‘We are products of our expectations’

‘We are products of our expectations’

At Book Day, local yeshiva boys learn about social justice, inner city lives, and leaving poverty

Eric LeGrand, author of “BELIEVE: My Faith and the Tackle That Changed My Life,” talks to students.
Eric LeGrand, author of “BELIEVE: My Faith and the Tackle That Changed My Life,” talks to students.

Two African-American boys with the same name grow up in the same city.

Both are the children of single mothers; both are exposed to drugs and violence early on. One becomes a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, and business leader. The other becomes involved in drugs and ends up in jail for life.

This is the true story told by the successful Wes Moore in his 2010 bestseller, “The Other Wes Moore.” Student and faculty committees at the Torah Academy of Bergen County chose the book for the all-boys high school’s sixth annual Book Day.

Although the 315 students at TABC have no firsthand knowledge of the dangers and dilemmas that face inner-city black teens, the book provided them with food for thought about adversity, responsibility, perseverance, determination, and choices.

“I could see in our discussions in class that they felt this book was relevant to their lives though it described a very different culture than they’ve been exposed to,” said English department chair Carol Master, who organizes Book Day together with Leah Moskovits, the school’s librarian.

After the entire student body, faculty, and staff had the opportunity to read the book and participate in related classroom activities and discussions, March 8 was devoted to workshops led by people involved in aspects of the themes and situations raised by “The Other Wes Moore.”

Both the author and one of his friends, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), videotaped a greeting specially for Book Day. In a 13-minute talk filled with Torah references, Mr. Booker told the boys that his own father grew up poor in a single-parent home, and it was only a “conspiracy of love” by those around him that set him on the right path. He said this type of “Abrahamic gesture of chesed” and a commitment to be “agents of justice” are the pillars of humanity. “I hope this book moved you and helped you understand the complicated interconnection between all people,” the senator said.

Coincidentally, TABC’s new basketball coach, Oswald Cross, also is an old friend of Mr. Moore’s and asked him to answer several student-submitted questions.

“I’m incredibly excited that you’re not just reading the book but hopefully understanding the bigger lessons that come along with it,” Mr. Moore said in his message. He told the students, “We are products of our expectations. That’s why it’s important to have high expectations not just for yourself — but high expectations for the people around you.”

Mr. Cross also brought in retired NBA player Kenny Satterfield, who spoke about his difficult childhood. “He said he could easily have been the other Wes Moore,” Dr. Master said.

Criminal defense attorney James Seplowitz talked about “A Life of Crime: The Effects of Nature and Nurture.”
Criminal defense attorney James Seplowitz talked about “A Life of Crime: The Effects of Nature and Nurture.”

Eric LeGrand, a former Rutgers football star who became paralyzed as the result of a spinal-cord injury suffered during a game in 2010, gave the keynote address. Following years of rehabilitation, Mr. LeGrand founded Team LeGrand of the Reeve Foundation to raise funds in support of quality-of-life initiatives and research into effective treatments. He also wrote a book, “BELIEVE: My Faith and the Tackle That Changed My Life,” and he talks to teens about staying motivated and following their dreams despite whatever obstacles they encounter.

“Each session was related in some way to the book,” Dr. Master said. “The day is unique in its being cross-curricular as well as culturally and intellectually enriching for our students.”

Many of the outside speakers were parents of current or former TABC students. Others had no earlier connection with the yeshiva.

Captain Erica Diaz, associate director of admissions at Valley Forge Military Academy and College — the school that played a pivotal role in Mr. Moore’s life — talked about the military model of education and how the virtues of service and hard work can help maximize a person’s potential.

Dr. Ziva Cooper, assistant professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University, spoke to the honors biology and chemistry classes about her research into the behavioral and physiological effects of drug abuse and how these effects are different in males and females.

Dr. Devra Gutfreund, a pediatric emergency physician at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Paterson, shared insights into the medical issues encountered daily in an inner-city hospital.

Dr. Jeffrey Berman, executive medical director of the College Recovery Program in New Brunswick, presented “Addiction: Disease, Choice or Fate?”, and Rabbi Dr. Eric Lankin, U.S. executive director of ELEM-Youth in Distress in Israel, discussed issues unique to Jewish addicts and recovering addicts.

Dr. Michelle Small-Roth, an obstetrician/ gynecologist who works at the maximum security prison at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, and her husband, Dr. Aharon Moshe Roth, a general surgeon with extensive experience in prison health care, each told anecdotes about the prisoners they treat in their unusual work.

Sophomore Yonatan Kurz of Teaneck said he was surprised to learn that there are Orthodox Jews in prison. He also attended a session led by TABC Talmud instructor Rabbi Daniel Fridman about Maimonides’ views on personal choice and free will in shaping your destiny and heard firsthand accounts from detectives in the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office about the dangerous consequences of experimentation with prescription medication.

Dr. Devra Gutfreund talks about “Medicine in an Inner City Hospital.”
Dr. Devra Gutfreund talks about “Medicine in an Inner City Hospital.”

“From the book, I got an awareness of the problems drugs can bring, and from the detectives I learned to treat all prescriptions with caution,” Yonatan said.

Because domestic violence is mentioned in the book, Dr. Master and Ms. Moskovits invited Rabbi Michael Bleicher, a clinician and outreach coordinator for Project Sarah. The statewide program, whose acronym stands for Stop Abusive Relationships At Home, provides services and resources for Jewish victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Professor Jeremy Dauber, director of Columbia University’s Institute of Israel and Jewish Studies and a former Rhodes Scholar who grew up in Teaneck, spoke on his experiences at Oxford and the impact of the scholarship on his life and career.

“His main message was that while it’s great to apply to prestigious programs and do things that are considered prestigious, the most important thing is to do things that are good for you,” said 11th-grader Hillel Koslowe of Teaneck. “He told us to make sure we know why we want these things. We shouldn’t do them simply because they’re ‘great.’ The message really resonated with me.”

Criminal defense attorney James Seplowitz talked about “A Life of Crime: The Effects of Nature and Nurture,” while lawyer Pam Ennis tackled “Is Our Juvenile Justice System Just?”

Members of the TABC teaching staff and guidance department offered sessions on such topics as judging others favorably, the Jewish view on smoking marijuana, whether we are obligated to help people who are not trying to help themselves, how to make better decisions, how to avoid unhealthy relationships, and the effect of environment on choice-making.

“Faculty members from all areas were involved in this program and everyone loved it,” Ms. Moskovits said. Book Day fosters “a reading community” at the school by encouraging students, faculty, and staff to use the same book as a springboard for critical thinking, she added.

“We believe that Book Day is a wonderful extension of what we try to teach our students every day,” Dr. Master said. “We try to teach them that it is through reading — whether a novel, a historical document or a blatt of gemara — that one can discover new worlds and begin to think for oneself.”

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