Friday, September 29, 2017

Character Ambition

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal

Text from Rabbi Harcsztark’s teshuvah drasha to the school before Yom Kippur.

Here’s how it happened: I had already been up for over an hour; it’s Sunday morning, had my coffee, read the headlines and had learned for a while. Figured I would go with my boys to the 9am minyan. It’s 8:45, time to wake them up. I got the usual groan and then the turn over. I said to myself, “I will come back in five minutes for round 2”. As expected. At 8:50, another wake up call, another groan, another turn over. Now it’s 8:55 and no one is moving yet. “They are getting up, right?” By 8:59, I start to get agitated: why can’t you just get up? You do realize that I am coming with you to shul today! Why can’t you just get up on time?” My irritation grows, kids grumbling and finally, we get out to shul. At this point, mutual aggravation, and now none of us really in a davening mindset. And so, it has happened again - my irritability, my desire for things being just so, has taken over. It made a shul moment with my kids and with God, into a not-so-sacred moment.

When I think about my irritability, I feel bad. I don’t want this to be true about me. But at some point, I made a decision to work on it: I wanted to change, to grow. It wasn’t easy. But it was important and it made a difference. 

In these moments that we have together before Yom Kippur, I want to focus on an aspect of our theme, tikkun hamiddot, but in a specific way. I want to talk about ambition. Our SAR community, is very ambitious - we have driven and hard working students, driven and hard working faculty and driven and hard working parents. We want to get good grades, do well on SATs, get into a good college, get a good job. We want to win our championship games and be popular with our friends.

But I want to talk about a different kind of ambition. I am going to call it Character Ambition. What I mean by character here: the moral and ethical qualities that are particular to who we are and how we live our lives. So Character Ambition means having ambition, a desire, to develop our moral and ethical character in the best way - and putting in the planning and hard work that is necessary to achieve it. For me in my story, it means cultivating patience so I won’t be so irritable. For you, it will mean something else. And in regard to this type of ambition, I want to make two claims today.

My first claim is that while we are all nice people, and we all want to do the right thing, being nice is not enough. We want to be the very best possible versions of ourselves. My second claim is that sometimes we get a little lazy, and forget to make choices that would help us become the people we want to be. If we want to grow, we need a plan.



As I was preparing for this talk, Shoshana Kattan (better known as Shoco) shared a video with me and I would like to share thirty seconds from Drew Dudley’s talk on leadership (:09-:38). Drew Dudley is saying something so important, so memorable-- that HOPE IS NOT A PLAN. We need to be more concrete.

How do we figure out a plan? How do we decide what to work on? The truth is that we have a long history of thought about this. The Torah has high “character expectations” for us. The Torah’s mitzvot push so strongly for ethical and moral sensitivity. 

I know what we tend to say: we’re just being high school kids, that’s what high school kids do. And our teachers give us too much work for us to think about character, about working on my middot. And faculty, will say, we are so busy doing important things that we don’t have the luxury to think about tranquility, humility, wasting time or money. But that’s why we need to talk about it. Having ambition means wanting to be better. We need to believe that we are not yet at our best and we need the drive, the desire to be the best that we can be. Ambition, by definition, means never saying “I am good enough”. Maybe everyone around me thinks that I am ok. But I am not doing it for someone else; I am doing it for me.

The Rambam wrote in his Shemoneh Perakim: “The ancients maintained that the soul, like the body, is subject to good health and illness”. That is a very deep idea. Our inner beings can be healthy or ill just like our bodies. Think about it - when it comes to my body, what people around me do is not necessarily what is good for me. People eat too much, become unhealthy. I know it will make me physically unhealthy so I shouldn’t do it. People need to exercise their bodies. It will help us live longer, healthier lives. We need to think of our souls, our inner beings, in terms of health and sickness. In what ways are we healthy? In what ways sick? What must I do to make myself as soulfully healthy as I can be?

When it comes to character ambition, here is the point: If we take tikkun hamiddot seriously, then it requires action and determination. I want to outline the beginnings of a path towards working on that. And I want to do that by taking that which we know - planning and hard work for our grades, our teams, our college applications - and applying those same strategies to our middot, to our most daily interactions with others, with God and within our own selves. So I share with you my four steps of character ambition.

