Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Making This Summer "Time Rich"

Today, on the way home from school, I stopped at the park with my younger children just because they asked.  And, even when it started pouring, we remained- in our raincoats. (Yes, that was my family you saw at the park on River Road in the rain!)  When do I ever have the time or inclination to just take a break and enjoy my children?  Usually, it starts the day before summer vacation.  No homework. No meetings to rush to.  No pressure to finish dinner by a certain time.  Life is good.   Summer is on its way. We have all the time in the world.

In the December 20, 2014 issue of The Economist appeared an article called “Search of Lost Time- Why Is Everyone So Busy? ” The author quotes John Maynard Keynes, a British economist, who wrote in 1930 predicting that in the near future  “‘our grandchildren’ would work around ‘three hours a day’, and probably only by choice.  Economic progress and technological advances had already shrunk work hours considerably by his day, and there was no reason to believe this trend would not continue. Whizzy cars and ever more time-saving tools and appliances guaranteed more speed and less drudgery in all parts of life. Social psychologists began to fret: whatever would people do with all their free time?”

The author points to a “time scarcity problem” which is ever present in today’s world- especially among parents. The reality is, that there is more leisure time than there was 40 years ago.  It is our perception that causes us to always feel rushed.   Time is understood in relation to money.  If one wastes time, one wastes money and therefore time is valuable. The more valuable something is, the more scarce it seems.  Even leisure time is full of stress, as one “feels compelled to use it wisely.”  He calls this “time poverty.” People are earning more money, but not more time to spend it.

Daniel Hamermesh of University of Texas at Austin coined the term “yuppie kvetch.”  Well- off families complain more of insufficient time.  The more cash-rich, the more time-poor one feels. This even leads to a “harried leisure class” whose leisure time does not at all feel leisurely.  And, being educated is not the solution either. Today, “professionals work twice as long hours than their less-educated peers.”

This leads to the need for immediate gratification, which we know plagues our internet generation.  If it takes too long- then we cannot wait and waste time. This is exacerbated by e-mail, smartphones and the necessity to respond immediately and always be on-call.  Constant multi-tasking causes us to feel pressured for time, according to Elizabeth Dunn at University of British Columbia in Vancouver.  Nothing ever feels completely done.  We hardly ever stop to consider,  “Time on earth may be uncertain and fleeting, but nearly everyone has enough of it to take some deep breaths, think deep thoughts and smell some roses, deeply.”  Peggy Noonan states, “Once we had more time than money in America.  Now we have more money than time. That is the difference between your child’s America and yours.”

I, with all the parents of school-age children, feel intensely the harried life described in the Economist on a daily basis- including weekends! Our children are pressed for time. We are pressed for time. And, we spend not enough quality time together.

Then there is summer.  The season for quality time.

When my children started going to sleepaway camp, I was excited for the once in a lifetime experience they were about to have.  (Please make sure to have those important pre-camp talks with your child.  As a reminder- here’s a column which outlines some essential components to this talk- http://parentingpointersfrohlich.blogspot.com/2014_06_01_archive.html)

But, I was also feeling that summer is actually the one time of year my children are not overprogrammed after school.  We can just go to a movie if we want. We can go to the library on a whim. We can even go for Slurpee on 7/11 and no one is worried about all the work that needs to be done at home.  Why am I sending my children away at the one time of year I can actually enjoy them and enjoy being with them? 

Even if we do send them off to camp, we do have weeks during the summer when the days and evenings are more free.  How can we make those days “time rich” and not “time poor”?  

Today, being Rosh Chodesh, we are reminded of the Jewish value of sanctification of time. We know the first mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people as a nation was, “This month shall be for you the first of the months, it will be the first month of the year"  (Shemot 12:2).   The value of making the most of one’s time is at the root of our nation. But, we are to sanctify it- how?  Through making sure it has true everlasting value, not monetary value.

I am the type that makes lists of things to do over vacation- I never really learned the fine art of relaxing.  I, therefore, am making a commitment to not feel pressed for time, and fill that time with enjoying my family.  I am going to stop at more parks, stop to smell the roses, and sanctify time.

