By Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick
From time immemorial, the teaching and modeling of respectful behavior, good middot, and derech eretz has been an integral dimension of effective schooling and a fundamental tenet of chinuch. To be sure, the importance of character development in our institutions, homes, and community and its impact on the academic, social, and emotional growth and development of our children have always occupied a significant aspect of Jewish life. It was taught, modeled, emulated, and celebrated. It was an essential component of education, whether in the home, in our schools, or in our communities. And it endeavored to help prepare our children to live proper and wholesome lives when venturing into the “outside world.”
Several years ago, I wrote an article titled “Looking Beyond Academics to Improve Jewish Day Schools” (Five Towns Jewish Times, December 18, 2018). It described how our Jewish day schools and yeshivot place an inordinate amount of emphasis on high academic standards and student achievement in both Judaic and Secular studies at the expense of focusing more fully on character development, exemplary middot, and derech eretz. This is not to suggest or even imply that all of our schools do not view the teaching of good middot as being important. What it does strongly suggest, however, is that the challenge of teaching character development is not at the very top of our yeshiva and day school agenda or list of curricular priorities.
I was amazed by the outpouring of support and response to my article. It struck a very important and sensitive chord in the community—especially among current and prospective day school and yeshiva parents. It suggested a deep and sincere yearning for their children to develop into upstanding and responsible Torah-observant young men and women.
Just think: how many parents do you know who select a yeshiva or day school for their children based on the school’s character development and middot curriculum, as opposed to the successful teaching of core subjects such as Chumash and Rashi skills, kriyah, Talmud, math, language arts, science, and other advanced academic subjects? The answer is obvious: very few.
I am not suggesting that these core academic subjects be viewed as any less important. I am suggesting that, at best, they should be accorded equal importance as character development, citizenship, and derech eretz—which, by and large, is not the case in most of our schools and communities.
The School Challenge
The successful infusion and integration of character development, good middot, and derech eretz into the very fabric and culture of our yeshivot and day schools must become a top national leadership priority and imperative. To this end, the conversation or debate should not be about offering more pre-packaged turn-key programs or episodic attempts to encourage and inspire students to engage in sporadic chesed projects (several times a year) or the viewing of educational videos on bein adam l’chaveiro as lesson plan fillers, but rather the creation of a school value proposition and values-based curriculum that is deeply embedded into the culture and philosophy of the school. It emanates from the top of the school’s leadership and administration and permeates the very core of the school’s curriculum and raison d’être. It’s not about carefully worded mission statements, educational philosophies, or graduate profiles that are strategically placed on a school’s website, promotional brochures, or annual reports, but rather through the real-time actualization of what students experience in the classroom, school corridors, playground, lunch room, beit midrash, or carpool line. It is about the feeling one senses when walking the corridors of the school or by observing student-to-student and teacher interaction, or by listening carefully to the words and language being used in the school. It’s about the whole school environment and experience. Ask yourself: does it inspire and promote a true feeling of derech eretz and kiddush Hashem that permeates the institution?
Character development initiatives and the teaching of middot, citizenship, and derech eretz in our schools are many (see my referenced article). But they are only as effective as the importance and significance they are accorded in the school. Are these teachings frequent and truly embedded in the culture of the school? To be impactful, they must be viewed as central to a school’s mission, vision, and purpose—not an extracurricular experiential program developed and designed during scheduled downtime.
Several essential questions and observations for consideration which help punctuate my point:
• How diligent or careful are faculty, staff, and administration about the words and expressions they use in public or when speaking with each other in school, in the presence of students?
• How often do you hear students use words like “Please,” “Thank you,” “May I,” and “You’re welcome,” in the halls and corridors of our schools?
• How often do we see students rushing down the hall to hold a door open for a rebbe, teacher, or a visitor?
• How do students speak to one another and with their teachers or rebbeim in the classroom, during recess, in the lunchroom, in the halls? Is there reverence, respectful language, deference?
• How often do we observe students picking up discarded wrappers and papers from the playground or classroom floor and disposing of them properly in trash receptacles?
• How often do we see students meeting and talking with teachers while these very teachers are checking or sending texts and/or e-mails on their smartphones? What message does this convey to our students?
• How do teachers, rebbeim, or principals reward and celebrate exemplary middot and behavior publicly? Does it happen often? Sporadically? Not at all?
• Are there clear and consistent consequences and policies for when a student exhibits a lack of respect and derech eretz in the classroom, during tefillah, in the lunchroom, on the basketball court, or in an assembly? Are these policies shared and understood by all parents?
• Are teachers instructed or required to include and integrate character development and citizenship models into their curricula, unit plans, or lesson plans?
• How often and at what level of depth are faculty and the administration engaged in their own training and professional development relating to best practices in student character development?
These questions and observations represent in part the wide range of challenges that schools must confront if they are to address these concerns seriously and effectively. A school’s commitment to inculcating in its students good middot, derech eretz, and exemplary behavior must be comprehensive and uncompromised. It must become an integral part of a school’s program and culture. It must be continuous, measurable, and goal-oriented. And above all, it must represent an unswerving commitment on the part of the school.
The role of parents in instilling proper middot in our children is paramount. In a sense, it is “ground zero” for a child’s growth and character development. This reality is evidenced through our understanding regarding the role, responsibility, obligations, and actions of parents as role models and as exemplars of proper and appropriate child behavior. To be sure, the home must be the first line of defense where children see, experience, and learn about appropriate behavior, good middot, values, and derech eretz. Parents are the “first-responders” for their children’s actions and behaviors.
All too often, parents relegate this important responsibility to the school. This is wrong on many levels. Parents must take full responsibility and ownership for the manner in which their children act, behave, and interact. The role of the school is to complement and reinforce these attributes. But the foundation must be created by the parent.
On the one hand, parental expectations appear too obvious and are viewed as common sense. On the other hand, we all know that many parents and families fall short in fulfilling this sacred responsibility and obligation, the consequences of which can be daunting.
It is not my intention to be critical of parents regarding their respective roles or responsibilities for effective child-rearing. My sole purpose and rationale for writing this article is to push the envelope in order to increase awareness and consciousness and to ensure that our homes are providing our students with wholesome, well-rounded environments in support of respectful behavior and conduct.
Several Illustrative Examples
Walk into a local marketplace, bakery, or any local commercial establishment and pay close attention to the words parents use in the presence of their children. How often will you hear the words “Please,” “Thank you,” “May I,” and “You’re welcome,” and, “Can you please help me?” as opposed to “Give me” or “I want.” Listen closely to the conversations between parents and children and between parents and other patrons. More often than not, we hear words, language, and phrases within earshot of children, accompanied by sarcastic expressions and body language, which are highly inappropriate. This cannot have a short- or long-term positive effect on our children!
How often do our students return home after a full day at school to parents who are totally preoccupied with e-mails and text messages? As a result, they don’t even inquire how the child’s day was in school. Better yet, at the end of a long school day, how many of our children jump into the backseat of their parent’s van during carpool only to be greeted by a parent deeply engrossed in a phone conversation. Hello….anybody home? And when parents do have downtime, how many actually spend quality time with their children? Over a period of time, these experiences impact negatively on a child’s self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence, let alone their relationship with parents.
Finally, the “do as I say, not as I do” phenomenon plays itself out unfortunately in many of our shuls where parents talk during tefillah and really expect their children who are sitting next them to stay focused and concentrate on davening. This hypocritical behavior plays itself out even more when parents leave the main sanctuary of the shul before Mussaf to participate in a Kiddush club … only to be followed by children who are witnessing less-than-appropriate language, boisterous adult behavior, and over-the-top lashon ha’ra.
These unfortunate experiences also have a detrimental cumulative effect and impact on a child’s self-esteem, self-control, confidence, and values. The blurring of the lines and the lack of clear boundaries will eventually manifest itself through the child’s behavior, demeanor, and less-than-desirable social interaction in school and with others.
The manner in which parents interact with their children and the intimate interpersonal interaction children experience with parents are probably some of the most powerful influencers of a child’s character development and behavior.
In order to respond effectively to these challenges, we must encourage our day schools and yeshivot to more assertively promote and encourage parent involvement in our homes. The school cannot and should not be placed in a situation where it is forced to compensate for poor parenting or to serve as surrogate parents or in loco parentis.
The role, responsibility, and obligation of a community in promoting, encouraging, and inspiring exemplary middot and behavior in our children are complex.
The community, as we know it today, comprises a variety of institutions. Some are communally centered; others are more insular. The evolving role of shuls, batei midrash, community centers, schools, camps, and youth group organizations in promoting and celebrating Jewish values (on a communal level) such as derech eretz and shemirat ha’lashon can have a transformative impact on our lives.
Just imagine if all local Jewish communal organizations were to join together in order to launch, endorse, or sponsor a series of local chesed initiatives. Just think what type of message this collaborative partnership would send out to our families and youth. It would create a communal social platform with unimaginable possibilities.
I will leave it up to the marketing pros to determine how this happens in a community. But for starters, I can envision a series of communal campaigns throughout the year—each dedicated to a specific Jewish value. Other examples may include: the creation of Chesed Month; middot contests; Young Ambassador’s Citizenship Program; the rewarding of schools and youth groups for their successful efforts advancing good character and citizenship in their students; and the establishment of a communal summit or think tank of rabbinic leadership, educators, parents, journalists, and philanthropic leaders who would come together to grapple with the challenges of creating future members of our community through true Jewish values and standards and to create a roadmap for a communal path forward.
Yes, in a sense, I am suggesting a Jewish communal “revolution” for proactive leadership which places character development, good middos, chesed, and Jewish citizenship at the top of our communal agenda. It is time for communities as a whole to take hold of this challenge and to begin thinking about how we inspire and promote a wholesome environment and community rich in values for our children. To be sure, this challenge is larger than any one organization. It surpasses the limitations of our schools and it promotes a more comprehensive communal framework. And above all, it positions all of us in a manner that will help guarantee that our children develop into an ohr la’goyim (light unto the nations) through kiddush Hashem.
The purpose of this piece, as indicated earlier, is to help encourage, motivate, and stimulate debate, discussion, and dialogue regarding the multifaceted challenges our youth and communities now face. Now is the time to infuse our children with a sense of responsibility and obligation, anchored in Jewish values. It is time to challenge the status quo with bold and creative thinking. And now is the time to give our children the direction and guidance they so desperately deserve.
The challenge is great, the opportunity monumental. No one school can do it alone. It will, in fact, “take a village.”
May our community and its institutions that influence our children be blessed with the wisdom, knowledge, and foresight to help create a generation of youth who will grow into proud, upstanding, members of our community and who will positively influence others for generations.
Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick is principal of the Hebrew Academy School in Margate, FL, organizational consultant, and executive coach. He served in a variety of senior Jewish educational leadership positions on the local and national levels and is the co-founder of LEV Consulting Associates, specializing in strategic planning, and organizational development. He is the author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness,” Brown Books, 2011.