The final score of their final game against Beth Tfiloh at the annual Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament held at Yeshiva University was 68-61. The Pack lost. In fact, they officially only won their first game. However, after this last game the true score for the pack was a tournament win for VTHS. You see, these two competing teams had something more important in common than the shared court they just played their hearts out on. They share a very special student who Valley Torah came to play for as the hashtag #PLAY4YITZI represented on the back of every players t-shirts. You see Mr. Yitzi Teichman was a student at VTHS from 2012-14, is a senior now at Beth Tfiloh and has a rare type of cancer called a Chordoma that occurs in the bones of the skull and spine.
I had the great pleasure of knowing Yitzi most of his life when he lived in Valley Village and later attended Valley Torah. I was not the principal at the time, but I was friends with his family and Yitzi was an active part of our community. To say Yitzi is an amazing young man is an understatement. Even before showing great bravery in tackling his current situation, Yitzi always had a smile on his face. This was true even if the discussion was about things he was less than pleased with. Yitzi had thoughtful opinions and was alway happy to share them, but never without a warm smile. It is no wonder that now in tackling the most difficult challenge of his young life (or anyones for that matter) he continues to keep that smile. In fact, a facebook group started by his friend is appropriately titled #asmileadaykeepssicknessaway. While I am sure the title was meant to support Yitzi, when I first read it, I understood it to be what Yitzi has done for so many with his positive attitude towards others and life. He has kept the sickness away in anyone he has met. Now it is our turn to do it for him, and it is just what our students did at Sarachek.
I had the privilege of speaking with Yitzi yesterday. I wanted to see how he was doing and let him know we are all supporting him. He told me of the events of the last few weeks, from the symptoms (headaches, double vision) that led to his troubling diagnosis to the roller coaster of emotions prompted by the prognoses and treatment plans he had gotten from various doctors. It was painful to listen to, as Yitzi is a young man with a big heart and the last person worthy of suffering anything let alone this disease. However, as difficult as it was to hear, it was not until he said something shocking that the tears I tried to conceal came out in my voice.
I asked Yitzi how he feels about what he is going through. He said “I am lucky.” He said he was lucky it was not someone else, as it is not something he thinks most people can handle. It is not that he does not have bad days, but as he said “it hurts for a minute, and then five minutes later cancer jokes.” Then he continued to tell me how he has been using the “cancer card” lately and how he recently won the student council election, although he did not expect to lose because “come on, I have cancer.” Throughout the conversation he had a positive attitude, cracked jokes and I could hear that smile I am so familiar with from thousands of miles away. However, I was still stuck on how this amazing young man could feel lucky.
Yitzi told me that he has a choice every day. He can either say “this sucks” or “this is awesome and such a journey.” He has chosen the latter and told me that he is focused on all the great people he has met through this and those he plans on meeting, that he has learned so much about the body through all the medical tests and doctors and the astonishing experience he has had with the facebook group created to support him. The only thing that really concerns him is seeing his parents scared. This is why he feels compelled to keep his spirits up and make jokes. Recently, he told me that he was in so much pain, he got to a point where he said “Why me?” and said “that was so stupid, it just made the pain worse.” So, he plans on keeping his spirits up for himself, his family and his friends, but it was clear that when others come out to support him, whether on facebook or at a basketball tournament it makes a difference.
Yitzi was at the first game VTHS played at Sarachek, and when he saw the #PLAY4YITZI shirts our team wore he was speechless. He was later able to say it was “awesome.” He told me he “can’t describe the feeling the support and everyone rallying around him has meant. It was just awesome and great to see. It lifted my spirits.” Dovid Stock gave him his shirt and he plans on having it framed. At the end of the last game between his two schools, which became dubbed the “Yitzi Bowl,” the teams walked off the court together, shared Yitzi stories, said tehillim for him and took the picture above and sent it to Yitzi. Yitzi thought the picture was “mind blowing. It was crazy. To see both schools on two separate parts of the country coming together – that was the best part.”
Yitzi is clearly loved by many, and it has nothing to do with what he is going through. It is because before, during and after this struggle, he has and will always be that smiling kid who cares about his friends, family and anyone he meets. He said he was lucky to have this over someone else. Well, we are truly the lucky ones for knowing him.
