By Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick
One of the most beautiful qualities and characteristics of our Jewish community, since time immemorial, has been its unswerving commitment to the concept of Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying the name of G-d) and the belief that we are all created B’tzelem Elokim (in the image of G-d).
According to rabbinic commentaries, this concept of “image” is not a physical manifestation but rather one which is deeply rooted and anchored in our understanding and commitment to the fact that we are all held to a higher standard or level of behavior in the manner in which we live, conduct ourselves privately and publicly, as well as the manner in which we treat and act towards one another.
It is not within the purview or authority of this writer to publicly or privately criticize or preach regarding other people’s actions, words, or behaviors. Nevertheless, it is everyone’s moral obligation and responsibility to identify and call out those actions and behaviors which compromise the integrity and veracity of B’zelem Elokim and create a chillul Hashem (the desecration of G-d). I am hopeful that the more we challenge these actions and behaviors, the better chance we will have to curtail, minimize, or at least begin to change the culture of indifference, disrespectful or harmful rhetoric, and inappropriate behavior and actions in our communities.
Over the past several decades, our Jewish community, not unlike the larger global society, has experienced a seismic shift in the manner in which members of our community behave towards one another as well as towards those outside of our community. To be sure, during this period of time we have witnessed an evolving erosion and diminution of respectful behavior, middot and derech eretz across all ideological and demographic lines. This unfortunate phenomenon, although not justified, is a mirror image of our greater society and has, sadly, begun to seep into the cultural and behavioral landscape of our Jewish community.
There are those who posit that, from a historical perspective, this condition has always existed in one fashion or another, and that we are now just experiencing a societal trend which is part of our zeitgeist. Still, there are those who are committed to challenging this status quo hypothesis, lest our community devolves into a place of no return.
At the end of the day, this unfortunate phenomenon of disrespect and poor middot and character is evidenced in our schools, in our homes, shuls, and communities; it is playing out in front of our very eyes on a daily basis. The challenge, therefore, is not how we can change the outside world or society (although that would be an amazing feat), but rather what changes or measures we can undertake for ourselves which would hopefully not only impact our community, but will generate and spread out into the outside world. If we are indeed an ohr lagoyim (light unto the nations) then it is incumbent upon us to step up to that task and to really serve as role models for society.
I begin this conversation by stressing the fact that if we want our children to grow up to be respectful and civil and to exhibit good middot, we must begin to invest in that reality by sowing those seeds at a very young age. It will not happen by itself or in a vacuum. It requires hard work, grit, energy, discipline, and an unswerving commitment on the part of parents, adults, and educators. It also requires a sense of urgency, and it must always remain a top parental priority. Only then will we be able to help ensure that the next generation of our community will mature and evolve into honorable exemplars of respectful behavior and high moral character.
One of the most critical challenges facing our communities today is the dire need to create and foster a culture of middot tovot as well as derech eretz (respectful behavior) on the part of our children. At the risk of sounding preachy, this commitment must become a communal imperative, and it must become unswerving and uncompromising. The responsibility of our parents must be to ensure that their homes are physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually safe and appropriate environments and which serve as models of respectful behavior for our children.
As I have written about this challenge in the past in this publication (Inspiring Character Development and Derech Eretz in our Schools, January 30, 2022), our children’s behavior is profoundly influenced by their home environment. This reality plays itself out as children observe and model the manner in which their parents and their families interact, talk, act, behave, and respond. Furthermore, the manner in which parents speak with one another, either in person or on the phone, in the presence of their children also has a profound impact. This is in addition to the manner in which they interact with others in public.
So where do we even begin?
For starters, parents must become more vigilant, circumspect, and careful regarding the words they use in the presence of their children, whether in their homes, their shuls, community center, their cars, or in the marketplace.
Reality dictates that, with rare exceptions, we have very little control or influence (if any) over what our children hear or observe outside of our homes. But we all do have maximum control over what they hear and observe in our homes.
This point must be stressed over and over again. To paraphrase Dr. Stephen Covey, you can only try to change those realities which are within your sphere of influence.
One of the most damaging and detrimental influencers on children in our homes is the use and misuse of unsupervised technology and social media. As an enlightened community, we are only now beginning to understand and appreciate the harmful and even potentially devastating impact of many social media platforms on our children’s thought processes, values, attention span, and social/emotional wellbeing, as well as their interaction with one another. Their eventual impact on our children’s adult behaviors, attitudes, and actions are even more disconcerting.
This reality is research-based and is supported by Digital Citizenship, an outstanding organization headed by world-renown psychologist Dr. Eli Shapiro and senior Jewish educator Ms. Temima Feldman, which has already begun to have a profound impact on our community’s understanding of the uses or misuses of technology in the home, in our schools, and in our communities.
