OUTSPOKEN INSIDER: What is ‘prom’ in a Jewish community?

OUTSPOKEN INSIDER: What is 'prom' in a Jewish community?

Benny Balazs, Staff Columnist

May 21 — It dawned on me that, for some unexplainable reason, Prom has somehow existed and thrived in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community. I have a hard time understanding the concept, considering how the event in question contradicts some of the important values of Judaism, and more particularly, the values of many Jewish day schools–including ours, whose administration has always opposed this non-school event.

There are several issues that arise around this rather immodest tradition. First of all, Modern Orthodoxy has a certain sanctity around romantic relationships; the feelings between man and woman should be something that highly valued and sensitively approached. Artificial “prom dates” directly contradict this. They also contradict the concept of shomer negiah, refraining from physical contact between those of opposite gender, which similarly contributes to the rabbinically described “ultimate holiness” or overall well-being of these potential relationships.

So I talked to several of my classmates in an attempt to understand the attraction and odd “necessity” of having this event be part of yearly senior tradition. I found there are hardly any grounds for it.

To sum up the myriad arguments I have heard on the topic of Prom, the majority of my class seems to settle on this concept known as F.O.M.O. – Fear Of Missing Out, which is defined in Urban Dictionary as “the fear that if you miss a party or event you will miss out on something great.” Most of my peers just don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to take part in an American tradition that has been around since the 50’s — but oh wait, that’s not what they want at all.

Most of these kids are not excited for a ballroom dance with slow music, fruit punch, and a prom king and queen. Rather, they are excited for a night out at a reserved and unsupervised club venue, where alcohol will somehow magically appear. I can’t entirely blame them, as teens want to experiment with and experience things, but they don’t seem to care much for the fact that they don’t want Prom — they want an unadulterated party. Why not just say that?

A few students in charge of the event were having a rant about how it was so much trouble to put Prom together, and that organizing the event, as well as paying for the venue, were exhausting endeavors. I asked them, “Then why have a Prom?” to which they responded, “Because everyone does it.” It seems the main thing fueling this yearly event is the desire to do what other people have done in the past.

It gets even more peculiar. In our small Jewish community, day schools tend to have 30 to 50 students per grade – as opposed to several hundred in public schools. I bring this up because of Prom dates. The majority of the senior class have dates that they feel less than passionate about, if they have a date at all. The reason for this is because it’s hard to have to pick and choose people from a small circle of classmates. So they outsource invitations to friends or buddies from different schools.

This event that is planned in such earnestness and devotion is, quite contrarily, not even Prom. As a matter of fact, the dress-up-doll photo-shoot where we all look fancy and pretty is the smallest part of the evening, accented with a complimentary dinner. Then, when everyone has softly padded his or her mouth with a napkin, pinky raised in satisfaction with the magnificent feast, the guests leave to get their outfits replaced with something a little more “comfortable.”

Honestly, I don’t care if an event like this happens, since it’s a great time to spend with friends and significant others alike. But stop labeling it Prom. It’s not Prom. It would relieve an immeasurable amount of tension between the senior class and the administration, not to mention our parents, and even underclassmen. Let it be what it actually is, and stop trying so hard to be a part of a tradition that is mispracticed and unnecessary — if not forbidden — in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community.


OUTSPOKEN INSIDER: Mini-mesters: A rocky road that’s worth the ride

March 21 — As a part of the ever-evolving curriculum in Shalhevet, an interesting project known as “mini-mesters” is now in its third year as a substitute Judaic Studies curriculum for seniors in their final semester of high school. The idea behind this program is that the standard Judaic classes of Tanakh, Gemarah and Philosophy are replaced with smaller courses that focus on specific parts of Judaism. For example, among the 13 seminars offered this year is one on Judaica, or Jewish ornaments and antiquities.

First I was very excited for this mini-mester program because I loved the idea of tapping into a handful of different studies and getting a taste of all the flavors of Judaism. But then came the orientation for the program. Mini-mesters started out almost as roughly as Obamacare’s website, and was rife with confusion and frustration both from students and teachers. On day one, when the faculty handed out what would be our schedules for the coming months, no student was able to decipher the Divinci-esque code that was the mini-mester calendar.

