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Ben Porat Yosef fourth-graders study empathy

Abigail Klein LeichmanLocal
Published: 11 December 2009

Is it possible to teach empathy? Can a teacher instill positive character traits along with reading and math skills? Jewish day-school educators continually seek effective approaches to this challenge.

At Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, two initiatives recently were launched with the goal of fostering empathy for people who are different because of age or ability.

“I think modeling is the key,” said fourth-grade teacher Michal Kahan. “You can talk to children about disabilities, but if they don’t see how you deal with people who have those disabilities, they won’t know what to do.”

Using a social-studies curriculum she developed, Kahan introduced classroom discussions about physical, mental, emotional, or learning differences. After extensive role-playing and preparation, she then asked her pupils to identify and interview a person with a significant disability.

“At first, some of the children said they wouldn’t do the assignment, that it would make [their subjects] feel worse about being different,” said Kahan, herself the mother of a special-needs child. “I explained that people with disabilities really want others to understand them.”

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Ben Porat Yosef fourth-graders Adina Aisenthal Berkovit and Ben Lasher sort coins while blindfolded, part of the class “differences” curriculum, while Julia Kohen looks on.

With help from their parents, most of the children found relatives or family friends with disabilities, including cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, Alzheimer’s, and blindness. The others consulted special-needs parents who are friends of Kahan. Interviews were almost all conducted by phone, often with input from the subject’s parent or caregiver.

“It took courage to pick up the phone and do it,” said the teacher. In class journals, children wrote that they had felt extremely nervous prior to the conversation, but once they engaged in the process they had rehearsed with their teacher, it went smoothly. “They saw by the end of the assignment that they were doing a great service to those they interviewed,” Kahan said.

Fourth-graders’ parents e-mailed Kahan afterward with positive feedback and follow-up ideas such as inviting guest speakers. One suggested a class viewing of “Praying with Lior,” a documentary about a boy with Down syndrome preparing for his bar mitzvah. After watching it together, the class compiled a list of similarities and differences between Lior and themselves. They discovered that the list of similarities was longer, and wrote essays about these findings.

In addition, Kahan reinforced the lesson with an experiential simulation of hearing and vision impairment, muteness, and inability to use one’s hands. For example, children in the “visually impaired” group were blindfolded and then sorted pennies, dimes, nickels, and quarters entirely by feel.

At a school Thanksgiving feast several weeks later, the fourth-graders interacted with guests invited from CareOne, a nursing and rehabilitation facility in Teaneck. “I had prepared the children about the special needs of the elderly, and they did amazingly well,” said Kahan. “They went right up to them and asked questions, and they were very warm and patient. Maybe it’s partly that they’re just good kids, but maybe it’s partly because of what they learned from the unit.”

To further develop the trait of empathy and introduce the concept of “chavruta” or partner learning, Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Tomer Ronen recently began pairing third- and fourth-graders with first- and second-graders to study the weekly Torah portion together.

“What emerged from that was the idea of the oldest children in the school being involved directly in support of the younger children,” said Stanley Fischman, director of general studies at BPY, which was founded in 2001 and has 160 children in toddler to fourth-grade classes.

Fischman created the Eshed Society, a voluntary group open to fourth-graders. “Eshed” is an acronym for the Hebrew words “iggud shlosha devarim,” or “society (for) three things,” namely Torah, avoda (prayer), and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness).

The Torah component involves the paired study partners. For avoda, society members pray together with first-graders in the mornings. For good deeds, volunteers give up recess to help younger grades in the lunchroom.

“When we came up with the acronym ‘eshed,’ we didn’t realize it means ‘waterfall,’” said Fischman. “But it’s a perfect name; water flowing from higher ground to a lower plateau really describes what the children are doing.”

The society’s student steering committee, under Fischman’s guidance, keeps track of who does what on a daily basis and brainstorms new ideas.

“They are living the notion of supporting others, and they will continue, with God’s help, to do this as they advance through the grades,” said Fischman. “As opposed to formal lessons in kindness and empathy, character traits are not as much taught as they are lived. The greater picture that emerges from what we have been working on this year is establishing the essential principles of living and learning at our school.”

 
 

Christie faces ‘uphill battle’ in blue-law fight

Blue law advocates and detractors criticized Gov. Chris Christie’s plans, announced last week, to repeal Bergen County’s blue laws limiting businesses on Sunday, in order to boost state tax revenue.

The governor suggested the plan as part of a $29.3 billion 2011 budget that includes caps on property taxes and cuts to hundreds of state programs. Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak told The Jewish Standard that repealing the blue laws would require legislative approval but would result in an additional $65 million in tax revenues for the cash-strapped state.

Christie “has no philosophical support for shopping on Sundays,” Drewniak said. “It was merely a practical recognition of potential revenues.”

The announcement drew a storm of criticism from Bergen County, even from those who support loosening the Sunday shopping restrictions. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), who ran on the Democratic ticket for lieutenant governor in last year’s election, said Christie made “a rookie mistake” in thinking he can gain support to repeal the Sunday restrictions.

“Blue laws can’t be wished away,” she said. “There is a law on the books that it can only be done by county-wide referendum.”

Bergen is the only one of New Jersey’s 21 counties that still maintains the restrictions.

In 2002, then-Assemblywoman Weinberg tried to advance a bill for individual communities in the county to opt out of the laws, but she was met with fierce opposition in the form of thousands of e-mails and voice messages.

“It’s one of the few issues I’ve ever dropped,” Weinberg said. “The telephones were so overwhelmed, the staff couldn’t work here.”

Elie Y. Katz, a Teaneck councilman and former township mayor, experienced a similar backlash in 2006 when he tried to push a referendum that would allow towns to opt out.

“It’s certainly not going to be a cakewalk for the governor,” Katz said. “Based on my personal experience as mayor and Sen. Weinberg’s experience as assemblywoman, the governor’s got a real uphill battle.”

At the heart of the issue, according to Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney, is the quality of life for county residents. During a telephone interview on Tuesday, McNerney accused Christie of trying to raise the taxes of Bergen residents, who would foot the bill for the effects of Sunday shopping.

“There’d be more traffic,” McNerney said. “That means more police, more first responders, higher property taxes, and a deterioration in the quality of life for many residents.”

McNerney also lambasted Christie’s plan to open the Xanadu shopping center in East Rutherford, still under construction, for Sunday shopping.

McNerney accused the governor of creating “an artificial crisis” and questioned his anticipated revenue of $65 million. Weinberg also questioned the figure’s source.

Drewniak in the governor’s office had no answer when asked about the figure’s origin.

Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, a columnist for this paper and an outspoken critic of the blue laws, criticized Christie’s budget proposals, which include many cuts to education services, but praised the governor for attempting to tackle the blue laws.

“Overall the governor’s budget proposals, especially in the area of education, will destroy New Jersey,” he said. “In this one instance, I think he’s finally doing something smart.”

The North Jersey Board of Rabbis, of which Engelmayer is the former president, has come out in support of allowing individual towns to opt out of the blue laws. The board has also taken issue with Saturday-only sales, citing discrimination against Shabbat-observers and Seventh Day Adventists, who also observe a Saturday Sabbath. The board favors creating a voucher system that would allow Saturday Sabbath-observers to receive the discounts from Saturday-only sales on the following Monday.

“It would be a fair approach, especially since some of the Saturday-only sales are not really Saturday-only,” he said. “They’re weekend sales but because there’s no Sunday [shopping, they are Saturday only].”

The governor faces a June 30 deadline to complete the 2011 budget. McNerney and other county Democrats have been organizing press conferences and other protests, and, according to McNerney, they have attracted scores of supporters through the Internet.

Repealing the blue laws does have the support of business-owners, Drewniak said, but Christie is aware of “some public opposition” to lifting the restrictions and he will work with legislators to determine if repealing them is the best move.

The governor is “also looking for other ideas on replacing that $65 million,” Drewniak said. “We don’t want to backtrack from balancing a budget.”

 
 

‘To be pessimistic would be wrong’

Paramus native turned pundit weighs in on Iran

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The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Lisa Daftari is an award-winning freelance journalist who has made a career out of following the political and social scene in Iran.

Daftari grew up in Paramus, where she attended the JCC of Paramus with her parents, Sion and Simin Daftari, and her three siblings, Bobby, Danny, and Diana.

She first gained national attention in 2006, when, as a graduate student in broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California, she presented a documentary she made on an Iranian political youth movement to a subcommittee of Congress. After the presentation she went on to write a report for the Pentagon on Iranian youth movements and since then has appeared on Voice of America and PBS. Last year she became a regular guest contributor on Iran for Fox News Channel.

Daftari spoke with The Jewish Standard from her Los Angeles home about her career, her life, and Iran.

Jewish Standard: Had you always planned on going into journalism?

Daftari: I pretty much had my mind set on going to law school. After I graduated it was a combination of things. [The events of] 9/11 had a huge impact on influencing me and inspiring me to become a journalist. At the time we had family friends who unfortunately passed away. It was a hard time for the entire community and anybody living in the New York metro area. Watching the coverage and watching the stories of the aftermath, I felt so many important stories were missing from the coverage — stories that would put into context why we were being attacked, stories that would put into context who these fundamentalist groups are.

It left Americans very scared and vulnerable. I think at that point I realized there was so much more out there. Journalism combined a lot of what I liked about going into law — the analytical reasoning and the writing, putting into perspective for others important stories that will affect their lives.

J.S.: How did your career shift to a focus on the Middle East and Iran?

Daftari: I was a Middle Eastern studies major. I was doing a lot of independent study on Iran and the Middle East. My family’s from Iran so it was always an area of interest for me — how a revolution 30 years ago changed the entire fate of my community and my family, for an Iranian girl to be raised in Paramus, N.J. I always had an interest, and when I started researching the Middle East and Iran it wasn’t the hot topic at the time, but it was definitely a hot topic for me. You could scrape away the layers and get to all these questions about why things are a certain way right now.

J.S.: Why has the Middle East become such a hot topic?

Daftari: It is the most sensitive region of the world. We’ll always need people to put into context — and [provide] perspective [on] — what’s going on over there, whether it’s Israel and the Palestinians or Iran or Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 9/11, Americans want to know more about this area. For me it’s been very exciting to be able to tell the stories of the Middle Eastern people and to share their experience.

J.S.: How often are you in touch with people on the ground in Iran?

Daftari: It depends on what’s going on. Sometimes every day. Sometimes I set up different interviews with different people of specific interests — someone who just recently got out of jail or recently experienced something with the government. Something like that or an artist who’s doing something unique, or a rock star. I did an interview with a girl who’s a heavy metal artist in Iran.

It depends on what I’m working on or whether I just want to keep in touch with what people are doing over there on a daily basis.

And when the post-election demonstrations broke out, it was more often multiple times per day, just keeping up with all the things going on and staying on top of all the excitement and all the developments.

J.S.: The post-election protests in Iran have been out of the headlines for some time now. Is the opposition still protesting at the same levels as after the elections? What is happening that we’re not seeing?

Daftari: On a daily basis you see small groups of Iranians gather, whether it’s on a college campus, outside a government building, on rooftops at night.

This is very similar to what happened right before the revolution in ’79. What the American media and American public have to understand is sometimes these movements are very gradual. Nothing is done overnight.

The Iranian people realize if they’re out every day in large-scale demonstrations it doesn’t have the same effect. They’re coming out during holidays, especially holidays that signify something for the Islamic republic.

They wait for those types of opportunities in order to get their voices heard and in order to get the media coverage as well.

J.S.: Do you think that the American public is still as interested in what’s happening on the ground in Iran or has the focus shifted to the nuclear standoff?

Daftari: It’s definitely shifted to the nuclear standoff. In terms of national security, we have to be worried about the nuclear standoff. If you’re part of the Jewish community you’re going to be worried about Israel. If you’re living in America you’re going to be worried. I think every single person on Earth should be worried. It’s not just an America thing or an Israel thing.

Of course, that’s going to overshadow human rights violations in Iran. But at the same time, because of the nuclear issue, people are going to be more cognizant of the human rights issues that people are protesting about. It’s a clear indication of what type of government we’re dealing with. It’s the Islamic republic on one hand and Iran on the other.

And now for the first time in 30 years the American public is becoming aware of this difference. I think that’s the one big thing the Iranian population and the demonstrators were successful in doing in June: bringing [the difference] to the attention of the international community and more so the Americans.

The Iranian people came out and they came on the news. The coverage was pretty good — international coverage is always lacking in this country and it’s gotten much, much better. The Iran coverage was pretty good. It raised awareness and curiosity in the international community.

J.S.: What is the public perception of what is happening in Iran?

Daftari: The American public — you have to give them more credit. Because of the whole nuclear issue.... It’s not the first time we’re seeing a tyrant government that’s so different from its people. We’ve seen it in so many different circumstances and in so many different countries.

The American people are finally seeing that discrepancy and maybe feeling a little bit more for the Iranian people because their government is so rogue and so in the hard line. I think the American people have begun to see the differences there.

J.S.: What kind of impact has the nuclear standoff had on the opposition in Iran? Is there a danger of the country uniting in the face of a perceived “us vs. them” mentality?

Daftari: If you ask an Iranian plain and simple, “Do you think your country should have nuclear arms?,” it’s a very, very touchy subject. It almost comes out to a patriotic issue: “Why shouldn’t our country have nuclear arms?” Just like “Why shouldn’t our country have a great education system?” Our country should have this and our country should have that.

The difference in this case is the Iranian people don’t consider their government an Iranian government. They consider it an Islamic government that doesn’t have their best interests in mind.

The Iranian people don’t really trust their government to have these weapons. In this internal strife, why wouldn’t the government use their nuclear weapons on their own people? They hang their people, they beat and torture their people just for coming out in demonstration, so what would stop them from using nuclear weapons on their own people?
To say that the nuclear arms issue is going to unite the Iranian people is a little out there. It’s not going to happen and it’s not going to be a simple black-and-white answer. I don’t think the Iranian people are that naïve or have that much faith in their government.

J.S.: What can we do as Americans to support the people of Iran?

Daftari: Educating ourselves is probably the best thing we can do at this point — asking for Iran stories in the news and keeping up with what’s going on there. There’s an Iranian saying, “I didn’t ask for your help, but I didn’t want you to get in my way either.” It’s a very loose translation but what it means is the Iranian people weren’t asking our government or our people to help them in the outbreak of the post-election demonstrations but at the same time they didn’t want us to stand in the way. They feel like sometimes the American government has a way of just taking the attention to where they want.

With regards to the government, I think they’d want to see more support and with regards to the American people they’d want to see the same support. Knowing that the Iranian Americans and mainstream Americans are all standing behind them and wishing them well in their endeavor.

J.S.: How are the Iranian relationships with Hezbollah and Hamas viewed by the Iranian people?

Daftari: It used to be in ’79 and up to about this past year it was always “Death to America,” “Death to Israel.”

A lot of the slogans that we’re seeing on the street during the post-elections say something along the lines of, “We don’t care about Palestinians, we don’t care about Gaza. We are purely Iranian and we care about the Iranian people.”

I think the Iranian people are finally turning on their government — in the sense that they’re calling them out on this: “Why are we worried about the Palestinians? Why are we worried about helping the people in Gaza? Why are we giving money to these terrorists? Why are we giving money to children in the Palestinian territories when we should be supporting poor children in our own country?”

This government has gone so far and has become so radicalized that it’s pushing the Iranian people in the opposite direction and making them so secular, and so Iranian in their views and less Islamic in their views. And so patriotic in the sense that they want things for their own country and not for other countries.

The Palestinian issue has always been something the Islamic republic emphasized. Finally the Iranians are basically questioning that: “Why should we stand with the Palestinians? We should stand with ourselves. We have a rich culture that dates back thousands of years” — and they’re romanticizing that.

J.S.: Would the people want to re-establish relations with Israel?

Daftari: We’re a bit away from that. I think the people want to establish good ties with their government first. Everything is local for the Iranian people right now. They don’t care about America. They don’t care about Israel. They don’t care about the Palestinians. They just really want their human rights. They want unemployment to go down — it’s so high in that country. They want pollution to go down. They want jobs. They want to be able to get a divorce. Wives want to be able to complain against their husbands if they’re being beaten.

They want rights.

Israel and the United States are much farther off; they’re not on their minds as much as we think. The Iranian people think Israel’s going to help them get to their goals; they’re all for it. They think America’s going to help them; they’re all for it too. The Iranian people have become less polarized.

J.S.: Is the West using the right strategy with Iran?

Daftari: From the time President Obama was campaigning, he was very much set on negotiating with Iran. To give him credit, he has definitely mentioned Iran a number of times, but there hasn’t been as much action.

I think we haven’t seen the results. He’s using negotiating measures that don’t work and he’s repeating measures that don’t work. We’ve had three rounds of weak sanctions. It’s not going to work.

Unless we get crippling, crippling sanctions, serious sanctions — gasoline sanctions — that are going to choke off this regime, then we’re not going to get anywhere. Everybody pretty much agrees with that. If we can get China on board — which is probably a very slim to zero chance — then we’ll be on the right track to choking off this regime. Otherwise, we’re just embarrassing ourselves and making empty offers and gestures to a president and a government that’s so radicalized and so set in — they pretty much pride themselves in being outlandish. Every time President Obama is going to extend a hand, they’re going to ridicule [the gesture], and it’s just going to be another media fiasco.

Sanctions are definitely what we need right now.

J.S.: If we push for crippling sanctions, couldn’t that push the people into an extremist corner?

Daftari: That argument could be made, but at this point the Iranian people are coming out on those streets and watching their young children being shot at and watching their children hanged because of a simple demonstration. I think [imposing] sanctions — an economic pinch to an already suffering economy — is not going to be the worst option. I think the Iranian people are willing to brave that if it means they’re going to have the freedoms that they’ve been yearning for.

J.S.: What do you see happening if Israel or the United States moves forward with a military option?

Daftari: It’s going to be awful. It’s basically going to be utter chaos in the Middle East. That would obviously be the last, last, last option. If you’re worried about hurting the Iranian people with sanctions, the military option is the most unfair option for the Iranian people. It’s going to be the innocent Iranians that are going to be losing their lives.

Everything at this point should be targeted toward this regime. I think that’s a unanimous point of view in the case of Iran. I think everything — whether it’s sanctions, whether it’s negotiations, any sort of choke or pinch — should be targeted toward this regime and we should basically stay away from hurting the people of Iran as much as we can.

J.S.: What is your sense of the situation from the Iranian communities within America?

Daftari: The Iranians are very much politically cynical people. When the demonstrations broke out, it wasn’t just political, it was also highly emotional.

A lot of Iranians [in America] were just staying by the phone, by the computer, by the television, waiting for reports, waiting to find out where their loved ones were.

Here in Los Angeles, which has such a large enclave of Iranians, you couldn’t even step into a coffee shop without hearing multiple conversations about what’s going on and whether it was in the general scheme or talking about specific cousins and friends who went out to the protests. There was a huge solidarity. There were demonstrations here at the Federal Building and at the United Nations in New York.

It’s as if a 30-year-old pot had finally boiled over. Iranians of all different denominations and religions came together because it was a purely secular and Iranian patriotic fight for democracy and for human rights. It was a movement to go back to the Iranian culture that’s so fundamental in all Iranian families.

Since then, with the nuclear issue, people have become more cynical and a little bit more questioning of where America stands, where Europe stands. I think Iranians are always concerned about what the allies want because that’s what’s going to happen. They feel as though the ‘79 revolution was organized not by Iranians but by foreign powers. They’re applying that same formula to what’s going on right now.

A lot of Iranians believe nothing’s going to happen unless the foreign powers would want something to change.

J.S.: How optimistic are you about the situation?

Daftari: To be pessimistic would be wrong. We’ve seen movements that begin even slower and on a less steady course and ultimately reach some sort of development.

There’s such a discrepancy between [the government and] the people, who have become so secularized and modernized. One of the biggest problems for them is that Yahoo and Google were shut down during the demonstrations. They blog, they use Twitter. This is not a people who want to be represented by this type of government.

On the other hand, you have a government that’s embezzling millions and millions of dollars and is not going to go anywhere anytime soon without the proper pressure.

We have to be optimistic in the case of Iran. We have to for the sake of the Iranians and for the sake of the entire world.

We’re all at risk here. We’re not the ones suffering the daily consequences of the regime.

If and when Iran does become a nuclear power — and that’s one to maximum two years — we’re all going to be at risk. I don’t think we should wait till that point to be dealing with the situation.

I think the Iranian predicament is something the Iranian people and the entire world have to shoulder at this point. We have to be optimistic because something will happen.

J.S.: What brought your parents to the U.S.?

Daftari: My father came to New York to study about 45 years ago. He came before the revolution. He went back to Iran and met my mother — it was a year before the revolution. They got married and came to the States in hopes of basically organizing my father’s life and moving back to Iran. So my mother basically came out of Iran with about two suitcases. And then the revolution happened and they were forced to stay; they couldn’t go back.

At that point, my grandparents and uncles were all still in Iran. By 1980 they were all in New York.

J.S.: What role did Iran play for you growing up?

Daftari: My mother was very nostalgic about Iran, from the way she would buy corn on the cob on the street to her school memories and her friends and how everybody was so warm and hospitable and kind. It left us with this idea of a utopian society that I would give anything to visit.

I remember thinking [Iranian revolutionary leader] Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini was the only reason I was living in New Jersey instead of Iran, living the life my mother had always described to me. I remember watching TV when Ayatollah Khomeini passed away. I looked at my mother and said, “Does that mean we’re moving back to Iran?” I remember that, thinking he was the reason we were here and if things were better we’d be living in Iran.

It was always looked upon so positively; everybody was so kind and warm.

J.S.: What was it like growing up in a predominantly Ashkenazi community?

Daftari: I was pretty much raised with the Ashkenazi culture. Sephardi/Mizrachi culture was what I had at home. I didn’t think there was a divide, really. I felt I had a bonus at home, this bedazzled version of Judaism where we can have rice on Passover.

The wonderful thing about Jews is no matter where anyone’s from you can go to Israel and have Friday night dinner and just feel at home in anyone’s home. It’s a wonderful uniting characteristic about Judaism. I always felt it was an additional side of Judaism I got to explore.

J.S.: Have you traveled to Iran at all?

Daftari: No. I’ve traveled to the Middle East, to Israel and Turkey. I travel under my own name so I don’t think it’d be safe for me to travel to Iran.

J.S.: Would you eventually like to go?

Daftari: Absolutely. If I knew that it was safe I would go at any point. My mother always tells me she wouldn’t want me to go now because of all the wonderful pictures she’s painted in my mind about what Iran is. She wants them to stay that way and not [have me] see what it’s become. Pre-revolution Iran was competing [globally] — now it’s definitely not as it used to be.

J.S.: Thank for sharing your ideas with Jewish Standard readers.

 
 

Yeshivat Noam students have their day in court

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Fifth-graders at Yeshivat Noam took second place at a state law fair competition.

Budding lawyers at Paramus’ Yeshivat Noam came in second in last month’s New Jersey Law Fair Competition. The 27 fifth-graders fielded one of more than 120 cases presented by elementary school children from all over New Jersey.

The contest — designed to introduce students to the workings of the legal system — was sponsored and judged by members of the New Jersey State Bar Foundation.

According to a school spokesman, “The purpose of the competition is to give students an understanding of the law and of how our system works. Each team creates a case, which is then presented to a ‘jury.’”

The Yeshivat Noam students were prepared by teacher Margi Saks, who called the project “a wonderful example of team unity,” involving “the sharing of ideas [and] choosing ideas in a democratic fashion — skills that we impart to our students on a daily basis.”

To prepare for the event, Saks read the students cases from past law fairs and asked each student to develop his own case. Subsequently, the entire class chose one case to develop for the competition.

Fifth-grader Avi Bodoff said afterwards, “It was really exciting that my idea was chosen by the class for the competition [and] it was both interesting and fun to write the case and work together as a class.” Pointing out that his father is a lawyer, he said he hopes to become one as well.

The prize-winning civil case was built around the following question: “If you saw a child on an unstable roof, would you climb up to save him? And if you did and got hurt, who would be liable?”

A statement from the school explained that the case incorporated laws concerning both trespassing and the “emergency doctrine.” In the students’ scenario, a 7-year-old boy, whose family was unable to afford a swing set, spent his afternoons climbing his roof, watching the sunset. While the unstable roof (the family could not afford repairs) could hold the boy, it could not support someone larger. A new neighbor — thinking the boy was in an emergency situation — climbed onto the roof, creating a hole through which both he and the boy fell. The neighbor sustained injuries.

“So who is at fault?” asked the fifth-graders, “the child for being on an unstable roof or the man who tried unsuccessfully to save him?”

For more information about Yeshivat Noam, call (201) 261-1919.

 
 

Local youths score as Bible scholars

Two Bergen County teens took top honors in the national and international rounds of the prestigious Hidon HaTanach (Bible Contest).

Isaac Shulman, a Torah Academy of Bergen County junior from Englewood, placed second in the high school division last Sunday in Manhattan.

Joshua Meier, a home-schooled Teaneck 14-year-old, came in sixth in the international round on Israeli Independence Day, April 20, in Jerusalem (see sidebar).

In addition, Ben Sultan from The Frisch School placed fifth in the high school division and Elisha Penn of Yavneh Academy placed seventh in the junior high division. Both schools are in Paramus.

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Isaac Shulman

Isaac qualifies for a free trip to Israel for next year’s International Bible Contest. Initiated by David Ben-Gurion and overseen by the World Zionist Organization, the annual event is open to young scholars from across the world who place first or second in national rounds on each levels. Finalists this year included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son.

TABC Principal Rabbi Yosef Adler called Isaac “a real ‘ben Torah’ and mensch who excels in Judaic and general studies.” Isaac play tennis and soccer, competes on TABC’s Torah Bowl team, and reads the Torah at Cong. Ahavath Torah’s early Shabbat services.

The son of Elliot and Victoria Shulman, Isaac said he had attended an after-school Hidon preparation class with Rabbi Neil Winkler when he was at The Moriah School of Englewood, but never passed the qualifying test. This time, he added, “I studied.”

Based on a syllabus that included Genesis, Samuel I, and parts of Hezekiah and Psalms, contestants had to identify common themes and details, such as matching biblical grandsons with their grandfathers. Isaac sometimes studied with friends Sruli Farkas and Yakir Forman. Yakir won fourth place in the international round in 2007 when he was a Moriah eighth-grader.

Sunday marked the 20th consecutive year that Moriah has sent finalists to the nationals. Its students compose a large percentage of past winners.

Principal Elliot Prager said that Winkler “has transformed an after-school club into an annual focus of pride and excitement for all of our students. Above and beyond his superb command of Tanach, and the knowledge and text analysis skills which he imparts to his students, it is his ‘ahavat Torah’ — the passion for Torah learning — which Rabbi Winkler embodies and which has produced several generations of Hidon finalists and winners at Moriah.”

Winkler has taught Judaic studies at Moriah for 32 years and has offered his weekly prep class for a quarter-century. Many of his Hidon protégés went on to become prominent rabbis and teachers.

He does not stress winning, Winkler said, but encourages his students to “enjoy and absorb the forest of [biblical] knowledge. In the end, you will know the material so well you will know every tree in that forest.”

Six students qualified for the nationals by answering multiple-choice questions such as: Which of the Egyptian plagues was described in Psalms as having entered “the royal chambers”? What practice was said to have become “a law and statute in Israel”? Why did David accuse Abner and his men of deserving of death? How high did the waters of the flood reach? Which gifts did Abraham not receive upon leaving the house of the Pharaoh?

Promising Israeli students get half-days off from school to study for the nationals, while foreign students lack that luxury. “You can tell which kids have a fire burning within them and push themselves to study on their own time,” said Winkler, who is rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee. “When kids pick up some passion for it, then my job is finished.”

 
 

Yavneh play honors ‘unlikely hero’ of the Holocaust

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Philip Meyer is the older Pinchas. Jeanette Friedman
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The entire cast is onstage for the finale. Jeanette Friedman

Charles and Rabbi Moshe Rosenbaum traveled from Geneva and Jerusalem to Paramus last Thursday to watch the Yavneh middle school graduating class perform “The Unlikely Hero,” a play honoring their father, Pinchas Rosenbaum, who saved Jews in Hungary during the Holocaust. In this production, Pinchas the younger was played by Leora Hyman and the older by Philip Meyer. The script was written and the scenery was designed and painted by members of the graduating class.

The script was adapted from interviews commissioned by the two brothers and their sister Leah, lifelong friends of Yavneh’s Rabbi Shmuel Burstein. Though he knew the family, the teacher first heard the story 25 years ago at dinner honoring the memory of Pinchas Rosenbaum, who died in 1980. According to Charles Rosenbaum, his father rarely spoke about his rescue efforts. But as his children traveled the world, they were approached by those he rescued who told them their stories.

Burstein, a teacher of Tanach and Jewish history at Yavneh, noted that “Pinchas Rosenbaum was a personal hero of mine. My great attachment comes from his overwhelming love, passion, and willingness to risk all for his fellow Jews, regardless of where they stood on the political or religious spectrum. He fulfilled, in all its meanings, the commandment not to stand idly by your brother’s blood.”

Moshe Rosenbaum gave Burstein the interviews and Dominique Cieri, an actress, playwright, and director engaged by Yavneh for the project, drew up an outline. The students then wrote the play, together with Cieri and Burstein.

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Leora Hyman is the young Pinchas. Courtesy Leora Hyman

When the play opens, Pinchas, son of the rebbe of Kisvarda, Hungary, is learning about his illustrious “yichus,” his lineage, and is reminded of his obligations to their tradition. Rosenbaum is the descendant of a long line of ultra-Orthodox rabbis that included the Maharal of Prague. The promising student is sent to Rabbi Josef Elimelech Kahane, the Ungvar rebbe, played by Oriel Farajun, who like his father and most ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Hungary, was anti-Zionist.

The play shows how young Pinchas learns about Zionism from neighborhood boys and rebels against what he is being taught when he sees how his fellow Jews are victimized by anti-Semites. At the outset, the students in his class argue with him, Rabbi Kahane argues with him, and all quote passages from the Talmud to determine whether it is it more important to save lives by fleeing to Palestine or to wait for the messiah to establish a haven for Jews.

The unlikely hero, Pinchas, receives his rabbinical ordination at 18, joins the religious Zionists, and does not allow neighborhood anti-Semites to bully him. Then he is arrested and sent to a labor camp. His family is deported to Auschwitz while he is a prisoner. Distraught, he escapes, disguises himself in a Nazi uniform, and begins saving Jewish lives by “capturing” Jews. He brings them to the Glass House, a haven protected by Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, and to other safe houses under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who disappeared into a Soviet prison. Pinchas tries to convince his own father to save himself and the family, but his father refuses to abandon his community and insists on being deported with them.

Burstein said that “all sides of the issues of Zionism and non-Zionism had to be explored through the life experiences of those who lived with Pinchas, including the views of the ultra-Orthodox, non-Orthodox, and the Zionists.”

“It was so refreshing to see those youngsters act in such a meaningful and sincere way,” said Moshe Rosenbaum. “It was clear that for them, it meant everything.”

One point didn’t come out during the play, said Rosenbaum. “My father was very concerned about the safety of non-Zionist Orthodox Jews who came to the Glass House and were pushed away by the Zionists. He tried to keep them safe by creating a space where they could learn and pray without being harassed.” Their leader, Rosenbaum said, was a descendant of the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, who is now in Jerusalem.

“I was proud to play the part of a real hero,” said Leora, “but I don’t think I would be brave enough to do what he did. The lesson I learned is that when you put your mind to something, and if it’s really important to you, you can make it happen.”

Philip, who played the older Pinchas, said, “It was an honor to portray a heroic person who made such a difference during a dark time in Jewish history. Since the play was a group effort, it made a great graduation project. We came together to make it happen, just like Pinchas Rosenbaum worked with his group, which made it easier to save Jews…. A lot of what happened back then doesn’t apply anymore, but what we can learn from this great tzaddik, what we should keep close to our hearts, is that we should help our fellow Jews and stand up for what we believe in.” (Both “Pinchases” are from Teaneck.)

