Becoming a Mensch

by Jessica Hanewinckel January 1, 2013


By Jessica Hanewinckel

When parents drop their children off at school each weekday morning, what do they hope their children are learning? Academics, of course, and if their children attend a Jewish day school, then Judaism and Torah as well. But parents might not consider school the avenue by which their children learn to live a values-based life. At Chabad Hebrew Academy in Scripps Ranch, though, a values-based education has always been of utmost importance, says Gary Katz, a school counselor and teacher of leadership and Hebrew language there.

“[The emphasis on values] has been going on for a long time,” says Katz, who came to CHA last year from Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, and before that from The Ramaz School, also in Manhattan. “We want to be proactive in educating the kids about values, about community and interacting with others with intention, with kavanah, as opposed to being reactive when there’s a problem.  The other thing the school is doing to try to differentiate itself from other schools. It’s not just about how many pasukim of the Torah you learn or how many pages of Talmud you read. It’s about what type of person you’re creating and educating and raising.”

CHA illustrates its values-based education using the Hebrew letter ‘shin.’ At the base is Jewish values, and above each of the three branches are the school’s main endeavors: academic rigor, character development and leadership.

According to Katz, for the past six years (before his arrival), Head of School Rabbi Josef Fradkin and later Principal David Jaffe had been focused on raising the school’s academic standards even higher than they had been, and now that they’re approaching their goal, Rabbi Fradkin gave Katz an enthusiastic go-ahead when Katz approached him about bringing more intentionality to the character development and leadership aspects.

“I think it was already happening in school,” Katz says of these two areas. “But I [wanted to] create certain intentional pathways for it to be more explicit. … The kids learn that these things are not just an academic matter, but that they apply to your whole life, whether it’s in the classroom, in the synagogue, at work, on the playground or wherever you are. That’s really what we want for them.”

To that effect, Katz instituted a new, school-wide effort, called the Gesher program (gesher is “bridge” in Hebrew), as a way to build community among all students at CHA, and to promote leadership and character development. It’s something Katz had experienced as a teacher at Schecter, and something he says was very successful there.

According to Katz, CHA’s new Gesher program aims to build bridges between different parts of the school (teachers, students and grade levels), nurturing a greater sense of community. This is done by dividing all students, K-8, into one of 12 shevetim (named for the Hebrew tribes in the Bible) so that each shevet consists of students from all grades. About once a month, the middle school kids leave their respective classrooms during one period of the day and retrieve their assigned Gesher buddies, for whom they serve as a friend, mentor and leader during the entire Gesher experience. (Eighth grade students are paired with kindergarteners, seventh grade with first, and sixth with second; third, fourth and fifth simply walk to their tribe’s classroom on their own.) Similarly, a higher grade teacher and a lower grade teacher are assigned to be “counselors” of each shevet, meaning students are exposed to new teachers, students from other grade levels and a very non-traditional school experience during each of the monthly Gesher activities. So far, activities have included making a shevet banner, ice breaker games, interviews between buddies and lighting chanukiah candles together. Near Lag B’Omer, they’ll hold a field day where the shevetim will compete against one another.

“Gesher is a way to create community across the school and to be a vehicle for some of those values-based programs,” Katz says. “A kindergartener can talk about the same things as an eighth grader when it comes to being included or not included at recess, for example. It happens at all ages.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Gesher is that the middle school kids are given the opportunity to lead the activities under the counselors’ supervision. Two eight grade students, Dan Benaroch and Daniela Datnow, say they’ve enjoyed how the program has allowed them to take leadership roles among their younger peers.

“I’m the leader of the group, and I was never the leader at anything, so it’s a good opportunity,” Benaroch says. “[I’m learning] to show more examples and to show that you have to be responsible for these kids.”

The teachers who act as counselors during Gesher activities also say they witness exemplary behavior from kids who have been known to misbehave.

“Kids who I know are very naughty sometimes are amazing in Gesher,” says Cheryl Yoshida, a fifth grade teacher. “There’s just a lot of connecting. There are no behavior issues.”

Adds first grade teacher Lauren Garrison, “The big kids get to have a leadership role they’ve never had before. Some of the middle school kids help run my group. I have kids in my group who don’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any Hebrew or Spanish. The middle school kids will walk over, sit with the younger student, and translate the whole activity for them, unprompted,” or write for them if the younger child hasn’t yet learned to write.

The growth of leadership isn’t the only thing that’s already evident from the Gesher program — the community building is already happening, too, in a very tangible way.

“I’ve seen around campus the fifth graders playing with the third graders; they’ll be playing dodge ball together,” eighth grader Datnow says. “The fifth graders will be playing soccer, and a second grader will ask to play with them, and they’ll say ‘sure.’ They know who the other kids are because of Gesher. And they introduce them to each other’s friends, and everyone gets to know each other better.”

That familiarity across grade levels and friend groups will hopefully continue to grow as the years pass. The school’s plan, Katz says, is to pick the program back up each fall, keeping the shevetim intact. They’ll just replace each group of outgoing eighth grade members with a new crop of kindergarteners. He even plans to encourage members of each bar or bat mitzvah student’s shevet to attend that student’s morning minyan service at the school as a way to further encourage a familial bond between members.

The benefits for the younger children are there as well, and they come in the form of independence, self-reliance and socialization outside of their comfort zone.

“My kids’ biggest challenge was having to leave my class for the first time,” teacher Garrison says. “They were very scared. They didn’t want to have to go and meet new people. It was very nerve wracking for them. We had kids in tears. The kids were anxious the second time, but they started seeing these kids around, and they all went independently with very little tears. They ended up making connections with the older kids they wouldn’t normally see, other than on the playground, and some of the teachers they wouldn’t normally know.”

So what makes the Gesher program work so beautifully at CHA? Ask any one of the faculty members there, and you’ll hear that it’s all in the school’s foundational principles.

“I do believe that because this school is values based, that makes a difference,” teacher Yoshida says. “Whether I’m a Judaic teacher or an academic teacher, we’re all teaching about respect, about honesty, about appreciation, and those are the actual values of the Torah, which I love. Whatever faith you are, you should be practicing all of those things to be a good human being. That’s what I think this school promotes: being good human beings.”
• For more information on Chabad Hebrew Academy or its new Gesher program, call (858) 566-1996 or visit



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