Have a wonderful summer of time to enjoy and timeless memories.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Power Of Words

 "Life and death are in the hand of the tongue " (Mishlei 18:21).  In this pasuk, Shlomo HaMelech asserted the power of our words.   Mightier than the sword, a comment can truly destroy a person, or of course, rebuild a person.  This theme was present in the past weeks in programs for Yavneh students and parents.   

"The Power of Words" is the title of a short video we showed our seventh graders when they returned from their visit to the homeless shelter in Hackensack at    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hzgzim5m7oU .   It was a natural follow up from their visit, as clearly the main character is begging for money.  After they had the opportunity to meet similar types of people face to face, this video definitely hit home.  The students shared that they were able to see first hand the power of their words- how their simple conversations with residents in the shelter,  when they handed them gifts, lit up their faces and relayed the message that someone cares about them. 

         But, the primary goal of showing them this short clip was to lead to a discussion about the power of words and their impact on others in our day to day lives at Yavneh.  Periodically, we run what we call "Quality Circles" based on Dr. Rona Novick's BRAVE- anti-bullying program.   A Quality Circle is a chance for the student to discuss frankly, "How are we doing here at Yavneh at creating an environment where everyone feels respected and accepted?"   This time we wanted the students to honestly look at themselves and evaluate the words they are using and/or hearing in the hallways, in class or the lunchroom.  Are they words that allow everyone to feel safe and accepted in school?  If not, what are they doing as bystanders to make a difference?  We also show them the following short clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OIfGoNfm4w&feature=related      which graphically demonstrates the almost physical  power of the words that a peer can express towards a peer. 

        This message of the power of words that the seventh grade experienced was relayed in grades pre-k-8  in our school-wide "Good Word Day."  About a month ago, some 7th and 8th attended a Tolerance Conference and were challenged to bring back a program to their school to spread inclusiveness and stand up to bullying.  They came up with the idea for "Good Word Day"  where they created a video (If you haven't seen it already, here it is: https://youtu.be/ZCiVttGXhsM ) interviewing staff members and students what they  have done to combat bullying and what is their "good word" (a word you use to make others feel good).  Every child wrote his/her good word on a post it and it was hung with those of the rest of the students on our "Wall of Words" for all to see. They also wrote the word on a label they wore, thereby expressing to their peers how they want to be encouraged and supported.  (Congratulations to committee members Ellie Fried, Beth Gononsky, Daniel Hirsch, Daniella Holler, Lara Jacobowitz, Molly Lopkin, Brooke Newman, Keren Plaut,  Noah Schultz, Abe Spectre- Covtiz, and Coby Zwebner on an incredible day!)

            Our eighth graders then ended their career here at Yavneh by writing to their classmates what makes them special.  Students have the chance to write something positive about their friends to be placed on a label in the sefer they are receiving from the school at the brunch. We stress to them the power of the words they are writing, as it is an opportunity for students to look at their inscriptions and feel good about themselves. 

        This past Tuesday, the power of words theme was continued when two 7th grade students, Miriam Fisch and Gittel Levin, came forward to run our 2nd Lashon Hara Awareness Week.  Rabbi Furst spoke of the impact of Lashon Hara, and dedicated this week to the memory of his mother, a"h.   Students were asked to sign up for Lashon Hara free hours this week.  

     The power of words came to the fore again when Dr. Sarah Roer recently  presented a parent workshop on Raising Children With Healthy Body Images and Attitudes Towards Food.  The session was dynamic, interactive and practical. Parents benefited from directed Q and A in addition to her presentation.  Many ideas she discussed stood out in my mind.

        Dr. Roer first presented the dilemma with which we are all presented that we want our children to be healthy, but deep down-despite all we might say- we want them to fit in with image of beauty in the world.  Dr. Roer spoke of the importance of helping children regulate their eating from birth and eating when they are hungry. 

