Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog


Collective Punishment

I’m pretty sure that we have had those childrearing moments, when we yell to our feuding siblings in the back of the car, “That’s it, we’re not going to the movie...we’re going straight home now!” One child inevitably says “But, I didn’t do anything.” Do all of them deserve the same consequence? This question becomes magnified in a classroom, and, ever more, in a society.

The Torah reading for this week (Exodus 10:1-13:16), recounting the narrative that is central to Passover, has been the source of many discussions and commentaries around the concepts of collective punishment and retributive justice. The text describes the last three plagues and the Exodus from Egypt. I have always found this a very disturbing text. Why should all the Egyptians suffer the consequences of a tyrannical Pharoah. Were they all complicit? It is interesting to see how Jewish tradition handles these sorts of difficult moments in a text. And, though, an ancient text, the Torah and its commentaries can be a spring board for our own contemporary conversations about some of the very same sorts of behaviors and reactions to them.

Early commentators tried to understand and to give justifications for the killing of the first born of people who were not connected to Pharaoh. They said that the ordinary people also oppressed the Jewish slaves and thus were deserving of the severe punishment. One of our first graders mused this week “I wonder if the ordinary Egyptians were mad at Pharoah for causing all these problems?” A great question – one I haven’t seen in the commentaries – but one that shows a mature ability to think of different perspectives and feelings.

The Rabbis who created the Passover seder as we know it, made sure to add the ritual of removing a drop of wine from our glasses as we name each plague. The rationale behind this ritual is that we should not rejoice in the loss of lives (even of our enemies). A modern writer, has restated the problem as one of collective responsibility rather than of collective punishment. She notes, perhaps the only way to understand the initial phrase about killing the innocent with the powerful is that everyone is ultimately responsible for the oppression of others – some by their actions (Pharoah) and others by their silence.

I am still troubled by the notion of collective punishment. The fact that the commentaries grapple with this in every generation tells me that this idea of collective punishment runs counter to deeply held Jewish values about the dignity of all human life, and I’m inspired by the fact that Judaism allows for this sort of struggle with texts and nuanced understanding of the human condition.

At the end of the day, when my kids were arguing in the back of the car, my better self knew that I should never give the same consequence to the child who appeared to be the victim as to the child who seemed to be the perpetrator...and yet there were many times when I said “you are all misbehaving – you for starting the argument, and you for continuing it and escalating.” It was rare that the third would just sit quietly. Indeed, they all may have been responsible for the seeming misbehavior of one child. We just needed to turn around the car and all suffer that consequence. Are times when collective punishment is justified?

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


What's the Question?

I’m an avid “Jeopardy” junkee. The attraction has been challenging myself to answer questions correctly. Some experiences from the last two weeks gave me a new perspective on my affinity for this program. I began the week with a story that I had stumbled upon that reminded me that framing the right question is usually more important than the answer.

I began the week with my usual K-5 Monday morning story. I chose a story that had a repetitive riddle that a potential student was asked to solve. The student gave what appeared to be an obvious answer, and the teacher offered another way to think about the riddle that might lead to another answer. This continued through several iterations with the same riddle until the punch line where the teacher pointed out that student would have been better served by answering the question with a question. It was all about asking the right questions in order to develop deep understanding.

One of our tasks as 21st Century educators is to help our students learn how to frame questions. Last week, we had our annual middle school science fair. We start this process by asking students to think about the questions that science answers and then to pose a scientific question that is personally interesting to them. The students then spend the first four months of the school year restating their question as an hypothesis, testing their hypothesis, recording their results, analyzing those results and finding a way to present it to an audience of both scientists and our school community. Our administration team is focusing now on how to make this an even more impactful program and how to strengthen the science program in the lower grades.

At the same time, when we teach our students in all grades how to be competent writers or artists, we are teaching them to ask another set of questions. In this case, we’re asking them to think about how one puts into writing or into an illustration what s/he may see. How does one give detail in a narrative to clearly convey to a reader what a particular person looks like, or how do we explain how the earth smells differently on a rainy day rather than a sunny day. In writing or in producing a video, we teach students to ask about audience. What will that audience need to know or understand in order to understand the student’s story or video?

It became very clear to me this week that teaching students to ask questions helps them unpeel the layers of meaning in the world around them. While it sets them on the path of understanding and competency in communication, it also provides multiple lenses through which to observe the world around them. Writer’s lenses are different from scientist’s lenses and different still from mathematician’s lenses. The more lenses we can engage by generating different kinds of questions, the greater will be their engagement and perception. Ultimately this complexity promises strong critical and creative thinkers and better communicators – centerpieces of Common Core and of 21st Century skills.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


School Families

Sometimes it takes a visitor to remind us about the value of that which we take for granted. This week, our visitor was Dr. Jon Levisohn, Director of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. His current work is on the moral dispositions that Jewish Day Schools encourage. He was conducting his research as he was visiting schools across the country. Our chavurah program particularly inspired him.

I thought this might be a good time to communicate the chavurah vision, to describe its genesis and how it has “morphed” since its inception two and a half years ago. The word “chavurah” roughly translates to “friendship group” and I modeled it after a program that has been in effect for over forty years in a small independent school in San Diego.

While on an accreditation visiting team to this San Diego school about ten years ago, alumni parents at that school kept talking to me about the impact of their “color group”. They talked proudly about how they had been on a particular red (or blue, or purple, etc.) team and how their own children were now on those teams. When I interviewed students and teachers in the school, they too talked about their color group. Finally, on a Friday morning, I saw it in action.