Oriel, who played the Ungvar rebbe, had this to say: “I felt that Rabbi Kahane overreacted when he yelled at Pinchas not to become a Zionist and that he should have listened to Pinchas’ ideas. He seemed like a good teacher … but … look, when we went to the Israel Day Parade we saw the Neturei Karta protesting on the side, so I know there are people who still feel that way today.”

Oriel, who is from Fair Lawn, continued, “Pinchas took risks and succeeded in saving hundreds.… We American Jewish kids were never in such a situation so we never had to take huge risks…. It’s hard for us to know if we would do such things. I am not sure that I would, but I hope I would be able to risk my life to save others. In its way, the play prepares us for the future. It shows us the world is good but that there are lots of bad things going on. We have to look out for each other, and not just think — we have to take action.”

Charles Rosenbaum said the play was beautiful. “It was very emotional — the students did it with so much warmth, and made me very happy I came. They are just amazing. My father spoke about the past only reluctantly — perhaps it’s because he died so young (at 57) and the wounds were still too fresh. Though he did not tell it to us directly, it is our obligation as the second generation to tell it. By writing and producing this play, this obligation has passed to the third generation, who are now telling the story to future generations.”

 
 

Ben Porat Yosef to buy former Frisch building

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The Frisch School has entered an agreement to sell its old building at 243 E. Frisch Court in Paramus to Ben Porat Yosef.

Ben Porat Yosef announced last week an agreement to buy the old Frisch building in Paramus, which has housed the elementary day school for two years.

The details of the sale, from The Frisch School, have been worked out, according to BPY’s vice president, Yehuda Kohn, but the closing is still a way off. But as of Aug. 1, Kohn said, BPY would assume full responsibility for the 70,000-square-foot building at 243 E. Frisch Court.

“There are no words to describe how this worked out for us,” Kohn said. “Having everybody under one roof in this particular facility — which fits us magnificently and is in a tremendous location for our constituencies — is a dream.” The school had previously planned to split its older and younger grades between its original campus at Cong. Sons of Israel in Leonia and a proposed second campus at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

The building is in generally good condition, Kohn said. However, the yeshiva would like to “modernize” it. Immediate building improvements include a new roof and an evaluation of electrical systems.

Though BPY and Frisch have publicly announced the transfer of ownership, the schools are in only the first stages of negotiating the terms of the sale, according to Martin Heistein, president of Frisch’s board. He would not comment on the amount under discussion, but real estate listings revealed a $14 million asking price for the building.

Proceeds from the sale will go toward paying down the debt on Frisch’s current campus, also in Paramus, Heistein said. He did not comment on what the amount of debt is.

“We’re very pleased that the sale of the building will be mutually beneficial to both institutions,” Heistein said. “The former Frisch building has wonderful memories and we are thrilled that the building will remain a Jewish school for our community for years to come.”

BPY isn’t the only school in the building, however. Bat Torah–The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva has been Frisch’s primary tenant in the building since 2008, and BPY has been subletting from that school. According to Kohn and Bat Torah’s principal, Miriam Bak, the two are likely to continue a relationship that will keep Bat Torah in the building.

“Now that we’ve finalized our agreements with Frisch, we’re trying to finalize with Bat Torah,” Kohn said.

BPY intends to continue leasing to the all-girls high school, he added. “As long as they can still fit, we’d like to have them for as long as possible,” Kohn said.

Class size may eventually become an issue. BPY expects an enrollment of at least 215 students during the 2010-11 school year, approximately 40 percent growth from the 2009-10 year. It has entered what Kohn called “a vigorous growth phase,” and that growth is expected to continue.

The schools have divided the building well so far, said Bak, with Bat Torah operating on the ground floor and BPY using the top two floors. The schools share the auditorium, cafeteria, labs, and gym.

Students from Bat Torah have babysat for BPY children during evening programs and earned chesed hours by tutoring the younger children. Students from BPY, in turn, have been invited to attend school plays at Bat Torah.

“We wanted to make this work,” Bak said. “We’ve made it into a very pleasant relationship.”

She noted that her school has received interest from “one or two places available and anxious to have us” but for now the school is “happy where we are.”

“We intend to remain in the building as long as they accommodate our needs,” Bak said.

Though Frisch had leased the building to Bat Torah and BPY for the past two years, it continued to list the property for sale. The school had not set out to sell its former building to another Jewish institution, according to Heistein, but he appeared pleased that it would continue to function as a Jewish school.

“The Frisch School desired to sell the building for the highest price,” he said. “It was merely fortuitous that it is going to another Jewish institution.”

 
 
 
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