting and education pointers. One of which is the importance of fostering one's imagination. This is a parenting task that we can work on all throughout the year- although not an easy one. On seder night, parents and children must work at it, as for now, virtual reality is still muktza on Yom Tov and we must still use our old-fashioned, yet rewarding imagination.

Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade- Sixth graders set goals for the third trimester of the year. They also began a unit on cell phone safety.

Seventh Grade- Students were introduced to the BDS movement and how Israel is presented unfairly and unjustly.

Eighth Grade- Students discussed their experience with the Holocaust play.  

Monday, April 4, 2016

Are Our Teens Ready To Withstand The Media Messages?

Around this time of year, if you look through the guide for your cable television, you are bound to see that the movie The Ten Commandments will be playing.  My son asked me if he could watch it this year.  Until now, I have always told him and the rest of my children that they cannot watch it as I was concerned it was not an accurate depiction of what truly happened in the Torah.  A child, who cannot differentiate, might grow up with mistaken and even heretic views of characters in Tanach or of G-d Himself.  I shared with him, that our discussion brings to mind the humorous quote of the head of Michalah Jersualem College for Women, who just passed away this year, HaRav Yehuda Cooperman, z”tl.  I can still see Rav Cooperman with a twinkle in his eye, (as he often would have when saying something he knew was humorous), saying, “The Ten Commandments- read the book first.”   

(Rav Cooperman was quite a unique man. He grew up in Dublin, Ireland where he earned degrees in both law and Semitic languages in from Dublin University. He later learned in Gateshead, England with the famed Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, and then at the Chevron Yeshiva.  After some years in the United States, where he earned his doctorate, he returned to Israel where he eventually started Michlalah, where women could earn a University degree in a Torah setting.  Rav Cooperman wrote his own commentary on the Meshech Chochma, and I fondly remember my weekly classes in his home with only a handful of young women in my program, where we studied his commentary with him- the author. Yehi zichro baruch). 

Now that I am walking down memory lane, I can also still recall a class 29 years ago with my teacher, Mrs. Naomi Sutton.  Our class was on Kohelet, but I recall our having a discussion about the biblical movies that are on television. She shared that when she was a small child she stayed up late, unbeknownst to her babysitter, to watch a movie called David and Batsheba- made in 1951. She said, that to that day, every time she learns about David and Batsheva, she cannot wipe the inappropriate images from her mind.  (Interestingly enough, on March 8, a TV series debuted called Of Kings and Prophets- which depicted the books of Samuel.   It was cancelled after two episodes due to low ratings. Perhaps Mrs. Sutton got to the viewers?)

Then there is the Prince of Egypt a 1998 Dreamworks film which depicts the story of the Exodus.  My father, Rabbi Steven Dworken a”h, was at the time the head of the Rabbinical Council of America and was a consultant on the script with a representative from the Reform and Conservative movements as well. I can’t say that they actually listened to his advice. I know that since then there was a 2014 film, Exodus Gods and Kings, which I have not seen, but I imagine Rav Cooperman would say, “Read the book first.”     
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, in his article, “Exodus and Hollywood” describes how antithetical the 2014 movie was to the Torah and that it was even blasphemous.  Interestingly enough, “Here’s the result of a remarkable study. How many of the top 15 highest-U.S.-grossing movies of all time, adjusted for inflation, star comic-book characters? None. How many are based on the Bible? Two: The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. The New Yorker recently pointed out an amazing statistic: The Bible is not only the best-selling book of all time – it is the best-selling book of the year, every single year.”
            I am not here to advise whether one should let one’s child watch biblical movies or television shows.  But, it does lead one to consider the impact that television and the media in general has on our life views. In my mind, I am embarrassed to say, Moshe did indeed look like Charlton Heston. 
In our 8th Grade Girls Adolescent Life classes we discussed how relationships on television impact our view of the way relationships should be. Whether that they are purely based on the physical, fleeting, unpredictable, disloyal etc.  We discussed a 2014 Huffington Post article, “How Movies And T.V. Are Changing The Way You Think About Love.”  Researchers from the University of Michigan stated that television and movies affect how people view romance and love and how they behave in relationships, and affect  relationship longevity and satisfaction.  Watching relationships on television often sets up couples for unrealistic expectations of what a relationship should be.  In this discussion, the goal is for young ladies to consider what truly is a meaningful, positive relationship, through the lens of Torah and not through the lens of the media.
So, after watching a television show or movie which presents a view antithetical to your family or religious values, as parents we need to find that “teachable moment”  where we ask questions, discuss and point out the weaknesses in the characters’ lifestyles.  We point out that relationships fostered on “The Bachelor” may be entertaining, but not real life.  We can even point out how Moshe was depicted wrong, and the inaccuracies in the story.  The Torah is truly a best- seller.  We should definitely make sure that our children “Read the book first,” and only once its contents are internalized, can our children withstand the messages of the media. 

