Dec 26, 2013

Kometz Alef Uh

There was a tribute to Rabbi Meir Pilchik a'h in Mishpacha magazine.  He was a menahel and fundraiser associated with the Stoliner yeshiva but "his primary claim to fame was as an alef-beis rebbi in the Stoliner yeshiva."

The article went on to describe what a devoted and patient rebbi he was, and how he made Torah and Yiddishkeit sweet for the children.  One detail that caught my attention had me wondering.  It said that "he kept a looseleaf in which he detailed the progress of each child in his pre-1A class.  He would monitor their mastery of keria, ensuring that no one left his classroom crippled for life with an inability to read."

This was over 40 years ago and there was no "special ed," no special ed training, and no keria programs.  How did he, and Racoma Shain, author of All For the Boss, who also ensured that every child who left her class could read, manage this? Were the children different back then? Did something change? Was it the norm for all or the vast majority of children to learn how to read in an ordinary classroom, or were these particular teachers unusual?

How could we find out?

Dec 22, 2013

The Emotions Ruler

Within two days, I came across two versions of the "ruler idea."  I read the first one in an article by Miriam Adahan.  She writes,*  "I created a little two-sided ruler. One side shows varying degrees of happy faces and a happiness scale from 1–10. The other side shows varying degrees of pain, also from 1–10." 

She has children use them to show how happy they are or how painful something is or was.  Quantifying it can be very helpful in teaching how to prioritize and maintain a proper perspective.  It sounds like a great idea for adults too! If we had to pick a number to fit a genuine tragedy and a number for burning the onions, that could readily help us tone down our reaction to that which is more trivial.

Two days later, I read an article in Binah by Chaya Spirer Leeder, a social worker, in which she describes being in a hospital and seeing a chart with faces depicting levels of happiness to pain.  #1 was a smiling face and #10 was a crying and screaming face.  The nurse occasionally asked her what number she was. 

In her practice she uses the same idea to "allow the kids to re-evaluate their feelings and put events into perspective, prompting them to think, 'Is this really the worst thing that has ever happened to me?' The answer is usually no."

She also showed how by ranking a bad feeling, it enables us to think about what we can do to lower the number and if we can't lower the number, how to change what we think about it so we can feel better.

I like the idea of rating feelings, for the reasons mentioned above, and also because when other people tell us their assessment, it enables us to understand their perspective.

*for the full article see: here

Dec 20, 2013

Deaf Pride?

There is a movement among the deaf called "Deaf Pride."  They do not view their handicap as such.  They consider it a difference, not a disability, hence not something that needs to be fixed.

Those in the "deaf culture" are vehemently against cochlear implants in children, which they call invasive surgery in defenseless children, because (aside from health concerns), by enabling children to hear, parents are making a major decision for their children.  As one deaf person put it, "I think it is wrong for a hearing parent to deny a deaf child their cultural identity and force them to be hearing."

This view is perturbing.  What is the Torah understanding of this issue?

Dec 19, 2013

Socialist Chesed

In one of Mishpacha's Succos supplements, there was a piece about cost price catering in Gateshead, England.  A team of ladies does all the catering for local weddings and it can be as elegant or as simple as you are willing to pay for. 

I don't get it.

This chesed began 30 years ago when there were two caterers in the community who made a living (i.e. their service was not at cost price) from catering simchas.  A doctor in the community asked two women if they would be willing to arrange cost-price simchas to provide an option people could afford.  Once this became standard for every couple getting married in Gateshead, naturally the caterers went out of business.

So regardless as to what you can afford, you get a cost-price wedding catered by six ladies out of a list of volunteers.  Why would they want to cook for someone who can afford to pay for a caterer? I don't know.  Why was it a good thing that caterers were put out of business? I don't know.  Why is this done for everyone, no matter the need? Someone suggested it's because England is a socialist country so this is the mentality.

Toward the end of the article it says the waiters and waitresses respect the frum lifestyle but they can't always understand it.  One of these non-Jewish waitresses couldn't believe that no money is made off of catering these weddings because "as far as she's concerned, if people can't afford it, why are they having 300 guests at their wedding?" Uh, right. 

