Monday, November 29, 2010

MO Shabbos Abbas; or, Do Jewish Day Schools Stink?

By now anyone who reads the Jewish blogs even minimally is aware of that controversial Youtube video and the ensuing debates. I was going to post on a topic somewhat related right before that video aired, but for now I will let it rest. Instead I can't resist posting a different video, which I had to keep on pausing because I was laughing so loud. Seriously, don't watch this at work. (I imagine that some viewers will alternate between laughing and crying.)

The main message is that MO families are suffering from a financial crisis, in part due to the tuition burden. There is also an accusation of kiruv deception, but this is of little interest to me from my vantage point. Furthermore, I think it detracts from the more important message of the video. (In fact, while I'm not at all a fan of kiruv deception, I think this video is itself deceptive in blaming the woes of MO BTs on kiruv deception.)
Again, anyone who reads the Jewish blogs even minimally is well aware of the so-called "tuition crisis" and the oft-debated proposal to move Orthodox kids to public schools. However, I've found that those most serious about turning to the public schools, i.e., those are willing to do so rather than comment on blogs about how it would be a great idea, are not primarily motivated by finances.
It ends up there is actually another observant child in David's class and since we transferred him to public school we've found some other former-day school parents who've made the same switch. I'm sure that for many of them finances was an important consideration--how can it not be?--, but what I find interesting is that when speaking with them none cited finances. Rather, they were all concerned with the quality of their children's former schools and they were all motivated by a desire to provide their children will the educational opportunities they felt they themselves were deprived of in the day school/yeshivah world. (This provides for an interesting implication that I won't get into now.)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

To Shul Group or Not to Shul Group?

Most decent-sized MO shuls have some type of groups to keep the kids occupied during shabbos morning davening. I had always thought these groups were a good thing until I read a blog post a while back that questioned why we are so quick to evict kids from the main shul. Proper chinuch, the post argued, dictates that we use shul as another opportunity to educate our children. Instead many kids grow up thinking that shul is a daycare center or playground and don't get the opportunity to witness and emulate their parents' devotional activities. (Granted that the quality of both the groups and parents' behavior in shul varies widely and it isn't easy to make blanket statements.)
I've always taken David to shul with me on shabbos morning ever since he was little baby. Everyone always marveled at how well behaved he was, certainly better than many of the adults. Recently it's been harder to get him to stay in shul with me for the entire davening. (Yes, I'm aware that the fact that such a state existed to begin with was rather abnormal.) This is probably due to the fact that as he gets older he simply doesn't want to sit in the same place, even if he has an ample supply of books and toys. Also, there are now a few children in the shul and he probably wonders why they get to run around but he has to stay with me. In any case, for the last few months the understanding has been that he sits at my side and does his davening. Then he can read a book or play with some toys in his seat. Along the way he may ask me some questions about what is going on or otherwise I will point out some things to him. At some point he gets to go out and play with the kids and then comes back in for anim zmiros.
Recently I've been trying to help organize groups for the kids in my shul. This is something I've wanted to do a for a little while, but it has become more important for me now that David is in public school. Following up on the idea (here) that I want to make sure he has a solid anchor in the Jewish community, I want the shul to have a nice group of Jewish kids for him to associate with and I want the shul to be a positive Jewish experience for him in general.
I still wonder if maybe he really does belong in the shul at my side, but I hope we can run reasonably well organized groups that will serve him better than sitting at my side. The worst case scenario, however, is if the groups take off, but are poorly run and become nothing more than a babysitting service. At that point I think I'd prefer he sit with me in shul, but I then I'd be competing with the groups.