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade: Students discussed the different types of peer pressure- spoken and unspoken and the subtle “tricks” peers use to pressure us into behaving in certain ways.
Seventh Grade:  Students considered why children are often hesitant to approach an adult when something wrong is happening, and evaluated whether they would “do something” if there were a situation of injustice or misdeeds.

Eighth Grade: Do teens share too much on the internet and through social media? What are the dangers of doing so?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Purim, Peer Pressure And Doing The Right Thing

 Esther became the queen. Isolated and alone, surrounded by those who lived a lifestyle contrary to the one to which she was used. Mordechai sends word to Esther to approach the king and plead to him on behalf of the Jews. Esther at first refuses, as no one approaches the king without being called. One could be killed! But, how could Esther just sit by idly and watch as her people are being destroyed?

This is a question we discussed in our 7th Grade Advisory program when discussing the bystander effect. Why is that people often see injustice going on and yet do nothing and simply sit by idly? We discussed the famous social psychology phenomenon called the bystander effect which stemmed from research spurred on by the murder of a woman named Kitty Genovese who was murdered as 38 neighbors witnessed and did nothing. (Recently, a book actually came out that shared that based on mistaken police reports, there was an error and a few people did intervene. However, the research is the same). The bystander effect also became known as the “Genovese syndrome.”

Why was Esther unwilling, at first, to intervene? She was worried that harm would come to her. This explanation makes sense to our middle schoolers, as very often, before they “do what's right” they evaluate the harm that might come to them. We call this the “snitching syndrome.” No one wants to be snitch. Why? One reason is being fearful of the consequences to oneself.

We then discussed in Advisory the three basic components of the Bystander Effect, to better understand why people are hesitant to stand up and do what is right.
  1. Bystander intervention- solitary individuals are more likely to intervene. Help is less likely to be given when there are more people present.
  2. Diffusion of responsibility- observers all assume that someone else will intervene and refrain from doing so themselves.
  3. Social influence- Bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency and see if others think it is necessary to intervene. If no one does, they tend not to as well.

In essence, no one wants to be the only one doing it. In some ways, that is the power of peer pressure. Why would I stand up for what is right when no one else is? Why would I resist the peer pressure to do nothing? That is the hard part of being an “upstander.” We discuss with our students the importance of doing so, even when no one else is. How does one find the courage?

Mordechai responds to Esther and targets her fears. First, do not fear your own harm. You will be killed anyway even if you do not say anything. We read with the students the poem written by by Martin Niemoller who had voted for the Nazi party in 1933, but by 1938 was in a concentration camp himself.

"In Germany, the Nazis came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to
speak for me."

Eventually, even if it does not affect you now, it will.

How can we help our students find that courage? How did Esther find that courage? I recently attended a shiur by Mrs. Peshi Neuburger on the topic of Maaseh Avot Siman La'banim- the ways of the fathers are a sign for the children. (Disclaimer- I have taken some poetic license with some of Mrs. Neuburger's ideas. I cannot guarantee that she would agree with them all!) She explained the three basic ways to look at this concept. First, that our forefathers are role models for us, and we learn from them how to behave. That was a wonderful way for Esther to learn the courage she needed. She grew up in the home of Mordechai who was clearly courageously able to stand up and do what is right despite what those around him were doing. He was the only one who refused to bow down to Haman, even though he knew it could get him killed. Similarly, we can teach our own children the courage of standing up for what is right, by doing it ourselves. Let them see your resistance to giving in when something is against your value system. Express out loud why you made your decision to do something different, despite the “peer pressure” you are facing as an adult.

The second way of looking at Maaseh Avot Siman La'banim is that our forefathers are “spiritual progenitors.” When those before us work hard at inculcating a behavior or a character trait, in essence it becomes “genetic” and is passed down from generation to generation. We might call the first explanation above “nurture” and this one might be “nature.” It is in our genes. When our children are able to stand up and do the right thing, I like to think that they are not only modeling themselves after us, their parents, but also do not even have to think twice, as it is absolutely natural to them. Of course, they would never consider following the crowd and allowing an injustice to occur around them! It would be contrary to their very genetic makeup. It does not even need a decision.