Four Steps of Character Ambition
  1. Set a practical goal - think of what this looks like in regular school life. I am imagining my kids writing an essay - for class or for a college application - or deciding that they wanted to make a team. In all of those cases, there is a concrete goal. So when you do it once - write the essay, play ball - you don’t feel that you’re done. You look at it again, assess what you’ve done, find out how it can be done better. Over the course of time, you get better and better at it. I have been amazed to watch my kids’ essay writing or foul shooting improve in just that way. Having a goal propels you forward. We should set goals for ourselves in middot and character growth in just the same way. Pick a middah and work at it; for a while. For me, my goal is to seek מנוחת הנפש, an inner peace, where I don’t get quickly irritated when talking with someone. When that happens, I don’t listen to others with patience and I can speak to them disparagingly. Often it happens because I am feeling bad about myself or upset about something else or angry at the other person for not totally accepting my own point of view. And often it happens with the people closest to me. I actually think that this is one of the על חטא’s - שחטאנו לפניך בלצון that we sinned before you by scorning others. And when I am not at peace, I mistreat other people, I fail myself and the whole situation becomes less Godly. But I need to be practical-- I can’t leave this as an idea. There has to be a plan, and a goal. So I would say this: every time I become annoyed about getting to davening on time with my kids, every time I feel that sense that I’m somehow not a good enough Jew unless I get to minyan on time and find myself channeling that insecurity toward my children, I say to myself: take a breath, I’m ok. I might say it twice: take a breath, I’m ok. This becomes my mantra. It helps me because it’s a concrete step I can take that gets me closer to my goal: patience, tranquility. I ask you to do the same. What middah do you want to improve? To work on over the next 6-8 weeks? Lesson #1: Set a goal for yourself.
  2. Get a coach - Pursuing the analogy further, in pursuing my goals and ambitions, if I really want to to do my best, I get a coach. That is obviously true for sports. That is also true when writing a paper or an application or preparing for the ACT’s or working on a robot car in engineering or if you are in the play or doing art. We always turn the coach. How can we expect to learn how to do it better without a coach? The Baalei Mussar were very clear on the importance of a coach - a rabbi or a chavruta to work with, to give pointers. If I start getting irritable, my rebbe should point it out to me or I should try to unpack the moment with my middot chavruta, or my best friend, or my spouse. The Rambam was very serious about this. He saw the Rabbi as a doctor - there are medical doctors for the body and there are spiritual doctors for the soul. The Greeks thought that too. It’s hard to develop strategies on my own, to teach myself to listen patiently all the time under all circumstances. And it’s not good enough to just “do my best”. Tikkun HaMiddot means working in earnest. And if we are serious about growth, we should get ourselves a coach - just like we have for our other ambitions. And I am pretty sure that your middot partner will do it free of charge.
  3. Third, pay attention to detail - when we pay attention, when we learn about a middah and about ourselves, we begin to see the nuances that make all the difference. So I worked to find other places where the mantra would help. Working on this middah then made me experience davening and making brachot in a new way. I found davening to be a peaceful space carved out in the day to take a breath, take stock and recenter myself. And, here again, it impacted on my relationship with myself, with Hashem and with others all at once. So that’s step 3: pay attention to detail.
  4. Finally, practice! The Rambam says in Hilchot Deot: “How can one train himself to follow these temperaments to the extent that they become a permanent fixture of his personality? He should perform, repeat and perform a third time the acts which conform to the standards of the middle road temperaments. He should do this constantly until these acts are easy for him and do not present any difficult. Then these temperaments will become a fixed part of his personality.” Whatever we are serious about-- we don’t just do it once! After I started working on it, I began to enjoy going to shul with my kids on a whole new level. I was more accepting, we enjoyed each other’s presence - and my davening was more meaningful and more peaceful. It helped in my connection to those around me, to God and to myself.
So these are the four steps—set a practical goal, get a coach, pay attention to detail, and practice.

Picking a Middah

Can you imagine if everyone picked just one thing to work on and actually worked on it with a partner following these four steps? We would be a community of עובדי ד׳, people working hard for a kinder, more sensitive, more principled community. It would be amazing!

I asked faculty members to share with me the middah that most inspired them - and a role model who embodied it. I am sorry that I can’t include them all but I would like to highlight two responses that really resonate with me. 

Ms. Schlaff: When I think of tikkun hamiddot, I think of someone I actually don’t know well at all, and of a very small act.
Here’s the story:
From time to time I speak in my shul. I’m pretty used to public speaking, but no matter how many times I get up in front of an audience, it is always good to have a “nodder” - one person amongst the crowd who looks right at me when I am speaking, and smiles, and nods. When I have one nodder in the audience, I feel perfectly fine about whatever I have to say. So there is this one woman in my shul who is a nodder. I do not know her well at all. I say good shabbos to her every week, but that is pretty much it. But after the last time I spoke, I went over to her to thank her for always smiling when I speak, and to tell her how confident it makes me feel. And what she said totally amazed me. She said that a few years ago, she decided that anytime she heard anyone speak - anywhere - she was going to make it her business to make them feel comfortable by making eye contact with the speaker, and smiling and nodding. She said it was her small contribution to the world. What amazed me was that I had always thought it came naturally to her - something she did without thinking. I was so impressed to learn it was a conscious decision. She had translated an interest in treating people with respect, the middah of kavod, into a specific action. 

Ms. Dweck also responded, and her answer blew me away because she suggested her coach wasn’t some intellectual or even a grown up, but a toddler. She wrote: “A toddler learning to walk. Failure is part of the learning process and perseverance, I believe is the key to embracing the failure. When a toddler is learning to walk it is a process. He/She falls many times and each time he/she gets right back up and tries again. And again. And again. I wish we could bring this resilience with us into adolescence, adulthood and beyond. We are born with perseverance. In our very first breath of life we need to figure out how to manage in gravity. We don't give up. We persevere.”

