Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog


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.


Students as Creators of Technology

There are so many acronyms in this posting – bear with me. This fall, we have introduced iPads in grades K-2 thanks to the generosity of CIJE (Center for Innovation in Jewish Education). CIJE is a foundation that is interested in adding value to Jewish Day Schools across the United States through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiatives. Several years ago, I met with the leadership of this foundation and we discussed the different programs that they were interested in funding. At that time, we signed on to their E-2K program – a middle school STEM enrichment program. Three middle school teachers have been trained in this program. All three have incorporated E-2K materials in their lessons. The trainings (in Israel and in New York) as well as the materials for the program have been funded by CIJE.

Our most recent benefit from CIJE is the lower elementary grades new iPad program. This past summer, we requested, and received, thirty new iPads from CIJE and we are charged with providing feedback to other schools about the efficacy of iPad use in the lower grades. Since our major learning objective in teaching technology is to allow students to become creators, more than consumers of technology, our first units have included early computer coding literacy. The teachers have introduced two programs - ScratchJr and Adobe Voice – for this purpose.

ScratchJr teaches students beginning coding skills. Students can create interactive stories by snapping together programming blocks to make characters move. As the students becoming increasingly proficient in creating and moving their characters, they can add voice and photographs to their scenes. The importance of this program is that it opens up the world of “coding” to very young children. Coding is a new literacy for young children. It is the ‘behind the scenes’ of computing. Just as effective writing calls for specific skills, so too does coding. (This is no surprise to those of you employed in the technology sector.) It provides children with a new way to think about the world and the computers with which they interact daily. It is the computer literacy basis that leads to more complex problem solving and project design.

Adobe Voice enables students to create different genres of story by using their voice. They can then animate their stories by moving in pictures and characters. This program forms a nexus between language arts, art and technology. It allows for creative problem solving, visual literacy and serious language arts development.

There have been many benefits of introducing iPads in these grades. The iPad opens up the opportunity to use many outstanding (and free) programs specifically designed for young children to facilitate their growth in coding, designing and problem solving. Additionally, iPad’s mobility is desirable. Children can walk around inside or outside and take pictures that they then can incorporate into their work. We know that many of you work in the field of technology and already support some of this work with your children at home. We want to make sure that all of our students are empowered by technology to solve problems. Our program provides that opportunity, and we are grateful for CIJE support in these efforts.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G.


The Season of Giving

Do you ever feel like your child is adding up the favors owed him/her? For example, s/he got ready on time, brushed his/her teeth and now has an expectation that you owe him/her something. Or do you feel that you’ve become your child’s ATM. What about your co-workers? Are they always expecting reciprocity? And/or are they always angling for their advantage? Do you know that rare child or adult who is a “giver” – that person who is more likely to give without any expectation of reciprocity or reward? If you know such a person, is s/he taken seriously or the brunt of derision?

Adam Grant, professor of organizational psychology at Wharton in his book Give and Take addresses these questions. His research divides people as givers, matchers and takers. He recognizes that at some times we each exhibit more than one of these behaviors, but he has found that usually one dominates. He links these characteristics to professional success. Givers are prone to give without expecting anything in exchange. Matchers expect reciprocity, and takers always look for their advantage. Most people have assumed that self-interest (characteristic of takers) and other-interest (characteristic of givers) are opposite ends of a continuum (with matchers in the middle). But an interesting finding about the success of “givers” motivated Grant to question if indeed a continuum was an accurate representation of these behaviors.

The most interesting finding is that the least successful and most successful people are “givers” while takers and matchers land in the middle all the time. Since this was an odd finding, Grant continued to probe to determine what separated the bottom “givers” from the top “givers”. He found that people could be both self-interested and other-interested. Givers who were successful scored high on both of these indicators. In contrast, takers consistently scored high on self-interest and low on other-interest, and unsuccessful givers scored high on other-interest and low on self-interest. Successful giver’s actions toward co-workers were motivated by other-interests. While they were willing to give more than they received, their self-interest determined the choices they made with respect to who, what, when and where to support others.

As we enter this season of giving, it becomes so important for us to model for our children the successful giver paradigm. Altruism must be a priority all the time – not just during Thanksgiving and winter holidays. But altruism needs to be balanced with self-interest too. Otherwise, we end up being that altruistic person who is worn out from helping everyone all the time – out of focus and thus not very successful.

Here’s to balanced giving!

Shabbat shalom,
Dr. G.