The third way of looking at Maaseh Avot is that our avot were “roadpavers” for us, and literally events that happened to them repeated themselves later with their children. Mrs. Neuburger ended by quoting Rabbi Nisson Alpert on the pasuk in Bereishit 23:1 about Sarah, “And, the days of Sarah were one hundred years, and twenty years and seven years...” The Midrash Rabba recounts that Rabbi Akiva was speaking and saw that his audience was falling asleep, and wanted to awaken them. (Some things never change!). He said, “Why did Esther rule over 127 provinces? Esther who was the great, great granddaughter of Sarah who lived 127 years should come and rule over 127 provinces.” The midrash is trying to make a connection between the two women. Rabbi Alpert continues that “Sarah was taken by Avimelech, but no matter where Sarah was and no matter what circumstances she was in- she never changed. She was the same Sarah in her beliefs, the way she lived her life, without being influenced by the people of the nation where she lived. She was the same Sarah in the house of Avraham Avinu, the house of Pharaoh or the house of Avimelech. She never lost her faith and belief in G-d. When she was unable to have children and when she became the happy mother of a son- she was still Sarah. That is why she was called Sarah-from the word to rule. She ruled over the world around her and the world around her never had the power or the ability to change her from her world view and her way of life.”

We see the same with Esther. “She was taken from the house of Mordechai the righteous to the castle of Achashveirosh the evil. The situation changed completely, but Esther stayed the same Esther that was in the house of Mordechai... and the same when she ruled 127 provinces- those provinces didn't influence her. And, it was Sarah our mother who paved the road for Esther, that she was able to actualize the strength and courage to not be influenced from the change of environment and to remain with her strong faith as before. This strength is now part of the universal soul of the Jewish nation...”

The power to resist peer pressure is in our genes. After Purim, we are beginning a unit with our Sixth Grade on Peer Pressure and the skills needed to resist and say, “No.” I can speak about those particular skills in a future column. But, more importantly, as parents we can inculcate that pride and the courage of being part of a family, (your own!), and a nation, (the Jewish people), that stands up for what is right, resists peer pressure and does all that despite the influence of those around us- and will not settle for anything less. That is the message of Purim and the pride we feel as the children of Esther and Mordechai.

Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade: Students discussed the issue of popularity and whether it is important to be considered “cool.”

Seventh Grade: Dealing with real life scenarios students discussed whether there is a culture of not “snitching.”

Eighth Grade: Students finished off a unit on the irreversible impact of substance use. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Privacy Or Security For Our Teens?

Apple has been unrelenting and unwilling to allow the FBI to gain back access to the data from the iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Benardino attacks in December.    An order signed by a magistrate judge has requested that Apple disable the feature that wipes out data on the phone after  10 incorrect tries to enter a password.  If  Apple would disable that feature, the FBI would thereby be able to find the password by attempting millions of password combinations.  Apple says that they cannot circumvent this feature.  The judge demands that Apple write software that can bypass the feature.  Apple is not willing as it would “spell digital disaster for the trustworthiness of everyone's computers and mobile phones.” It would violate privacy of the users.

            As parents of teens, we are constantly battling the issue of privacy in our own homes.  To how much privacy are teens entitled from their parents?  In our sixth grade Adolescent Life classes this week we discussed that one “job” of the adolescent is to separate and individuate.  Adolescence prepares them for adulthood, when they will (hopefully) living on their own and making their own decision. We know that it was programmed at creation, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother...” (Bereishit 2:24)- that at some point each person is meant to leave his/her parents and become independent.  (In our classes, we discussed how this often creates conflict with parents, as we do want to be independent, but we also still need them).  As children get older, privacy is an integral part of this separation.  On the other hand, we still have the responsibility to protect them.
            But, does privacy truly exist in this this social media, internet age in which we live? An article   written in a 2009 Harvard Magazine says it all, “Exposed- The Erosion Of Privacy In The Internet Era.”  Do I really need to know that you went to the supermarket or where you bought your favorite jeans?   And, teens- they share everything!  As Jon Henley writes in “Are Teenagers Really Careless About On-line Privacy?”,  they share their likes, dislikes, who they are with, and even photos of themselves doing things they shouldn’t be. A Pew Research study on 12-17 year olds points out that teens post the towns they live in, the schools they attend, their email addresses, their birthdays, and even some their cellphone numbers.  They simply demonstrate a “basic lack of awareness of the potential longer-term impact of information leaks…Many younger people just don’t think in terms of their future employability, of identity theft, of legal problems if they are being provocative. Not to mention straightforward reputational issues.”  In a New York Magazine article, Emily Nussbaum writes, “Kids today. They have no sense of shame.  They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs…who post their diaries…”

            These behaviors are actually no different from what teens always have done.  “Teens are often involved in a process of identity formation that involves not just exploring different concepts of self, but presenting such identities to others.  That’s something they have always done- but today it’s done electronically.  Identity experimentation has bigger privacy consequences today than for past generations.”   Teens are actually less concerned about businesses or universities seeing their data. Rather, they are more concerned about their parents and their seeing their online use.  

            How does privacy relate to our children’s e-mails, social media accounts etc?  We need to strike a balance between their privacy and our needing to know what they are doing.  I do believe that it is important for parents to carefully monitor- not spy- on their children’s internet use.  What I mean is that you should actively tell them how you are monitoring them. Upfront, when they get their first iPod or phone you tell them what you are going to do to keep them safe.

 In our parent workshop on March 1, Dr. Eli Shapiro of the Digital Citizenship Project shared some data stating that 91%  of parents say they are aware of what their children are doing online. However, when surveying the children themselves, only 60% of kids say their parents know what they do online.  We need to be more vigilant.  Some parents have programs that actually notify them of certain key phrases that children are using that are of concern. (Dr. Shapiro spoke of a program called VISR, which is a monitoring program that picks up on any problematic language).  We encourage parents to know their teens’ passwords and randomly monitor their social networking.  Every so often check their browser history. (Although some are savvy enough to erase things from the history, it is still a good idea to check).  “Friend” your child.  Be upfront and tell your child you are doing any or all of the above to protect them.  And, explain why. 

Why? What should we tell them?  A recent survey of 802 parents asked what parents are doing to oversee their child’s “digital footprint.”  These are some issues on parents’ minds: a. The amount of information advertisers learn about their child’s online behavior.  b. Children interacting online with people they do not know.  c.  How the online activity of their children can affect academic or employment opportunities.  (We often discuss with middle schoolers how even high schools are savvy about their online activity).  d. How our children manage their reputations online.  e. Cyberbullying. I can personally attest to the terrible impact a text or a post can make. f. Limiting the amount of time spent online which prevents children from serious engagement in homework, interacting socially and even causes lack of sleep.

The word “privacy” also brings to mind “privacy settings.”  As parents we need to review our children’s privacy settings on social media.  Although I am in no way a technology expert, I found this blog at, which seemed to be helpful in terms of navigating privacy settings on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Whatsapp.

            How about privacy in general, and not just online?   Teens do need more privacy and “space.”  It is normal for teens to spend more time in their rooms. However, if a child spends hours upon hours in her room, never seems to want to talk, and is withdrawn, that is a warning sign to investigate further. How do you determine what is private?  Assess what you “need to know.”  One does not need to listen in on phone conversations or read his diary.  But, there also needs to be an understanding that privacy is a privilege, not a right.  If your child violates your trust, then you need to let him/her know that you will be snooping around.

            In Bamidbar 24, we notice that Bilaam, who was initially supposed to curse Bnei Yisrael, ends up blessing them. Why? Pasuk 2 tells us, “And, Bilaam raised his eyes and he saw Israel dwelling according to his tribes and the spirit of G-d came upon him” to bless them. Why? The Gemara in Bava Batra 60a, quoted by Rashi, states that he was moved to bless them because he noticed that their tents were built with their doors not facing each other- to ensure privacy.  This led to his beracha that we say each day in Tefilla- “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael” “How good are your tents Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisrael.”   Despite living in an internet age, we know that privacy is an important Jewish value. 
            Rabbeinu Gershom, who lived about 1000 years ago, issued a cherem (ban) on reading the private letters of another.   Rabbi Aaron Tendler states that one case in which it would be permissible to the privacy of another would be if “doing so will help the person whose privacy is being invaded.”  Clearly we want our individuating teens to have their privacy. Last night, I was listening to the radio and heard a conversation about privacy (freedom) versus security when it came to Apple’s battle.  When it comes to our teens’ freedom, we want them to have security along with their privacy.

Advisory Update
Sixth Grade-   Students began a lesson on the need to feel popular. They also had a visit from the Reflections Improv group on the topic of  peer pressure.

Seventh Grade-  Students discussed the bystander effect and why we tend to do nothing  when we see injustice.

Eighth Grade- Students focused on the topic of the danger of substance abuse with the impact it has on your brain.