Perseverence, like מנוחת הנפש, is also one of R. Yisrael Salanter’s thirteen middot.

I mentioned earlier how powerful it would be to have a community of people all thinking about a personal middah, working to better themselves in a kind of shared project that was yet so individualized.

And in this spirit, I want to talk about John Allman. He was just written up in the NY Times this past weekend. He is the principal of the Trinity School, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Manhattan. He wrote a letter to his school community at the beginning of this school year suggesting that they needed to rebuild the culture, that it has become too self serving, too narrow and not enough about personal character and the greater good. 

An excerpt: “consistent with our mission, how ought we to educate our students so that they leave us with a commitment not just to advance their own educational interests, but also serve the common good and to give generously to others for the rest of their lives?..As we have learned in recent years...our students’ default understanding of the purpose of their schoolwork becomes to make good grades, gain admissions to a highly selective college, set themselves on a path of lifelong superior achievement. And this default setting -- one of narrowly individualistic self-advancement -- has been locked into place by a frenetic pace of life and expectations of perfection that devour the energy and time students need to reflect on the meaning of their schoolwork...We need to actively develop in our students compelling alternative understandings of the socially redeeming purposes their knowledge and skills could and should serve. If we do not...” 

What he’s saying is so fitting for this season, for religious life, and it’s this: if we take the idea of being a Jewish school seriously, then our goals have to extend beyond the academic to the ethical and spiritual. We have to work at least as hard at bettering ourselves ethically and spiritually as we do at our classes. 

So I will end as I began. In my family, like many of us, we have the minhag of giving brachot to our kids right before we go to shul for Kol Nidre. You can find those berachot in the machzor. It is no longer a frazzled moment, calling them to get ready, hastily giving them brachot, rushing everyone out the door. I know that my family, Hashem and my own neshama will be with me in peace as I, with מנוחת הנפש, bless my family as we pray for a blessed year together. In that spirit, I challenge you: as you sit in shul, ask yourself: what’s my middah? What’s my real goal? Who can help coach me? Let me dedicate time to practice. Turn every day into a day that will effect real change in your life.

Gmar chatima tova to all.


Friday, September 1, 2017

Let's talk...and listen

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal

As we begin the fifteenth year of SAR High School, I have found myself, over the past few months, asking: if I were charged with opening a new school today, what would it look like? Having confronted that question fifteen years ago, it feels useful to ask it anew. In what ways would our thinking be similar and in what ways different? More than a blog’s worth can be said in response to that question. Much has changed over this relatively short period of time, changes that have significantly impacted the lives of high school students - the uses of technology and the nature of the college process are two such examples. But something else keeps coming to mind as I consider the question, something that is crucial for us as members of the Modern Orthodox community in America.

Over the course of the past decade, our community has experienced increasing polarization. We have become more divided over many issues and the political climate of recent years has helped draw those dividing lines even more thickly. And I am concerned that we are not the better for it.

Unless we use this awareness to make us better. If we acknowledge from where it comes, this polarization can help serve as a check and an opportunity for meaningful exchange within our community. Allow me to share some of the theoretical work that has been done in this regard.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, published an oft-cited book, The Righteous Mind (Vintage: 2012). In that work, Haidt describes the results of his research on the nature of moral development. He suggests that just as there are five taste receptors on the tongue, people operate with six foundations of moral intuitions. He calls this Moral Foundations Theory. The categories people use for moral consideration, in pairs, are: care/harm, fairness(equality)/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Seen from this vantage point, Haidt shows that, just as people have natural tendencies when it comes to taste, the same is true regarding moral judgment. Applied to politics and religion, he describes that conservatives tend to endorse all six foundations more equally overall while liberals tend to prioritize the care and equality foundations over the others. That means that conservatives grant more value to the foundations of loyalty, authority and sanctity than liberals do, while liberals grant more value to care and equality. 

Most important in this analysis: we all value all of these foundations. At the same time, it is not surprising that we are each invested in some more than others of these foundations, according to our personal dispositions and inclinations. Given that understanding, each of us can benefit from interacting with a peer who prioritizes certain of the moral foundations more than we ourselves do. If I naturally prioritize fairness and equality, I might gain from hearing someone speak of the importance of loyalty, or the necessity for an authority figure to help guide us. Haidt suggests that we can “disagree more constructively” when we are both aware of the foundations that are shared most broadly, and understand that we each have our own way of prioritizing them. These acknowledgements allow us to become vulnerable, to consider other perspectives, knowing that those perspectives are rooted in the same moral foundations that I, too, believe in. 

The national and communal polarization has of course affected our school too. Last spring, a group of parents asked to meet with me to review the events at school over the past year and a half surrounding the Presidential election. The people in the room were coming from different political perspectives. And the conversations were purposeful. Purposeful, because we were able to consider the range of values that we all shared - and the different ways that we prioritized them. This did not bring everyone to agreement on the political issues; however it did provide context for a constructive exchange. 

