Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz has a doctorate in the history of science from Princeton. She wrote her dissertation on the history of the official history of the Manhattan project — that is, on how the American government directed the talk and therefore controlled the understanding about how the atomic bomb came to be made. So perhaps it’s appropriate that she’s coming to Teaneck to share her ideas on how parents should talk to their children about difficult topics. (See box, page 11.)
Dr. Schwartz will speak at Lamdeinu, which generally focuses on the study of traditional Jewish texts. (See sidebar.) Dr. Schwartz, however, will be speaking not as a Torah scholar or as a historian, but rather as “an observer of the contemporary Orthodox world.”
In particular, she’s an observer of Orthodox teenagers. Dr. Schwartz is assistant principal of general studies at SAR High School in Riverdale, New York. For the last dozen years, she has worked as an administrator there or at the Frisch School in Paramus while teaching as many history classes as she can. It’s the most invigorating part of her day, she says.
Not only does she work with high school students and stay in touch with her former students, but “my husband” — Rabbi Ezra Schwartz — “works in a shul with a population of twenty-somethings” — Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights. And if their jobs didn’t give them enough exposure to the next generation of modern Orthodox Jews, the couple and their five children live on the campus of Yeshiva University, where Rabbi Schwartz teaches Talmud.
So what’s her report on kids these days?
“I see students who are deeply intellectually curious, but who are engaged in the world in different ways than we were,” she said. “Social media has changed how all of us engage in the world. Kids are exposed to more. People usually say they’re exposed to more sex and violence, but I mean more alternate voices. Kids can hear conflicting and challenging voices that are different than the values of their parents. It’s much harder now than it used to be to shelter kids.”
That doesn’t stop parents from trying to shelter their children — with poor results.
“We don’t tell them about the hard questions before they get to college,” Dr. Schwartz said. “Newsflash: They’re going to be hearing about them in any case.”
Her first talk will be about teaching Israel.
“The Israel question looms very large in parents’ minds. We have prospective parents looking at our high school, whose students are now in eighth grade, asking ‘What do you do to prepare kids to engage on Israel on campus?’”
The Jewish community, she notes, “has invested great resources preparing kids to combat anti-Semitism and combat BDS on campus.” But not all of these efforts are effective. “I will talk about which approaches address real needs, and which are barking up the wrong tree. Sometimes there’s not an alignment between what we think they need and what they tell us they need after being on campus.”
She points to approaches that she thinks aren’t successful.
“One says, don’t hate on Israel, Israel invented grape tomatoes. Israel invented all this great technology. A more sophisticated version says don’t hate on Israel, Israel is very good on LGBT issues.
“These kind of answers don’t address the real questions or challenges. When someone advocates for BDS, tomatoes are not the response. If people are asking questions about Palestinians and we’re educating about Israel’s technological advances or social advances within Israeli society, people will say that’s grand but it doesn’t respond to the question.
“Another way that’s not effective is to coach our kids in talking points. This prepares our students for a certain level of engagement, but not for meaningful conversation or growth. It also doesn’t credit our students as young men and women of curiosity who will ask about things and want to understand what they’re hearing.
Based on what her former students report from campus, she thinks there is another way of engaging with Israel that result in a more constructive conversation.
Dr. Schwartz’s second Teaneck talk will discuss broader issues for a narrower audience — “the tough questions that come up with being observant in the contemporary world.”
These are questions that originate in the classroom and in conversations with students outside the classroom.
“Some have to do with the contrast between the fundamentally egalitarian values of Western life and the halachic system, which is not egalitarian. For some students that conflict is very difficult.
“Science and Torah was once a pressing issue, though I don’t find it as pressing now. The broader questions of modern scholarship, however — there are lots of ways that modern humanities scholarship challenges Orthodox views of authority.”
She rejects the approach of just ignoring the challenges as treif.
“You can’t just say, ‘don’t engage with this, don’t read that,’ particularly if your students are going off to higher education.”
She said the questions don’t have easy answers. Rather, confronting them “is exactly what’s exciting to me about being modern Orthodox. We engage in the complicated process of taking in that which is of value in the modern world, and at the same time remain faithful to the practice of halacha and the teachings of the Jewish tradition. That’s what the game is about — which is not to say that it’s an easy thing to do.”
But it’s important for educators and parents not to shy away from the difficulty.
“At times we are afraid of modeling complexity and murkiness and that it’s okay to be uncomfortable and not tie it up in a bow at the end of a lesson. That complexity is in fact how we live our adult lives in other realms.”
She believes kids can be trusted to handle complexity, and the fact that “the adults in their lives don’t have everything fully wrapped up in a bow. As parents and educators, sometimes we’re afraid that if we don’t have a good answer, we might alienate the kids. I’m saying that it’s okay to say to your kid, ‘That’s something I struggle with. I understand it differently than five years ago.’ Figuring these conflicts out is a process you embark on, not something you finish when you’re 18 or 19 and come back from Israel.
“Serious grown people experience their religious lives not as static but as an ongoing process of learning and growth and struggle. This is the process that we should be modeling for our kids, and not feel that’s a flaw or a failing.
“There is no answer, nobody else, that will make it easy for our kids to wrestle with these questions. It’s not about getting to one place. It’s more about giving our kids permission to talk through their own figuring it out.”
And they shouldn’t expect what they figure out now to be their final answer.
Dr. Schwartz quotes her mother, Zlata Press, the high school principal of Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva in Brooklyn.
“She always uses the metaphor, ‘You wouldn’t want to come back to your high school after 20 years with your hair looking the same.’ Somehow people think it would be okay if they came back after 20 years with their understanding of Judaism the same. We want everything else to have grown and matured since we were 17. Once we understand that, maybe we can be more comfortable in working things through with our kids.”
Does Dr. Schwartz’s experience talking with high school students about difficult issues make it easier for her as the mother of teenagers? “In one way it helps,” she said. “In another way it doesn’t at all.
“It helps in my willingness to have these conversations and trust their ability. It doesn’t help because the emotional valence is very different when they’re your own kids. As much experience you have with other people’s kids, it’s much more complicated.
“Being a high school educator is much easier than being a high school parent — which I’m sure all my high school parents could have told me. But I had to learn it myself.”
Who: Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz
Where: Lamdeinu, Congregation Beth Aaron, 950 Queen Anne Road, Teaneck
What: “Educating Our Children for a New Reality”
When: 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday, July 18, and 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday, July 25