Tribe


Cheating: The dreaded problem that faces every school across America — and not just the obvious sneak-a-peak-at-your-neighbor’s-quiz cheating. With thousands of essays, articles and book summaries at their fingertips, American students have discovered the Internet, expanding the opportunities both to cheat and plagiarize.

According to a survey by the National Educational Center at Rutgers University in New Jersey, 75 percent of 45,000 students surveyed partake in “serious cheating.” Many rationalize cheating by considering it something that competition forces them to do, and don’t even give their actions a second thought.

But cheating can quickly progress from bad choice to bad habit to addiction. If students become accustomed to dishonesty at a young age, what’s to prevent them from becoming dishonest adults? Although you may intend to only “semi-cheat” one time, each time you cheat it becomes a little easier, and the boundaries you once would not cross become a little more blurred.

Yet high school students today feel so much pressure to succeed that they aren’t even uniformly convinced that cheating is wrong.

“I know that a lot of people at my school copy other people’s homework when they don’t have time to do it — people now think that’s OK,” said Olivia Coffey, a senior at Marlborough School, a private girls school in Hancock Park.

Students “have so much stress and work that they are constantly overwhelmed, and feel that if they don’t do well on everything — which is most of the time impossible — then they’ll die,” Coffey said, echoing thoughts expressed by students at both private and public schools.

“It’s quite common around here, because it is common for all teenagers,” said Beverly Hills High School Senior Lisa Gross.

When students look around them and see other students doing well by plagiarizing off the Internet, or using work of students from previous years, they are encouraged to do the same — especially when that is the message they are getting from the wider society.

“I think students cheat because they learn from their mentors that cheating works and gets you ahead in life,” asserted Roni Cohen, a senior at Shalhevet School, a centrist Orthodox high school in Los Angeles. “Take sports for example. Steroids are being used by top athletes, and some of them are getting away with it.”

There also is not agreement as to what constitutes cheating.

Most people would agree that using an essay found on the Internet is a form of plagiarism, whether it is purchased from a Web site or lifted from, say, an encyclopedia site.

But what about using study guides?

Shalhevet sophomore Gaby Grossman thinks that using an Internet service like Sparknotes as “an outlet to review” is not cheating.

“If an author has a difficult-to-understand writing style, Sparknotes is almost necessary,” Grossman said. It does become a problem when students read Sparknotes in lieu of actual books, she added.

The Torah does not suffer from this confusion, said Rabbi Avi Greene, director of Judaic studies at Shalhevet. Cheating is “taking credit for any work that is not your own, knowingly or unknowingly. There is a concept in the Gemara of genevas da’as, which can be either keeping people from actually learning, or misrepresenting work. I think that’s what applies here, and it’s obviously unacceptable.”

Dr. Jerry Friedman, Shalhevet headmaster, adds that “cheating contradicts everything we stand for as a school, as a community and as Jews.”

James Nikrafter, a senior at the Orthodox high school YULA and an editor of the YULA Panther, believes that the root of the problem is competition, especially in Jewish schools.

“You’re doubling up on curriculum, work and time in school, and you still want to participate in extra-curriculars,” Nikrafter said. “What ends up happening is that students don’t have the time, patience or energy, but at the same time they are so scared to fail that they’ll go for the easy way out.”

Shalhevet senior Tamar Rohatiner suggests that schools should incorporate more things like tutoring or a place like her school’s Writing Center, where students help each other, so people don’t feel the urge to cheat.

“Let’s support the people who need help,” she said. “Kids need to learn how to deal with these struggles now, so they’ll be ready for the real world.”

Molly Keene, a senior at Shalhevet, is life editor of The Boiling Point, where a version of this article first appeared.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15.

To participate in the Jewish Journal Teen Advisory Committee, submit up to 200 words on why you should be considered.

Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Bee-witched and Bee-wildered


In Jeff Blitz’s documentary, "Spellbound," Harry Altman grimaces and fidgets at the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The Jewish sixth-grader has been asked to spell "banns," which refers to a Christian marriage notice. He’s never heard of it.

"Banns, banns, banns," he whispers into the microphone, scrunching his blue eyes and revealing a mouthful of braces. "There’s gotta be something I can think of."

It’s one of the tenser moments in "Spellbound," a quirky, excruciatingly suspenseful film spotlighting the distinctly American phenomenon of the bee. The movie follows eight diverse students, aged 11 to 14, as they make their way to the national finals.