Interestingly, I also found that my awareness of the political debates occurring in our school community informed my response to our senior Jewish Identity curriculum, a seminar that I have taught numerous times over the years - one that is not focused on politics. The curriculum focuses on many of the communal and theoretical issues and challenges that an engaged Jewish adult should be familiar with: denominations in American Judaism, Jew and non Jew, Biblical criticism, sexuality and other topics. It is impossible to be totally neutral on such matters. The act of putting any of these topics into a curriculum is, itself, not a neutral decision. And we should be proud of that, and be able to articulate why we choose to incorporate them into the curriculum. Yet, more than once, I felt that we would do well to present a second side: why would someone choose to reject Modern Orthodoxy and become Haredi? What is the concern of someone who sees feminism as a challenge to Orthodoxy? Might Jewish chosenness indeed be a sign of Jewish exceptionalism? I have spent time thinking about these topics and feel that it is my role to share what I believe and what we, as a school, stand for. At the same time, there are instances where we could and we must do better to ensure that we are teaching towards the issues with binocular vision, emphasizing the range of moral foundations in our teaching. 

And the same holds true for religious practice. SAR is a school which prides itself on providing women with the opportunity to learn and teach Torah on the highest levels and participate in tefillah to the degree that halakha allows. This has been a culture-shaping value of the institution since its inception. And those who emphasize certain moral foundations will find that quite resonant. Still, even if one agrees halakhically (and some do not), the foundations of loyalty and authority might lead one to disagree with a particular decision promoting female participation in tefillah. And both should be respected and engaged. This is not a matter of compromising on convictions but of sharing our convictions in the interest of a more constructive exchange. 

Which brings me back to where I began: SAR High School should be a thinking, courageous institution, prepared to stand tall in its beliefs. It is also a ‘big tent’ institution as yeshiva high schools go, home to a range of modern observant families. This is both an opportunity, and a challenge. It is my hope and prayer that our students become adults who are committed to halakha, confident in their beliefs and, at the same time, aware of the range of members in our community and able to engage constructively with them. Our students and faculty must develop a deep understanding of our Modern Orthodox community and the range of people and views that populate that community. To develop that capacity, we must practice listening carefully to and disagreeing respectfully with others. We should be the model for how best to hold a diverse community of committed Jewish men and women together in discourse and practice so that the next generation is prepared to engage, shape and strengthen our community spiritually, religiously and ethically. 

On a personal level, I feel this as well. I have learned from the constructive exchanges that I have had over the course of last year. As principal of this great school, it is my responsibility to do so. I will work to ensure that in the classroom, conference room and beyond, SAR is a space where we listen, we respect, we learn and we grow. 

We look forward to a wonderful year of learning and growth together at SAR High School. May we all be blessed with a year of health and growth - physical and spiritual - a year of peace, happiness and well being for our families, our community, the Jewish people and the world.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Graduates and the Grand Conversation

By: Rabbi Shmuel Hain, Rosh Beit Midrash

We are often asked by prospective parents and community members: What does the “average” SAR HS Graduate look like? Five years ago, in conjunction with our first Bogrim (SAR HS Alumni) learning program, several alumni participants surveyed their peers to collect data to begin tackling the question. And while that data, now somewhat outdated, is informative (the big takeaway: almost all alumni closely mirrored their parents’ degree of commitment to Jewish values, Halakhic practice, and regular Torah study), I would like to answer the question with a photograph: 

This is a grainy picture of several of our Bogrim 2017 participants at a recent book launch at Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. That picture captures one story of what SAR HS graduates look like during their college years and beyond. 

Let me explain with some background: As Rosh Beit Midrash, I have had the privilege of directing our Bogrim program since its inception six years ago. Each year at the conclusion of the spring semester, a graduates’ cohort of 15-20 alumni spends an intensive mini-semester at SAR High School learning and giving back to the SAR High School community. During this time, the graduates engage in an intensive program of study with sessions prepared and taught by SAR HS faculty and guest lecturers while also interacting with students in the Beit Midrash, during Advisory, and through special programs. It has been extremely rewarding personally to remain in touch with our alumni and to continue to learn with them. But directing Bogrim has also challenged me to reflect on the essential question raised by devoting resources to this annual program. What responsibility does a high school and its faculty have to students after they graduate? 

Surely there are a number of reasons for all Yeshiva high schools to stay in touch with alumni. One motivation is to promote a sense of school pride/community by fostering a family-like feeling between the faculty, alumni and their families. These relationships are meaningful for students and faculty alike and are most manifest at lifecycle events long after high school graduation. A second reason for ongoing connection is to facilitate alumni participation at school shabbatonim and other informal educational settings. These interactions provide current students with relatable role models who inspire them in impactful ways. Staying connected may also help fortify the religious commitment of alumni during the college years and beyond, when some graduates are less anchored to formal, Jewish learning environments. A final factor- long-term institutional advancement- is another positive byproduct of ongoing engagement. But these reasons do not get to the core of SAR High School’s sense of responsibility to our graduates that animates our Bogrim program. 

