High Holy Days: Books for children and teens


“Oh No, Jonah!”

by Tilda Balsley, illustrated by Jago (Kar-Ben: $7.95)Oh no, Jonah!

Those parents and teachers looking for a new twist on the story of Jonah (read yearly on Yom Kippur) need look no more. This latest version from children’s author Tilda Balsley sticks to the biblical text but is appropriate for very young children. The clever rhymes demand to be read out loud, such as after Jonah suggests that the frightened fisherman throw him into the sea: “Immediately, the weather cleared. / But things were worse than Jonah feared / ‘I wish I hadn’t volunteered.’ ” The vibrant, bold illustrations are truly stunning, and the artist’s interpretation of a huge, bright orange fish is probably more accurate than the usual depictions of whales. “A giant fish swam to his side / And stared at him all google-eyed. / Its mouth, humongous, opened wide / and, CHOMP! / He found himself inside.” Entertaining fun with a biblical message of forgiveness that is surely important to remember during the High Holy Days.


“It’s a … It’s a … It’s a Mitzvah”

by Liz Suneby and Diane Heiman, illustrated by Laurel Molk (Jewish Lights: $18.99)

If your kids haven’t heard of Mitzvah Meerkat and all his animal friends, then it’s time to introduce them to this delightfully illustrated picture book. The authors were inspired by a well-known Talmud teaching relating the importance of various good deeds, such as honoring parents, visiting the sick, helping the needy, bringing peace between people  and more. The lively animal characters joyously perform many mitzvot that children can easily relate to, and the clever layout helps parents introduce the Jewish concepts of performing good deeds in an age-appropriate manner. The title refers to the rhythmic refrain that can be chanted for fun by kids during a story-time session, but the whimsical pen-and-ink watercolor drawings are the highlight of this engaging way to introduce children to acts of loving kindness. Thankfully not preachy or otherwise didactic, the lessons are cute and contemporary.  (The sheep are knitting scarves, the monkeys play on monkey bars, etc.) This is an excellent book for the preschool classroom, but the cuteness factor of the animals’ antics will ensure that parents at home will also get lots of pleasure in learning great Jewish values and passing them on to future generations.


“The Apple Tree’s Discovery” 

by Peninnah Schram and Rachayl Eckstein Davis, illustrated by Wendy W. Lee (Kar-Ben: $7.95)

Well-known author and storyteller Peninnah Schram reminds us in her afterword to this charming fable: “To find the star in the apple, you must turn it on its side and cut it in half. We must look hard to find the beautiful star in each of us, and sometimes it just takes a change of direction.” When a little apple tree notices that stars in the sky appear to be hanging from branches of the taller oak trees, she asks God to grant her wish to also have stars. Although God notes that her “fragrant blossoms fill the air” and her “branches offer a resting place for birds” she covets only what others have. But when God causes a wind to blow and suddenly her delicious apples hit the ground, they split open, exposing the beautiful star within. This sweet parable about appreciating God’s gifts and understanding our own uniqueness is a universal tale. It will be particularly memorable if you remember to read it before you slice those Rosh Hashanah apples — by turning them on their sides and finding that elusive star.


“Be Like God: God’s To-Do List for Kids”

by Ron Wolfson (Jewish Lights: $15.99)

Did you know God gave us superpowers? This inspirational guide/journal for kids (ages 8-12) shows us how “our God shares God’s powers with us so we can make our lives better and the lives of others better. When we learn how to use God’s superpowers, we become God’s partners — God’s superheroes — on earth.” Even though it sounds moralistic, it isn’t. In fact, it looks like fun. The paperback volume sets up prominent Jewish educator Ron Wolfson as a friendly uncle who asks you thought-provoking questions and lets you write down all your answers in your book. This book is a kids’ version of Wolfson’s 2006 adult book, “God’s To-Do List — 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth.” Divided into 10 chapters such as “Rest,” “Care,” “Give” or “Forgive,” it can serve as a young person’s means of truly understanding the ways he or she can bring goodness into our world. Wolfson is remarkably at ease with the sort of unaffected language that will appeal to young people. The book is attractively designed, the stories within are engaging, and the child’s urge to write in it will be irresistible. 


“Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens”

edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin (Jewish Lights: $24.99) Text messages

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin (author of “Putting God on the Guest List”) wants young people to know that the Torah is about their lives — even if they are teenagers. “Every passage of Torah has the potential to be someone’s personal story and teaching — and that definitely includes you as a teenager,” he writes. Rabbi Salkin serves as editor of this volume and he has gathered insights into each of the 54 Torah portions from more than 100 Jews of all denominations. Most are rabbis, but other contributors are well-known educators, authors or community leaders. Some of the names that would be familiar to Angelenos would be Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, Chazzan Danny Maseng, Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Rabbi David Wolpe, Ron Wolfson, Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Spike Anderson, Rabbi Zoë Klein, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi William Cutter, Rabbi Ken Chasen, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Joel Lurie Grishaver, Rabbi Denise Eger and Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz. Each short, two- to three-page essay is written in an engaging teen-centered style, such as one by Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, which opens the discussion of Parshat Miketz with this line: “How do you know whom to trust and what is true? In Miketz, Pharaoh faces that problem.” Of course this is a wonderful resource for bar mitzvah students, but it can also serve as the first go-to book for families who enjoy sharing Torah insights at Shabbat or holiday meals.


Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and former children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine. 

For southern Israel, start of school is start of ‘rocket season’


As the school year got underway for more than two million Israeli students across the country on Monday, a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip exploded in open territory in the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council in southern Israel—midway between Beersheba and Ashkelon—causing no damage.

President Shimon Peres visited a fortified high school in Sha’ar Hanegev on Monday.

“Facing the threat of rockets, you have shown steadfastness in learning, achievements, and creativity,” Peres told students. “The state of Israel is proud of you.”

Monday’s rocket attack came just a day after three Qassam rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza on Sunday. The first rocket exploded on the grounds of a factory in the industrial area of Sha’ar Hanegev, while the second rocket exploded in an agricultural factory. The third rocket was located by a police bomb squad in an open field.

“The school year is opening today,” said Shani Cohen, a mother of three from Sha’ar Hanegev. “I have three small children in preschool and elementary school. I can’t say I’m calm and relaxed when I know Hamas could, at any moment, remind us of its existence by firing rockets. It’s true that the schools themselves are fortified, but having [the children] actually reach the schools is enough to worry me. Yesterday’s shooting was only the beginning of ‘rocket season,’” she said.

“We will not give them the satisfaction of disrupting the new school year,” said Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council Head Alon Schuster. “Most of the education and public buildings in the council are fortified, including the new high school that will be inaugurated today.”

Over summer vacation, workers in the Sha’ar Hanegev and Eshkol regional councils inspected all of the schools under their jurisdiction. “We’ve left nothing to chance,” a security officer said. “We put out a clear order to fix anything in need of repair, in relation to the safety of the students.”

The sirens set off by Sunday’s rockets caused residents and those working in the factories to seek shelter in designated secure spaces. Despite the direct hit, only one shock victim was reported. According to Roni Elkabetz, all the employees at the factory where he works were present when the rocket hit. “It’s been quiet here for several weeks now,” he said. “We’ve already gotten used to a calm life without any rockets, but now the story is repeating itself.”

Another employee said that the factories in the area have become accustomed to this situation over the past 12 years. “It’s sad that we’ve come to terms with this, but the fact is we live with it, because this is where our homes and families are.”

One of the factories hit on Sunday was also struck a few months ago. One worker was wounded in the June incident, and damage was caused to several structures. All the facilities had since been repaired, but they were damaged again on Sunday.

“It all comes down to luck,” said one employee. “There’s no way to predict in these cases. It was just unlucky that our factory was hit twice.”

Israeli NGO to advise UN on disabled kids


The UN Economic and Social Council has named an Israeli NGO as a special consultant on assisting disabled children.

The inclusion will allow Beit Issie Shapiro to “provide Israeli expertise in the field of disability rights and represent the innovations coming out of Israel,” according to the organization’s website.

The Council has 54 member states, including Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Qatar. Israel is not a member.

Beit Issie Shaipro was founded in 1980, and is now helping 30,000 children in Israel, according to its website. The organization also helps train thousands of therapists in Israel with its new therapies, and conducts research and shares best practices internationally.

The Israeli weekly Yedioth Hasharon quoted Noa Forman, an Israeli delegate to the UN on human rights issues, as describing the nomination as “a tremendous achievement.”

“The fact that an Israeli NGO made it past hurdles set by countries that are not exactly friendly toward Israel shows that no one can object to Beit Issie Shapiro’s work,” she saod.

Beit Issie Shapiro has a center in Kalansawa, an Arab city in Israel. Children from the West Bank also are regularly brought to Beit Issie Shapiro for treatment, Jean Judes, the NGO’s executive director, told the Israeli weekly.

Yang Sam Ma, South Korea’s Ambassador in Israel, gave the “initial push” to have the organization registered, Forman is quoted as saying. Sam Ma has sat on the committee in the past.

“The ECOSOC family is very happy about the nomination of Beit Issie Shapiro to Special Consultative Status,” Andrei Abramov, chief of the NGO branch of ECOSOC, said.

Focus on kids’ character, not grades


Not long ago, psychologist Madeline Levine gave a lecture at a Jewish day school near her home in Marin County, Calif. The topic: “Your Average Child.”

Nobody showed up. 

“I guess there wasn’t a single average kid at the school,” Levine quips.  

“By definition, the vast majority of our children are average,” she clarifies. 

It’s a notion that is difficult for parents to accept, especially as many of us grew up hearing that we were anything but average—we were special. If our kids are average, does that mean that ultimately we are (gasp!) average, too?

In an effort to keep such thoughts at bay, we enforce the typical trajectory: have the kids load up on classes and activities. Make sure they get good grades and garner trophies. This will land them at a top-tier college where, the story goes, they will graduate and embark upon a well-paid career.

But Levine, author of the new book “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success” (HarperCollins Publishers), says that despite today’s high-stakes environment, which combines an uncertain economic future with increasingly fierce competition for spots at top schools, parents are paying attention to the wrong things.

“If you spend all this time going over their homework, correcting it, bringing in a tutor, you’ve lost all this time to build other things: character, persistence, generosity—all the things that people now are saying are going to be mandatory” for future jobs, she said. 

In the book, Levine writes: “Every measure of child and adolescent mental health has deteriorated since we’ve decided that children are best served by being relentlessly pushed, overloaded, and tested. Our current version of success is a failure.”

It’s a trap in which much of the Jewish community finds itself ensnared, Levine says, given the historical emphasis of Jews on the value of education.

“There’s always this sense that education is the way to go; it always has been,” she said. “If your 15-year-old says I don’t want to clear the dishes today, I have my AP chemistry test [to study for], most [Jewish] parents say don’t worry about it, go study.”

“That’s a big mistake. There’s more to be learned about the issue of sharing responsibility and community that goes along with three minutes of clearing the table.”

While many Jewish schools emphasize community and values, she says, parents too often worry about a botched test.

“We know everything about their grades and not enough about where they go and what they do,” she writes. “We monitor their performance, but not their character.”

Levine reminds parents of their ultimate goal: “We want to turn out good people who find good partners, find work they like, and contribute to their communities.” 

“Teach Your Children Well” is, in part, a response to Levine’s previous book, the 2006 surprise best-seller “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.” (“Nobody expected it to end up on The New York Times” best-sellers list, she said. “It did.”)

“The Price of Privilege” touched a nerve. Although its scope was limited to upper-class families, it identified problems also prevalent among the middle- and upper-middle class. Her current book, Levine says, provides a broader perspective along with some solutions. (One example: “Question aggressively a system that seems to sanction excessive homework, competition over collaboration, sleep deprivation, and choosing activities based solely on their resume-enhancing potential.”)

As for her own background, Levine, 62, embodies the notion that “average” can turn exemplary. She grew up in New York City, in the Flushing section of Queens; her father was a police officer who died young, her mother was a social worker.

“We had no money, no insurance, nothing,” Levine recalls. A scholarship enabled Levine to study at the State University of New York, Buffalo.

“I had the best parents,” Levine said. “I was just fine the way I was, whether that was excelling in English or floundering at math. They were more interested in the kind of person I was.”

Levine began her career as a teacher in the South Bronx, a downtrodden, violence-plagued section of New York, in the 1970s. (“I was a terrible teacher,” she said. “I was so bad in the classroom, so good at the one on one.”)

Levine moved to California to pursue a doctorate in psychology and has remained here. She has a private clinical practice—on the back burner at the moment, she says—and is a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-based organization that works with schools and families to promote better balanced, more fulfilled lives for children. 