By the end of the orientation we were left with more questions than there were classes available. Over the next few days I managed to find my way to each respective mini-mester class by following teachers, and asking faculty members the location of said classes multiple times. In the end, I was hit with more hostility than help, as members of the faculty took my confusion of the schedule as an inability to learn and follow it. They actually blamed me for not being able to understand what they claimed to be a totally clear and understandable schedule. It was not.

In fact, what they called a clear schedule turned out to be several schedules, all of which needed to be found and opened separately through Schoology. I had to look through two or three sheets of paper or webpages just to figure out what my next class was. It somewhat irritated me that they didn’t just consider replacing the Judaic courses on our normal schedules with the new mini-mester classes.

Of course, schedules are by no means easy to make. It takes time, effort, and a lot of coordination in order to make them work. But you can’t offer a program like this and just run with the excuse that it’s “hard to do.” If it’s hard to do, don’t do it. Why would such a complex curriculum be presented if the people involved knew that it would be incredibly difficult to pull off?

And yet Mini-mesters eventually built up enough momentum to become somewhat routine, albeit unconventional, and have lately become much more enjoyable. I’ve almost mastered the puzzle of the schedule and have finally been able to enjoy the classes themselves. In spite of a lack of academic value, the series of classes have fed a different kind of educational appetite that kids like me have.

In the most recent class up to the writing of this article, titled “Moral Dilemmas,” we had the privilege of having Dr. Jerry Friedman, founder of Shalhevet, teach the moral dilemma for the day. To preface this, I would like to note that making a moral dilemma that is actually a dilemma is incredibly difficult to do, but Dr. Friedman pulled one off valiantly. The debate over the dilemma was heated, and the conversation was moving almost as quickly as a ping-pong ball in the middle of a match.

It ended with Dr. Friedman explaining how moral development played a key role in forming Shalhevet as a unique establishment that challenged moral thinking and ethics. I didn’t even want to leave that class when it ended; as a matter of fact, I was rather upset that the conversation was limited to that one session. It was an incredibly satisfying experience made richer by the fact that the founder of the school school took the time to sit and teach us for the day.

If there was one thing I had forgotten in my tantrum around this whole program, it was that these classes hoped to give me the opportunity to enjoy being in the classroom. It took me some time to realize that I was sitting in a desk, absorbing information, and participating- all out of the sheer desire to learn- which was something I always dreamed of experiencing in high school.

It may have driven a rocky road, but mini-mesters is just making the turn onto a newly paved street, and the rest of the ride is looking to be pretty smooth.


OUTSPOKEN INSIDER: Feminism and the war on bias

Jan. 6 — In recent decades, feminism, which is arguably one of the most impactful institutions in our society, has become a rather fiery passion in the world.

Specifically in Shalhevet, a group was formed last year called GLI, or “Girls Learn International,” and eventually renamed “Boys and Girls Learn International.”  The group advocates for equal educational opportunities for women in Third World countries, by partnering with schools from those countries which then correspond with schools in America.

Shalhevet’s chapter raised $536 in its first four months, holds frequent meetings to spread the word and educate students, and even met with the founder of the partner school in order to learn more. BGLI has really shown what kind of impact advocacy has — especially coming from America, where we have the means to give generously.

I’m also currently writing for the Drama department’s annual Festival of One-Acts, a collection of plays written and produced almost entirely by the student body. It is an immense endeavor, but has always been a pleasure to see or be a part of.

During the drafting of our scripts, I received an e-mail from the Drama director. In a section about female roles in the acting industry, Ms. Chase pointed out that there was “a serious and unethical dearth of roles for actresses in Hollywood.” I was not aware of this, but attached were several links to articles and studies on the problem. She made clear to us script-writers that we needed to be active in creating gender-neutral roles in our plays, so that women could play just as many, if not more, parts than men.

After reading the e-mail I looked back at my script and found that not a single character had been written as female. It amazed me that I had fallen into those same tendencies.  It occurred to me that there was some sort of reflexive bias against women in society. I suppose after hundreds and thousands of years of women having been considered second class, it’s not surprising that the transition into modern society has been a slow one.

Personally, it never made much sense to me that women would be valued any less than men, considering both are human, and the argument carries over to different races and sexual orientations in a similar fashion. Even so, there is a reason I titled this column the “war” on bias.

My concern has been the means by which such agendas are pushed forth. It hasn’t quite stopped at advocating; it has been an all-out war. Though most people’s arguments against social change complain that it would push them out of their comfort zone, there is nothing more uncomfortable then being put under siege by an intent advocate on such a matter.