To fully explain that sense of responsibility and the rationale for Bogrim requires reformulating the essential question in more particular (read: SAR HS Mission statement) terms: What unique role should our alumni play in shaping and enhancing the “Grand Conversation” within our “Community of Learners”?

We dedicate faculty time and energy to Bogrim because we feel an abiding responsibility to deepen our alumni’s connection to our mission and vision as they mature into modern orthodox adults. This feeling is one that is reciprocated by the desire expressed by our graduates to more fully integrate the messages and orientations that they were first exposed to while in high school. As maturing, more reflective adults, alumni strive to make the Grand Conversation a dynamic reality as they navigate new stages of their lives. The Bogrim program represents our signature effort to advance this important project and to further our mission to produce a new generation of committed, sophisticated modern orthodox Jews.

With this ambitious goal in mind, the teaching methodologies utilized and the material studied in Bogrim are not identical to the high school classroom. Sessions are often co-taught by SAR HS Faculty in a dialogical fashion to foster more robust discussion and reflective learning. Guest lecturers are brought in to challenge alumni, and faculty, with different perspectives. The theme of each Bogrim program is carefully chosen to correspond to the unique challenges that our alumni face. Topics explored have included Religious Zionism, Jews & Non-Jews, Tefillah & spirituality, and Jewish values & sexuality. Each of these subjects has been addressed during the four years of high school, but more advanced life stages demand a more comprehensive, sophisticated, and nuanced examination.

While the primary goal of Bogrim is to further our alumni’s identification with the Grand Conversation, the Bogrim program has consistently enlightened faculty as well. As any parent of an emerging adult can relate, we have experienced a particular revelatory pride and nachas from our alumni. Invariably, as we have examined these challenging and complex topics, our alumni share insightful perspectives that deepen the faculty’s understanding of these subjects. This, in turn, informs how we think about these subjects and teach them to our high school students. 

Perhaps the best example of this is in Israel education. When studying religious zionism in depth in our Bogrim program several years ago, the learning and conversations with our alumni pushed us to broaden our approach to Israel education during the high school years across different subject areas. A Machon Siach Faculty Beit Midrash cohort formed to further research and advance our Israel education. The alumni, then, through the Bogrim program, are a critical cog in our vibrant “community of learners.” That is, ultimately, the responsibility we feel towards our graduates. To deepen their understanding of the Grand Conversation and to encourage our alumni to further enrich our broader community of learners. 

Which brings me back to that picture. This year’s Bogrim program, in conjunction with the special celebration of Yom Yerushalayim, explored Jerusalem @ 50: Kedusha and Controversies. After a week of in-depth Beit Midrash learning and sessions examining the religious, political, and social significance of Jerusalem in Tanakh, Chazal and today, the last few sessions featured guest lecturers exploring Jerusalem from a number of different perspectives. These sessions, especially on the heels of the Beit Midrash learning, were remarkably impactful.

The highlight was a double session on the second to last day of the program. First, Ari Gordon, an academic and interfaith activist specializing in Muslim-Jewish relations, taught a session entitled “‘Ir HaQodesh, Aelia and al-Quds’: An Inter-religious history of Jerusalem” which considered, through careful text study, how Jews can think about Jerusalem in light of the veneration of the Holy City in other religious traditions. In the following session, alumni had the opportunity to dialogue with prominent Muslim academic, social commentator and author Haroon Moghul. Haroon detailed the dynamic place of Jerusalem in Contemporary Muslim culture and shared his experiences bringing North American Muslim leaders to Jerusalem and Israel. The scheduled 75 minute session extended for close to two hours as the conversation offered Haroon and the alumni the opportunity for candid and open discussion on a range of topics. The conversation was challenging at times, but it yielded a deep appreciation for Haroon and his perspectives. At its close, the Bogrim Faculty and participants resolved to explore additional venues for these kinds of dialogues to take place. 

Just a few weeks later, Haroon began a tour promoting his latest book, How to Be a Muslim: An American Story. The Bogrim participants- completely on their own- attended Haroon’s Book Launch and reading at Barnes & Noble as an expression of appreciation and support. Haroon was so moved by the intellectual and religious commitments of our alumni- coupled with their humanity- that he asked to take a picture with the Bogrim after the reading. 

So, what does an SAR graduate look like? That picture of our alumni posing with Haroon, whom they had forged a bond with through study and dialogue, tells one poignant story about what SAR Alumni look like in their college years.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Trust and Translation: A Teacher's Perspective on Machon Siach

by Mr. Simon Fleischer
English Department Co-Chair
Faculty Fellow, Machon Siach at SAR High School
Dedicated to the Memory of Belda K. Lindenbaum z"l

As a participant in one of the Machon Siach groups currently underway at our high school, I experience firsthand a number of different ways in which the program can be understood and explained. It is a kind of Torah study that blends the practical and the theoretical. It is a way of writing that is both academic and personal. It is a form of communal outreach intended to expand SAR’s mission beyond its student community. First and foremost, however, Machon Siach is a statement of trust.

