Friday, December 20, 2013

A Word from the Director: 12/20/2013

Since many of the boys we deal with have their own set of challenges, it is often hard for them to see outside of themselves and the issues in their own lives. I, therefore, work to raise awareness as I hear either negative or positive responses to a friend’s mishap or struggle. In general, the children of this generation are growing up in relative comfort, yet at the same time know of unspeakable tragedies in their communities and the world around them. How can we effectively teach entitled kids in an increasingly narcissistic society (as Rabbi Brander has called it: the iPod generation, focus on the “I”) to not become jaded, but rather to empathize with their friend and feel their pain?

Here are some evidence-based suggestions for teaching empathy:
•    Make a happy home. When a child feels safe and happy at home, knowing their parents love them, they are less self-centered. When their own needs are met, they are more likely to think of others before themselves.
•    Give service. One activity for any age to build empathy is to give service. Have your child bake cookies and take them to someone who lives alone. Visit a nursing home and bring a smile to lonely older people. Have an older child offer to help a neighbor with their children – without receiving payment. Take them to volunteer at a food bank or soup kitchen, and have them see what it’s like to not have the full pantry and refrigerator they are blessed with at home.
•    Spending time with animals. Another great thing for children is to have experience with animals. As they are forced to practice soft, slow touch with the animal (or there will be an immediate negative response from it) the behaviors of gentleness, patience, and kindness are reinforced.
•    Encourage them. Positive reinforcement of empathy is also helpful.
•    Take advantage of teaching moments. Role play. Sometimes children get in trouble because they find it hard to control their emotions and to understand the feelings of others. If you can seize those opportunities to explain to the child how the other party may be feeling, and suggest an appropriate response, you will have done your child a great service. This is as simple as asking, "How would you feel if someone did that to you?"

In this week’s parsha we are introduced to Moshe Rabbeinu. There is no greater model of someone who so clearly feels the pain of his brothers. Imagine a prince living in the comfort and luxury of the king’s palace, with whatever amenities they had in Egypt back then, and physically unaffected by the slavery of those around him, making the effort to go out and see the pain of his enslaved brethren. The midrash tells us that he even offered his own shoulders to help as many Jews as possible with their work, and actually experienced their pain! He also convinced Paroh to give them a day off each week so as to help alleviate some of their suffering. In his role as a shepherd, Moshe, and later David Hamelech, were able to show their deep concern for each and every individual: a characteristic which is a prerequisite to being a Jewish leader.

This middah of noticing, caring for, and trying to lessen the pain of another, is one that we must strive to emulate and teach our children. We must try to see things from someone else’s perspective and attempt to understand their needs, worries, and pain. We need to become good listeners and offer comforting and encouraging words. We can't always do anything tangible to solve the problem, but the fact that my friend knows that I share the ache of his burdens helps him tremendously. He knows that he doesn't face his problems alone. As the saying goes, “A burden shared is a burden halved.” Included in sharing my friend's burden is the act of praying for him. The gemara in Brachos 12b goes so far as to say that whoever can daven for another and doesn’t is called a sinner. Even if we cannot contribute much financially, or don’t have the time to physically help someone who is suffering, can we not at least take two minutes to offer a prayer on their behalf?

Rav Shimon Shkop explains that a “gadol” is a great person who expands his definition of self to include others. He is not merely an individual – himself – but rather part of a larger whole and consequently he becomes “gadol” – bigger. There was a terrible fire in the city of Brisk that left half the city destroyed and hundreds of Jews homeless. The rav of the town, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, promptly moved out of his house and slept on a bench in the shul. When asked why he was doing so if his own house remained untouched by the calamity, he exclaimed, “How can I sleep in a comfortable bed when so many people do not have a roof over their heads.” That is a gadol; a leader of the generation. That is empathy.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Word from the Director: 12/13/2013

One night this week, over dinner at the Drop-In Center, we were discussing the berachos that Yaakov Avinu gave his sons. The blessings of the first three sons, in particular, were called into question; they sound far more negative than one would imagine a blessing should sound like. Upon further examination, however, it becomes clear that Yaakov is not just criticizing his sons – he is offering constructive criticism. Their father is pointing out their shortcomings and areas of challenge within each one’s personality, and offering insight into the remedies for these pitfalls.

In life, we tend to eschew criticism. It makes us feel bad about ourselves and can easily exacerbate a low self-esteem. This is largely because of where that criticism is usually coming from. We feel attacked, get defensive, and try not to internalize what we perceive to be hurtful words. However, when feedback about our actions, words, or character is coming from someone who cares about us and has our best interest at heart, it behooves us to listen and heed the advice being given. In fact, such feedback can actually be an amazing gift. Becoming aware of our shortcomings, and being told how to remedy them, is one of the greatest blessings one could ask for. Many of us spend years trying to figure out why we were put in this world. If we are willing to listen, there are people in our lives who can shed light on what our purpose and mission in this world may be. The beauty of the birchos Yaakov lies in the insight he shared with his children of what their strengths and weaknesses were. The acknowledgement of their differences and the guidance of where their efforts should be focused was invaluable and empowering.