This has in fact happened in the Drama department. A fellow One-Acts script-writer was told that his one female character, who was being objectified within the context of the script, needed to be given a back-story, and that he could not by any means leave her as she was. It was a harsh criticism, and a demand. That just isn’t acceptable to me. I love and appreciate the power of social norms and how they have advanced so quickly in recent years, but it becomes troublesome when one encounters the aggressiveness put forth into pushing new norms forward.

Why impose one’s ideology so heavily on others, if that is exactly how prejudice began in the first place? It’s as if the whole controversy behind the agenda of feminism is some massive double-standard. To deny a script-writer his perspective on his own play is just going too far. There is no need for such aggressive behavior for the sake of a social agenda.

There is, on the other hand, a need for enticing advocacy, as opposed to intimidating advocacy. “Girls and Boys Learn International” is a fantastic example of enticing advocacy. They even changed their name to encourage male supporters of the group, rather than maintaining the “necessity” of their name. “BGLI” really makes me proud of the feminist movement.

Change is not supposed to be imposed; it is supposed to be preached. If a group wants to put forth an agenda, don’t intimidate people into being involved or “cooperating”- that sounds like a hostage situation. Encourage and educate them so that they can make a different decision themselves.

True progress comes in the form of education, and exposure to knowledge. Imposition is a tool best affiliated with tyranny, and is not a part of the vocabulary of democracy, at Shalhevet or anywhere else.


OUTSPOKEN INSIDER: Peer pressure – The good, the bad and the possible

Nov. 18 — I find it unsettling how often high schools are visited with the daunting task of controlling social equilibrium within their walls. One would think that in a private school, where care for individual students is the magnum opus, things like bullying and peer pressure would be non-existent. Anyone who says that is very wrong.

On the contrary, bullying and peer pressure are fundamental parts of social behavior everywhere. When people get power, they are prone to abuse it, and when people act “strange,” they are prone to being ostracized. These are natural characteristics of a social environment.

What’s interesting about Shalhevet’s case is that peer pressure is also used to our advantage. Most noticeably, In Town Hall, as a community we use peer pressure to encourage students to speak up in front of the entire student body. For many this is a difficult hurdle. Whenever a student speaks for the first time in Town Hall, the entire room rallies into a bellowing cheer of “First-time speaker!” and in doing so, encourages that person to feel accomplished about having stood up and given a piece of their mind.

Unbeknownst to many, this is actually a form of peer pressure, but it’s a good one. On the other end, which is personal to me, are clubs and extracurriculars. I am a section leader in the Shalhevet Choirhawks — a quirky, lighthearted singing group that puts a major emphasis on self-expression. It is an arduous task for me to find and recruit boys for our group because many of the guys in the school, and probably in any school, believe that no decent man should be seen singing.

Rather, there is massive pressure on the boys in high school to stick with sports because that’s the “manly” thing to do. Still, it’s hard to accept the fact that I will wander around the halls and find guys with great voices, whom I know will never join a singing group — simply because it’s not what their friends would want.

I understand their predicament. Nobody wants to be left out, or made fun of, especially in high school. The resulting stress and emotional tension are capable of causing serious damage. But if these students can’t fight that weight off their shoulders now, who’s to say whether will be able to later on in life?

What I’m trying to point out is the magnitude of these kinds of decisions. People who decide to “go with the flow” are turning over their careers and life decisions to those around them. In the long run, life doesn’t work that way. That part of living in a social world is supposed to be difficult. Your life decisions aren’t meant to be decided by others on your behalf.

Back in 10th grade, I made a very conscious decision to join a singing group, because it was something I loved. The only obstacle was the negative energy coming from my classmates, who seemed to unanimously agree that I was making a bad choice. They were wrong: taking part in what I was passionate about has allowed me to mature as a person. It also helped me see the value of making my own path in my high school career. Still, the experience I had is an example of how powerful peer pressure can be. It can indeed be used for the betterment of society, but more often than not, it’s an iron fist that sits on our heads, and crushes our individuality under its weight.

So with that in mind, I thank Shalhevet for finding a means to make such a powerful force a valuable tool that can embolden students and build their personalities. Now we should take on the challenge of combatting negative peer pressure, in the hopes that we might one day know that term as something positive in the world of education. I’m not so sure we can meet that goal, but I am sure that we have the means to do so.