At a designated time, all 200 students in the school assembled around tables in the social hall. At each table, there was an upper school student holding a different colored flag, and, around each table, children from each grade found their color group. On that day, there was a sudoku challenge that each group needed to complete. I watched older children and younger children engaged and working together. I saw a real sense of “belonging” to a small group.

When I suggested the idea to our staff a few years ago, everyone embraced the concept. We discussed using the Hebrew name “chavurah” to capture that feeling of a friendship group and we talked about academic and social goals for the chavurot. We wanted to create a long lasting structure with each group having representatives from each grade. We wanted the students to engage in activities where younger and older students could both benefit from the interaction, and we wanted to make sure that there were teachers and administrators attached to chavurot. Students would remain in the same chavurah for their entire Wornick education, eighth graders who graduate are replaced each year by new kindergartners and new entering students.

From those early discussions, Mrs. Haire developed the twenty groups. In the first year, the sessions (usually lasting 45 minutes – 5 times a year) were used to build group identity with names and flags. After reviewing the first year experience and because of professional development work that the staff had participated in, we decided to use the time each session for design challenges. These have proved very effective as young children and older children can all participate in meaningful ways. The challenge usually involves a bag full of items that must be used to solve a problem – like moving an object a certain distance from a higher to lower level using only 4 sheets of paper and 6 inches of tape.

We wanted the chavurah experience to be one of the formative memories for Wornick graduates. It is that, but it also has produced other important effects. It definitely knits the community together. Students who would have had limited interaction with students not in their grade or class have their chavurah buddies from all different grades. It is not uncommon to see a younger child seek out an older chavurah buddy on the playground, and during school-wide assemblies. Older children coach and advise their younger buddies, and they welcome them and acknowledge them when they walk by each other in the halls. Older children know that in the chavurah they are the leaders and younger children know that one day they too will be the leaders.

Dr. Levisohn felt the sense of “belonging” that cut across the grades, the leadership qualities of our students and the excitement around discovery learning at our school. In his discussions, he uncovered the fact that the chavurot played an important role in generating and sustaining these qualities.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


Lighting up the Darkest Days of the Year

Like all Jewish holidays, Chanukah has been redefined throughout history. At one time, the military victory of the Maccabees over King Antiochus informed the national celebration. Later, the Rabbis of the Talmud de-emphasized the military victory and celebrated G-d’s power as they promulgated the story of the oil lasting eight days. In more recent years, there was the emphasis on a victory of the Maccabees over the forces of assimilation.

One enduring message that resonates in this 21st Century is, that during the darkest days of the year, we join many cultures and nations around the world, lighting up the night. All cultures that do this are sending a message of hope and promise amidst darkness. Even as some of the most heinous crimes are being committed against innocent people throughout the world today, we join others in spreading the message of hope.

The great controversy in the Talmud between Rabbi Shamai and Rabbi Hillel about the proper way to light the menorah underscores this message of hope. Rabbi Shamai argued to light all eight candles on the first night and to decrease by one each night, and the winning argument of increasing the light each night by Rabbi Hillel said: “we only increase things of holiness, we never decrease.” The message was clear – Chanukah is about looking forward and growing the light of a better world. Let’s all work to make that happen in 2015.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom
Happy Holidays,
Dr. G.


Prayer as Sport

Why spend time each week on tefilot (services)? Tefilah (prayer) is a difficult concept for so many. It is so difficult for many adults because – perhaps the poetic language is not easily understood, maybe it is connected to memories of long, uninspiring services, or, in our result-driven world, it’s hard see value in that which does not produce obvious results.

Let’s take a new look at tefilah by considering research about American civil religion. Civil religion is defined as nonsectarian religion with sacred symbols, values, rituals and holidays. Scholars see it as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration. Civil religion recreates many of the same experiences that traditional religion offers. Scholars suggest that though many may reject formal religion, there is a basic human need for “sacred” time, space, rituals and community as reflected in civil religion.

One of the leading scholars in this area is Craig A. Forney. His important work, The Holy Trinity of American Sports, writes that sports is central to American civil religion. In short, he notes how football, baseball and basketball set our yearly calendar just as daily or weekly prayer and holidays set the rhythm of the week or the year for different religions. The equivalent to significant holidays of Rosh Hashanah or Christmas or Ramadan would be Superbowl Sunday and the World Series. Dare any of us try to hold a meeting on either of those dates – it is sacred time. Sports events generate their own rituals – seventh inning stretch for example – their own special regalia – the right hat, shirt. Just as religions posit values and mythic stories that connect us to narratives that explain the mysteries of the world, so too our major sports promote important American values about hard work, endurance, realized and dashed dreams, good and evil, life and death. There are sports heroes who have their religious parallels, and there are stories that are retold from one generation to another about a selfless athlete or a particular play. Finally, sporting events build community – each one of us who attends a game or can share the major plays of a game the following week, feels that s/he is part of a much larger community.

Now let’s turn our attention to prayer experiences at Wornick. They definitely help define our calendar. Monday morning Havdallah marks the beginning of a work week and Friday afternoon Kabbalat Shabbat defines the transition from the work week to a weekend. Our services are joyous, vibrant times where community is palable. When we ask students to share what they’re thankful for during the traditional morning “brachot” (blessings) we provide time to think about the purpose and meaning of their lives as lived each day. When seventh and eighth graders get up to read from the Torah, students cheer their accomplishments.

Okay, I’ll grant you that tefilah doesn’t command the same attention and excitement that a sports event does. But that’s beside the point. For the spectators at a sport and the congregants in a service there is no tangible gain from the experience. The point is that tefilah, like sports events, provide purpose, community and meaning for participants.

Please consider joining us any morning for our vibrant, upbeat services.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.