Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog


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.


A Christmas Challenge

How many twelve and thirteen year olds can reach calm and polite consensus, reversing their previous decision? The stereotypical picture of this age group is of an argumentative bunch that bucks most adult suggestions. This week, I saw with my own eyes the opposite of this stereotype. Our middle school student council is a model of mature behavior. That may be a bit of an overstatement – but they definitely are thoughtful and deliberate in their thinking and planning. What I saw, and how this group of students reacted to an “only in a pluralistic Jewish day school” dilemma, reaffirms the importance of our emphasis on, and mix of, social emotional learning, Jewish values, problem-based learning and critical thinking.

I attended my first middle school student council meeting this week, because I thought I needed to wrestle a particular issue with the students and because Mrs. Haire (who usually attends this meeting) was out sick. First the issue: a week ago this student council deliberated about what movie to show for their upcoming Chanukah movie night when their Reali School friends would be visiting from Israel. They wanted a clean comedy that would be easily understood and that could be viewed within 90 minutes. They had settled on “Elf”. I found out about this choice last Wednesday when the first of several parent complaints reached my in-box. The emails were about the appropriateness of showing a “Christmas-themed” movie at a Jewish school on Chanukah.

The answer seems so clear to so many of you. For some the answer is this shouldn’t ever have been entertained as a possibility. An equal number of other members of our community clearly see this as an appropriate choice. The dilemma puts its finger on one of the key issues in every community Jewish day school – are we too Jewish or are we not Jewish enough. Our school is about allowing various Jewish perspectives to live together and to understand the differing perspectives. It is not about dismissing a perspective, but about understanding the position and its supporting evidence. It is about decision making that best represents our values and our various constituents. Many times those things are not in harmony. We are also a school that values giving children opportunities to exercise their own judgment in a thoughtful way.

I spent the next few days tossing the question around in my mind. On the support of “Elf” side was the idea that this might be an interesting way for our students to help their Israeli friends understand how American Jews frame their Jewish identities in a Christian dominated society. Additionally, the movie is not a serious “Christian” movie but rather a spoof on the cultural aspects of Christmas. (Yes, I watched Elf to make sure). Finally, there are so many other movies that our children see that represent values that are far more antithetical to Jewish values than those in this movie.

On the other side, there is the argument that there is no place in a Jewish school for a Christmas themed movie. Many people choose our school to avoid the assault of Christmas that they experienced in public schools and that is so pervasive in our society this time of year.

I entered the student council meeting ready to do battle, because I had clearly made up my mind. I assumed that the students would feel the need to passionately defend their choice, that they wouldn’t easily understand how this choice would be offensive to so many people.

Instead, the co-presidents announced that the main agenda item was the need to change the movie. Before I ever spoke, four of the students said “fine” and then proceeded to make other suggestions. One student asked why they were changing it. The co-Presidents gave a cogent argument for why it needed to change. I had never met with them nor told them about the different sides of the argument – they had already processed it on their own. They said something like “there are too many people upset with this choice.” I simply nodded in agreement, and added a comment about people coming to a Jewish school not wanting Christmas programs. They chose another movie, the secretary of the group sent out the notice of the change, and that was the end of the story.

For me, this story is paradigmatic of the balancing act that a community Jewish day school must play. The way this all played out represented the best possible outcome – careful thought, respectful understanding of the different positions, calm discourse and resolution that we all could live with.

I had just been reading a critique of the Common Core Standards with respect to their silence about social emotional learning. Educator Kristie Fink stated in Edutopia “The standards do not explicitly address the quality of the learning environment or the culture of respect, responsibility, and excellence that must be in place for optimal student learning. Every student needs to feel that the school has a deep commitment to preserving his or her safety, worth and dignity. The school community must have as a standard genuine, caring relationships between and among students, teachers, parents, and staff.” (in Edutopia, January 2014) The student council meeting that I observed met this standard, and I thank the parents and teachers who allowed our students the time to work through this dilemma on their own.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


An Aspirational Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a big deal for me.  I grew up in Southeastern Massachusetts, about 40 miles from Plimouth Plantation where we assume the first Thanksgiving took place.  Cranberry bogs were nearby and cranberry ice cream, cranberry crumbles, and cranberry sauces figured prominently in our cuisine.  As a child, I really enjoyed visiting Plimouth Plantation – a 17th Century reconstructed farming and maritime community along the shore of Plymouth Harbor.  At the Plantation, we could see reconstructed homes from that period, and we met costumed role players who portrayed actual residents of Plymouth Colony.  They had adopted names and viewpoints and life histories of the people who lived and worked in the Colony.

A few years ago, I returned to Plimouth Plantation with my daughter.  The visit was a pleasant surprise.  The Plantation had added another experience – the Wampanoag Village.  Within walking distance to the recreated English Village, along the banks of a river, a Wampanoag village had been constructed.   The village represented the Native community that preceded the Pilgrims on this land.  Unlike the actors in the English Village, the staff in the Wapanoag village are Native people.  On this visit, the people on the Wapanoag side as well as those on the English site spoke about the disagreements between the two groups.  They challenged the visitors to see their conflicting perspectives.  As I sat in one of the the Wapanoag’s matt-covered wetu (house), one of the Native facilitators described his home and shook his head as he questioned the wisdom of the stuffy, dark narrow houses of his English neighbors.

As an adult, I know that Plimoth Plantation really tells a story of two competing views of America and of American history: the American past as a heroic account of the birth of freedom and democracy and the nation’s past as a tale of conflict and racism.  The traditional picture of a peaceful Pilgrim and Indian Thanksgiving that emerges from this experience glosses over the strife between these two competing interests.  I know this intellectually, and I also know that history is a dynamic process where new meanings are layered on previous interpretations.  I reconcile my desire to commemorate the noble intentions of democracy with a history of racism by celebrating the former and working toward eradicating the latter.  As I hold this idea in tension, one of my dreams is that one day Israelis and Palestinians will sit together at a Thanksgiving type event – celebrating the best of human intentions while knowing that there is still work to be done to achieve mutual understanding.  

I wish you all a restful and peaceful Thanksgiving and a Shabbat Shalom,

Dr. G.