She and her husband, Lee Schwartz, have three sons, ages 32, 27 and 21. Having adult children, she says, gives her the opportunity to look back and consider what she would do differently. One thing Levine says she’d change: She would have participated more in her children’s Jewish education.

Busy with her family and career, “I remember all the times I dropped them off at Hebrew school, went home and went to bed,” she said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘You have to go to Mitzvah Day.’ Well, if mom’s not going … actions speak louder than words.”

Levine’s youngest son, Jeremy, helped guide her career toward combating the pressure-cooker environment that so many kids encounter at school. While her older sons, good students, “were served by the system,” her youngest (“a perfectly average student,” as she describes him in her book) was falling between the cracks.

“There was very little to feel good about, starting in about sixth grade,” she said. “Nobody was interested in the parts of him that were super good.”

“Every kid has a super power,” she said. “For one kid, it may be calculus. For another it’s an incredible sensitivity toward people.” A parent’s task, Levine says, is valuing these strengths equally. 

“Life hands people all kinds of losses, disappointments, tragedies,” she said. “Why do we want to have kids night after night sobbing over their homework at 2 a.m. because they can’t get it done? It’s something we created that has become an enormous stressor.”

“I feel like adults have a secret: There are a bunch of things you’re good at, a bunch of things you’re average at, a bunch of things you really suck at,” Levine said. “This idea of straight-A students is a perfect mythology to me. Most of us are pretty average in most ways.”

Kidsave changes lives for orphaned children, adoptive parents


Santiago Brown calls himself a “cashew.” It’s his way of combining the words “Catholic” and “Jew,” to refer to his unusual religious background. He lived in Colombia in a Catholic orphanage until being adopted into a Jewish family a year ago, at the age of 12. His mother, Lori Brown, a graphic artist and Nashuva member, says Santiago has Jewish music on his iPod and tells his friends, “It’s awesome to be Jewish.”

Brown first connected with Santiago through the organization Kidsave and its Summer Miracles program. Kidsave founders Terry Baugh, in Washington, D.C., and Randi Thompson, working in Los Angeles, were inspired to start the nonprofit after making visits to foreign orphanages where they witnessed children who were often left alone for hours without personal attention or mental stimulation. Kidsave, which has offices in Bogota, Colombia, and Moscow, is designed to find families for these children, as well as mentors and other sources of support.

Kidsave’s Summer Miracles program brings Colombian children from group homes and foster homes to the United States for four weeks during the summer. The children stay with “host-advocates” who care for the children while they are here, and who take it upon themselves to help find permanent homes for the kids.

Summer Miracles focuses on older children, usually between the ages of 8 and 11, who are often overlooked in the adoption process. Selected children must be legally and emotionally ready for adoption and typically are not more than two years behind academically in their home countries.

“I think there is a niche for these children,” says Sari Weiner, who adopted a child through Kidsave’s domestic hosting program, Weekend Miracles. As an older parent, Weiner did not want to adopt an infant, believing she would be too elderly by the time her child was grown. Other families may not have the energy for younger children or may want an older sibling for their other children.

Once chosen for the program, the children are brought from foster homes and group homes all over Colombia to the country’s capital, Bogota, for two weeks of training, psychological counseling and workshops. They are taught guest etiquette, some English and a bit about U.S. culture.

Estefany, left, and Johana participate in the three-legged race with Kidsave’s Bob Holman.

Host-advocates also complete role-playing workshops before the children arrive to prepare them for how to deal with situations that may arise. Rhona Rosenblatt, who has helped a child get adopted through a hosting program before and is hosting again this summer, jokes, “All the kids are doing great. The adults are constantly checking on them, being paranoid, but they are always fine.”

It costs a total of about $7,500 to bring a child to the United States through Summer Miracles, according to Thompson. Of that amount, host-advocates contribute a hosting fee of $1,250 and an application fee of $275. Host-advocates generally raise money through grass-roots organizing, while Kidsave itself receives grants and large donations.

Once the children are here, the host-advocates’ job is to spread the word about Kidsave and attend weekly events to introduce their visiting children to families. Susan Baskin, who is currently two weeks away from adopting the child she hosted last summer, mentioned Kidsave in her profile in The Jewish Journal’s “My Single Peeps” column. Brown, Santiago’s mother, has used Facebook, word of mouth and even a blurb on the Nashuva Web site to spread information about Kidsave. Brown says she brings up the organization in conversation whenever possible. Once, a teller at the bank who saw Santiago ended up mentioning Kidsave to a friend, and that friend is now in the process of adopting a child of her own.

Kidsave does not facilitate adoptions. Families who wish to adopt Colombian children after their summer visit must go through the normal international adoption process. Lauren Reicher-Gordon, the vice president of Kidsave and director of Family Visit Programs, said, “We are the yentas, the matchmakers.”

However, their success rate is noteworthy. Eighty percent of children from Summer Miracles are now adopted or in the process of being adopted, according to Reicher-Gordon. She attributes the high rate to the time families spend getting to know the kids.

Baskin agrees. Before hearing about Kidsave, she had attempted adoption on her own but was turned off by the lack of information about and time with the prospective children. “As a single woman, I felt I might not have the financial and emotional resources if the match was not good,” Baskin said. Kidsave motivated her to try adoption again because it gave her time to get to know her prospective child and a realistic idea of what it would be like to be a parent. Baskin hosted Johana in the summer of 2011 and will be leaving to pick up her new daughter in Colombia in two weeks.

The risk of any hosting program, of course, is that children’s hopes will be crushed if the adoption does not work out. Marcia Jindal, director of the intercountry adoption program at Vista Del Mar, has worked with Kidsave for seven years, doing home assessments before the children arrive, training the families, providing support and resources while the children are here, and conducting post-placement studies on children who have been adopted.

Jindal says there are pros and cons to every program. In her experience, she said, “The biggest negative that families find in these hosting programs is they feel it’s unfair to get the child’s hopes up. But there’s no way to prevent that, unfortunately.” Even if the families have the intention of adopting, the home countries of the children could at any time revoke permission to adopt. Additionally, a sudden family illness or financial problem could prevent the adoption from going through.

Valentina enthusiastically tosses a bean bag.

Reicher-Gordon says Kidsave has specific instructions for hosting families about how to approach the issue of adoption while the children are visiting. “It is not discussed when the kids are here. They are told they are learning English and having a cultural experience. … We know that kids are hopeful [for adoption], but it is not in the best interest of the children to tell them that before they leave.”

It is, nevertheless, a challenging issue to navigate. Baskin described taking Johana, who was crying and clinging to her, to the airport at the end of her visit. “I wished I could say I was going to adopt her. But all I could say was, ‘I will see you again.’ ”

Jindal stresses, however, that there are more positives than negatives to a program like this one. “Any way that we can get the word out there that children are waiting for permanency is good.” Vulnerable older children do need to be connected with families before they age out of the foster care system, and she says Kidsave does a very good job of matching children with families. “The families are really committed to advocating for the children.”

At the most recent Summer Miracles event, it appeared the hosting families cared deeply about their Kidsave children.

Baskin still remembers the expression on Johana’s face when she walked in the sand and splashed in the ocean for the first time a year ago.

Brown is hosting two more boys this summer, a second boy named Santiago — this one is 11 — and Julian, 12. The visiting Santiago recently learned to ride a bike for the first time.

“My heart is filled with joy and love,” Brown said. “They just need homes; they’re good boys. … The magic in them is amazing.”

Judge won’t allow parents to take custody of Nazi-named children


A New Jersey couple who gave their children names linked to Nazism cannot have custody of their children, a judge ruled.

The children of Heath and Deborah Campbell have been in state custody for the last three years, since a local supermarket refused to print Adolf Hitler Campbell’s full name on a cake for his third birthday. The boy, now 6, and sisters adolfJoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell, 5, and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell, 4, remain in state custody, and the state also took custody in November of a newborn boy named Hons, according to UPI.

A Superior Court judge in New Jersey decided last week that the couple cannot regain custody of the children.

The Campbells plan to appeal the ruling and Heath Campbell told the Star-Ledger newspaper that he would give up his Nazism to regain custody of the children. He and his wife are now separated.

Child Holocaust survivors speak up for those who can’t


Only a precious remnant of Holocaust survivors is alive today, and many of them were just children when they went into hiding or ended up behind barbed wire. Indeed, there’s a heartbreaking irony in the fact that the last survivors are the ones who were the most at risk, precisely because the Germans had no use for youngsters who could not perform heavy labor.

The story is told in the first person in “How We Survived: 52 Personal Stories by Child Survivors of the Holocaust,” a publication of an organization called Child Survivors of the Holocaust Inc. ($30, ” title=”www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve” target=”_blank”>www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Opinion: Chewable Xanax and the shoe debacle


I had to look inside myself, which was kind of like looking into my high school locker: moldy half-eaten sandwich, a few loose Starburst candies, heaps of notebooks and burrito-stained gym clothes obscuring the few things of value. Sure, there’s a book of Sylvia Plath poems and a valid bus pass, but good luck finding them while avoiding that festering tuna salad from yesteryear. 

When I looked inside myself, it took a second to clear out the debris. Also, I usually forget the combination to the stupid lock.

All of this inner turmoil was catalyzed by one simple moment, just picking up my 2-year-old from day care. He went to put on his shoes and socks, struggled mightily, finally succeeded, after which he looked at me, paused for a beat and started bawling. He lunged at me for a hug and I knelt down to look him in the eye.

“I’m scared,” he said, sobbing. Me, too, dude. If I wanted to see someone overreact to one of life’s challenges, I could just look in a mirror.

My child, facing a difficult task, got through it only to melt down completely. It’s happening, I thought. This kid needs chewable Xanax.

Hoping his day care teacher didn’t notice, but knowing she had, I grabbed his coat and hustled him out of there.

Driving home, I was baffled. I mean, you would think irrational crying jags related to under-achieving would be right up my dark alley, but this one had me stumped. I knew he put on his socks and shoes after naptime every single day, but I was uncharacteristically early that day, and I happened to be there. Had I thrown off his game? Did he have performance anxiety doing this important task in front of Mom? Have I already passed along some deep, depressing cultural pressure to earn love through accomplishment?  

The day after the shoe debacle, the day care lady snagged me as I turned to exit.

“We have to talk about what happened with the shoes,” she whispered gently. I knew she was right.

According to her, the problem wasn’t in his skill level, but in his confidence. “You need to tell him that you know he can do it. He doesn’t think you believe in him. You don’t trust him, so he doesn’t trust himself.”

That’s when I looked into the rusty old locker of my soul and realized; she is right. I wanted to think it was some Montessori mumbo-jumbo, but I knew it was the truth.

When I saw his little hands struggling with the heels of his tiny socks, it looked so impossible, getting them up, closing the Velcro on his sneakers, the whole thing just looked too hard, and I was pretty sure I was going to have to jump in and help him. The truth is, I didn’t think he could do it, and he sensed that, and he got scared and wept.

“But, you won’t pass the bar,” said my mom to my brother, moments after he announced he would be applying to law school.

He passed the bar on the first try and has been a lawyer for years, but you see how this runs in my family, runs like a kid with inside-out socks.

Since the day care talking-to, I have kept a watchful eye on myself. I convince myself to believe he can hold onto the swing chains without falling, no matter how high I push him. I convince myself that I believe he can spear pieces of broccoli with his fork, or hang up his coat, or turn pages of a book.

Fear of those you love failing isn’t mean or belittling or dismissive; it’s a protective mechanism. That doesn’t make it right. If I don’t have confidence in the little things now, I could project the idea that I don’t trust him to tackle big things later. So, I guess I have to trust myself to at least fake trusting him. Locker closed.


Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me”( Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.

Chasing parental boredom while catching some foreign films


I was in seventh grade when my dad took me to see a Turkish movie exploring the lives of five prisoners given a week’s home leave in the aftermath of a coup d’etat.

Why did he take a kid to see the movie “Yol”? To teach me a valuable lesson about suffering? To expand my world-view beyond Brandeis Hillel Day School and ballet class and working weekends at my mom’s coffee shop? No. My dad wanted to see the movie.

And if I wanted to hang out with my dad, that was the deal. Yol.

Not only did I see that movie — which consisted mainly of tight shots of tortured souls walking up hills into wind — but also a multitude of other age-inappropriate films, thanks to my Pops and his bi-weekly Sunday visits during which he dragged me to everything from documentaries about coal mining and obscure folk singers to lengthy Swedish films. At the time, I really cared more about Swedish fish.

Now that I am a parent, I realize that my dad was onto something, and I’m looking for ways to emulate him.

My dad’s concept was to choose an activity that he loved and bring me along, thus he would never be bored or resentful that he was doing something lame like hanging out watching me try on clothes at Wet Seal. If he could convince me to share his love of art house films, he could kill two birds with one long, boring cinematic achievement: He could spend time with his kid while enjoying a favorite pastime.