Yitzi will be having surgery on April 1st followed by six weeks of radiation. We are sending all our tefillos, love and smiles his way and wishing him a speedy recovery. To Yitzi we say, keep smiling, but we know that you would prefer we keep smiling as you told me to do when we said goodbye yesterday. So, we will do just that and we will continue to #PLAY4YITZI
Most of what we do as parents comes down to those few (maybe not so few) precious moments when we have an interaction with our child that will remain with them for life. If only we can plan those moments. Pesach is one such time that not only is already set in our calendar but the Torah has given as the curriculum, lesson plan and the tools to deliver a number of parenting moments. It is there for the taking.
The Torah in this weeks Parsha tells us about the fire on the Mizbeach “Aish Tamid… Lo Tichbeh” It shall be an everlasting fire… don’t extinguish it” The Kohanim were instructed to make sure the fire on the Mizbeach never went out. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 133) tells us that the presence of the fire was a miracle yet the kohanim were charged to add fuel so that it should not appear on the surface as one. The Sefer HaChinuch continues to tell us that the essence of this Mitzvah is to teach us that while HKBH does many miracles for us it is done in a way to minimize them so that they should not appear as obvious miracles.
We see this idea at the splitting of the sea. While it was clear that it was one of the biggest miracles in history the Possuk (Shmos14:21) tells us that Hashem moved the sea with a strong east wind all night. In fact there is an article I saw on the Washington Post’s website entitled “No, really: There is a scientific explanation for the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus”. Hashem purposely introduced unusually strong winds so that there should be some doubt about the incredible miracle of the splitting of the sea. It is our job says R’ Chaim Shmulevitz to uncover the truth about HKBH’s involvement in the greatest miracle of all, the immortality of the Jewish people.
Our goal over Pesach is to help our children uncover this very truth. When we frame the Seder night as another link in the chain of the continuity of the Jewish people we set the stage for them to connect and become a part of that chain. For Jewish parents this becomes a parenting moment where we are able to give over our values and beliefs in a way that it becomes their discovery.
For me one of the most poignant moments of the Seder night is during the meal when the family sits around and recounts the miracles that happened over the course of the past year. As the Haggadah tells in “Vehi Sheomdah” For not just one alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!
I will always remember how a Rebbi of mine, a Holocaust Survivor told us that at the Seder night he would dress in his labor camp work clothes and recount the miracles that happened to him during war. I always wished I could be there at his Seder table. We have a great opportunity to really make this years Seder night into a fantastic parenting moment.
Have a Chag Kosher VeSameach
This is the latest segment of the weekly video series from Rabbi Stulberger – You’ve Been Called to the Dean’s Office. It’s a short (four minute) message on a timely Torah topic.
Rabbi Stulberger will be giving a nationwide lecture online at ProjectSinai.org this Monday, March 30th at 7:30 PM EDT (4:30 PM Pacific).
Obedience is a word that is somewhat out of fashion but that doesn’t mean it is not important. So how do we learn it and more importantly how do we teach it. The first step is to understand why it is so difficult to be obedient. In Tanach we find a story with Dovid Hamelech on his deathbed making his son Shlomo promise to put Shimi Ben Gera, who at one time was the head of the Sanhadrin, to death. Shimi had cursed King David and was condemned to death. Shlomo once crowned called upon Shimi and instructed him to relocate to Jerusalem. Included in his instructions was the warning that if he ever left Jerusalem he would pay for it with life. What was Shlomo Hamelech the wisest man doing? Who would not want to live in Jerusalem? What is the big deal to live in Jerusalem all your life – there are many individuals who have lived in the same city all their lives.
The Navi continues to tell us that Shimi ends up leaving Jerusalem and as a result got the death penalty. Two of his slaves ran away and in an effort to recapture them, Shimi pursued them all the way out of Jerusalem. As we pointed out earlier Shimi was a very learned person, he was the head of the Sanhedrin why did he risk his life for the sake of two slaves? This story gives us an insight into human nature. We are wired to resist someone controlling us – When there are rules, even if they were made for our benefit, our natural tendency is to try and find a loophole and even risk getting caught to show that no one can control everything we do. Understanding that this is how we as humans are wired will help us overcome this natural tendency.
We just read last week about the Red Heifer. The Torah when introducing the Halachot of the Poroh Adumah says “Zos Chukas Hatorah” – The question is asked, the Mizvah of the Poroh Adumah is but one of 613 so why is it introduced as being a Mitzvah that represents the entire Torah. The commentaries explain that of all the mitzvos in the Torah, the Mitzvah of Poroh Adumah is unique in that it is inherently illogical. There are many Mitzvos that are difficult to understand like shatnez, not eating milk and meat but with all of them we are able to rationalize that these Mitzvos are there for our Neshoma or that they have a symbolic significance such as remembering the Exodus from Egypt – However, with the Mitzvah of Poroh Adumah it just doesn’t make sense. On the one hand it is used to purify individuals who have become Tameh and paradoxically it makes anyone who comes into contact with it during its preparation, impure.
When one keeps a Mitzvah that don’t make sense he is making a statement I am keeping all the Mitzvos for one reason and that is because Hashem wants us to keep it. The Torah here is telling us that when you keep this Mitzvah this demonstrates the reason you keep all the other mitzvos and therefore it is through keeping this Mitzvah you become entitled to get the rewards for keeping the rest of the 612 Mitzvos.
When children understand that we are ready to follow a higher authority we are helping them get the tools and the skills to be obedient and follow their elders. Society portrays the obedient child or spouse as weak when the reality is that the right type of obedience shows an immense amount of strength. Sure, we need to explain to our children why we want them to do things that they may not want to do – but ultimately they need to understand that we are the parent and they are the child and what we are asking of them is for their best even if they don’t understand it at this point in their lives. When a child gets that and follows what his parents are asking that is what the Mishne in Avos refers to when it says who is a strong person? One who overcomes his Yeitzer.
Schools do not celebrate their students enough. It is as simple as that. Students sent to the Principal’s office are generally asked to go for disciplinary reasons. Phone calls home are hardly ever to say your child did something great today. Even grades are less than celebratory as 60% of our primary grading system (A-F) is a failing grade. It is frustrating and needs to be dealt with because I have to tell you, where I work, there are amazing students!
I recently asked my teachers to stop sending students to me only when they may have made a mistake, but to send me students when they have shined. It is not hard because our students shine quite often. So, with that said, I will be adding a new section to our weekly school newsletter titled “Celebrating Our Students” which will highlight student accomplishments. It won’t be easy to choose each week, but I will try my best. For the first week I have chosen Mr. Benji Halpern.
I called Mr. Halpern over today and told him about my plan to celebrate a student each week. He humbly asked why I chose him. That was one reason. However, Mr. Halpern is an individual I see day in and day out acting as a role model for our student body in his demeanor, care and respect for others and his leadership skills. He is our Gabbai Sheni, Co-Captain for our debate team, center on our JV basketball team, a counselor at Etta (serves people with developmental disabilities and their families) in the summers and each week I see him lead the teen minyan at Shaarey Zedek. He makes us proud at Valley Torah as he represents us and the Jewish people well.
This week as I returned from the 2015 North American Jewish Day School Conference and I was asked by one of my teachers what my tolerance for change was? This question came after I was discussing some of the great things I learned at the conference, what I presented and how much of it fit into some of the great growth and growth plans we have here at VTHS. It was asked because as a team we are having growing pains and the teacher was wondering how much “pain” I could handle. As I discussed the other week, change is exhausting even when we are in agreement that it is needed. So, here is my answer.
I have no tolerance for change. Why? Because it is not something I feel I need to tolerate or something I find “painful. It is something I embrace, get excited about and deeply understand that it takes time and is not without its frustrations and setbacks. I also believe strongly that It is necessary and, more importantly, possible no matter how stuck the system you are in seems to be. The bottom line is that when it comes to school change, I work hard at having a growth mindset so that I don’t say we can never get there, but rather we have not gotten there yet.
Growth Mindset is based on the work of Dr. Carol Dweck and her research chronicled in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. To simplify her research to its most digestible understanding is that learners can be broken into two mindsets; fixed and growth. Fixed mindset individuals believe that a basic quality like intelligence is a fixed trait and can’t change. Growth mindset individuals know that basic traits like intelligence can be developed through hard work and it is in their control to change. Unfortunately, most people tend to be of a fixed mindset. However, Dr. Dweck’s research points to the fact that human capacity for growth is not fixed and that teaching a growth mindset to students creates motivation and productivity among fixed students that did not exist prior.
Recently Rabbi Stulberger, Rabbi Felt and I attended the 4th annual BJE day school and yeshiva administrators’ retreat and the keynote speaker Dr. John D’Auria presented on Growth Mindsets. At the end of his presentation, he illustrated a very powerful idea that should have been obvious to me. The culture of the students is directly influenced by the culture of the teachers which is directly influenced by the culture of the administration. However, most schools, as he pointed out, are fragmented and in order to cultivate a culture of innovation it must become defragmented. This is clear to me being a new Principal and I work very hard with my team to collaborate on vision and change, but it is not without its challenges. One major challenge is simply, as it is with all schools, that often there is a fixed belief that change is not possible. I do worry that if this remains true it can trickle down to the students, which is catastrophic to their learning. Having students think that they can’t grow, overcome and change would be a disaster in any school. So, while we must teach our students that they are always capable, we as educators need to realize that as well.
Simply put, when it comes to change it is not that we can’t get there, but rather we are not there yet.
Enjoy a TED talk on the power of yet and growth mindsets by Dr. Carol Dweck
This weeks’ Parsha (Parshas Vayakhel) the Torah begins with the laws of keeping Shabbos. Following this the Torah continues with the intricacies of building the Mishkan. The Gemora questions the juxtaposition between Shabbos and the Mishkan and tells us that it is from the building of the Mishkan that we learn the laws of Shabbos. The 39 Melochos all have their source in the Mishkan. I would like to share a thought and highlight it with a story I recently read.
The Navi Yeshaya (Chapter 58 Verse 13) tells us that we have an obligation to “call the Shabbas a delight”. The commentaries use this Possuk to teach us about the many ways we are obligated to make Shabbos special. I would like to add another aspect to the enjoyment we need to feel on Shabbos.
Dovid Hamelech in Tehillim, Chapter 26 verse 8 tells us that the Mishkan is the home of Hashem in this world. Using the analogy of the Mishkan as our home and the juxtaposition of shabbos it would appear that we are obligated to make our home a delight specifically on Shabbos. The requirement to make Shabbos a delight in this context obligates us as parents to make Shabbos a delight for our spouses and for our children. Over the course of a regular week we generally find ourselves busy and occupied with work, running a household or for a lot of us, with both. This leaves us with not really having the time nor the peace of mind to give our children the attention due to them. Shabbos is the occasion for us to dedicate to our family. It is the perfect time to give our spouse and children the quality time they deserve and need.
A shailah was once brought to Rabbi Zilberstein a brother-in-law of R’ Chaim Kanievsky. The two parties were husband and wife. The husband wanted his wife to use disposable tableware for Shabbos. He felt that the amount of plates and cutlery used over Shabbos leaves his wife, who having prepared and served the family with shabbos delicacies, wiped out if she then had to wash them all up. His wife understanding the extra burden of using china felt it would not be honoring the Shabbos appropriately if she were to use disposable tableware. Citing a similar case brought to R’ Chaim and wanting to find some compromise Rabbi Zilberstein Paskened that they should use good quality disposable tableware. His reasoning was that if there is no “Oneg (delight)” Shabbos then there is no “Kovod (honor)” Shabbos. Ultimately, the focus on Shabbos has to be to make it enjoyable and a day to look forward to and it starts at home which is the Mishkan we have built for our family.
Shabbos is our chance to spend time with our children, giving them the quality time they deserve and need. During an interview I had this week with prospective parents, the father of the young man we were interviewing asked if the school had an organized after-school learning program that his son could join. He expressed that he wanted his child to have the opportunity to learn with his peers outside of class, as he felt that would motivate his child to do well in class. I validated his request but shared with him that from my personal experience as well as my professional experience one of the most effective ways of getting a child to be motivated in class is for a father to learn with his child.
This does not mean you should “farher (test)” your son it means learn with him – let your son teach you the Gemora he is doing. Let him see your genuine interest in the Sugya he is learning at school with his Rebbi. Shabbos is the perfect opportunity to set time aside for this, especially now that the clocks have changed and we are beginning to have longer Shabbos afternoons.
This is the latest segment of the weekly video series from Rabbi Stulberger – You’ve Been Called to the Dean’s Office. It’s a short (four minute) message on a timely Torah topic.
“An Orthodox Jewish basketball player came to Brooklyn. You’d think this would occasion a parade, thousands of people in the seats, perhaps an impromptu hora.
But a relatively sparse crowd showed up for Tulane’s Dec. 28 matchup against St. John’s at Barclays Center. Those who waited in line at David K’s, the glatt Kosher proprietor, were mostly unaware of Aaron Liberman, Tulane’s center with the winding path to the Green Wave, though the UnderArmour yarmulke gave him away on his first journey through the layup line….”