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Ben Porat Yosef fourth-graders study empathy

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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.”

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.”

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explore talent posted 30 Dec 2009 at 12:28 PM

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.



Oslo, Birthright, and me

Yossi Beilin, to speak at Tenafly JCC, talks about his past

For a man who never served as Israel’s prime minister, Dr. Yossi Beilin had an outsized impact on Israeli history.

A journalist for the Labor party paper Davar who entered politics as a Labor Party spokesman before being appointed cabinet secretary by Prime Minister Shimon Peres in 1984, Dr. Beilin made his mark with two bold policies that were reluctantly but influentially adopted by the Israeli government: the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, and the Birthright Israel program.

On Thursday, Dr. Beilin will address “The future of Israel in the Middle East” at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, in a program sponsored by the Israeli-American Council.

Dr. Beilin — he holds a doctorate in political science from Tel Aviv University — ended his political career in 2008, having served as a Knesset member for 20 years, and as deputy foreign minister, justice minister, and minister of religious affairs.


A new relationship in Ridgewood

Conservative, Reconstructionist shuls join forces, work together, retain differences

Last December, Rabbi David J. Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood wrote a thoughtful and perceptive op ed in this newspaper about why the word merger, at least when applied to synagogues, seems somehow dirty, perhaps borderline pornographic. (It is, in fact, “a word that synagogue trustees often keep at a greater distance than fried pork chops,” he wrote.)

That automatic distaste is not only unhelpful, it’s also inaccurate, he continued then; in fact, some of our models, based on the last century’s understanding of affiliation, and also on post-World War II suburban demographics, simply are outdated.

If we are to flourish — perhaps to continue to flourish, perhaps to do so again — we are going to have to acknowledge change, accommodate it, and not see it as failure. Considering a merger does not mean that we’re not big enough alone, or strong enough, or interesting or compelling or affordable enough. Instead, it may present us with the chance to examine our assumptions, keep some, and discard others, he said.


Mourning possibilities

Local woman helps parents face trauma of stillbirth, infant mortality

Three decades ago, when Reva and Danny Judas’ newborn son died, just 12 hours after he was born, there was nowhere for the Teaneck couple to turn for emotional support.

Nobody wanted to talk about loss; it was believed best to get on with life and not dwell on the tragedy.

Reva Judas wasn’t willing to accept that approach, and she did not think anyone else should, either — especially after suffering six miscarriages between the births of her four healthy children.

She soon became a go-to person for others in similar situations, and eventually earned certification as a hospital chaplain. In January 2009, Ms. Judas founded the nonprofit infant and pregnancy loss support organization Nechama (the Hebrew word for “comfort”) initially at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center and then at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck.

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