THERE ARE NO ACCIDENTS – April 2018
As I wandered the halls alone it seemed highly unlikely that I would stumble upon the graduation portrait of a woman I had only met two times at Beth Tfiloh. But, as I rounded the corner of the 3rd floor, there it (she) was safe behind glass in the corner of the building. It was in that moment when Baltimore met Budapest, that my purpose for coming here was crystal clear.
The Jews of Budapest are also looking for something. They are looking for the Jewish community that Hungary was once known for. The rich heritage and culture that was stolen from them during the years leading up to and following the Holocaust. For some, it means recreating family traditions, such as adult children hosting Passover Seder for their parents, young kids joining BBYO, or reconnecting with grandparents and great grandparents who are finally free to share secrets from the past. For one young man I met, it meant converting to Judaism at the age of 16 and living an observant life.
For the teachers and students of Beth Tfiloh it means being part of this exciting rebirth taking place in a small school in Budapest and connecting with a generation of Jewish children eager to learn and embrace their Jewish identities. We are making a difference in their lives by bringing them the blessings of education, friendship and support. We are saving Jewish children!
Gratitude – April 2018
I would like to express my gratitude for giving me the opportunity to travel to Hungary with my talented colleagues and an outstanding group of BT students for “Part 2” of the Morim/Limmud Project. I must admit that I had a difficult time imagining all of this – but it was pure magic from the start! The student connections were instant, as if they were old friends reunited after a long separation. Their bonds grew stronger throughout our time together as we toured Hungary, learned about culture, history, language and finally sharing one of the most meaningful Shabbat experiences I have ever had. These young men and women demonstrated everything that is good about Beth Tfiloh -Derech Eretz, Acceptance, Respect, and a deep love of Judaism – regardless of which side of the mechitza they sat on, or their level of knowledge or observance. Each one of them active participants in sharing the beauty of Shabbat with their counterparts. In turn, the SSG kids inspired hope in all of us, that this generation of Hungarian Jews will not be lost, but there is still work to be done. I have gained a tremendous amount of personal, professional and spiritual growth as a result of this experience. I can’t wait for “Part 3”
I felt right at home as I sat in the special services team meeting at Sheibor on Monday morning. The psychologist, grade advisors, special education teacher and administrators come together to discuss student concerns and issues in the school. During our meeting I was surprised to learn that of the 450 students at SSG over 150 have learning, behavior and/or emotional issues requiring them to receive accommodations of some kind. Many of these children would easily qualify for services in the US but because psycho-educational testing in Hungary is costly and difficult to obtain, they go without. These students are often labeled as “difficult or problem” kids and for some -they pose a number of challenges for the teacher and the school.
At BT, our advisory team works in tandem with teachers and parents to provide educational, emotional support to students who are struggling. Occasionally we “counsel out” or recommend that a student would benefit from a more appropriate educational setting. While this is a difficult for us to make, the difference is that in America, there are plenty of high quality programs to choose from.
This is not the case for students at SSG with disabilities. While the teachers are deeply committed, loving and dedicated to their students, there is only so much they can do for them. And I learned that frankly, the alternatives for those students who leave Sheibor are bleak.
We have much to learn from each other about differentiation, inclusion and the reasonable expectations we place on students, teachers and our schools.
Turn left, go straight I know exactly where we are! The sense of familiarity calmed my nerves as we strolled the streets of Budapest. I marveled at what a difference a year makes – both in the weather (February vs. April) and within each of us. I even let myself wonder out loud… “What differences do you think we will find tomorrow at SSG?” Can’t wait until Monday.
Traveling by air usually makes me feel very anxious -But today, I was feeling “uncharacteristically calm” as I loaded my suitcase into the trunk of the car. I think I can attribute this to the fact that I am embarking on a journey to teach Hungarian 3rd graders about feelings, 5th graders about friendship, self-esteem. 9-13 will learn about character strengths (Making of a Mensch) gender, sexuality and healthy relationships. In America, children grow up learning the concepts I will teach this week, but they are rarely discussed in Hungarian homes, and certainly not taught in their schools. Besides, I have nearly 5 lbs. of Hershey chocolates in my suitcase.
Budapest, here I come!
Day 4 – LAST DAY IN SCHOOL 2017
My first group of students for the day are the seniors of the school – Grade 13, and much like the 12th grade students at Beth Tfiloh, this is a very stressful time in their lives. My plan had been to teach a lesson about stress, time management and throw in a little Mindfulness Meditation at the end. Well, I don’t need to tell you – that was not what G-d had in mind for me or for them. Instead, these 5 girls (one of student is visually impaired) would share an experience that I hope will become a part of their lives forever.
I began my lesson as I did with my others, building connections and relationships. I learned that one student had lived in the United States for many years and had often compared the US to Hungary (not flattering) to her classmates. She missed many things including the American educational system. SPOILER ALERT -*I would soon come to realize that I am fluent in teenage body language, even in Hungarian.
On Wednesdays, students have 45 minutes of instruction and then a 15 minute breakfast period. (Similar to our Ezra period) When I returned to the classroom, two students were engaged in a deep, heated discussion –in Hungarian, of course. When I asked if I could help them, they reluctantly agreed to share the nature of their discontent. It seems that student who shared that she missed America had offended her classmates, especially one student in particular. Accusing words like YOU, ALWAYS, NEVER, SHOULD, WOULD, COULD flew back and forth between the two of them. Suddenly, I remembered that I had packed my conflict resolution/active listening/I messages lesson plan. And before I knew it, I was mediating, facilitating and teaching simultaneously. I was running a conflict resolution group as the conflict was unfolding. This was really powerful.
We practiced, reviewed and in the end, they all had a deeper understanding of one another. I am certain that this lesson had a deep and profound effect on this class, it certainly did for me. In the end they hugged and apologized to each other. KISSES ALL AROUND! – Hershey’s of course!
Each night after dinner we would have the opportunity to share our thoughts from the day, our viewpoints from the classroom, or our feelings and reactions to the landmarks that we saw on our tours. This verbal exchange served as the inspiration for my colleague’s blogs, but not for me. I found these verbal conversations the only time I could express the profound influence this trip was having on me – both personally and professionally. Unfortunately, this did not translate as I sat down tat my computer to write my blog. How is it that I can articulate my thoughts, reactions and feelings so succinctly and yet, I find myself speechless? I am sure that I am not the only one, but I have found this style of communicating (blogging) very difficult, and it has left me feeling inadequate. Ah ha moment! – I think I just got a glimpse into what our students must feel as they struggle with a lesson or in a class that is structured solely in their weaker modality. As educators, our awareness of students learning styles can have a profound effect on the process of learning and on student achievement.
Today in 10th grade I began by asking students how they are instructed in Hungarian schools – “Student Centered” or “Teacher Centered” classrooms. I explained the two concepts as an introduction to the lesson and we compared and contrasted the two styles and our countries. In America, I explained, students are often given accommodations to fill in the learning “gaps” that might be present. I learned that there are no IEP’s in Hungary and teachers primarily deliver instruction from the front of the room. Most written material is on the chalkboard (we are spoiled – teachers do not have unlimited access to paper or to copy machines) This delivery method is not only dry and uninspired, several students shared that they often feel inadequate (stupid) learning in this style. Students then completed a brief survey to determine their learning style and shared their results with one another. One girl said that she knew she needed demonstrations to “see how to do things” but now she had a name for her style and could view it as a strength and not a weakness!
Final thoughts – While blogging is not my strength, it does not have to be my weakness or affect my self-esteem (too dramatic??) I will keep trying to learn this craft, but I may need someone to write an accommodation plan!
Upon learning that I would be traveling to Budapest, a relative asked me – “Why would Jews live in Hungary or need a Jewish Day School?” I could not answer his questions, but I am determined to find out.
My first students of the week at the Scheiber Sandor School were a group of sixth graders who seemed as nervous about me, as I was about them. But, as I greeted each student with a hand shake and smile, the tension seemed to melt away. I wrote “WHO AM I?” on the chalkboard, and asked them to create a list that we they would use to design a t-shirt illustrating these details. After the teacher explained my instructions again in Hungarian, the brainstorming began. In just 45 minutes I learned about their best friends, the sadness that came from their parents divorce, their beloved pets, and a variety of American YouTube videos that they watch on their computers. The surprise came at the end of the lesson when I learned that this was more than an icebreaker, it was a “wall-breaker.” The children of Hungary are not taught to think or talk about themselves in this way. My lesson really had opened their eyes. This compliment was both flattering and heart breaking. Can you imagine how absurd that comment would have sounded had it been about American students? We are so fortunate that our students are taught from an early age to have a strong sense of self and identity. That is not to say that the students at Scheiber Sandor do not possess this, it is simply a fact that the concept of expressing identity is not taught in the Hungarian schools, nor is it a value that is nurtured in most homes.
Following our tour of Budapest, my mind drifted back to the unanswered questions. Despite the fact that the Jews were well established, productive members of Hungarian society, they were hated, exiled, and killed. For those who dared to return, they found little left of their beloved city, their homes or their Jewish identity. However, the next generation desperately needs our time, money and help to strengthen their schools, their synagogues, and the Jewish Community Centers. They deserve the opportunity to once again enjoy a thriving Jewish life in Budapest, Hungary.
It is both an honor and a privilege to collaborate with the teachers and students of The Schiebor Sandor School. I look forward to a long and prosperous partnership.
There must be thousands of quotes and clichés about journeys, I found one in particular that spoke directly to me: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” – or in my case 4,528 miles (7300 km.) and so begins my journey to Budapest, Hungary.
In August, when I was asked to join this group of distinguished teachers -I could not have been more honored or more terrified. I began asking questions almost immediately: What do American teens and Hungarian teens have in common? How will I get past the language barrier? What if I am ineffective? What if they cannot relate to the topics?
Tomorrow, I will have the opportunity to have many of my questions answered, but there is no question in my mind that I was meant to take this journey.