Angela of Perryton, Texas, is the daughter of an illegal immigrant ranchhand who barely speaks English; she creates homemade crossword puzzles to learn words. April, whose dad manages a Pennsylvania pub, spends summers studying the dictionary nine hours a day. Neil of San Clemente has an affluent, East Indian father who supervises a rigorous regimen of drills and tutors. Back in India, a relative has paid 1,000 people to chant prayers for Neil during the bee.

Other contestants include Ted, who lives in a doublewide trailer in rural Missouri; Ashley, an African American from the projects of Washington, D.C., and Harry, a garrulous 11-year-old who cracks Jewish jokes — and stumbles on the word, "banns." Also competing are Nupur, an East Indian girl from Tampa, Fla., and Emily, who comes from a privileged home in New Haven, Conn.

"People told me if I was Catholic, I might have known it," his mother says, afterward. "I [just] feel bad for that boy from Texas who got ‘yenta.’"

Blitz has a different perspective.

"What’s amazing about the bee is that it’s not just this incredible mixture of cultures in the kids, but in the words, too," the articulate director said over iced tea at a Brentwood coffee house. "You see how egalitarian English is, because it absorbs words from all the different languages of the people who come here. So it makes absolute sense that a non-Jew from Texas would get a Yiddish word, and Harry, a Jew from New Jersey, would get ‘banns.’ That’s part of what’s great about America: you’re confronted with this great mixture of cultures and words."

Blitz, the son of a South American Jewish immigrant, views the bee as "an American dream story." The contestants, many of them first-generation American, personify the adage that one can improve oneself through hard work. The 35-year-old filmmaker was raised with that philosophy in an upper middle-class household in Ridgewood, N.J. His mother, a pediatrician, grew up in Mosesville, a primitive Jewish town in rural Argentina. Upon the death of her father, the editor of a Yiddishist-socialist magazine, her mother eked out a living selling quilts.

"During that period, Nazis were fleeing to Argentina and a wave of anti-Semitism swept the country," Blitz said. "My mother was forced to spend nights in jail."

Despite the racism and the poverty, she put herself through medical school, one of few women to do so at the time. Eventually, she secured a residency at a New York City hospital, where she met Blitz’s father, a research psychologist.

Growing up in their Conservative home, Jeffrey Blitz demonstrated a similar flair for tackling the nearly impossible. As a teenage stutterer, he decided to join the high school debate team, initially with disastrous results.

"There were rounds where I could literally not say a word over the course of a full eight minutes," he said. "I stuck with it, not because I was self destructive, but because I wanted to do what the world said I couldn’t."

Ultimately, Blitz improved and won state championships.

"I’ve always been drawn to people who attempt Herculean tasks," he said.

Which is why he was riveted by bee contestants when he chanced to see the 1997 finals on C-SPAN in his last year at USC’s graduate film school.

"These kids were trying to master the dictionary, which is insurmountable," he said. "There are half a million words, many of them arcane. What 9-year-old in his right mind would think that was possible? Watching the bee felt like this inexplicable magic trick; I couldn’t fathom how children could spell words I had never even heard of. "

Blitz was also spellbound by the innate drama of the competition, in which misspellers are eliminated by the dreaded "ding" of a bell. The tension reminded him of the Agatha Christie thriller, "And Then There Were None," in which characters are systematically knocked off by a killer. He felt he could structure his documentary like a mystery feature film.

To identify his "cast," he became a sleuth of sorts, studying the pool of potential contestants and printing out charts of 1998 contestants. He narrowed the list to those who had made it to the second day of competition and who hadn’t lucked out on easy words. To find promising newcomers, he contacted spelling coaches and national bee representatives.

When he had narrowed his list to around 30 students, he called his friend, Sean Welch, who had produced Blitz’s award-winning student film, "Wonderland."

"Initially I was dubious about signing on," Welch, 38, told The Journal. "I was not entirely convinced that a film on spelling would be all that interesting."

He changed his mind when he visited Blitz’s Fairfax-area apartment and saw large printouts of prospective interviewees plastering the living room walls.

"We sat down and Jeff described how he would tell these incredibly rich, complex American stories," Welch said. "I told him I was game."

The filmmakers financed the project by signing up for 14 credit cards; an early purchase was a Canon XL-1 camera.

"We couldn’t afford to hire a crew, so we figured we’d shoot the film ourselves, although we had no idea how to use the equipment," Welch said.