Ora/David Update

Ora is so cute and has a real personality.
There is lots of babbling, but no speech yet. Instead her preferred method of communication is pointing. If she wants something, she points. When she says hello, she points. When she sees something interesting, she points. It's so dramatic the way she leans into it with her shoulder and extends her arm all the way.
Eats yogurt, avocado, cheese, cereal, apple sauce, strawberries and tomatoes. Loves tomatoes. Also Cheerios. Likes to suck on crackers, but then the sucked-on crackers end up squished all over the floor.
Got sick last week for the first time with an unknown and generalized bacterial (?) infection. She hates the doctor's office. She cries as soon as we go into the examination room. It's amazing how she's already learned to hate medicine after just one dose. As soon as she sees me take it out of the fridge or get the syringe, she turns to crawl away. I guess one could thing about her being low on the weight chart is that she can't put up much of a fight and I can manage to administer it by force without any help. But it's bringing back bad memories of David, who until relatively recently was a real kicker when it came to medicine.
She loves to play with the doll-like oven mitts that J&A bought for us years ago. Also plays with David's trains.
She is still a light sleeper, but not nearly as bad as it used to be.
We went to Hinya for Shabbat this week and Ora suddenly crawled up about 5 or 6 steps. On the other hand she still seems to be a little off balance even when just sitting on her tush.
* * *
David went rock climbing last week. I went with him last year and it didn't go very well, so I didn't have high hopes for last week. But what a surprise. He went all the way to the top and then rappelled down. A whole bunch of times. Maybe he is stronger/braver this year? Maybe it's an easier rock wall? I don't know, but it was cool to see him do it.
Every visit to Costco entails a few impulse purchase that I end up returning the following week. This week it was three books for David. Except that he spotted them on my table. He was so excited and he's been reading them over and over. He call them his chapter books (they're really not) and I guess he feels like a big boy. Just last week I asked him again if he wants to go to the library and predictably he expressed zero interest. But when I asked him again yesterday and told him they have books like this in the library, he seemed somewhat excited. Now we just have to find the time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I'm Thankful . . .

Happy Thanksgiving Day.
I just watched "The Joneses." It's not a great movie, but it really made me think for a minute about how thankful I should be. (Spoiler alert.)
A few people have commented to me that they wish they had the beitzim to put their kids in public school. I responded that at least as far as communal and social peer pressure concerns, beitzim didn't factor into our decision. One of the benefits of not being part of a Jewish community is that we make our decisions without petty worrying about potential (real or imagined) social and communal ramifications. I can't say that if we lived in Teaneck, for example, that we would have had the guts to make the switch to public school.
And it's not just with our educational choices. Because we don't feel the yoke of submitting to communal norms, we've been able to make various other choices based on what we really think is best for us. In sum, to the best of our abilities we're living the life we want to live.
I'm not saying that I'm completely content with where we live. In general, for all the crap that goes in Jewish communities, there are also many benefits that accrue to living in one. In specific, I'm concerned that in public school David may lose his "anchor" in the larger Jewish world. I'm not talking about "going off the derech" or intermarrying--I think it's silly that at this age concerned people warn us about these things--, but simply not realizing that there is something larger out there Jewish-wise. I can daven with him, learn Torah with him and teach him to observe the mitzvos, but I want him to see the larger picture. To feel the larger picture. So while not living in a Jewish community made it easier for us to transfer David to public school, ironically I feel that we need to move into a Jewish community if we plan to keep him in public school.
In any case, one underlying theme of "The Joneses" is the danger of subtle keeping-up-with-the-Joneses-type commercial peer pressure and the financial havoc it can wreak on a family. So for now I'm thankful that we don't have this (and other) peer pressure in our life. It if you have ninety minutes and $3.99 to waste, go watch it. (Oh yeah, I'm thankful for Amazon video on demand.)
(By the way, I'm not naive as to think that communal peer pressure is unique to Jews, but the fact that it exists in other communities as well is irrelevant.)
* * *
In school David had to write why he is thankful: "Mom and sister: I like both of you. You were so nice to me when I had a fever. Mom thank you for all the stuff that you gave me and for all your kisses." (Spelling and grammar edited.)
On his arts and crafts project he wrote that he is thankful for a casa, Abba, Mama and familia.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Parent-Teacher Night