As a high school teacher, even in a school without walls, I operate in a set of closed rooms. My primary responsibility is to my students; considerations beyond that scope take a back seat to the rhythms and demands of the school year. I grade papers, I write assignments, I meet with students. I go to meetings to discuss schedules, anticipate color war, organize beit midrash materials. Consequently, my professional identity is not oriented towards larger issues that emerge in the context of my teaching, in large part because I rarely have the time. My concerns become so relentlessly local, that as a result I begin to think of my potential contributions as correspondingly local. As deep and important as I believe my work as a high school teacher to be, most of the time I assume my reach is defined by the community of students that passes through these walls, during these four years. 

And yet, I also believe that as a high school teacher I have a perspective that is unique, a way of thinking that is unique, and a set of values that is unique. So much of my time is spent in classrooms that theoretical concerns come palpably to life; by virtue of the amount of face time I have with my students, I experience daily the fluid boundary between theory and practice both in my pedagogy and in my subject. Additionally, in part because my students are yet living at home, high school teaching unfolds in the context of a concentric series of communities, at the very least including my students, their families, their local Jewish communities, and the Jewish community at large. I am keenly aware of the personal nature of learning; for high school teachers, the academic is never academic. What all this means is that even while the realities of my job limit my reach, they simultaneously make possible a set of insights and a series of communications that extend beyond my classroom. 

Machon Siach represents a recognition of this potential. Its purpose is to create space and time in which high school teachers can share their unique perspective on larger theoretical concerns that typically are the province of professional academics. Its driving assumption is that high school teachers, precisely because they are high school teachers, are positioned to offer unique contributions to the social, political, and religious questions that are being asked in any thoughtful community. Our areas of study are inspired by our teaching experiences, given ethical and religious weight by our Talmud Torah, informed by academic writing, and sharpened in the crucible of our daily practice. We write not only for one another, but for all the communities we touch: our students, their parents, the Jewish community; consequently, our writing at its best is both analytic and self-reflective, formal yet personal. In the subjects we research, in the method of our study, in our goals, and even in the style of the writing itself, Machon Siach is a new effort in Jewish high school education.

Perhaps my own example will help bring these descriptions to life. For a number of months now, I have been reading and writing about sex education in the Modern Orthodox community. My interest in the subject is driven by my experiences here at SAR, as we have worked to create a series of programs that would animate our students in their halachic practice even while recognizing their specific psychological and developmental needs. Anyone who has spent time teaching teenagers about sex is familiar with students’ interest in poking at the boundaries of appropriate talk. Questions often blur the line between the clinical and the personal, pressing teachers to carefully evade or even chide students who ask about our personal lives. Even as we do our best to speak honestly with our adolescent students about sex, we face a central question: when are these conversations meaningful and helpful, and when are they titillating? In other terms, do we help our students develop healthy self awareness around their sexual selves, or do we contribute to an unhealthy excessive self interest that chips away at their potential to lead psychologically fulfilling sexual lives? 

In pursuing answers to these questions, I am leaning heavily on the work of Dr. Rollo May, an American existential psychologist, whose work I am using as a lens through which to read several narratives in the Talmud. These narratives serve as case studies, of a sort, with which I hope to consider the nature of dialogue in sex education. My ultimate goal is to better understand how to talk to our students about sex in a manner that integrates religious practice with psychological health. 

At times, sometimes when sitting around a table discussing the paper I am writing with colleagues, sometimes when reading and rereading a difficult sentence I can’t quite understand, I struggle with the feeling that I am in over my head. I wonder: who am I to be doing this? Let me go back to grading papers, writing assignments, meeting with students. I keep on keeping on, however, for two reasons.

First, I believe the work I am doing in Machon Siach will ultimately bear fruit in the grading I do, the assignments I write, in my meetings with students. That is, implicit in this work is an important act of translation: the real value here will only emerge when the theoretical concerns are manifest in the basic work I do. I face my students every day, and my experiences with them are the litmus test with which I evaluate everything about my professional identity. This is who I am as a high school teacher.

Second, because Machon Siach’s very existence is a message to me, encouraging me to contribute to more global educational and religious conversations, telling me that precisely because I am a high school teacher I have a unique contribution to offer. As such, it does not represent an external obligation layered onto my professional identity, but a natural and inevitable outcome of the expertise I have developed during the course of my teaching. It is as much my responsibility to participate in Machon Siach as it is to teach my classes. 

In short, when I doubt myself, I remember: Machon Siach is a statement of trust.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Science as a Narrative*


By: Mr. Yarone Tokayer, Science Faculty (HS '09)

There is an unfortunate gap in confidence between so-called “math-science people” and “humanities people” in science classes. I am not sure where this notion came from, but true or not, it is perhaps the most toxic and limiting nomenclature that has been adopted by educators. Science, especially at a high school level, ought to engender excitement, not fear. Furthermore, we should be teaching and modeling life values in all of our classes, not just in Judaics and the humanities. I believe that teaching science, not as a laundry list of immutable facts, but as a narrative is a small step toward addressing these important issues.