As we know, many of these platforms have a profound influence on our children. To be sure, their use will mold and shape their views and perceptions about the world in which they live as well as their young adult and adult behaviors. Influencing and enhancing a child’s development is virtually (excuse the pun) impossible when their exposure to social media runs rampant. It is therefore incumbent upon every parent and family to monitor and supervise their children’s use of these platforms as well as other forms of technology such as computers, laptops, digital games, and smartphones.
With regard to smartphone use, their potential misuse, and impact on social interaction between children, teens, and young adults is disheartening. The use of these devises by children, whether they are used for calls, texting, e-mails, or social media interaction, must be closely monitored and supervised.
Again, it is not within the purview of this writer to detail how and/or when parents should monitor the use of these devises and or the frequency of this monitoring or supervision. There are a plethora of best-practice articles and papers on this subject. But at the end of the day, the continuous unsupervised use of these devices over an extended period of time can have a profoundly devastating impact on a child’s values.
In addition to the profoundly important impact of the home environment on children and their future adult behavior, the evolving role and responsibility of the school—whether it be a Jewish day school or yeshiva—is paramount. To be sure, it is the school where children spend most of their waking hours, and therefore it is the school that should serve as the safe space for learning and social interaction. It is the child’s in loco parentis environment for most of the day during the school season. The implications of this reality should be obvious.
In full recognition of the challenges and realities just outlined, many Jewish day schools and yeshivot have recently undertaken a wide variety of creative and meaningful educational programs and curricular initiatives in response to these challenges. These include, but are not limited to, the use of published middot curricula; values signage posted throughout the school; inspiring and knowledgeable guest speakers who lecture on relevant topics relating to derech eretz and middot; the integration of character development into the Judaic and General Studies curriculum; and special student assignments, assemblies, contests, and projects which emphasize good character and behavior.
Many of these initiatives are laudatory and may be amazingly effective, but they are somewhat sporadic and are hardly ever sufficient for the monumental task at hand. It is with this reality in mind that I suggest a more comprehensive, systematic, and systemic approach to the manner in which we infuse a school’s culture with a moral and values-based wellness model impacting the student’s character development.
This approach suggests a re-envisioning of the school’s professional development training commitment for all administrators and faculty. More specifically, I am recommending a school-wide vision and mission which places character development at the very top of the school’s agenda or list of academic priorities. It also suggests the creation of a school culture deeply imbedded in character development. To be successful, this institutional commitment must permeate every aspect of the school’s operation and landscape and must become an integral part of an administration’s and faculty’s modus operandi.
With continuous and consistent exposure to these important initiatives, students over time will begin to understand, appreciate, and respect this culture and its potential impact on their lives. Remember: the more, the more. The more the student is exposed to this new and evolving school culture and environment, the more it increases the chances or opportunity for improvement, change, and long-term impact.
Finally, it is imperative that the new school culture be complemented by what takes place in the home. There must be a symbiotic relationship and a seamless partnership between these two institutions.
The third leg of this stool is the community at large. Critical to the success of what we are suggesting for the home and school is the unswerving partnership with the community.
As envisioned, the promotion and celebration of character development in our children must become a top communal priority. We must create community-wide programs and campaigns with the same commitment and rigor as other political or life-saving campaigns. Community middot contests, fairs, shiurim, lectures, essays, posters, signage, and celebrations are just a few of the programmatic initiatives already at our fingertips.
We must galvanize philanthropic leadership, educators, parents, and rabbinic leadership to rally around this critically important challenge and opportunity for our Jewish community. And finally, we must engage the best and brightest professionals in the advertising, marketing, and media industries to help us in this herculean communal effort.
Finally, I humbly call upon all local and national Jewish communal organizations and agencies to join hands in partnership as we begin a new chapter to help our children grow and develop into respectful, honorable exemplars of Torah-infused and informed middot, derech eretz, and moral character.
As we embark upon what I refer to as the “Great Return,” it will be incumbent upon all of us, especially during this month of Elul, to begin thinking long and hard about the current condition of our youth and all of the tireless efforts and resources which must be invested in order to undo what has unfortunately already impacted them. We must refresh our community with new, creative, innovative forward thinking about our children’s future. Character development should no longer only be an appendage but rather a way of life. I am very hopeful and optimistic that it is not too late to turn the status quo around.
At this stage in the growth and development of our Jewish community, let’s make sure that we push this agenda forward with commitment, focus, and due diligence. There is so much at stake. Failure is not an option
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is executive director of the Sha’arei Bina Torah Academy for Girls in Hollywood FL, an organizational consultant, and executive coach. He served in a variety of senior Jewish educational leadership positions on the local and national levels. He is co-founder of LEV Consulting Associates specializing in Strategic Planning and Organizational Development; and has published extensively on topics relating to Day School education, leadership development and governance.