We had a parent-teacher meeting recently and it was an interesting experience for a number of reasons. One strange thing is that not just the regular classroom teachers were available, but so were all the support staff and the enrichment teachers. We had a few minutes to kill and we were curious about how David is doing in gym, so we dropped in to meet the gym teacher. The class is rather large and we're not sure if he really knows what's going on with David in class, but it was amazing to hear him speak about his curriculum, goals, pedagogy, etc. Who ever heard of a "professional" gym teacher? I'm used to some guy with no prospects for a better job sitting on a chair as he watches the kids in what is essentially a glorified and extended recess.*
We passed by the music room and there was actually a line of parents waiting to meet the teacher. We overheard him say to one pair of parents that a three (out of four) is a very good grade and they shouldn't be so concerned. Is there something wrong with us that we didn't care to go in and find out why David likewise only got a three? In any case, as with gym, we already know from other experiences that David's school take music class very seriously. It's not just about a guy with a keyboard singing some songs with the kids.
So the main thing that I thought was so interesting is that whereas what in other schools might be considered simply enrichment programming is in David's school taken very seriously. Moreover, whereas in other schools enrichment subjects might be considered extacurricular and treated less than seriously, in David's school they are integrated into the general curriculum in order to complement and reinforce various aspects of it.
Also, in David's old school there were two mid-year report cards, each of which was followed by a parent-teacher meeting, and then an end-of-the-year report card. David's new school has altogether four report cards, and all of them, even the end-of-year report card, is followed by a parent-teacher meeting. I have a feeling that over time we might come to feel that all these meetings are a burden, but while I've never heard of a year-end parent-teacher meeting, I think it does make a lot of sense.
* * *
To follow up on my previous post, one thing that we weren't happy about is the lack of a school library. When we inquired about this we were directed to websites where kids can read books online. No way Jose. Just to reiterate what I discussed in the previous post, I think it's intellectually healthy for kids to read specifically from printed books rather than from a screen. (Just to note, the school does otherwise take reading very seriously.)
* On the other hand, I do think kids need and deserve time throughout the day to let loose and go wild in an unstructured setting and I wonder if such a formalized phys ed period is the best thing. However, because David's classroom is not a traditional one with the kids sitting at their desks all day, perhaps there is not the same need to let them let loose.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Demise of the Library

Our local library was undergoing renovations for the first few years of David's life and it wasn't until he was about four-and-a-half years old that I took him to the library for the first time. (I think Kinneret took him once to another library before that.) I love libraries and books and I was excited to be able to introduce him the excitement of the library, but alas we were not in agreement.
When we arrived I first signed him for a library card. Then we looked around the shelves for a grand two minutes before he ran off to one of the many computers that lined the walls. I tried my best to lure him away with all types of books. I didn't care what the subject was, as long as it was printed. But he wasn't interested. I told him he could play for five minutes and stepped back. That was when I realized that all the kids were using the computers. The tables and reading mats on the floor were all bare.

It's not like David doesn't enjoy books. He's been surrounded by them from day one. (Although the truth is he prefers to be read to rather than to read independently.) Maybe because we have a small library at home he doesn't appreciate all the books housed in the library. In any case, I was still disappointed that I couldn't transmit to him my own love of libraries. (As an aside, while I think that the internet is an unparalleled research tool and can help people tap into unimagined horizons, I think that children's reliance on it is fostering a generation that lacks the most basic research processing skills and is unable to digest large amount of text, critically or otherwise.)

Maybe I'm too old-fashioned? After all, as far as I could tell David was not at alone in his preference for the computer in the library. Far from it. Perhaps instead of spending all that money on the new library the town should have just opened up an internet cafe for kids?

Last week the babysitter took Ora to the library for the first time and weather permitting she will take her weekly to participate in a special program for babies. Maybe there is still hope that the products of my own bibliomania will find an appreciative inheritor.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Angelic Beings, Omnipotence, Omnipresence, Resurrection

Last night I read to David from the JPS Children's Bible the story of Jacob's struggle with the angel. He had a hard time understanding the story. Who was this angel? Why was he fighting with Jacob? I told him that I didn't know and that I would look it up, and then I tried to steer him to bed. But he wouldn't give up. Against my better judgement I finally fell back on the story we all learned in kindergarten (and then in first grade and every year after that) that this was Esav's angel. And as I feared, I then had to try and explain to him how it could be that Esav had an angel that would want to harm Jacob, in violation of Hashem's overall plans. I promised him I'd look it up and he agreed to go to sleep.
Rashi concludes his perush on this pasuk by noting that according the Sages this was the sar of Esav (following Bereshis Rabba). However, I then noticed that all the other perushim (in my chumash) take a different approach, i.e., this angel was a typical Divinely-dispatached angel and was not trying to harm Jacob. Rashbam states that the angel wanted to ensure that Jacob would not flee from Esav and that he would witness the fulfillment of God's promise that he would protect him. Radak further explains that the purpose of the fight between Jacob and the angel was to make Jacob realize how strong he was, and just like the angel could not best him, neither would Esav (also in the following pasuk). Hizkuni (here and in the following pasuk) combines both Rashbam and Radak. (I won't get into this with David, but Radak [vv. 26, 31] also maintains that this entire episode transpired in the course of a prophetic vision.)
I'm glad David hasn't pressed me for more information about angelic phenomena, but at least now I can go back to him and explain to him the Jacob vs. Angel fight with an answer that won't make me cringe.
* * *
Last year David was fascinated with God's omnipotence. "Who is stronger, Hashem or [fill in the blank]?" "Hashem can beat Batman, right?" "Hashem says something and it happens, so just like he said 'Let there be light' and there was light, all he has to do it say 'you're dead' and you're dead?" Omnipotence was easy.
* * *
More difficult was omnipresence. "I don't understand, where is He?" "Is he in the tree?" "How can he be everywhere?"
* * *
David has always been interested in cemeteries for some strange reason. A few months ago he asked me if it's true that after someone dies he comes back to life again. Someone in school--I think I know who--must have told him about techiyas ha-mesim. I told him (following the Rambam) that some people--not necessarily everyone--will be resurrected in the future. He got very upset. "But I don't want to be stuck under the rock and my body will fall apart." So I tried to explain the distinction between our corporeal body and our non-corporeal neshama. Even after we die and our body rots, our eternal neshama goes to Hashem and gets to stay with him forever. I think he was ok with that response, although he didn't really grasp the the concept of a neshama. I told him it is inside of us. "Is it near the heart?" (I don't remember why, but during the parsha review Friday night neshama came up and he was able to recall some of what I had told him with a smile.)
* * *
UPDATE: Tonight I shared the my findings with David. I explained that there are different interpretations and I started by restating the "traditional" explanation that the angel was Esav's sar. But David simply couldn't understand why an angel would act to subvert God's plan. Finally I just told him to forget and and I proceeded with my findings. It took a while for him to understand what I was saying, but finally he told me that the second "question" [i.e., answer] makes more sense than the first.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sock in Mouth

Ora puts everything in her mouth. We never had this problem with David and we were sort of unprepared for it with Ora. We have to be so careful not to leave anything on the floor, especially now that she is crawling all over the place. And when she can't reach anything she'll just pull off a sock with her teeth and keep it there.
Last week I picked up David from talmud torah and someone alerted me to the fact that there was a sock dangling from between Ora's teeth. I feigned surprise and invited the well-wisher to engage in a tug-of-war and attempt to dislodge it. She declined.
* * *
We can't believe she is almost one year old!
* * *
Like David before her, Ora loves dogs. Whenever she passes one in the street she leans out of her carriage and beckons to it.
She even tries to imitate a bark if you ask what sound a dog makes. She can't do it yet, but it's so cute to watch her try. She sucks in her cheeks and puckers her lips, but no sound comes out. Sometimes there is a slight whistle, but nothing like a bark.
* * *
Ora loves David. She follows him everywhere and is always happy to see him. At night it's a problem if we try to put her and David to sleep at the same time because they like to play with each other through the netting of her pack-n-play. We sit in the kitchen and listen to them giggling at one another, but eventually we have to go and take her out until David falls asleep (which usually only takes a minute or two).
* * *
Last week Ora climbed onto David's bed! I enclosed the bed with barriers so she wouldn't fall off and went into the kitchen for a minute while David entertained her. Suddenly I heard a big thump and wild crying. I ran inside petrified that I would find Ora flattened on the floor, but it was actually David, who had lost his balance and fallen off the roof of his (train) bed onto the floor.