When I was in engineering school, I took a class on drafting, in which we learned how to draw pedantically precise schematics of parts by hand. We were introduced to the T-square, different types of pencils, and all sorts of tools to make perfect circles and clear drawings. Points were deducted for noticeable erasures, improper notation, or lines that weren’t just the right shade. It would take up to 7 hours to complete just one draft. Halfway through the semester, our professor introduced us to CAD software, which helps with doing all of this on the computer. My classmates and I felt betrayed, and could not believe that we had spent so much time on drawings that could be done in minutes using computer programs. However, we soon discovered that without that intimate knowledge of the old method, we would not be able to use the CAD software correctly, nor would we have any idea what a proper draft looks like, since it evolved from the manual techniques. Our professor showed us that to fully understand and appreciate the new technology, we had to understand how it developed and what it aimed to do. I believe that the same is true of the sciences: to truly understand them, we must understand their development as well.

Science is more than a list of interesting facts. It develops out of a complex web of collaborations and feuds, false hypotheses, serendipitous findings, and religious dogma. In its theories lies a profoundly human story—of curiosity, achievements, and failures. I have tried to tell this story in my physics classes. For example, in our recent unit on planetary models, we did not only study the Solar System as we view it today, but we discussed the earlier models as well, together with their flaws and how they were revised. We learned that astronomers through the ages were driven by a fervent belief that the universe is symmetric and neat. Reconciling that belief with what was seen in the night sky every night proved very difficult. It took until the 17th Century for a model to finally be developed that abandoned these convictions (as it turns out, orbits are more like ovals than circles). In this way, students understand astronomy as a narrative; a story of natural philosophy that spans centuries and connects fascinating characters, and one that continues today as we are still researching and better understanding the heavens.

On last month’s Junior shabbaton, a couple of students approached me with questions about astronomy (we had just finished the unit). What began with me trying to explain why the sky is blue very quickly evolved into questions of how we are to understand the vast expanse of the universe: “Why would God make all of that if it has nothing to do with people?” Needless to say, I could not provide satisfactory answers to their insightful questions, but it started a conversation that lasted into the next week at school about how our understanding of nature feeds back into our understanding of ourselves. Science raises many difficult questions of this nature, and as citizens that are in touch with the intellectual world, our students will encounter them sooner or later. I am proud that our students intuited this profound intersection between science and values, and I am thrilled to be introducing them to these questions in the safe and non-threatening setting of the classroom. Which brings me to my last point.

Part of SAR’s mission is for its students to be “participants in the grand conversation between Torah and the world.” We teach that our tradition should illuminate our understanding of the world, and our understanding of the world should feedback into our Torah and religious experience. In science classes, this usually translates to something like, מָה-רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיך ה כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ, “How manifold are Your works, God! In wisdom You have made them all” (Psalms 104:24). This is a powerful message to be sure, but we can do better. One more example from the planetary models unit in physics: In the 16th Century, Nicolaus Copernicus presented a heliocentric model of the universe, which had the Earth rotate around the Sun instead of the Sun around the Earth. After teaching his model, I mention the verse from sefer Yehoshua “the sun stood still, and the moon stayed” (10:13), which implies that usually the Sun moves, not the Earth. This Biblical passage was one of the primary objections that the Christian Church had to heliocentricity. Since our students study tanakh and understand what it means to value text, they can appreciate the tension that people at the time felt between Church teachings and scientific theory. The history of science is intricately intertwined with that of religion; as Torah educated Jews, our students are uniquely situated to understand the interactions between the two.

Science classes today are very similar to the type that my parents and grandparents sat in: a series of facts about nature are presented, demonstrations and examples are used to convince students of those facts, and then students are tested on how well they know those facts. This model has succeeded in teaching science to generations of students, but I believe that it gives an inaccurate picture of what “science” is. More importantly, this model misses out on an opportunity to give students that might not conventionally be turned on by the sciences an appreciation of how rich those subjects are. By emphasizing the narrative of science, we can expose its human elements, and give all students ownership of these beautiful and rewarding subjects.

* this formulation is inspired by my teacher, Professor Stuart Firestein

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Purposeful Journey through the "Eternal Abyss" - Gemara Study as an Exercise in עבודת השם

By: Rabbi Akiva Block, Judaic Studies Faculty




"במחשכים הושיבני כמתי עולם (איכה ג:ו)" - אמר רבי ירמיה, זו תלמודה של בבל. (סנהדרין כד.)

"God has made me dwell in darkness like the eternally dead (Eicha 3:6)" - R. Yirmiyah said, this refers to the Babylonian Talmud. (Sanhedrin 24a)

I remember vividly the first time in my life I was able to understand a passage of Gemara on my own. Not because of how smart it made me feel or how hard I worked to master it - though both were true - but because of how palpably I felt God's presence during the experience. No Artscroll, no dictionary, no teacher there to hold my hand through it; just me and my chavruta (study partner) alone in a beit midrash. Words became phrases. Phrases became sentences. Sentences became arguments and questions and answers -- and then, voila! We had ourselves a sugya, an entire passage. Admittedly, what took me literally hours then would probably take a matter of minutes today. But for as long as I live, I'll never forget the euphoric feeling I had when I finally "got it." I'd swear that, at that very moment, I could almost feel God's hand on my shoulder.