If weddings had fewer guests eating at the meal, we could bring the caterers back because weddings would be affordable.  The caterers would make a living, the volunteers could turn their attention elsewhere, and even the gentile waitress would see that Jews know to pay for what they can afford.

Dec 15, 2013

"Give Honor to the Torah"

As I write this, I can hear lively Chassidic music playing out in the street.  I am fortunate in that I live in a location where Hachnosas Sifrei Torah take place every now and then.  I am alerted to the possibility of one taking place when I hear loud Jewish music. 

I go out on my porch which overlooks an avenue and have a bird's eye view of a wonderful procession of dancing and strolling people accompanying a new Sefer Torah to its new home.  In the more elaborate celebrations, children in white shirts are given (safe) torches to hold and there are large circles of dancers.

In today's day and age, this is done with the help of the police who block off streets to allow the safe passage of the Torah.  What a contrast to the article I read earlier today in which a woman describes life in Frankfurt in the aftermath of Kristallnacht.  She says they watched Germans smashing their way into the beis medrash across from her house and seeing a Sefer Torah thrown out the window upon which they tore kria. 

In fact, many of the people attending the Hachnosas Sifrei Torah I get to see are themselves Holocaust survivors or the children of survivors.  The survivors probably never dreamed of the day when gentile police would help Jews give honor to the Torah.

Dec 13, 2013

Is it Hot in Here? Nah

One of the explanations given as to why Chushim the son of Dan took action and killed Eisav at Yaakov's funeral is that since he was deaf, he did not become immersed in the negotiations over the burial as did the rest of the children and grandchildren of Yaakov.  It happened slowly.  Eisav made a claim, the brothers made a counter-claim, Eisav responded, and it was decided that Naftali would go back to Egypt to get the document.  Chushim missed all this.  All he knew was that his grandfather's burial was delayed and this was disrespectful.

This idea, of slowly getting used to an untenable situation is referred to as the "boiling frog syndrome." Supposedly, if a frog is placed in boiling water it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

I am reminded of all this in connection with an article that I read by Sudy Rosengarten in which she provides the history of early education.  When she was a little girl, nearly eighty years ago, children started school at age six.  That is when they learned the ABC's and numbers.  A little googling shows that twenty of 34 European countries have a starting age of six and another eight wait until seven.

Then kindergartens were started for five year olds where they heard stories, played, and painted.  What followed was America's Head Start program for poor, disadvantaged children, ages 3-4.  The age has been lowered even further with playgroups for two year olds and younger in the US and Israel.  This is not for an hour or two.  Some of these programs are until three in the afternoon.  Of course, babysitters may keep them even longer.

If a mother wants to keep her child home because she doesn't believe that sending babies out to school is beneficial to them, there will be no playmates during school hours.

Mrs. Rosengarten covers some of the problems inherent in this new system which is now considered the norm ("boiling frog syndrome).  Most importantly, very young children need their mother.  There are years to come of schooling and these early years cannot be replaced.  It's a time when they are forming their first and most significant emotional attachment which will stand by them forever.

She also refers to those children who don't do well in group settings at the age of two and how "accelerating the natural timetable just isn't good for them" and how early academics are not a good idea.

All this may be irrelevant given that today's parents are "boiled frogs" and cannot imagine keeping a child home past the age of three, never mind four and five.  More often than not, these days, mothers are working so that even Rabbi Mandel a"h of Yeshiva of Brooklyn, who held that little children belong with their mothers, was "forced" by circumstances to open a preschool.  Mothers told him that they would be sending their children out of the home regardless so could he please open a class for them. 

The water has been boiling for so long now, that I don't think even a modern-day Chushim can save the day.