You might think, wow, what a selfish dude.

Maybe his daughter was exposed to things that were adult and therefore disturbing. Or maybe his daughter was bored. Or maybe he should have sucked it up and gone to the mall, or perhaps to see “Footloose,” which involves teens in perhaps emotional prisons, but not actual prisoners.

To that I say, yes, it was uncomfortable watching some of the films, and confounding at times. On the other hand, I loved hanging out with my dad on Sundays, and I didn’t really care what movie we saw. Maybe, to his credit, because he was doing exactly what he wanted to do, he exuded a certain happiness and calm. And kids read that kind of vibe. So, I never got the feeling my dad didn’t want to hang out with me.

There should be a word for that in Turkish.

As the mother of a 2-year-old, I thought it was a stroke of genius when I saw a father at a skateboard park with his toddler. This little girl was an incredible skateboarder, shredding, as one might say, on a giant half-pipe. When I spoke to the dad while marveling at his girl, he told me they go there four afternoons a week. This guy, I realized, had found his Yol, an activity that wouldn’t suck the life out of him, something that might somehow enrich his daughter’s life (while maybe jacking up her shins or teeth) and one that he could do without too much personal sacrifice. Sure, this guy could have sat through an endless series of tea parties, but he would have hated that, so he taught his daughter to skate and now he has a skate partner for life. Or at least until she is old enough to decide whether to resent him.

So I continue searching for my Yol.

Loving my child is no problem. However, filling toy dumpsters with torn-up bits of paper towel before dumping them over into a plastic garbage truck is more depressing than an Ingmar Bergman film festival (yes, my dad took me to one, so I know). At this point, the things my boy likes to do — play with trucks, fill pails with sand and water to make sand castles, your basic hide-and-seek — well, those are wrenchingly, painfully dull.

Turns out, the word Yol is actually Turkish for “the way,” and I need to find mine. Hopefully, it won’t be headed uphill into the wind.

I can’t be the badly dressed mom at pickup time


Today, I stopped home to change my outfit before picking up my kid from day care.

What, because you never know who might snap a photo as I lure my child into his car seat with the whispered promise of a Grover juice box? No one cares. Except now that I’m a parent, I care deeply about lots of things that are totally meaningless. For example, what I wear when I fetch my kid.

It’s not that I want to impress the other moms, or the woman who runs the place, or her assistant. It’s that on some level, I need to impress them.

Or at least that describes the urgency with which I want to stroll in wearing skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled brown suede boots with a casual but clearly expensive T-shirt.

It was one thing for me to show up places with a guacamole stain on my sleeve when I was only representing myself. Maybe it was even cute, not Zoey Deschanel in a romantic comedy cute, but I like to think it was close. Now that I’m a mom, for some reason it seems important to look important, or at least like I don’t eat in my car and buy accessories at Claire’s.

Yep, get ready, because this is one of those mom moments triggered by one of those daughter moments. Get cozy, it’s blame mom time!

It may not surprise you that keeping up appearances wasn’t exactly a thing to my mom, and bless her heart for being all free-spirited, but her free-spiritedness cost me big time.

My mom wore what she wanted, regardless of the setting. Graduation from Confirmation class at Temple Sherith-Israel, the other moms wore knit separates and wrap dresses, my mom wore something with a batik feel, something Mrs. Roper might have sold at a yard sale after placing it in her “too loud” pile. My mom never shaved her armpits, but always wore sleeveless. Granted, it was San Francisco and the hippie thing was arguably fashionable, but not at Hebrew school.

Part of me wished she would see that, and bend to the obvious notion that all kids want to fit in, and by extension, they would like their parents to blend.

Blending is an important skill I had to teach myself, the way I taught myself table manners and cursive, because counterculture childhoods kind of skip those stops on the growing-up train.

Looks matter. And by that I mean the sideways looks you get when your mom is sporting an exotic beetle-sized amethyst brooch to the dentist’s office.

What never fails to surprise me is the pressure I put on myself not to make a single mistake my mom made.

No epiphany about perfectionism or how shallow wardrobe is as an assessment of a person’s character is going to stop me from being aware of my wardrobe choices from now until I’m dropping my son off at his college dorm room (or visiting him in prison; I don’t want to jinx anything). I can’t hide how deeply I want to do better than my own mother, because I’ll be wearing it.

Ironically, I’ll be wearing wrinkle-free and appropriate clothing as I make a bevy of other untold errors in judgment that my son will go out of his way to avoid when it’s his turn. That’s how it is. We over-correct. In doing so, we make all sorts of other gaffes. There’s a closet full of ways to under-achieve, so grab whatever is on the rack. There’s something to fit everyone.


Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” (Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.


Seth Menachem is on paternity leave and will return at the end of April.

For the kids, beyond the questions


“A Sweet Passover” by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by David Slonim (Abrams: $16.95).

It turns out that little Miriam is not so different from the rest of us. By the final day of Passover, she gets sick of eating matzah and refuses to eat it ever again. Newman, a well-respected and prolific author of children’s books, created this heartwarming story about family traditions and Jewish cooking that would make a wonderful read-aloud for the 4- to 8-year-old set. When Grandpa prepares his famous matzah brei, which he also calls “Passover French toast,” Miriam finds it just a bit too hard to resist. “Essen in gezunt, shayneh maideleh” (eat in good health, pretty girl), he says. And she does. The humorous illustrations are a bit reminiscent of Charles Shultz and will amuse adults and children alike. A great matzah brei recipe is included, along with a useful glossary of Passover terms.


“What Am I? Passover” by Anne Margaret Lewis, illustrated by Tom Mills (Albert Whitman: $9.99).

The good folks from the “My Look and See Holiday Book Series” (previous topics: Christmas, Easter and Halloween) have now made the leap to Jewish holidays with this Passover book for very young children. Following the same format as the others, the bright and appealing thick cardboard pages contain a series of very simple holiday-related riddles. The flap can be easily lifted by children, who will enjoy guessing the answers that appear there in conjunction with brief explanations of Jewish terms. For example, “I am a mixture of apples, nuts and a little wine. I am tasty and sweet. What am I? What could I be? I am charoset on the Seder plate, that’s me!” The big, bright illustrations make this a must for an interactive Jewish preschool story hour and a sure hit with preschoolers everywhere. Kudos to the illustrator for depicting all the boys and men wearing kippot — a sight rarely seen in secular Jewish picture books.


“Izzy the Whiz and Passover McClean,” by Yael Mermelstein, illustrated by Carrie Hartman (Kar-Ben: $7.95).

Forget the candle and the feather — here is a charming book for children that tackles the topic of chametz cleaning through a feat of magical engineering. It’s a funny, rhymed tale of a whiz kid, named Izzy, who wants to give his harried mother a break from Passover cleaning. He invents a robot-like Passover cleaning machine that he names “Passover McClean” and then tells her to go rest while the machine does its work. (She complains she has a bit of a “bread-ache.”) With somewhat of a nod to Sylvester McMonkey McBean, Dr. Seuss’ “Fix-It-Up-Chappie” who invents a “star-off” machine, the author imagines young Izzy as the same sort of mechanical genius. At first his machine performs admirably, but by the time he lets it loose on the living room, Izzy finds it necessary to locate the emergency hatch and press the red button to set things right for Passover McClean. It’s an entertaining story with clever rhythm and wordplay, and appealing cartoonish illustrations. A simple author’s note at the end explains the concept of searching for chametz before Passover.


“The Elijah Door: A Passover Tale” by Linda Leopold Strauss, illustrated by Alexi Natchev (Holiday House: $16.95).

Feuding families live in “side-by-side houses in a small village that was sometimes Poland and sometimes Russia” in this original folktale that may be destined to become a Passover classic. Shortly after the Galinskys swap two fat geese for six of the Lippas’ laying hens, the geese die, and thus a feud is born. Were they sick before the swap or was it an accident? Who knows? Now the families refuse to speak to one another, although they had shared the Passover seder for many years. Young friends Rachel Galinksy and David Lippa, whose future betrothal has been thwarted by this turn of events, defy their families — Romeo and Juliet style — and enlist the town’s clever rabbi in a sophisticated ruse to bring the families back together at Passover. An artist’s note explains that the elaborate hand-painted woodcuts were inspired by traditional Eastern European folk prints from the 18th and 19th centuries. A couple of full-page spreads at the end of the book are particularly impressive: One serves as a joyous glimpse into the bygone era of village life at Passover time, and the other radiates the simple pleasures of “all the town’s Jews gathered with the Galinskys and the Lippas in one great celebration of love and freedom and family.” This beautifully illustrated book presents a wisely told tale with a new spin on what opening the door for Elijah can really mean.


“Let My People Go!” adapted by Alison Greengard, illustrated by Carol Racklin-Siegel (EKS: $10.95).

The original biblical story of Moses, slavery, Pharoah and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt is suitably translated for children in this beautiful paperback adaptation. The English translation is placed below the large-type Hebrew text, and the colorful accompanying artwork is outstanding. All the titles in this series of Bible stories for children, including stories such as “In the Beginning,” “The Tower of Babel,” “Rebecca,” “Noah’s Ark,” “Lech Lecha,” “Jacob’s Travels,” “Joseph the Dreamer” and “The Brave Women Who Saved Moses,” feature full-color reproductions of beautiful silk paintings that enhance the text. The imaginative depiction of the Ten Plagues is especially noteworthy. At the back of the book, each title includes a literal translation of the biblical Hebrew and a useful glossary in both English and Hebrew.


Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and former children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.

You, with a kid


I’ll never forget asking my therapist the following question when I found out I was pregnant: “Who am I going to be?”

“You,” she answered. “With a kid.”

That was comforting that day, on that couch, staring at those Matisse prints, being that person who was terrified of mom jeans and my life thrown into a bouncy house to sprain its ankle and barf.

Now, that’s not so comforting.

In fact, there are days I don’t want to be just me, with a kid. I want to be a version of me that knows how to cook, so I won’t be defrosting gluten-free microwaveable burritos and calling it dinner. That’s right, preservatives and cost overruns, my friends. I’m not proud. But I had a baby, and I didn’t become that lady who subscribes to Real Simple, and I don’t understand what it means to “blanch” or even “julienne” a vegetable.

What’s more, I also didn’t become a fun, wildly animated lady. I’m still the pretty serious, reading a book on the history of fonts, inhibited, never even sings karaoke kind of lady. The woman who swings her child upside down over a sandcastle as she does a perfect Cookie Monster voice? I didn’t become her, and now sometimes I want to.

I’ve seen progress, which I’ll get to.

(And by the way, “progress” is just the kind of buzzword therapists love. It’s their catnip. It sounds very self-reflective, but not grandiose.)

The rush of love for your kid, not to mention the constant exposure to other parents to whom you can’t help but compare yourself, can make you feel like a real bummer, like you aren’t doing it right or aren’t doing enough, or having enough fun, or serving enough kale. If you can’t cook or maybe teach the essentials of good pitching technique or tutor in algebra or even play a decent game of hide and seek, you might be hard on yourself, as I can be, because I just want to be good, like a kid just wants to be good. I just want to be ebullient and have a minor in childhood development and maybe another in the art of drawing with sidewalk chalk. Is that too much to ask?

I am who I was before, and I wasn’t exactly making balloon animals and singing songs that require accompanying hand gestures.

What my therapist didn’t mention, because her purpose in that moment was to stop me from panicking about changing, is that what I used to be wasn’t all that glamorous, and that maybe a few changes would do me good.

My son loves rocks, loves trucks, loves being outdoors, loves watching motorcycles whiz by. I don’t inherently enjoy any of these things. The progress is that I’m starting to get it. A pile of rocks has its charm.

Last night, my son stopped his tricycle on the sidewalk and spread himself out on a bed of rocks, staring up at the sky. He motioned to me, and I spread myself out on the pile of rocks right next to him, and we both looked up, saying, “Sky. Trees. Airplane. Birds.” And I genuinely enjoyed the feeling of those rocks against my back, the setting sun on my face. There are times I see a motorcycle and genuinely find myself thinking, “Those are cool.”

Who is this? Did I change a little? Open myself to the little wonders a toddler digs because I want to love him the right way, and to do so I have to get dirty? Am I making the slowest, most imperceptible progress toward being one of the moms I admire? Have I become so lame at expressing myself I just ask a series of rhetorical questions meant to point toward some conclusion? I am still who I was, because I was always decent at experimenting, failing, trying again.

Looking up at the birds, that sounds idyllic and all for most people, but it was just never my thing. Now that my son is my thing, so are his birds and his rocks. I’m just me, with a kid, and grass stains on my heels.


Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me”( Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.


Seth Menachem is on paternity leave and will return at the end of April.

Q&A with an expert on bullying


Ron Avi Astor, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development at USC, has been studying the epidemiology of school violence for nearly 30 years. In 1997, he moved his family to Jerusalem for one year to run the first-ever large-scale comprehensive school violence survey in Israel, with his partner, Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Rami Benbenishty. Together they co-authored the book “School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School, and Gender” (Oxford University Press, 2005). The study is still considered one of the most rigorous and ambitious ever conducted, and there are plans to replicate it in France, Chile and Taiwan. Here, Astor discusses its findings and what it has to teach Jewish schools in the United States.

Jewish Journal: The term “bullying” means many things. What exactly are we talking about when we’re talking about bullying?
Ron Astor: Bullying covers a wide range of behaviors that are qualitatively really different from each other: name calling, social exclusion, teasing, kicking, hitting, fistfights, weapon use, ganging up on somebody, writing things about people or posting it. It used to be in the bathroom, now it’s using the Internet to upset, humiliate or threaten somebody. Generally, the person who does the bullying needs to be stronger socially and psychologically, and it needs to happen more than once.

JJ: Who are the prime targets?
RA: In general, kids who tend to be more isolated, kids who are weaker in terms of social connection, who the bullies feel [are isolated enough that] they can get away with it.

JJ: Bullying has suddenly become a very hot topic. But, haven’t people always been mean?
RA: Until 2001, we didn’t run studies on bullying in the United States, but after the shootings at Columbine, a theory came out in the media saying that the reason why these kids became shooters is that they were bullied at school. But there is no evidence to show that bullying leads to shooting; if that were true, it would be Armageddon in Los Angeles. 

JJ: Is being part of a minority group an advantage in deflecting bullying, as opposed to those who suffer in isolation? 
RA: It’s too general to say, “I’m part of the Jewish people; I’m not alone.” I could be Jewish, and be on a Jewish campus, and not have any friends and be very isolated. But, if a group becomes cohesive and organized, I think that actually protects people from being harmed. We’ve seen that with civil rights.

JJ: Some adults excuse bullying behavior as a “kids will be kids” developmental milestone. How do you deal with bullying that is really dangerous and bullying that is just part of growing up? 
RA: On the one hand, you don’t want people to go meshuggah about this stuff, where everything a little kid does has to have serious consequences. On the other hand, there have to be consequences that are appropriate. Society tends to speak only in terms of how adults respond, but that’s reactionary. What’s better is a wider belief and philosophy about what a human being should be like. 

JJ: Why did you choose school violence as the focus of your career research?
RA: It has to do, in part, with growing up Jewish. If you look at all our holidays, it’s all about being a victim and how we respond as a society to victimization. Also, growing up in L.A. at the height of Bloods and Crips, gangs in schools … living at a time when there was a lot of racial tension. We lived in a much more violent society than we have right now. So it was the combination of the Jewish questions and what I saw around me growing up.

JJ: In an essay about Jews and school violence, you wrote that American Jews don’t perceive school violence as an American Jewish problem. Why is that?
RA: At the time, Jews were following what the rest of society was saying, and society had branded youth violence as a minority problem and a poverty problem. But what this whole focus on bullying has done has told all of America that this is a problem that cuts across all categories. No group or segment of our society is immune to bullying.

JJ: You also wrote that when you began your research, almost no scientific literature existed about Jews and darker issues, such as child abuse, family violence, drug addiction, mental illness or as suffering from problems such as bullying or school violence. Was this a way of keeping a low profile on ugly issues?
RA: The Jewish community in the United States understands that even though we love to see ourselves as a model community, and I think we are, we have problems like everybody else. We’re al’ kol am [a nation like other nations], and that’s a process partially influenced by Israel.

JJ: After you conducted the study in Israel, you reported that the country saw a 20 to 25 percent reduction in school violence rates, which you believe is related to the fact that the entire educational system made combatting school violence a top priority. Why hasn’t that happened in the United States?
RA: If you looked at the average high school pre-World War II, it had 500 students. After that, when people started moving toward factory models, schools followed. Instead of teachers patrolling hallways and saying hello, they became a math teacher, a history teacher, a science teacher, and the classroom became the domain of their work. But if you look at where bullying takes place, it happens in the hallway, the playground, the bathroom — all the places where a teacher’s professional role doesn’t exist. One idea is to move back to the old view, where a teacher sees the entire child and the entire school as their domain. That’s what the whole mission of education is supposed to be about.

JJ: You’ve complained that it’s been difficult to get exposure for your findings in the U.S. Jewish community. Since this interview is happening because of the release of a movie, would you say you owe a debt to Hollywood?
RA: [laughs] I owe a debt to Hollywood and to you. This is one of most in-depth interviews I’ve done — in 20 years. My stuff has been in Newsweek, Time, NPR, CNN —  the only place I couldn’t crack was the Jewish news.

The battle to get ‘Bully’ seen by those who need it most


At Sioux City Middle School in Iowa, 12-year-old Alex Libby is the odd-man-out. Seen by his peers as different, he has golden hair, gentle eyes, a wide, flat nose and permanently puckered lips. Together, they might seem to express something both pouty and vulnerable, sweet and sad. Kids are not so kind. “People call me fish face,” he blankly tells the camera in the new documentary “Bully” by filmmaker Lee Hirsch. “I don’t mind.”

Hirsch’s camera follows Alex to the bus stop. He breathes heavily and loiters sort of aimlessly until another boy his age begins to taunt him, “I’ll break your Adam’s apple, which will kill you!” the boy shouts. On the bus, yet another boy tells Alex he plans to bring a knife to school. “I’m gonna f—- you up,” he taunts. “You’re gonna die in pain.”

The documentary, which hits theaters on March 30, comes at a time when the prevalence and perils of bullying are thick in national consciousness. Last week, former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was found guilty of a hate crime, convicted of 15 criminal charges including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and tampering with evidence for using a Webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man. Engaging in a practice commonly known as cyberbullying, Ravi used his Twitter and Facebook accounts to invite others to join him. “Roommate asked for the room till midnight,” Ravi Tweeted on Sept. 19, 2010. “I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” A few days later, Ravi Tweeted a second time, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”

Three days after the initial incident, Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi leaped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.

Although Ravi was not charged in relation to Clementi’s death, the case has widely been seen as a watershed moment because, for the first time, an act of cyberbullying has been successfully prosecuted. But the phenomenon of bullying is nothing new. The word is simply a modern catchall to describe an ancient behavior; even before “Lord of the Flies,” there were Joseph and his brothers. Yet bullying covers such a broad range of behaviors — from teasing and name-calling, to threats and even physical violence — and affects an even wider swath of ages, starting as early as preschool and continuing through adulthood, when, in the workplace it’s called harassment, it could probably hold rank as one of the most challenging social problems in human history.

[Q&A with an expert on bullying]

Before bullying became a buzzword and a subject of serious scientific study, it was widely but erroneously believed to be an affliction of race or poverty. For Jews, victimization that comes from being different from the dominant culture is a familiar theme. But while a minority status determined by race, religion, gender, social status or sexual orientation often becomes a factor in discrimination, bullying is not restricted to minority groups. Nor is it believed to be more or less prevalent within one group over another.

Today, sociologists generally agree that the phenomenon is universal and that it happens on a global scale. In 2010 in the United States, 828,000 nonfatal victimizations at schools were reported among students ages 12-18, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics on behalf of the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. The same study found that nearly half of those were considered “violent victimizations,” and more than 91,000 incidents qualified as “serious violent victimizations.” It was also reported that the majority of all childhood victimizations occurred at school, including 17 homicides and seven suicides.

All this makes it likely that you, your child or someone you know has experienced some type of bullying at some point during adolescence. And more than any sociocultural identification — black, Jewish, gay, wealthy — the single most powerful determinant in whether an individual is susceptible to bullying behavior is social isolation. How strange, then, to perceive minority status as a happy accident of fate; sometimes it is precisely affiliation with a group that can be lifesaving.

“The thing I think about a lot is, ‘What are the activators of pain?’ ” Lee Hirsch, the 40-year-old filmmaker of “Bully,” said during a phone interview from New York. “I love movements and politics and platforms, but the thing that interests me the most is, what can compel people to move off the sidelines?”

All photos from “Bully,” courtesy of the Weinstein Co.

Whether there are genetic incentives for altruistic behavior is a perennial query of evolutionary biology. A recent article in The New Yorker magazine by Jonah Lehrer illuminated a scientific debate about the genetics of altruism. Is it actually biologically good to do good? “Charles Darwin regarded the problem of altruism — the act of helping someone else, even if it comes at a steep personal cost — as a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection,” Lehrer writes. “And yet, as Darwin knew, altruism is everywhere, a stubborn anomaly of nature. Bats feed hungry brethren; honeybees commit suicide with a sting to defend the hive; birds raise offspring that aren’t their own; humans leap onto subway tracks to save strangers. The ubiquity of such behavior suggests that kindness is not a losing life strategy.”

As more students report having witnessed bullying than experiencing it, converting bystanders into altruistic defenders could prove transformative. It is the message conveyed by Hirsch’s film, and it is his hope that the film will seed a social revolution — a battle against bullying, so to speak, that would make prevention and containment a permanent part of America’s educational culture.

“Tackling this idea of bullying as a nation, in a really deep way,” Hirsch wondered, “does that get at a bigger truth or bigger transformation than bullying itself? Does confronting [this issue] help us see more about life and the choices that we make?”

Hirsch urgently believes that now is the time to seize upon the spotlight and influence public discourse. “There’s something so universal and collective in the experience of bullying. There is a conversation to be had that hasn’t yet been had, and I think that’s why I’m so committed to classrooms seeing this film; what could come out of that is thrilling to think about.”

It’s too bad, and just a tad ironic, then, that Hirsch is also having to battle for his movie to be seen. When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) scarlet-lettered the film with an “R” rating for explicit language, it complicated the filmmaker’s plans to screen the movie in schools for students. Because, while the film is reliably entertaining, it’s not exactly a choice pick for a Saturday afternoon. It was designed to be consciousness-raising and educational.

“Bully” tells the story of five students and their families as they confront the real-life consequences of school-day torment. For a year, Hirsch and his camera traveled to five cities to observe the effects: To follow Alex, the documentary’s default star, Hirsch was given unprecedented access to three schools in Sioux City, Iowa — an elementary, middle and high school — where his cameras were allowed full access in hallways, classrooms and on the playgrounds. Given the many discomfiting scenes that emerge in the film — Alex is shoved, stabbed, ridiculed and threatened — it seems either miraculous or insane that the school agreed to participate. Hirsch attributes this to their desire for change. “They want to be part of the solution,” he said.

Palestinian children killed in West Bank bus accident


At least eight Palestinian schoolchildren on a field trip were killed when a truck collided with their bus on a rain-soaked road in the West Bank.

Dozens of elementary school age children on the bus headed from eastern Jerusalem for Ramallah were also injured. The students were taken to Palestinian hospitals in Ramallah and Israeli hospitals, including Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikvah. A teacher was also reportedly killed.

The Israeli-Arab truck driver reportedly lost control of his vehicle in the bad weather. The impact caused the bus to flip over and burst into flames.

Israel and Palestinian emergency services cooperated at the scene, while Israeli and Palestinian security police are cooperating in investigating the accident, according to reports.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning following the tragedy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his sorrow at the tragedy and offered the Palestinian Authority any assistance needed.

Boy allegedly set Jewish girl’s hair on fire after making slurs


A Canadian teenager was arrested for allegedly setting a Jewish classmate’s hair on fire after making anti-Semitic remarks.

Winnipeg police have charged the 15-year-old boy with assault with a weapon following an investigation of the Nov. 18 incident in the hallway of a local high school. Police say he confronted a 14-year-old girl and made the slurs before pulling out a cigarette lighter and singing her hair.

The girl did not suffer any serious physical injuries.

Police weren’t notified of the incident until Nov. 25 and arrested the boy on Dec. 4, CBC News reported.

Staff at the high school told the Winnipeg Free Press that the boy was suspended immediately, and he was later withdrawn from the school by his legal guardian.

Police said a possible hate crimes charge must be approved by Manitoba justice officials.

Investigators said the boy’s Facebook page contained posts of an “anti-Semitic” and “Nazi” nature. A school official said the teens had exchanges on social media prior to the incident.

Shelley Faintuch of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg called the incident “a shocking act of violence that must not be tolerated. The allegation that the attack may have been motivated by ant-Semitism makes it of special concern to the Jewish community, but in actual fact, an attack like this affects all communities.”

Alan Yusim of B’nai Brith Canada said the incident “tears at the fabric of the community. I think there should be zero tolerance for any hate-motivated activity in our schools.”

Parents can help raise Jewish children even once they’re away at college


American Jews are known for the emphasis they place on academic success.

Jewish professors populate America’s universities, and, respectively, Jewish doctors, lawyers and politicians help fill the nation’s hospitals, law firms and legislatures. At the core of this success are generations of American Jewish parents who have encouraged their children to focus, work hard and succeed from kindergarten through college and graduate school.

College in particular is a formative time for students’ Jewish identities.

In a widely publicized essay written in 1968 for the journal Judaism, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote, “By and large, college is a disaster area for Judaism, Jewish loyalty, and Jewish identity.”

More recently, in a 2006 study for the Avi Chai Foundation, Brandeis University researchers found that, “In the soup of the college experience, Jewish students are making religious choices, and these are often decisions to do less, not more.”

Similar sentiments can be expressed about college students’ connections to Israel, though that is another matter.

No magic bullet exists to quickly and cheaply reverse this phenomenon. But parents can play a vital role in helping students—their children—maintain a connection to Judaism by setting an example of Jewish involvement and by partnering with the agencies that bring Jewish life directly to young people.

A Jewish parent’s relationship with a child is so sacred that it is codified in the Ten Commandments, requiring children to respect their mothers and fathers. But just as it is the children’s duty to respect their parents, so, too, is it the parents’ responsibility to raise their children.

Jewish education works best when it reinforces deep, rooted values established by parents.

Ideally, parents should begin educating their children at birth; however, they can begin at any age, and even after the children are off at college. In today’s hyperconnected world, students studying at schools across the country are just a phone call or a video chat away. Using technology, parents can model Jewish living from home while still allowing their children the space to grow up.

Before children head off to college, parents often engage their children in various coming-of-age discussions. Parents must have a similar conversation about Jewish values and observances—a discussion in which they articulate expectations and hopes that too often are left unsaid. Of course, such a conversation carries more weight when parents “walk the walk” by serving as role models of Jewish living.

Parents can also support their college students by sending them care packages associated with Jewish holidays and themes. Some synagogues already do this, but when these gifts come from home, they carry that much more intergenerational meaning and educational value.

Universities have evolved to become more inclusive in the services they offer to students—whether from a psychological or career counselor, a resident adviser or even a campus rabbi. Instead of only supervising a university’s kosher food or facilitating prayer services, campus Jewish groups have broadened their reach to serve as much of the Jewish student community as possible. Far from being a place of refuge for a few committed Jewish students, these organizations have developed programs to reach out to all those seeking meaning in their Judaism.

The challenge is to reach all Jewish students—not just those who are already inclined to participate. The goal must be to show Jews of all stripes and backgrounds that within Judaism’s incredible depth and breadth is something –more than just something, even—that could interest them.

If parents want their children to have a close connection with Jewish life on campus, they should connect with the campus Jewish mentors who are there 24/7 for students. Just as parents support their children’s secular education, it is imperative that parents also support their children’s Jewish education at college by providing financial support to Jewish organizations there. This will also help to create a culture of Jewish involvement from the home to the campus.

These ideas, when delivered to young people with a bit of space and a lot of love, can resonate during college and long after.

(Rabbi Hershey Novack is the director of the Chabad on Campus – Rohr Center for Jewish Life at Washington University in St. Louis.)

Jews must respond to the crisis in Somalia


A tragedy is unfolding in the Horn of Africa, where hundreds of thousands of children are at immediate risk of death. The disastrous combination of the worst drought in 60 years, high food prices and regional conflict has left 12 million people, including more than 2 million malnourished children, in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

A huge migration is now taking place from the areas of southern Somalia that have been engulfed in famine to the capital, Mogadishu, and to neighboring Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Mothers carry their infants for days or weeks on end, desperate to find them nourishment, clean water and medical assistance. Some have been forced to make an unthinkable “Sophie’s choice” about which child to feed and which to allow to die—a decision no parent should ever have to make.

The next rains are not due to arrive until October, meaning that no new harvests can be expected in the region before the end of the year. Unless aid to affected areas increases significantly, the famine will likely spread and intensify, putting many more young lives in jeopardy. However, despite the scale of this catastrophe, the drought and famine in the Horn of Africa have not consistently made headlines, nor have these scourges caught the attention of many Americans. The international donor community, so quick to mobilize after similar disasters, has been slow to respond to the situation in Somalia this summer. This catastrophe is not on the public agenda, but it urgently needs to be.

With this in mind, I turn to the Jewish community—my community—for support in our efforts to save the lives of children threatened by conditions beyond their control. After serving nearly two decades in Jewish communal life, I have spent the past five years as president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, which is one of several entities trying to get aid to the afflicted area.

My worldview, personally and professionally, has been shaped by a commitment to tikkun olam—healing the world. It comes from my mother, who was a child in Vienna during Kristallnacht. She survived the Holocaust by being sent to the United States in 1939, at the age of 6, along with her 4-year-old brother and a woman she never saw again after they arrived. They were raised for two years in an orphanage for Jewish refugee children on New York’s Lower East Side. My mother’s dislocation as a little girl left both of us with the profound desire to do whatever we could to protect and care for other vulnerable children.

Today, it is in the Horn of Africa where children’s survival is most in peril. More than 400,000 refugees, the vast majority of whom are women and children, are crowded into three refugee camps in Kenya. They desperately require nourishment, medicine and access to clean water and sanitation facilities to survive. Aid organizations are there, providing those services—along with child-friendly spaces and educational opportunities—but the needs are tremendous.

In Somalia, the epicenter of the emergency, tens of thousands of people—mainly children—have died in the last few months. UNICEF and other humanitarian groups are reaching thousands of malnourished children with nutritional supplies. One highly effective weapon is a nutritional peanut paste that has the power to pull a child back from the brink of starvation. Packed with protein and vitamins, it is ready to use and does not need to be refrigerated or mixed with water. This miracle paste is saving lives. But many more are threatened and will perish if we don’t act quickly.

The Jewish community must take notice of the plight of these children. As Jews, we have been at the forefront of humanitarian causes and responses to international disasters. Humanity is facing a devastating crisis in the Horn of Africa. We cannot fail to fulfill our Jewish responsibilities now.

(Caryl M. Stern IS president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.)

Deliberately, delightfully child-free


Ken and Alissa Koven love kids — as long as they’re other people’s.

“We like to give them back when we’re done,” Ken said.

The Marina del Rey couple have no intention of ever having children, a decision that may rankle bubbes everywhere but is just fine with them.

They’re not alone, by any means. In 2008, nearly 20 percent of American women ended their child-bearing years without having kids, compared to 10 percent in 1976, according to a June 2010 report by the Pew Research Center that drew on U.S. Census Bureau data.

While some of those women may have put off having children because of work or education, Alissa decided at an early age that she would be childless by choice.

“I knew by the time I was 20 that I didn’t want children,” the 38-year-old said. “I spent many hours and years baby-sitting. I really enjoy spending time with children, but I like my nice, quiet, peaceful home. It was a very informed decision.”

Coming to an agreement about this subject with her husband was easy. Ken, an IT consultant who grew up in Thousand Oaks, was pushing 40 by the time they were married in 2003. At that point, having kids was not at the top of his list of priorities.

“I was on the fence. I was open to either way,” he said.

Now, at 46, he’s grateful they made the decision they did. It allows them to lock up the house with little notice and travel the world as Ken’s job requires. (They recently returned from a year living in Australia.) They can be, in a word, spontaneous. Their mantra is that it only takes two to make a family.

“Our lives are complete,” Alissa said. “We don’t need kids to have a full life.”

Some relatives had a tough time being persuaded, however.

“Jewish parents want grandchildren,” Ken said. “My mother’s probably still holding out hope.”

Both of the Kovens, whose parents have other grandchildren, were raised Jewish but are not members of a synagogue.

“I do feel some Jewish guilt about not having children, because I do, or did, have the opportunity to increase the Jewish population by one or two and am not doing it,” said Alissa, who does freelance work in market research and as a copy editor.

Despite the divine commandment in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply,” fertility rates among Jewish women are lower than those for U.S. women in general and are not high enough to replace the current population, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, sponsored by United Jewish Communities and Jewish Federations.

The decision to have children in today’s world is about much more than creating life; it’s about quality of life, too.

“People don’t talk about the negatives of raising kids. It’s always about the positives,” Ken said. Some parents make it sound like having kids is all about baking cookies, tossing baseballs and sharing hugs, he said. What they tend to leave out is the exhaustion, worry and frustration, not to mention the expense.

The Kovens, who said conversations with others on the topic can sometimes be awkward and make them feel defensive, said they see both sides of the equation.

“We both knew what it would take — the amount of time and effort — in order to be a good parent, and we’re just not comfortable with that kind of commitment,” Ken said. “If you’re going to have kids, it has to become the center of your universe.”

They admit that there are inherent downsides to their choice: Alissa would love to be a grandmother someday, and she worries about what will happen when they get older.

“I see my friends taking care of their parents in nursing homes and dealing with issues of the elderly,” she said.

She also knows that she will never experience the special bond and unconditional love that parents have told her exists between them and their child, but she said she’s willing to miss out on that part of life.

And let’s be clear — not wanting kids isn’t the same as hating them. The Kovens spend plenty of time with little tykes. Many of their friends have children. “When I go see these kids, I’m all about fun,” Ken said. “I can just be this crazy person who roughhouses and gives piggyback rides — and leaves.”

They just don’t have as much in common with friends who are parents as they do with other child-free friends. With that in mind, the Kovens joined an organization called No Kidding! Founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1984, the international social club for childless singles and couples now has 44 chapters around the world and about 10,000 members.

Jerry Steinberg, who is the group’s “founding non-father emeritus,” said in an e-mail that there were two main reactions when he started the group.

“Most people were appalled that anyone would actually choose not to have children, and sure that anyone who would do so must be some kind of child-hating monster,” wrote Steinberg, who was born Jewish but said he does not subscribe to most tenets of the religion. “A much smaller minority were relieved to discover that they weren’t alone in their choice, and that there were some very intelligent, caring, fun people who had also chosen not to add more consuming polluters to our overpopulated planet.”

The majority’s reaction has softened since then.

In 1988, only 39 percent of adults disagreed with the statement that people without children “lead empty lives,” according to the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey. That figure rose to 59 percent by 2002. Likewise, nearly half of those surveyed in a 2009 Pew Research Center poll thought it didn’t matter that a growing share of women never want to have kids.

As the societal pressure to bear children diminishes, the message from couples like the Kovens is clear.

“We’re not evil people,” Ken said. “It’s OK to make this choice.”

About 125 people are members of the Southern California chapter of No Kidding!, which started in the San Fernando Valley and now is based in Long Beach, according to organizer Dominic Albert.

At first glance, there’s nothing inherently different between this social group and many others that get together to eat, chat and socialize. Dig a little deeper, though, and Ken points out a dead giveaway:

“Nobody needs to worry about finding a baby-sitter before they go out.” 

More information on No Kidding! can be found at nokidding.net.

Rocket from Gaza injures Israeli girl


An Israel teenager was injured when a Kassam rocket fired from the Gaza Strip exploded near a kindergarten in a western Negev kibbutz.

In addition to the 14-year-old girl, who was on her way to school, an adult living on Kibbutz Zikim near Ashkelon also was hurt by shrapnel from the blast. Four others were treated for shock, according to a statement from the Israeli military.

Ten children were in the kindergarten when the rocket struck about 20 feet away.

The Army of Islam organization in Gaza claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in response to the deaths of three members of the organization during an Israeli attack last month.

Since the beginning of the week, at least 13 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have landed in southern Israel, with 10 striking Israel on Monday alone.

On Monday night, the Israel Air Force and the Israel Security Agency in a joint operation attacked seven terror-related sites in Gaza, including four Hamas-operated tunnels, a smuggling tunnel, a weapons manufacturing facility and a terror activity center in southern Gaza, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Two Palestinian terrorists reportedly were injured in the attacks.

Meanwhile, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that while Hamas is not interested in the border violence escalating to a full-blown conflict, due to internal pressure from militant groups it has allowed them to step up rocket attacks on Israel.

The IDF Southern Command believes the organizations will continue to increase mortar attacks against Israeli soldiers patrolling along the Gaza border, he said.

Since the beginning of 2010, over 200 Grad missiles, Kassam rockets and mortar shells have been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, according to the IDF.

Britian to fund security at Jewish schools


Britain’s government will fund extra security for Jewish schools.

The new funds, for security personnel, will be in addition to the security measures already supplied to government-funded parochial schools, the BBC reported on Thursday. Parents at the Jewish schools until now have been pooling funds to pay for the guards to enhance standard measures, including cameras, fences and gates.

“Faith schools make a fantastic contribution to our education system and none more so than Jewish faith schools,” Education Secretary Michael Gove told the BBC. “Children and staff at these schools should feel safe at school and able to learn in an environment free from any anti-Semitic or racist threats.”

The government initially will pay the schools about $1 million and may provide another 3 million a year depending on need.

Florida school sues over Kohl’s Cares contest


A school in Florida that finished just out of the money in a national online contest sponsored by Kohl’s has sued two Florida Jewish day schools that did win one of 20 prizes.

Abi’s Place in Coral Springs filed a lawsuit against the Hebrew Academy Community School and Bais Chaya Inc. in Broward County, where all the schools are located, saying they reneged on their promise to help Abi’s win votes, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported.

Abi’s Place, a school with 10 special-needs children, finished in 21st place in the Kohl’s Cares Facebook contest that ended Sept. 3. The school alleges in its lawsuit that it paid $3,750 in expenses to the two Jewish schools in a joint vote-getting effort but did not receive assistance.

The Hebrew Academy Community School and Bais Chaya were among 12 U.S. Jewish day schools that finished in the top 20 of the contest, each receiving a $500,000 prize. Eleven of the top 20 were Chabad-affiliated, according to the Lubavitch.com website. Three schools eventually were disqualified for voting irregularities.

One of the disqualified schools, Yeshiva Achei Tmimim Academy in Worcester, Mass., announced this week that it would file complaints against Kohl’s with attorneys general offices in all 49 states where Kohl’s operates, according to the newspaper.

Groups praise child nutrition law, with qualms


Jewish groups praised the renewal of a law funding school meals, but expressed concern that it was financed in part by money designated for food stamps.

The approval in the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act means the bill—which had been subject to some last minute wrangling—is ready for enactment by the president.

The bill extends for another ten years funding for school lunches and breakfasts for children from families that depend on the meals, estimated at 4.2 million households.

The passage “is an important achievement that will improve the lives of millions of children,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the public policy umbrella for the Jewish community.  “This bill is an acknowledgement that in a nation as bountiful as ours, no child should worry about when their next meal will be.”

The JCPA was at the forefront of an interfaith coalition lobbying for passage.

Other groups that had sought the bill’s passage included the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the National Council for Jewish Women.

All three groups in their statements praising passage expressed regret that some of $4.5 billion in funding was drawn from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp benefits.

“By imposing what amounts to a $60 per month cut in SNAP benefits for a family of four, Congress hurts the very families that this legislation is designed to help,” the RAC said. “Cutting SNAP benefits during the third consecutive year of rising poverty rates negates the positive impact of a strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization. We call on Congress to act immediately to restore SNAP benefits to the level of funding that recipients were told they could rely upon until 2018.”

Malibu camp offers respite and community for kids with HIV


It's nearly dusk at Camp Pacific Heartland in Malibu and teenager Stephon Cooperawls sits beside me, watching the summer sun sink into the sea. All the other campers are in the dining room having dinner, but Cooperawls has a story to tell, and this is the only place he feels safe talking about it.

“I first got involved with camp when I was 7 years old. I didn't know I had it when I was 7. I was living with a foster parent, and she just brought me here,” Cooperawls began.

“As I got older, I started to have a clue, wondering 'Why am I here?' and 'Why am I taking meds?' and 'Why am I going to the hospital?' It all just added up, and one day, my father came to me and said, 'Stephon, I just want to tell you something: You have HIV.'”

Cooperawls, a 17-year-old African American, was born with HIV. And like many of the children between the ages of 6 and 20 who have passed through Camp Pacific Heartland or its sister arts camp, Camp Hollywood Heart, he is battling what is considered one of the greatest epidemics of our time.

Cooperawls is both infected and affected by the disease: his biological father died of AIDS, and his mother, who abandoned him as an infant, is also infected.

“When I found out I had it, I always thought I was just going to up and die one day, but I've learned that you're not going to die. You die when it's your time to go,” he said.

But nobody is going anywhere this week. Nestled high in the Malibu Mountains at Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Gindling Hilltop Camp, Cooperawls and the other campers enjoy what many call the best week of their lives. It is the one week of the year when they are free from judgment in a place where they can swim and use the bathrooms without any erroneous worrying about disease transmission, and where they make new friends with whom they can share their secret.

It is an empowering and life-altering experience for each camper, but it has also transformed the life of David Gale, the Hollywood executive whose quest for meaning brought Camp Heartland to Southern California.

“Every one of us asks what our purpose is in life,” Gale said, reflecting on what this experience has meant to him.

“Very often, it's your career, maybe your family, but for me it's been, 'How can I make an impact on people in the world?' But this is not a one-sided exchange. These kids have made me appreciate the value of life.”

Having grown up with Crohn's disease, itself a serious illness, Gale shares a unique kinship with the hundreds of children he helps. An otherwise unassuming individual, today dressed in shorts and a T-shirt with a digital camera hanging from his neck, his sensitivity to the kids' condition is visceral and palpable. At camp, Gale is not one of the top executives at MTV, he's just “David,” and he doesn't really want to talk about his professional success. He wants this story to be about the kids.

Working in an industry characterized by tough personalities and superficial values, Gale's genuine modesty is rare. Inasmuch as his talent and ambition have earned him considerable success (he is a Stanford graduate and also holds a law degree from New York University), the vice president of MTV new media and specialty films has coupled his personal achievements with giving to others. He believes lasting happiness results from three things: doing what you love, contact with people you love and philanthropic giving.

“There's not even close to enough of that happening in Hollywood. That's why there are so many unhappy people despite their success — because they're not giving, they're taking, they're demanding, they're insisting — and they judge their success in life based on the box office, based on their power, their deals and who knows them,” Gale said.

“This camp, this organization [Hollywood Heart] gives me true happiness. I get back so much more in ways that are impossible to quantify, in ways I couldn't get from anything material or anything else I've ever done,” he said.

Gale's desire to give was the result of a tremendous loss. When his mother was dying of cancer, he saw the outpouring of community support coming from her synagogue, which inspired his own involvement with Wilshire Boulevard Temple. And it was 15 years ago, when he sat on the social action committee, that Gale, now 50, realized he could do more than chair the synagogue's food pantry.

At the time, Gale was vice president of MTV Films, a division he created and through which he produced a bevy of hits, including, “Election,” “Jackass,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Varsity Blues.” During his 11 years at the helm, MTV Films grossed more than $1 billion at the box office and garnered their first Academy Award nomination (for “Election,” which Gale says, is the film that makes him most proud). Without any personal tie, he was struck by the horrors of the rising AIDS epidemic and immediately decided to start a camp for HIV/AIDS-infected youth.

“I love the movies I've made and I'm very proud of them, but it's just a credit, whereas something that's extremely deep and meaningful and lasting is truly the thing that I would want people to remember me for. Not my movies,” he said.

As fulfilling as philanthropy is, Gale is quick to point out that his commercial success has significantly enabled his ability to give.

“I could not have started this charity without my success and without my connections,” he said plainly. For starters, although Wilshire Boulevard Temple did not wish to directly sponsor the camp project, they offered Gale use of their camp facilities in Malibu at a greatly reduced rate.

With access to money and powerful industry connections, Gale could offer financial support for a camp, but with the demands of his job, did not have the ability to program his dream from scratch.

Enter Neil Willenson, a fellow Jew from Wisconsin who had already established a camp for at-risk kids but without a permanent home yet.

Willenson's journey began when he read a disturbing article in his local paper titled “AIDS Hysteria” about 5-year-old Nile Sandeen, who contracted HIV from his mother and suffered cruel abuse at the hands of his community. Through his friendship with Sandeen, Willenson discovered that the stigma of the disease and the many misconceptions surrounding HIV/AIDS often caused more emotional suffering than the disease itself.

“The scourge of paranoia is worse than HIV,” said Willenson, 37, the founder of Camp Heartland. “HIV may be the most manageable part of their lives.”

In 1993, Camp Heartland's inaugural summer, Willenson welcomed 72 kids from 20 states to a one-week, cost-free retreat at a leased campsite in Milwaukee where there was hiking, horseback riding and archery. The following summer, he received a call from Gale, who took a red-eye to visit Willenson's Camp Heartland. By the summer of 1995, Gale and Willenson launched Camp Pacific Heartland, the West Coast version of Willenson's concept, funded through Gale's efforts and with the goal of recruiting at least 50 percent of its campers from Southern California.

The night I visit is “MTV Night” at camp, and the speakers are blaring Madonna. All 60 kids are breathless with anticipation over who this year's surprise celebrity guest will be. Gale's connections in Hollywood have produced a gaggle of celebrities here over the years, including Chris Tucker, Cuba Gooding Jr., Brandy and David Arquette.

When Wilmer Valderrama of “That '70s Show” arrives, he joins his screaming, adoring fans for a late-night dance party.

A 7-year-old girl gasps, “He's handsome! He's everything!”

She could be talking about Hollywood writer/director John Gatins, one of Hollywood Heart's most passionate advocates and a current board member, who is visiting tonight just for fun.

Gatins, who wrote “Coach Carter,” will return for Camp Hollywood Heart (the arts camp for Heartland graduates ages 16-20) to teach a writing workshop. He says he charts his life by this camp and that it inspired him to have children (he has three, ages 7, 5 and 18 months). Just prior to the release of his first feature film, “Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story,” DreamWorks gave him special permission to screen it at the camp.

“The night that I showed my movie here, I remember driving down that long, crazy hill to leave, and I just started laughing, and then I started kind of weeping, thinking, 'Wow I've never had such an amazing audience,'” Gatins recalled, almost tearfully.

“You work in the business, and everything is about the business. Everything is about, like, 'How did it play?' 'Will it work?' 'How do you sell it?' And to hear 100 kids laugh in the situations they're in, I sent DreamWorks an e-mail the next day that said, 'Look, I just have to tell you that I had an experience last night that for the first time my work felt meaningful on a level it never has.'”

Post-election healing — kumbaya in class and at the beach


Alison Weinreb, a teacher at Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood, invited her sixth-grade social studies class to her home for an election-night viewing party.

As the electoral map turned increasingly blue, she noticed that her scattered Obama supporters were keeping pretty quiet — embarrassed even in victory to be in the minority among their McCain-supporting friends.

At the same time, McCain supporters — who have been the majority of students at Orthodox day schools like Maimonides — needed a fair amount of reassuring that an Obama presidency would not spell immediate disaster for Israel and the Jews, the message they had been hearing throughout the election from their friends and gleaning from conversations at home.

Weinreb wasn’t the only one facing a distressed and confused community in the aftermath of this year’s presidential race. Jews battered one another in passionate arguments throughout this election season, as each side staked out their positions, often spilling over into questionably grounded rhetoric and incivility. Friends and institutions squared off around Shabbat tables and at debate lecterns in what each considered life-or-death debates.

How children have interpreted such passion offers a revealing, though slightly distorted, mirror in which to view adult political discourse.

While children selectively perceive and then reinterpret information that comes their way, they reflect an atmosphere where issues of race, security, economic class divisions and Israel’s future have stirred up strong emotions.

At Orthodox day schools, mock elections yielded landslide McCain victories.

Students from at least one elementary school came home reporting that friends told them that if Obama were elected, he would “kill all the Jews.”

On the other side, at a another, more liberal school, one mother reported that her daughter was afraid to let on that her parents were McCain supporters, since everyone around her was so enamored of Obama.

Now that the election is over and campaign exaggerations can give way to reality, in schools, and everywhere else, people are making efforts to put things back into perspective.

At Maimonides, Weinreb helped organize a post-election assembly on Wednesday morning. On the stage, between the American and Israeli flags, two piñatas — an elephant and a donkey — stood side by side. Rabbi Karmi Gross, headmaster of the school, invited the sixth- through eighth-graders to come together to celebrate this historic triumph for American freedom and democracy.

“But we also come together for a different reason,” Gross continued. “We come together because this was one election — and I have seen quite a few — where the battle lines in America were drawn more clearly than ever, which pitted American against American, the red and the blue states, the left and the right, against each other in ways I do not recall. And sometimes the debates became very loud, and many times the debates became very nasty.”

Gross, using a talmudic parable, urged the children to understand the difference between disagreeing with an idea — which is fine — and attacking the person who holds such ideas, which is not.

Students together watched a video of McCain’s concession speech, and were asked to pull out some of the major themes.

“He said he was more proud to be associated with America than anything else,” one student offered.

“He said that we shouldn’t be upset that Obama won, because he’ll do good things for this country,” another said.

One rabbi acknowledged that many of the students were worried about Israel, but he assured them that Israel was strong, and that Israel’s ultimate fate lies in God’s hands, not in any president’s.

Jews who believed McCain was the better choice for Israel had to do a delicate dance with children.

One father, who asked not to be named to protect his son’s privacy, described a conversation he had with his 6-year-old son about the historic nature of this election and about the many reasons he was voting for McCain. In an age-appropriate way, they talked about security, the economy and issues that were important to them — such as having a president who had a record of supporting Israel. And the father posed the idea that he didn’t know whether Barack Obama would be a friend to Israel and the Jews, because there was not a very long record to rely on.

“Then — like all kids do, they pick up a small amount of what you tell them — he picked up from that that Barack Obama may not be nice to the Jewish people,” the father said, a declaration the boy made to his horrified mother.

The couple talked to their son again, softening the stance and saying that Obama might end up being a very good friend to the Jews. By the time Obama’s picture covered the front pages on Nov. 5, the boy seemed fine with his new president.

Helping kids process the broken-telephone game of information coming from the home and through their friends was a major focus at Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center in Sherman Oaks, where teachers integrated ideas about democracy or the specific campaign issues into the curriculum.

“But there were also moments where the students made baseless or exaggerated claims, repeating things they had heard,” said Gabriela Shapiro, general studies principal at Emek. “What we did at the time and will continue to do is teach the students about discernment — in other words, if someone makes a negative comment about Obama, we want the student hearing the claim to ask ‘what is the basis for your claim?'”

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills brought in Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, who introduced a pre-election debate by highlighting a moment several weeks ago in which McCain asked riled-up ralliers to stop relying on rumor and innuendo to attack Obama as a person, and to focus instead on the issues.

Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Hillel, plans to use examples from the election when the school starts a conflict-resolution and community-building program next week.

“We’re going to deal with issues of perception and judging others favorably, and attacking issues, not people. We’re going to talk about accepting people’s differences and understanding what you have in common,” he said.

It’s a tough message to get across to kids, when adults themselves haven’t been behaving well.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said he found the rancor among Jewish voters “painful and discouraging.” At a pre-election debate in his synagogue, Feinstein had to put on his former middle school principal hat to discipline the crowd.

“It’s discouraging to me as an American and as a person who believes in democracy, and it’s discouraging to me as the rabbi of a synagogue where important things should be discussed that you can’t have a serious political debate without hooting and hollering and drowning out the other side,” Feinstein said.

ALTTEXTIt was such rancor that a Healing Havdalah — the ritual marking the end of Shabbat — last Saturday night aimed to overcome. The event was organized by LimmudLA, the apolitical, nondenominational, Jewish-unity organization that will hold its second annual conference in Orange County over Presidents’ Day weekend, in February.

Saturday’s event, organized by Gary Wexler, a Jewish marketing expert, attracted 150 people to Dockweiler Beach, where drums and guitars competed with the wind and planes taking off from the nearby LAX.

Warming themselves around a crackling fire, participants talked about how Havdalah, like the election, marks the end and the beginning, the perfect moment for healing.

Many kids were at the Havdalah, joining their parents in singing and dancing, basking in the very Limmud idea that no matter our differences, we can come together for a kumbaya moment of Jewish oneness.

While a lot of healing may still be needed before that sort of unity can move beyond a Saturday night at the beach, one uniting factor all agree on is that this election brought a new level of political awareness and passion across party lines and across ages.

“I’ve heard kids saying that for the first time in their lives they care about politics and elections and personally feel involved, and that is amazing — that energy is constructive,” Vicki Helfand, a teacher at Maimonides, told the students at the assembly. “When you care about something, you can do amazing things. Now that this election is over, we encourage you to keep being passionate, to keep believing that what you think matters — because it does.”

Danielle Berrin and Orit Arfa at Dockweiler Beach. Photo by Joe Haber http://funjoel.blogspot.com

In Israel, cutting edge help for visually impaired kids


Strolling among the young children playing on ELIYA’s vibrant and colorful campus in Petah Tikva, just outside Tel Aviv, feels, for an instant, like a visit to any well-run preschool. But ELIYA is that and more — a preschool for blind and visually impaired children designed to assist their growth and development through programs ranging from classroom teaching to hydrotherapy.

ELIYA (pronounced eh-LEE-yah), the acronym for The Israeli Association for the Advancement of Blind and Visually Impaired Children, serves more than 100 children, infants to mid-teens, through its various programs. The organization’s three branches, located in Petah Tikva, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva, offer mommy-and-me classes and a daily preschool program for children (ages 1-3), while ELIYA’s summer camps and retreats bring blind or visually impaired older children together with family, friends and volunteers.

At ELIYA’s main branch in Petah Tikva, coordinator of resource development Orly Layzer pointed out features that reflect the careful consideration behind every aspect of the schools’ approach. For example, the color scheme — white and red — offers a contrast, which children with partial vision can discern and use to orient themselves. Classroom floors are divided into three tactile parts — wood, carpet and rubber — so children can use their sense of touch to find their way around the classroom. The same principle applies to the playground, where a little boy was able to keep his toy truck within the bounds of a gravel area by pulling back whenever he encountered a surface that felt foreign.

The hydrotherapy center provides another means for the children to work on their sense of orientation and comfort in new environments. ELIYA also provides rehabilitative horseback riding, offering blind and visually impaired children an enjoyable way to improve their navigational abilities and develop steadiness and balance.

ELIYA’s chadar choshech (dark room), helps pinpoint what, if any, vision a child has. Computers, glow-in-the-dark stars and even disco balls become the sole source of light in the room, allowing teachers and therapists to track a child’s eyesight. Then, having identified the limits of the field of vision, staff can help a child maximize abilities. Teacher-child ratios are at most 1-to-2, and ELIYA individualizes its program for each child.

This degree of specialization is what ELIYA executive director Michael Segal considers key to accomplishing ELIYA’s goals. “We want to help children with visual impairments to become more independent people…. It’s a different concept for philanthropy — a philanthropy of excellence,” he said.

Segal uses a Hebrew phrase, mitztainut lo miskainut (which roughly translates as “excellence not pity”), to express ELIYA’s mission. The organization also works hard to accommodate a diverse religious population. The Jerusalem branch, for instance, serves Orthodox and secular Jews as well as Muslims and Christians, and tries to provide for the needs and observances of each.

Segal began volunteering for ELIYA in 1984, in response to an advertisement he saw in a local Israeli newspaper. His involvement grew, and in 1991 he took on the role of executive director, his current post. Segal has never taken a salary for his ELIYA work, and in 2005 he received the President’s Award for Volunteerism. But he humbly deflects questions about this choice. “I wanted to continue the work, and I was able to…. I grew up with the notion of wanting to do for the community,” he said.

ELIYA hopes soon to have an interactive Web site where parents and the general public can access information about the blind and visually impaired.

Another special program is ELIYA’s summer camp for visually impaired children. Some attendees (ages 5-13) are past graduates of ELIYA’s preschool program, but others come from different parts of the country. Together with volunteers, they participate in a full range of regular camp activities — arts and crafts, sports, cooking, nature trips and music.

Segal told a story of one graduate whom he met on an air force base years after he’d left the school. Despite his visual impairment, this graduate now held an extremely sensitive job in the army. It felt wonderful, egal said, to see the young man had carved out a rewarding niche for himself.

ELIYA-USA will honor Maury and Lisa Friedman with its 2008 Visionary Award on Nov. 9 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

PJ Library families snuggle up with Jewish books


Ellianna Brandt, age 3, doesn’t get much mail.

But when her monthly package from PJ Library arrives, she knows just what she is tearing into: A Jewish book that she will enjoy with her mother, Aviva, or her father, Scott, who isn’t Jewish.

The Brandt family of Portland, Ore., has been enjoying the books courtesy of PJ Library, a project of the Harold Grinspoon foundation that sends Jewish-themed books to families with young kids. The program, now in 80 cities, just launched in Los Angeles with spots for up to 2,100 families in the Valley, with funding from private donors and the Valley Alliance of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Over the past month, hundreds of Valley children have received books such as “The Always Prayer Shawl” by Sheldon Oberman (Boyds Mill Press), “It’s Challah Time!” by Latifa Berry Kropf (Kar-Ben) and “Shlemazel and the Remarkable Spoon of Pohost” by Ann Redish Stampler (Clarion). In addition, a mass invitation to join the PJ library went out to thousands of families, along with a gift of the book “Something From Nothing” by Phoebe Gilman (Scholastic Press).

Something for nothing is an idea organizers are spreading among Jewish families.

“You can sign up and get books once a month just because you’re a Jewish kid, or because you have a Jewish child. We want people to know that there are no strings attached,” said Carol Koransky, executive director of the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance. “This isn’t a gimmick, this isn’t a book club, this is something that the community is sponsoring fully.”

Age-appropriate books geared for kids 6 months to 7 years arrive with explanations about the book and the topics covered — everything from Jewish holidays to biblical characters to Israel or themes related to Jewish values or history. The idea is to lay the foundation for Jewish conversations and to help the family feel more tied in to the larger Jewish culture and community.

That has been the case in the Brandt household, where both Ellianna and her father are learning from the monthly packages.

“My husband’s not Jewish,” said Aviva Brandt, who heard about the program at Mommy and Me class at her local Jewish Community Center. “He learns a lot about Judaism through the books. We’ve been though Intro to Judaism and the textbooks that come with programs like that, but the PJ Library books really bring him much closer to feeling comfortable about actually bringing Judaism into daily life.”

Harold Grinspoon and his Massachusetts-based foundation conceived of the idea as a way of creating an at-home entry point for Jewish involvement. While the program was initially envisioned for the intermarried or unaffiliated, it has expanded to encompass a large swath of the Jewish community. The program so far has reached 30,000 families in 80 cities, and 40 more communities are launching this academic year.

Communities who sponsor the program become funding partners with the Grinspoon Foundation. The Los Angeles program is starting with a two-year pilot in the Valley, and will expand if the program is well-received.

But just how much of an impact on Jewish identity can a few free books make?

Marcie Greenfield Simons, national director of the program, says the strategy has always been to look past those few minutes of snuggling on the couch with books like “Sammy Spider’s First Passover.”

“Ideally, what we envision for the program is that having the books in the home will inspire families to want to pursue other steps in their Jewish journey,” Simons said.

The program doesn’t require much of the recipients — they sign up for a free service, delivered to their door, and their only action is to read with their kids. But that doesn’t diminish the level of engagement it has achieved, Grinspoon said in a phone interview. He pointed to the feedback PJ Library gets not only from parents, but from community leaders.

“After implementing The PJ Library, we realized just how important this program was in helping to build our community,” said Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. “Being able to make a connection to individuals in a very purposeful and thoughtful way has opened many unaffiliated doors for our Federation.”

The Atlanta Federation has supplemented the library with live programming, bringing the families together for holiday and other celebrations. In the process, the families feel more a part of the larger Jewish community.

“Essentially, our federation is able to provide more value to our community; we are giving something back and not asking for money,” Rakitt said. “It is a positive message to bring the program to families and not associate it with donations.”

The program has also been a boon for the Jewish publishing world. PJ Library has distributed 250,000 books since 2005, bringing some classics back to print, and even commissioning some works specifically for PJ Library.

Deborah Turobinor, a young mother, is looking forward to building her family library with selections for her 5-year-old, 3-year-old and 3-month-old.

Last week her baby received a Shabbat board book, and her oldest received “Jodie’s First Dig” by Anna Levine (Kar-Ben) about an archaeological expedition in Israel.

Turbinor feels that the program will not only increase her children’s positive associations with their Judaism but also help them understand how to be thankful for what they are given and how to give back in return.

“We love books, and we love being Jewish,” she said. “Why would we not do this?”

A limited number of spots are still open for children ages 6 months to 5 years in certain Valley zip codes.

Marion Ashley Said and Molly Binenfeld contributed to this story.

They never run out of patients


An Iranian Jewish girl was going through chemotherapy treatment — which tends to suppress your appetite — but one day, she got this craving for a lamb stew with carrots. Within an hour, someone was headed to the nearest Persian restaurant to get the dish and bring it to the girl.

Another young patient was in Minnesota for a special medical procedure. She was used to getting challah delivered to her every Friday afternoon while she was in Los Angeles. Again, just like magic, a FedEx package arrived before Shabbat with her favorite challah.

A mother and father decided, at the last minute, that they both wanted to spend the night at the hospital with their young child, who had a serious illness. No problem: a babysitter immediately showed up at their house to take care of their other children, including helping them with homework and serving them dinner.

Where did all this magic come from? Not from the Magic Castle, but from a little Jewish organization called Chai Lifeline.

For many years, because of its highly visible banner on the corner above Pat’s Restaurant, where it rented office space, Chai Lifeline was a fixture in the heart of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

They recently moved to a less visible but larger location a few blocks west, where they can now accommodate their growing list of volunteers. I went by there the other day and met one of these volunteers, a mother of four named Helena Usdan.

Usdan fell in love with Chai Lifeline 18 years ago when she was a counselor at their Camp Simcha back East, and helped open the West Coast office nine years ago. She told me that one the best decisions they made was seven years ago when they brought in executive director Randi Grossman, who had worked for many years at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

Grossman runs a cause that’s all schmaltz, but she’s all business. Perfect manners. Perfect tone of voice. Perfect answers. Still, behind the professional demeanor, she’ll choke up at a video of someone Chai Lifeline has helped.

Like little Chana Bogatz, who was born with a rare renal disease and received a kidney transplant before turning 1. When the new kidney began to fail, the doctors told Chana’s parents that she would need another kidney to survive, but the high percentage of antibodies in her system made finding a compatible donor almost impossible. So they needed to get the word out to as many people as possible.

Grossman and her staff had already become an extension of the Bogatz family, so they put on their PR hats, and in partnership with Chana’s parents, helped get three stories over several months onto the evening news about the urgent need for a kidney. By the third, a donor was found, and Chana made it.

But not every story has a happy ending.

A few weeks ago, Grossman had to cancel a breakfast meeting because one of their kids “didn’t make it.”

It doesn’t happen often, she says, but death is not something she’s comfortable talking about. That’s why they never use the word “terminal”; they say “serious” or “life-threatening.” They let God and the doctors worry about things like “terminal.”

Grossman and her group worry about the “life” part — adding joy to the life of the children and doing whatever it takes to ease the lives of their families.

Many of these seriously ill children and their families were present last week at Chai Lifeline’s annual signature event: A community-wide carnival at the Scandia amusement park in Pomona during the Sukkot festival. I was there, but I couldn’t really tell who the seriously ill children were.

I guess when kids are having a ball, it’s hard to tell them apart.

Having a ball is one of Chai Lifeline’s basic services. When I hung out in their office, at one point it felt like being in one of those creative brainstorming sessions in an advertising agency. They’re always bouncing ideas around to come up with creative ways of helping their “patients.”

A young boy with a serious illness was a big football fan. So Grossman, Usdan and the staff made some calls and found someone to donate two Super Bowl tickets, and someone else to sponsor the trip. When the boy found out about the trip, his parents said it was “the first time he smiled since getting his diagnosis.”

Over the years, they’ve used their creativity to develop a slew of different programs, like KidShops (art therapy for patients and siblings), Wish at the Wall (trips to Israel), Chanukah Angels (adopting a child for Chanukah), Seasons of Respite (separate retreats for mothers and fathers of patients), and ChaiLink (individual tutors and Web cam-based connections between classrooms and homebound or hospitalized children).

One of the best things I heard, though, was a lot more mundane: They have a team of professional advocates who help parents navigate the complex bureaucracy of insurance coverage for serious and long-term illnesses. (That comes in handy when you have an insurance company that covers an electric wheelchair but won’t cover the electric wheels.)

I couldn’t leave without asking Grossman what it was like to spend so much of her waking hours dealing with seriously ill children and their families. Isn’t it draining? Isn’t there a burnout point, when it gets just a little too heavy?

“It’s the good news,” she says. “The little moments of joy, the recoveries, the smiles on the kids’ faces, the gratitude of the parents, the generosity of all the volunteers, all those things help.”

I thought of something else that probably helps: The unspoken gratitude any of us would have to be in the position of helping people with a life-threatening illness, rather than being the person needing that help.

When I brought that up, Grossman — all choked up again — just nodded quietly.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

You can’t be too involved in supporting your child


A while back, the president of my alma mater penned a scathing denunciation of pushy parents. Barnard College’s Judith R. Shapiro cited egregious examples — a mother who met with a dean to discuss her daughter’s research project and parents who don’t let their children get a word in edgewise on campus visits. Her op-ed joined in the media sport of haranguing “helicopter parents.”

While I saw Shapiro’s point, as a mother, I resented that she didn’t at the same time empathize with parents’ strong loving and protective feelings and our separation pangs as our fledglings go off to school. I wished she had addressed the well-meaning parent’s ever-present dilemma: How do you draw the line between supporting your child and inappropriately taking over?

Fortunately, there’s a huge body of psychological research to answer just this question, as I found when co-authoring, “Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child” (Prometheus, 2008).

Thirty years of research, much of it conducted by my co-author, Clark University psychologist Wendy Grolnick, has found that the more parents are involved with their children — be they toddlers or teens — the better it is for their kids. In fact, you can’t be too involved with your child. A multitude of studies has found that the more support we give our children, the happier they are and the more they achieve. High parental involvement gives kids high self-esteem and helps them feel secure and solidly connected to us.

When Grolnick studied parents of elementary school children, for example, she found that the more involved mothers were with their children — that is, the more time they spent with their kids and the more they knew about what their children did, as well as their likes and dislikes — the better their children did on report cards and standardized achievement tests, and the fewer learning and behavior problems they had in school. The highly involved parents weren’t necessarily at home more than other parents, but when they were, they made sure to spend time with their children. They asked about their children’s school day, knew which subjects they enjoyed or didn’t and who their friends were.

There’s only one caveat to involvement: It’s wise to make sure you’re respecting your child’s autonomy at the same time.

But just how do you do that?

Let’s first define autonomy: Autonomy is the feeling of initiating an action. We want to solve our own problems whenever possible. That doesn’t mean doing whatever you want. Autonomy is simply a willingness to do something — the opposite of feeling controlled by someone else.

When children — in fact, all human beings — feel that what they do is self-initiated, they’re happier. And they perform better, because the enjoyment motivates them to study or practice more, building up their skills.

Think about your own experience. You might have to learn Excel for work, for example, but if you choose to learn it for tracking your family’s budget, you’re much more likely to enjoy it.

How can you make sure that your involvement isn’t intrusive or controlling?

Take your child’s point of view and acknowledge her feelings.

Say your 10-year-old isn’t doing his homework. You are thinking that studying will get him into a good college and a good job, but he’s reasoning, “It’s going to get dark soon. I want to have some fun now. I can do my homework later.”

You could take his point of view by trying to imagine, “If I were his age, what might I prefer doing right now — riding my bike outside or reading a chapter on coal production?” Then you can say, “I understand that it’s going to get dark soon. But tonight we’re going to Aunt Karen’s for dinner, so unfortunately, this is the only time to do your science homework.” What counts is acknowledging your child’s feelings. You want to convey “I’m with you.”

Support your child’s independent problem solving.

One of the best ways to support your child’s independent problem solving is to ask questions, as I did when my son, Zach, was making a pinhole camera for the middle school science fair. Instead of simply taking him to a store to get the cardboard box he needed, I asked him, “Where do you think we could find a big box?”

He looked befuddled. But after a minute he said, “I know — behind the store on Pico Boulevard where they sell refrigerators!”

“How could we make the pinhole?” I asked next — and so on.

Give your child choices.

Even a tiny degree of choice boosts a child’s feelings of autonomy. Sometimes it’s simply a question of your language. Studies have shown that words like have to, must, don’t and I want you to have a significant chilling effect on kids’ feelings of autonomy. Instead, you might try giving limits as information, including the reasoning behind the rule. So if your child is painting, you might say, “The materials need to be kept clean so you can keep using them for a long time,” or “To keep the paint clean, the brush needs to be washed before switching colors.” (I know this wording sounds awkward. But using the third person avoids phrases like, “I want you to” or “you must,” which can lead to a power struggle.)

As my own children have gotten older, I’ve found that phrases like “have you considered….?” or “do you think you might want to … ?” also do the trick.

Encouraging your child’s feelings of autonomy will help you stay involved without controlling him. That way you can stay close to your child without becoming one of those dreaded helicopter parents.

I wish my alma mater’s president had given at least a nod to the normal, strong and essentially healthy impulses to help our children when they fly from the nest, whether to preschool or to college. After all, the urge to protect is in our genes: Those hunter-gatherer kids whose parents watched over them best were the ones who survived. They became our ancestors, and we’re the modern recipients of their genes, hardwired to want our children to win whatever battles they may face.

Since our kids face an increasingly competitive world, it’s no wonder we get anxious and want to do all we can to support them.

Kathy Shenkin Seale, a writer living in Santa Monica, will discuss her book, “Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child,” at Village Books in Pacific Palisades on Sept. 4, 7:30 p.m.

Keep the youngest wedding guests happy — and keep your sanity


Some things go together like matzah balls and chicken soup; some don’t. And the wedding/kid combination traditionally falls into the latter category. After all, unlike the bar/bat mitzvah bash, which is generally a party designed with kids in mind, the wedding celebration has adult written all over it. Toss in a stressed-out bride, a drawn-out nuptial ceremony, imported caviar and free-flowing liquor, and you’ve got an event that’s about as kid-unfriendly as they come.

Nevertheless, the flower and ring bearer must march on. Not to mention that there are times when kids belong at the wedding. As in cases of second marriages and blended families (statistics show that in America alone, 1,300 new stepfamilies form daily), family obligations (it wouldn’t be nice to blow off your soon-to-be nieces and nephews, would it?) and out-of-town guest considerations (Cousin Howie and the gang came all the way from Florida to witness your big day. How could you ask him to deadbolt his kids in a claustrophobic hotel room with a rent-a-sitter for the night?).

Fortunately, it’s perfectly possible to welcome children at your wedding without compromising the sanctity of the event or the sanity of any involved parties. The following kid-friendly touches will help ensure your littlest guests remain happy and occupied throughout.

It’s in the Bag

Upon arrival, present children with a special wedding goody bag packed with items like crayons and coloring books and bride and groom paper dolls. Be sure to throw in some kid-friendly snacks like granola bars, raisins, and goldfish crackers to fend off any hunger-induced meltdowns during the ceremony.

Put Them to Work

Kids are amazingly capable of rising to the occasion — especially when they have an “important” job to do, like passing out wedding programs, manning the kippah station or ushering guests to their seats. And they needn’t clock out after the ceremony. At the beginning of the party, give each child a disposable camera labeled with his or her name and explain that they have been hired as a junior photographer. In doing so, you’ll not only keep little hands snapping and out of trouble, you’ll capture unique, child’s-eye-view imagery of your celebration that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Make It a Happy Meal

Let’s face it. Your pint-sized guests have a bagel’s chance at a Passover seder of successfully sitting through a five-course meal made up of exclusively grown-up fare. So ask your caterer to set up a kiddie buffet line. Nothing extravagant — a no-frills table topped with carrot sticks and ranch dressing, chicken nuggets and french fries is all it will take to keep the younger set satisfied. (Happy Note: This strategy is liable to work in your favor from a cost-per-head standpoint, too.)

Set Up a Playspace

Off in the corner of the ballroom — or a nearby nook or cranny — create a makeshift kid-zone. Blocks, LEGOs, board games, Play-Doh, minimal-mess art supplies, even a couple of muted GameBoys will give jittery kiddies a welcome retreat from the adult-oriented wedding festivities.

Arrange a Mitzvah Station

Include in your playspace an area where kids can take part in an act of gemilut chasadim (lovingkindness). Put out papers, markers and stickers and let children make cheerful cards for patients at a local hospital, or have them pack care packages for American and Israeli troops. By orchestrating such mitzvoth you’ll cap the festive flair of the evening with some good old-fashioned Jewish values.

Work Magic

If you will have a significant number of children in attendance (and some extra funds in your budget), consider hiring a kid-friendly entertainer to work the crowd at the party. Magicians fit the bill nicely as they traditionally don black-tie attire that won’t clash with the decor while captivating the interest of children and adults alike.

Send Them Hunting

Keep kids constructively mingling with the crowd with a wedding guest scavenger hunt. Give each child a pencil and a list of descriptions, such as “a member of the bridal party” or “someone from Georgia,” and challenge them to collect signatures of guests who meet each criterion. Award prizes to successful searchers.

Hire “Camp Counselors”

Truth be told, even taking kid-friendly measures, such as those mentioned above, can’t ensure your littlest guests won’t stray into the lobby for a round of elevator races or — worse yet — into a crowded parking lot or hotel swimming pool. Keep your troops safe and under control, while giving their parents a welcome break, by hiring some trustworthy individuals to act as camp-style counselors at your event. These responsible parties should orchestrate games and activities in the kiddie corner, ensure children move smoothly through the buffet line and other child-friendly activities and put out fires caused by sibling spats and other munchkin meltdowns. (Hint: If you have a sizeable age span among children, assign one counselor to the older kids and another to the younger group.)

Wind Them Down With a Video

If your wedding celebration will last into the wee hours, arrange for your event facility to set up a television and DVD player in a nearby-but-out-of-earshot-of-the-party spot. As the bewitching hour draws near, have your counselors invite all of the children to watch a G-rated late-night flick. Supply pillows, blankets and a couple of bags of popcorn and — with a little luck and a well-chosen movie (nothing too peppy or scary) — your crowd will be crashed by the closing credits.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning educator and mother of four. Her Jewish parenting book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?” is now available everywhere. www.sharonestroff.com.

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