As a teacher of Torah Sheba'al Peh, I constantly struggle to make the case to my students that God is to be found in Talmud study. To be sure, there is much that stands in the way of an enjoyable high school Gemara experience, let alone a spiritually meaningful one. Whether it's the constant back and forth without ever arriving at a conclusion, the seeming irrelevance of the subject matter, the language barrier that Talmudic Aramaic presents, or the simple and inescapable fact that the words of the Gemara themselves are multiple steps removed from the revealed word of God, in contradistinction to Chumash - finding God in the convoluted and unwieldy texts of Gemara is an elusive goal indeed. 

This challenge is compounded in the mission-driven environment of SAR. In our community's unending pursuit of the Grand Conversation, one of our most sacred tasks is indeed making the case that all our learning contributes to a fuller spiritual life; that my English class can be a place for spiritual growth just like any Judaic studies class can. In many respects, we've been successful. Even if not always in practice, students at SAR understand at least in theory the concept of the Grand Conversation, and the term is bandied about in classroom discussions all throughout the building. Faculty, parents and students are attuned to the concept, which leads inexorably to our question in an even more pronounced form: what contribution can Gemara make to my religious and spiritual make up? Where is God in the study of Gemara? How is learning Gemara עבודת השם?

This question is different from the equally important question of why study Gemara. Many good answers can conceivably be given to that question that do not involve God. We can talk about how Gemara study cultivates and sharpens our critical thinking skills; we can show how Gemara trains us to look at virtually every issue from multiple perspectives, even ones that we would intuitively think are clear-cut; we can mention how understanding the inner workings of the halakha, instead of just the perfunctory dos and don'ts, immeasurably enhances our performance; we can even speak of the Talmud as informing our mission as Modern Orthodox Jews today, what Yaakov Elman incisively calls "a microcosm of Torah society in formation." But do any of these help me find God in its study?

Now that we've sufficiently developed the question, you may be surprised to discover that I have no good answer. Moments of transcendence are, by their very nature, personal. But as I think back to my experience in the beit midrash all those years ago, I am moved to ask what it was about that experience that caused me to feel God's presence.

On the one hand, perhaps, our ability to sense God in our study, any study, can be directly commensurate with our desire and willingness to do so. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk famously once asked his students: where is God? When they responded, "Why rebbe, God is everywhere," the rabbi said, "That is incorrect. Where is God? Wherever you let God in." If we truly wish for learning to be what Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein calls, "a dialogic encounter with Ribbono shel Olam," then the nature and extent of that encounter will be a function of our attitude. I'm not sure it had ever occurred to me before that I could feel God's presence in my learning, and therefore I had never attempted to let God in and make that a reality.

Beyond this however, what characterized that experience was that more than at any time in my life I felt as though I was a part of something larger, deeper, and richer. Although in that beit midrash on that day I didn't (yet) love learning Gemara, I realized then you don't need to love something for it to be spiritual. You do, however, have to invest in it. You have to immerse yourself in it. You have to care about it. 

And on that day, I cared. I cared enough to work hard at it, and to reflect upon the experience. There I was, having mastered a small portion of a text that has been the birthright of my people for the better part of two thousand years. I was taking my place, and have since continued to firmly entrench that place, among centuries of learners who immersed themselves in this text and made the pages of the Gemara their spiritual and intellectual home. I was learning what Jews who learn learn, what they've always learned. Even if I didn't then understand why, the sense of perspective and context that moment provided, that my world was part of a larger world that extended forth both vertically and horizontally in either direction, was more empowering and inspiring than anything I had ever felt.

And I continue to feel that way. Not all the time, perhaps not even most of the time, but on occasion, I am able to recapture the euphoria of that experience, and see yet glimpses of it in others. Aside from in my own learning, I feel it when I see students' faces light up as they finally understand a challenging passage in the Gemara, a line in Rashi, or a difficult conceptual question, all through hard work and toil. I feel it when I see and hear of parents studying Torah with their children. This, in my view, is the essence of עבודת השם.

In accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George Bush in January 1993, Ronald Reagan said of America that, "this is the land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming." As a Gemara teacher, I have the same wish for my students; that they never become anything, but continue to engage in the act of becoming. Care about the endeavor. If learning Gemara is frustrating, keep at it. It may be hard, but, to quote Tom Hanks, it's supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great. 

Are God and spirituality to be found in Gemara? Definitely. How? That I can't definitively say. Like many of my life's most basic and fundamental truths it is rooted more in intuition, and can't really be proven. But it's there. Would that our students care enough to keep looking...

במחשכים הושיבני. The prospect of a life of Gemara study is daunting indeed, like, R. Yirmiyah teaches us, being placed in a dark abyss. But the thing about a dark place is, when you care enough to find your way out, when you work hard and get to a point where you've let in just a bit of light, the reward and sense of accomplishment are immeasurable.