        She then presented how the power of one's words impact body image.  One particular idea that specifically stood out was that for middle school children, the voice that has the most power when it comes to body image is the parent.   Children with unhealthy body images or even eating disorders consistently point out to how their parents' references to their weight and their parents' comments about their food contributed to their difficulties.  Comments like, "Are you sure you want to eat that?"  "Do you really need another cookie?"  can make an indelible impact.  Additionally, the power of our words when it comes to combatting harmful media messages about body image, is essential.  Parents "need to be in the room" when watching television etc. to have conversations about positive body images.  In general, parents can be a strong voice in helping their children be critical consumers of media from a young age.   

        Parents' words can also be powerful as they set the rules for food consumption in the home. Dr. Roer said it is essential that the rules be the same for all children- no matter if they are "overweight" or "underweight."   A child should never feel that he/she is the "target child."  She stressed that the goal of parents is to never say any food is off limits- but just to talk about moderation.  Dr. Roer talked about the power of how we as parents frame difficulties our children might face in the conversations we have with them.  If your child, for example, struggles with math a comment from you like, "You know what? Some things come easy and some come harder.  You can be good at it, but you'll have to work harder."  Conversations like that are all a part of learning to embrace who we are.  

        What if your child says to you, "Look- I'm fat!" "When kids ask tough questions", Dr. Roer noted, "We get crazy.  We think when kids ask us something we have to know the answer and there's only one response.  It's a hard moment.   Don't say, 'Of course you're not.' Instead,  'That sounds painful- why are you so hard on yourself?'"  

        Some parents worried at the end of her presentation, "But what if I already 'messed up' and said the 'wrong' things to my children?" That is the power of rethinking your words.  Dr. Roer answered, "You can fix it. You can go back and tell your child, 'I've been thinking about it, and I said something I should not have..."  That is an "authentic parenting moment."   

        From the time of birth the power of the words of a parent is evident as Tina Rosenberg writes in “The Power Of Talking To Your Baby.”  In trying to ascertain why underprivileged children are already behind academically by the time they are a year old, Roseberg states that “that the key to early learning is talking — specifically, a child’s exposure to language spoken by parents and caretakers from birth to age 3, the more the better.” The stream of parent- to – child “baby talk” seems to be essential for a child. 

        Research by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley at the University of Kansas, studied how parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds speak differently to their babies by recording an hour monthly of parent- child interaction.  “They were looking for things like how much parents praised their children, what they talked about, whether the conversational tone was positive or negative.”  They noted that children in “professional families” heard more words per hour than working class families, and girls heard more language from their parents than girls did.  And, watching television didn't help academic skills- it actually hurt.   Things don’t seem to change as children enter adolescence.  Positive tone, praise, and the amount of time we spend talking to our children impacts them as teens.

           When Man was created in Bereishit 2:7 Hashem blew into him a soul and he became a "nefesh chaya" "a living soul."   Rashi states that "nefesh chaya" is having the ability to think and speak,   or as Unkelos states, "ruach m'malilah"- "a spirit who speaks."  In fact, speech is the tool for creation, as it says, "And, Hashem said let there be..."   Rabbi Shraga Simmons adds that this indicates that "Through speech we can build individuals- with praise and encouragement.  By making others feel important, we build them up, as if to say, 'Your existence is necessary.' This is life- giving and life- affirming."  

        After these weeks of focusing on the power of words all I can say is "Let there be life!" as we give "life" to others through our words.

Advisory Update-

Sixth Grade-  Sixth graders finished their Advisory year with a Quality Circle (see above) and sharing tips for incoming sixth graders as to how to succeed in middle school.

Seventh Grade-   Students discussed the power of words through a Quality Circle and “debriefed” their visit to the homeless shelter. They also created Time Capsules of their seventh grade year to be opened in 2025. 

Eighth Grade-   Students finished their career at Yavneh with creating descriptions of their friends to be presented to them at the brunch, and filled out a survey of their experience at Yavneh to provide us with feedback.  

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 http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/jew-voice/not-another-video-please.  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.