Quoting the Vilna Gaon, Rav Wolbe explains that there are certain things that cannot be changed in a person. His very nature is one of those things. Man actually has no free will in this area; he only has free will in terms of what he does with that nature. Everyone’s nature is compatible with a Torah way of life. It’s up to us to figure out how to transform our weaknesses into strengths and find the way to make a Torah lifestyle work for us. The Malbim writes on the pasuk in Mishlei, “chanoch l’na’are al pi darko,” that being mechanech a child is the art of getting to know that child’s nature by observing him or her, figuring out what makes them feel good about themselves, and then helping develop that child to meet their fullest potential. This requires much effort being put into understanding and building the person as they are, and not just trying to mold them into what we want them to be.

This week we were visited by a representative of just such a yeshiva; Yeshivas Ahavas Chayim. It was started by one of the rebbeim from Yeshiva Ner Yaakov, who excelled in understanding and developing the boys each in their own way, and continues in that derech. They pride themselves on their small student body (15-16 boys), which enables them to guide each one based on their unique personality, strengths, and weakness. The Rosh Yeshiva sits with each student once a month to review and fine tune his personal schedule. Personal growth through close relationships with the rebbeim both in and out of the beis midrash is the hallmark of this special yeshiva. For more information, please contact the Aish Tamid office.

We would like to thank an anonymous sponsor for a delicious sushi dinner this week. The boys really enjoyed the treat! If you would like to sponsor either a night or week of dinners in honor of a simcha or in memory of a loved one, please be in touch with us.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Word from the Director: 12/6/2013

We are often presented with opportunities to reach out to people. Many of those situations don’t necessitate money, nor are they labor intensive. The first step is simply to be aware of the importance of human interactions and how even a small effort like a quick phone call or text can make the difference between a great day or a lousy one for the recipient of your efforts. We all know people for whom these connections would be meaningful, but for some reason we struggle to find the time to bring our good intentions to fruition. I believe the key is to recognize how critical these messages of support are, and then to work small actions into our day.

A former student of mine is an orphan and works in an office by himself most of the day. I try to check in with him every so often. Recently he told me that although he is happy to have a job, it is very lonely there as very few people walk into his store each day. I happened to be in that neighborhood this week and stopped by to see him. The look on his face was priceless. I wasn’t there very long and had no agenda other than to let him know that someone cared enough to just stop by and say hello. I experienced this in an entirely different setting as well. I attended a very moving and inspirational play made up of actors who are in recovery from addiction. Despite having seen it before, I went to show support for the actors that I knew from rehab. For the remainder of the week, I kept getting calls and texts from them thanking me for coming and letting me know how much it meant to them that I was there. The gemara in Bava Basra tells us that one who gives tzedaka receives six brachos, while one who speaks kindly to the poor gets eleven. We can all “afford” a kind word to someone in need, we just have to take the time to make that small effort.

Chanukah was a busy week at Aish Tamid. Besides for the nightly ritual of maariv, candle lighting, and sufaniyot, we took the boys out bowling one evening. As luck would have it, after organizing transportation and all the details of the event, when we got to the bowling alley we were informed that there was a blackout in the neighborhood and clearly could not bowl. We moved on to Plan B, only to discover that the timing was off and that activity wouldn’t work either. Realizing that Someone decided that this wasn’t meant to be, we ended up hanging out together at the Promenade in Santa Monica. On the way home, as I was feeling a bit bummed out that our evening hadn’t gone as planned, a few of the boys maintained a much more positive outlook and commented on how much fun they had just going out together. I was impressed that there were none of the usual complaints you might expect from teenagers and that they were able to express their appreciation for the efforts made on their behalf, despite the disappointments of that night. I firmly believe that their ability to just enjoy each others’ company is a testament to the bond these boys have created at Aish Tamid.

Another evening this week we had a Chanukah party, which was organized by Gloria Rott and generously sponsored by Abba’s. The food was delicious, and the live music really made the evening memorable. We’d like to thank Rabbi Eli Scheller for joining us that evening and inspiring us.

Yasher koach to Mr. and Mrs. Shmuel Drebin for providing us with transportation for our evening out on the town.

And finally, a big “thank you” goes out to Yehuda Klein and Eli Sharf for generously donating Clippers tickets Aish Tamid last week.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff