August 20, 2019

Kindness Rules at Yavneh Hebrew Academy

Second-grade boys from Yavneh Hebrew Academy brought doughnuts and sang Hanukkah songs at the Miracle Mile fire station on Dec. 4. as part of a kindness program. Photo courtesy of Yavneh Chadashot Monthly Newsletter

On a recent December morning at Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Hancock Park, third-grader Yonah Mandelbaum offered his lunch to a classmate after the boy said he didn’t want to eat the lunch his mother had packed.

Yavneh Program Director JJ Duchman overheard the exchange and handed Yonah a “kindness scratch card” for what he called a “flagrant act of kindness.” The scratcher allowed Yonah to participate in an after-school party as a reward.

Acknowledging these acts of kindness is part of Yavneh’s Dare2Care Kindness program, introduced last fall. Duchman said the program is designed to make Yavneh “the kindest school in the country. Our goal is to create a school atmosphere of being kind to one another at all costs, while learning to empathize with others and committing to midot tovot, or good character traits.”

Yavneh is approaching the program through a predominantly experiential focus, with the understanding that teaching kindness must be accompanied by acting kind to others. 

When Yavneh staff and administrators “witness” acts of loving-kindness, they reward students with scratch cards that can be redeemed for prizes such as pizza or gift cards. 

The school also hosts “Kindness Assemblies,” with the belief that if children are able to put themselves in another child’s shoes and feel his or her negative emotions, whether sadness or embarrassment, they will be less prone to cruelty and bullying. In fact, students have submitted essays and pictures for a contest titled “My Message to the Class Bully.” 

 “Our goal is to create a school atmosphere of being kind to one another at all costs, while learning to empathize with others and committing to good character traits.” 

— JJ Duchman

In light of recent tragedies including the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in October, Duchman said, “As the world is witnessing acts of darkness and our country is separated more than ever, we feel it’s crucial to come together.  If our learning, education and values are not being lived and experienced, then we are missing the point.” 

Yavneh Dean Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn concurred. “Judaism’s understanding of kindness is so beautiful that it needs to be lived inside and outside of the halls,” he said. “The things that move us and change us are not the information we read about; they’re what we see other people do. We must teach our students to live by example.”

Mindy Lyon said her sons Jared, 9, Adam, 5, and Jonah, 3, are learning about kindness through firsthand experience. “The importance of chesed can only be taught with a hands-on approach,” she said. “There is no greater lesson we can teach our kids than helping another person in need. I am so thankful to Yavneh for teaching our children the value of kindness through this important initiative.”

On Dec. 3, the school launched an eight-day program called “The Kindest Hanukkah” to encourage children to take kindness “out to the streets,” Duchman said. Lyon’s children picked out gifts to donate to Tomchei Shabbos, an organization that helps local Jewish families in need. “I wanted my kids to learn the lesson of giving and not only receiving during this holiday,” she said.

Lyon’s son Jared told the Journal, “You should be nice to everyone no matter what, because it makes the world a better place.”

As part of The Kindest Hanukkah program, the fourth-grade girls represented Yavneh at a menorah-lighting ceremony at Los Angeles City Hall. Nine-year-old Liel Levy read a short speech about the Dare2Care program, saying, “A true act of kindness isn’t just being nice to your best friends. It’s saying hello and smiling to someone who may be different or alone.”

Liel’s mother, Ganit Levy, told the Journal, “We are so proud of Liel and her kind heart, and hope that this beautiful trait stays with her forever.” 

Yavneh faculty and staff said they have seen an increase in kindness from the students since the launch of the program. Sixth-grade teacher Libby Engel said, “As I left my car recently, my hands were so full. Before I could even think, two eighth-grade girls offered to take all my bags. When I had two girls that were absent for a few days because they were sick, I had two girls offer to stay in from recess and help [them] catch up on missing work.”

“We made it a priority to put kindness on the front burner,” said headmaster Rabbi Moshe Dear. “We did this first by sensitizing our faculty and staff to modeling, reinforcing and finding curricular connections to kindness. Our programming team then planned to bring kindness from within the school and to share it with those outside of the school, much like the lights of the Hanukkah menorah shine and brighten the darkness outside.”

In addition to Dare2Care, Yavneh also has implemented an “Honorable Mentchen” program that enables teachers to submit detailed forms highlighting students’ acts of kindness. Criteria for the Honorable Mentchen include whether a child has demonstrated an understanding of the difference between right and wrong, and made a choice or action for what was right, even in a difficult situation. Recipients receive a certificate and are highlighted in Yavneh’s monthly newsletter. 

Duchman hopes to continue Yavneh’s efforts toward what he calls “experiential Judaism,” particularly through acts of kindness. “We showed that we will not back down from hate,” Duchman said. “We will add love and kindness. In a world filled with darkness, each student is a candle, dispelling evil with light.”

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.