After a friend taught them some skills, the novices spent hours wandering the streets, filming neighbors watering the lawn or retrieving a newspaper.

"A couple days later, we hit the road," Welch said.

While interviewing disparate contestants over six months in 1999, they discovered the students had only one thing in common: the drive to succeed. They were surprised by the dearth of "stage parents": "It turned out most kids dragged their folks into it," Blitz said.

As for critics who view the bee as a waste of time, "They’re missing the point," Blitz said. "The real benefit doesn’t come from spelling, but from learning you can achieve something massive in life."

"Spellbound," in turn, proved a massive achievement for Blitz. The movie won numerous film festival prizes, rave reviews and a 2003 Oscar nomination; it is one of the six top- grossing documentaries of all time. The film stands out in a year of stellar documentaries, including Michael Moore’s "Bowling for Columbine and Andrew Jarecki’s "Capturing the Friedmans."

One fan is Blitz’s mentor, USC professor Mark J. Harris, who won an Oscar for his 1997 Holocaust-themed documentary, "The Long Way Home."

Harris has a theory about why "Spellbound" is so successful: "The film reinforces our beliefs about what democracy and meritocracy in America should mean," he said.

Harris also feels the movie has Jewish values: "We are, after all, the People of the Book and the Word, and we like our words to be spelled correctly," he said. "Certainly Jews still believe very strongly in the value of education and the power of learning to transform your life. So do these kids and their parents."

Blitz, for his part, agrees: "The bee is such an inclusive vision of America, which feels very Jewish to me, he said. "Spellbound" premieres Dec. 16, at 8 p.m. on Cinemax.

Ten Days in L.A.


A Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles reception welcomed 18 students participating in a cultural exchange sponsored by the Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership. Fourteen students from Tel Aviv’s A.D. Gordon School and four students from their paired partner, Northridge’s Abraham Heschel Day School, gathered to reflect on their experience as the Israeli students — all ages 13 and 14 — wrapped up their 10-day visit to Los Angeles.

"This trip was very important to me, because I actually got to meet the kids I’ve been writing to for four years and see how they live in Israel," Gordon student Maya Levit said.

While in Los Angeles, the Israeli students experienced American culture, both exotic and mundane, including trips to the mall, Disneyland and Universal Studios. The students also took part in some charitable work: half the group participated in helping the homeless, while the other half volunteered at an AIDS Project Los Angeles food bank.

On the penultimate day of their visit, the Israeli teens conveyed their impressions of American culture and of their life in Israel, which is rarely divorced from the ongoing violence and political turmoil. The Israeli students unanimously feel that their country, in recent years, has become isolated and inoculated from worldwide support.

Merav Schechter even considered her stay a diplomatic mission.

"I wanted to get more support for Israel from Jews in L.A.," she said.

"We need support from Jews here, even if they don’t think Ariel Sharon is doing the right thing," Eliran Raz said, to which Gil Asher added, "Israel needs support in the media."

The Israeli students said they were struck by cultural differences with their American counterparts, who seemed more connected to Jewish tradition. Aviv Benn-Sa’ar said he admired the inclusion of religious ritual at their host Conservative day school.

"In Heschel, every Friday they go to beit midrash," Benn-Sa’ar said. "In Gordon, we don’t do it."

Heschel’s students were equally moved by their Israeli pen pals’ visit.

"It has impacted me a lot," said Ali Baron. "Now the situation in Israel is actually more real to me."

"It reinforced for me how every Jew in the world is connected," Daniel Kattan said.

Gisele Feldman learned that Los Angeles was not as religiously polarized as Israel is. "There, it’s Orthodox or nothing," Feldman said.

The Federation reception was organized by Galia Avidar, Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership’s assistant director of Israel and overseas relations. Also present were Judy Taff, director of Judaic studies and exchange coordinator at Heschel, who oversaw the L.A. visit with the help of Pam Teitelbaum, mother of Heschel participant Adam Teitelbaum. Lois Weinsaft, the Federation’s vice president of international planning, heads the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.

The Israeli teens were accompanied to Los Angeles by Gordon staff members Maya Mendel and Tal Atiya and Gordon parents Shoshanna Gatenio and Menachem Reiss. Special programs leaders Sara Brennglass and Hyim Brandes also took part.

The Tel Aviv students said that they would leave with good impressions of Los Angeles’ way of life.

"It was a really good experience for me," Tal Erdinast said. "It will change my life forever."

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