Monday, September 21, 2015

Yom Kippur, Sandy Koufax and Teaching Our Teens To "Sit It Out"

As a daughter of a pulpit rabbi, with the coming of the Yamim Noraim, my antennae often picks up on a “sermonable” topic.  This Yom Kippur, I believe I have found the sermon- one that would apply to the observant and non-observant alike.   Many rabbis across the country will be speaking of the fiftieth anniversary of Sandy Koufax's famous  refusal to play in the world series on Yom Kippur.  Though not observant, Mr. Koufax was a source of pride for the Jewish community and gave Americans the ability to be “ more publicly assertive and to be less ashamed of their Jewishness. The decision of Koufax to do the Jewish thing so publicly and in such a quintessential American setting as the World Series pumped a new confidence into that generation of American Jews.” (The Jewish Week, “Where Have You Gone Sandy”).  

Unlike in the 60's, the issue of Jewish pride is not one with which our children struggle.  In Bergen County, our children walk the streets with kippot without a second thought.  They go to college and do not hesitate to approach their professors and tell them they will will be off for Yom Kippur.  The Sandy Koufax decision, I believe, can mean something different to our children.

On the pasuk in Vayikra 20:26 Rashi explains the words of Hashem to Bnai Yisrael, “And I have separated you from other people, that you should be mine.”  There he states, “Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya says, 'From where do we know that a person should not say, 'I am disgusted with pig meat, or it is impossible for me to wear mixed kinds (kilayim)'?  But rather he should say, 'I can, but what can I do, that my Father in Heave has decreed upon me that I may not.'”  Rather than say, “Pig meat is disgusting,” one should say, “I want to eat pork. It looks so delicious. I even crave it, but I am not allowed to eat it.”  A story is told of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky that near his yeshiva was a non- kosher pizza store.  When walking past the store one day with his students, he stopped, “took a deep whiff and said Ah! It smells so delicious!”  I desire it, but I will overcome my desire in order to keep laws of the Torah.  (In essence, mitzvot like kashrut help train us to overcome our desires and not succumb to them).

Did Sandy Koufax want to play?  I imagine, yes.  But, what could he do,  his “Father in Heaven decreed upon him that he may not.”  

The Sandy Koufax story reinforces the important lesson for all Jews that the Torah has limits and part of being Jewish is realizing that we are lucky to be able to abide by those limits. How do we relay that to our teens? That topic can fill many blogs unto itself.  

For today, I want to focus on another lesson in the Sandy Koufax story. It is a lesson in “delayed gratification”- the ability to put off the receipt of a reward in order to gain a better reward later.  In essence, this entails overcoming one's desire right now realizing that one will benefit in the future.  In this generation of instant gratification- smartphones, googling etc, our children have a harder time saying to themselves, “I want this, but I need to overcome my desire in the present.”   Self- control is integral to this ability.

The famous marshmallow experiment done in the 1960's and 70's by the Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel demonstrated the importance of being able to delay gratification.  Six hundred and fifty young children were offered a marshmallow and were told they could either eat it immediately or wait some time and get a second treat.  Years later, in follow up studies, those who could delay gratification were more “competent” and successful in life. Dr. Grazyna Kochanska, followed 300 children for almost twenty years to see how delaying gratificaiton and self- control impacting their lives. She found,  "Those who have good self-control are more compliant, more cooperative, have good harmonious relationships with their parents, good relationships with their peers, and they have good academic success."

This is the key to passing over the temptation of sin for the long-term reward on high.  Why is that task so difficult for some and easier for others?

In an article, “Why Some Delay Gratification While Others Give In?” by Janice Wood,  scientific research provides one strategy to better delay of gratification which is called  "'prospection,' the process by which people can project themselves into the future, by mentally simulating future events.  They can thereby imagine the future benefit.  This 'mental time travel,' also known as 'episodic future thought',  enables humans to make choices with high long-term benefits.”  This research was done with dieters, and clearly the participants who could imagine themselves shedding the weight were better able to resist the food.

Unfortunately, as parents of teens we know that the prefrontal cortex, responsible for future thinking and considering consequences, is still developing.  Teens therefore have a difficult time thinking about the future consequence of their behavior now.   “I want it, but what can I do, my Father in Heaven decreed I cannot have it” is a very difficult task for them.  

With the advent of technology, it has become even more difficult.  Annie Murphy Paul, in "The New Marshmallow Test: Resisting Temptations of the Web," writes of professor Larry Rosen who “asked students to ‘study something important,’ and then he chronicled incidents of distraction. After about two minutes, students' ‘on-task behavior’ declined as they began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feeds. After only 15 minutes, they had spent only about 65 percent of the period doing their schoolwork. ‘We were amazed at how frequently they multi-tasked, even though they knew someone was watching,’ Rosen says. ‘It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices,’ adding, ‘It was kind of scary, actually.’  When sending students texts during another study, while watching a video of a lecture, students who delayed responding until after the lecture was over scored significantly better.

Rabbi Shais Taub, in his article, "Why Sandy Koufax Sat Out The World Series on Yom Kippur" shared that Rabbi  Moshe Feller  "visited Koufax in his hotel room on the day after Yom Kippur and told him, 'Sandy, more Jews knew when Yom Kippur was this year because of you not pitching than knew from a Jewish calendar!' I will go a step further and say that more people knew that it was Yom Kippur because Sandy Koufax didn't announce it and didn't pitch than would have known if he did announce it and did pitch. You see, because it's all in the not-doing, not in the doing. 
As counterintuitive as it may seem, the power of not-doing possesses a purity and a truth that doing cannot rival...Giving is easy. Doing is easy. Movement is easy. What's difficult is stopping." Rabbi Taub adds that in this age of information overload, we are constantly doing.
That is the importance of delaying gratification, self- control and simply stopping oneself from doing.  Yom Kippur is a day of refraining from the five "afflictions."  Sometimes we  need to hold ourselves back to focus on what is truly important. 
What can we as parents do to help our teens develop this self-control?  How can they achieve their “Sandy Koufax moment?”

. As parents we can
  1. Starting from a young age make our children wait, take turns and not give in to their kvetching for something. We help them tolerate frustration.
  2. We can encourage them to get involved in activities that don’t have immediate results but require practice
  3. We need to model patience and ability to not give in to one’s desires.
  4. We can ask our children to stop and think about the future.  
  5. We can reward children for self- control.

As we approach Yom Kippur and contemplate how to make this year one of growth, let us reconsider the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya,”I can, but what can I do, that my Father in Heaven has decreed upon me that I may not.”  Notice that he called G-d “Father in Heaven.”  That is the job of the parent who truly loves his/her child- to set limits, to say that you can’t have everything you want whenever you want it, and you need to learn self- control.  It is with love that Hashem has given us the Torah to help us attain the essential skill for life of delaying gratification.  So, too, with love may we help our own children achieve the same so that they may say, “I can, but what can I do, that my Father in Heaven and my parents on earth, have decreed upon me that I may not”- and may they realize that it is for their own good.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Rosh HaShana- A Yearly RESET Button

Each year I search for a light-hearted gift for the teachers who serve as Advisors in our Advisory program. This year I found the RESET button above. What a wonderful message for a teacher- a reminder that no matter what happens, there is a always a fresh new day tomorrow- both for the teacher and student. No mistake is irreparable. One can always start again and move on.

A few days after I had already received these buttons in the mail, the Yavneh Academy faculty was privileged to hear Rabbi J.J. Schachter on the topic of “The Blessings And Challenges Of Change: Printing, The Internet And Contemporary Society.” Rabbi Schachter began by quoting an article from The New York Times Magazine, July 25, 2010 called, “The End of Forgetting” by Jeffrey Rosen. The article begins, “Legal scholars, technologists and cyberthinkers are wrestling with the first great existential crisis of the digital age: the impossibility of erasing your posted past, starting over, moving on.” He continues that in this internet age we struggle with, “how best to live our lives in a world where the internet records everything and forgets nothing.” This phenomenon is different from the past, as he quotes Viktor Mayer- Schoenberger, “In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people's sins are eventually forgotten.” And, so it is understood that people learn from past mistakes and can change. However, in today's society we cannot escape our past. Moving on is not so easy.” We, of course, stress the permanence of what we post with our students when we discuss internet and technology safety. Even adults often forget that what's in cyberspace is never forgotten.

Luckily, however, in Judaism a RESET button still exists. We call it Teshuva. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his article, “The Courage To Grow- A Message For Yom Kippur” highlights that Judaism was actually the first world system to believe that people can change and start anew to become a different type of person. As it says in Yechezkel 18:31, “ הַשְׁלִ֣יכוּ מֵֽעֲלֵיכֶ֗ם אֶת־כָּל־פִּשְׁעֵיכֶם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פְּשַׁעְתֶּ֣ם בָּ֔ם וַֽעֲשׂ֥וּ לָכֶ֛ם לֵ֥ב חָדָ֖שׁ וְר֣וּחַ חֲדָשָׁ֑ה"
"Cast away from you all your transgressions, in which you have transgressed; and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.”
Press the reset button and begin again with a new heart and new spirit.

In Pesachim 54a it states that Teshuva is one of the seven things created before the world was created. In essence, Hashem created man with a RESET button. It is as if through Teshuva a person has the ability to go back in time and fix his behaviors. This ability is super-natural, as Rabbi Shlomo Landau points out, “so much so that its creation preceded the natural order of design.” As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, “Teshuva tells us that our past does not determine our future. We can change. We can act differently next time than last. If anything, our future determines our past...Our Teshuva and G-d's forgiveness together mean that we are not prisoners of the past, held captive by it. In Judaism sin is what we do, not who we are.” As the Rambam stresses in Hilchot Teshuva 2:1, “even if a man transgressed all the days of his life, if he does Teshuva at the end, nothing of his wickedness is remembered unto him.” And, in 8:8 it says it is forbidden to remind he who has done Teshuva of his past sins. Clearly, as Jeffrey Rosen states, “Unlike G-d, however, the digital cloud rarely wipes our slate clean, and the keepers of the cloud today are sometimes less forgiving than their all-powerful divine predecessor.”

This message of the RESET button is one that relates to parenting as well. When we have an argument with our teen one night, he/she is entitled to a clean slate the next day and a chance to start anew. At times we feel torn about giving our children another chance. How can we overlook and start anew? Every situation is different, of course, but we never want our children to get the message from us that they are so bad that they can never change, or that they are a lost cause so there's no point in their even trying. Each day is a new day. RESET. You can do better and I know you will.

This is an important message when it comes to restarting the school year. Last year may not have been as successful as we had liked. It is a fresh start- academically, behaviorally and socially.

As parents, we are also entitled to RESET and a clean slate. We make mistakes and we need to learn to forgive ourselves and move on. No parenting error we make is irreparable. It is even more powerful when parents can ask for forgiveness, admit their mistakes and let it go. We are then modeling for our children how we would like them to commit to change. We are in essence imitating the behavior of HaKadosh Baruch Hu Himself- as it states in Eicha 3:22-23 “The grace of Hashem has not ceased, and His compassion does not fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” Each morning He gives us another chance. We owe the same to our children and to ourselves.

That brings us to that Recall notice- the product may be defective, but we can only recall it and start again: (My thanks to Mrs. Sharon Risch for forwarding this to me).

Regardless of make or year, all units known as "human beings" are being recalled by the Manufacturer. This is due to a malfunction in the original prototype units code named "Adam" and "Eve" resulting in the reproduction of the same defect in all subsequent units. This defect is technically termed, "Serious Internal Non-morality," but more commonly known as "SIN."
Some of the symptoms of the SIN defect:
[a] Loss of direction
[b] Lack of peace and joy
[c] Depression
[d] Foul vocal emissions
[e] Selfishness
[f] Ingratitude
[g] Fearfulness
[h] Rebellion
[i] Jealousy
The Manufacturer is providing factory authorized repair service free of charge to correct the SIN defect.
The Repair Technician, Hashem, has most generously offered to bear the entire burden of the staggering cost of these repairs. To repeat, there is no fee required.
The number to call in for repair in all areas is: PRAYER.
Once connected, please upload the burden of SIN through the REPENTANCE procedure. Next, download ATONEMENT from the Repair Technician, Hashem, into the heart component of the human unit.. No matter how big or small the SIN defect is, Hashem will replace it with:
[a] Love
[b] Joy
[c] Peace
[d] Kindness
[e] Goodness
[f] Faithfulness
[g] Gentleness
[h] Patience
[I] Self-control
Please see the operating manual, TORAH, for further details on the use of these fixes. As an added upgrade, the Manufacturer has made available to all repaired units a facility enabling direct monitoring and assistance from the resident Maintenance Technician, Hashem. Repaired units need only make Him welcome and He will take up residence on the premises.
WARNING: Continuing to operate a human being unit without corrections voids the Manufacturer's warranty, exposes the unit to dangers and problems too numerous to list, and will ultimately result in the human unit being incinerated.
Thank you for your immediate attention.

Please assist by notifying others of this important recall notice.

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-

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 .   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      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: ) 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  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?