Dec 12, 2013

Contemporary Litvishe Views on Birthdays

In the Artscroll biography The Manchester Rosh Yeshivah, about R' Yehuda Zev Segal, it says (p. 189), "He would say that a birthday is a day to express gratitude to Hashem for the years granted to carry out one's mission in life.  It was a common practice for talmidim to approach the rosh yeshiva on their birthday and request his blessing that they grow in Torah knowledge and yiras shomayim.  On at least one occasion, it was the rosh yeshiva who approached an outstanding talmid and said, 'Today is my birthday.  I wish to undertake to develop further in Torah and yiras shomayim.  Please bless me that I should succeed.'"

from the new edition of the Artscroll Reb Moshe book, p. 311
"All the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were called by Reb Moshe [Feinstein] and the Rebbetzin on their birthdays.  The family would reciprocate by calling Reb Moshe every 7 Adar to wish him well on his birthday.  Those who lived in the NY area would come to the Lower East Side to do this in person.  This was so accepted a practice in the Feinstein family that when one grandchild was once unable to get through on the phone, she received a call that night from Reb Moshe, who was concerned that something was amiss.
"The family emphasizes, however, that these were not simply "Happy Birthday" calls, but opportunities for them to express their fervent hopes and blessings that their father and grandfather merit another year of life in good health, and receive his blessing in return."
footnote: for a number of years, a group of students from Yeshiva of Staten Island would travel to the East Side on 7 Adar to present R' Moshe with a loose-leaf containing chidushei Torah written by the yeshiva's talmidim.  R' Moshe would glowingly accept this unique gift and leaf through the entire collection in the presence of the talmidim.

Dec 10, 2013

What We Read

In an article I read, a mechanech from upstate New York, not referred to by name, says he makes the effort to travel and speak and makes a point of denouncing certain frum publications by name.  Why? He said one of them had an article about the life of a billionaire and this is antithetical to the desire we should have for a simple life.

I don't know who the man is and I don't know which publication he is referring to.  I don't know why this information was not shared when the man thinks it's his mission to go public with his opinion.

It is possible that the magazine he castigates made a poor choice of a topic.  Let's say they did.  If we followed his recommendation, we would eliminate a magazine or magazines geared to the frum reader.  I'm not convinced this is a good idea when reading material for the frum reader is limited.  Would he prefer that we read secular reading material instead?

Perhaps.  Maybe he thinks that if it comes under the auspices of a frum imprimatur, we are not on guard.  When we read something from a secular source we might be more alert to contradictions to our values.

On a related topic, there are reading lists one can get for children, of books that are not of Jewish content but have been vetted for appropriateness.  Artscroll has published textbooks with classic English literature that they selected for appropriateness.  I've been thinking about this.  I've also been thinking about someone reading "All for the Boss" for her English class.  It's a terrific book which I've read four times, but for an English literature class?

To read or not to read, that is the question.
Or, to read and what to read, those are the questions.

Dec 8, 2013

Spiritual DNA

I read a terrific chinuch idea in an article by Rabbi Hillel Belsky, printed in Hamodia's Inyan magazine. 

He described a talmid of his whose achievements in general were average but who was particularly devoted to tefilla b'tzibbur.  He never missed a minyan and the disparity between his punctiliousness with this mitzvah and other areas of his spiritual life was obvious.  "Upon investigation, I learned that his grandfather, whom he had not known, used to stand on street corners trying to collect people for a minyan in a dying neighborhood."

R' Belsky is the founder and dean of a seminary in Yerushalayim and he says he tries to enlist his students to search their family backgrounds to find the specialness of their ancestors.  "Who were they? Were they known for anything special, big or small? Any area of avodas Hashem for which they were moser nefesh? It all becomes a part of their singular and collective spiritual DNA."

The idea is "to encourage students to claim their forebears' strengths as their own."  On the subject of Shabbos, the students were asked to find out about any instances of mesirus nefesh for Shabbos on the part of their parents, grandparents and so on.  He says "the stories the girls told could have filled a book!"

"Every family has stories.  I want my students to connect to these stories."

And it's true.  A family does not have to be illustrious to have inspirational stories.  A family does not even have to be religious to have mitzva-related inspiring stories.  We need to speak to family members and glean these stories so that we have personal inspiration to draw upon.