Poschim bichvod achsania, we open by complimenting the host, and the hosts this evening are the members of the Amudim Committee, led by my wife Tzippy, who all worked so hard to prepare this amazing dinner. I want to echo all of the “thank yous” shared by our beloved MC, Rabbi Jonathan Beck, but I also want to thank the president, Mr. Moshe Golden; the Executive Committee of the school; and the many volunteers of the PTF and general parent body who work tirelessly on our behalf. No school can succeed without a stellar administration, and I thank our honoree, Mrs. Maureen Sheehan, NEAT General Studies Principal; PHDS Principal, Mrs. Miriam Esther Weiner; NEAT Judaic Studies Principal, Mrs. Tichyeh Schochet; and our amazing Judaic and General Studies staff. At this point, I ask the entire staff, current and past, as well as the office and bookkeeping staff who worked so hard on preparing for this dinner to please rise and be acknowledged.
Western Culture is suffering from a mass neurotic syndrome called “meaninglessness,” which results in three things: addiction, aggression, and depression, said an Ivy League professor about the state of his students and other adults. Dr. Pelcovitz, a noted child psychologist and professor in the New York area, related to us at a recent educators’ convention in Rhode Island that the lure of the internet has found college students surfing the web during class and multitasking. They think they are fully engaged in the professor’s lesson and are just multitasking, but through brain wave testing, it has been proven that the students are actually losing much of what was going on. Unfortunately, we see adults and children whose phones have become appendages to their bodies, to be accessed during meetings and assemblies throughout the day.
The educational system in America is ever-changing. Straying from the ideals of hard work, effort and respect, parents fear that their children might become turned off if they are too firm or demanding. How do we educate our children today with the values of our Torah? How do we educate our children to understand that the best present or gift that their teachers and parents can give them is the value of hard work? All too often we fill our children’s hearts and minds with the latest gadgets and toys, all to fulfill their quest for happiness, yet the happiness is but a fleeing moment of pleasure.
The Nesivos Shalom, Slonimer Rebbe, of blessed memory, comments in Parshas Naso on the section of the priestly blessings, birkas kohanim. The blessing made by the kohanim, priests, is “asher kid’shanu bikdushaso shel Aharon v’tzivanu levarech es amo Yisroel b’ahava – He sanctified us with the holiness of Aharon and commanded us to bless His nation with love.” Why is it that this blessing is formatted differently than all others? It is a blessing that mentions the name of Aharon and speaks of the need to bless the people with love. The Nesivos Shalom explains that all of nature functions with the rules of mashpia and mekabel - having a hashpa’a, a lasting influence and impression, and then the reception of the blessing. An example of this is that seeds alone can be planted but will not grow without the influence of sun and rain. The same is true of parenting and teaching. Parenting and teaching can only work with the mechanism of a mashpia and a mekabel. The verse mentions Aharon, who was known as a leader who loved peace and pursued it. At times, a rebbe or a parent may need to be firm, but if he does so with love, then the love will flow and influence the heart and mind of the mekabel, his student or child. Aharon was known as an ohev shalom v’rodef shalom, one who loved every person and chased peace. It is for this reason that the blessing talks about him, the one who loved to bless the nation with love. Only with love is one able to bless the people. We see, similarly, that our forefather Yaakov, Jacob, asked his son to prepare food for him before blessing him. In this way, he would increase his love for his son and the blessing would be a stronger blessing, one that was filled with fatherly love.
Normally, my dinner speech is about the happenings at school and our plans for the future. Tonight, I will stray from this practice. I will not talk about the ATM siyum, where students learned and celebrated an entire book, seder of mishna; I will not talk about the student who won second place for her literary entry in a local writing contest; or our high school Mock Trial team, who beat Moses Brown in an amazing trial; I will not talk about the students who come to school every Sunday morning for a volunteer learning program; or the fact that our students who took the local standardized tests scored above proficiency in many areas; I will not talk tonight about our Kindergarten teacher who was honored this week with the Lea Eliash Educator of the Year Award; or of the rebbe who has already submitted three school videos to the Avi Chai Foundation’s video contest; or of the many teachers who are integrating SMART Boards into their teaching - and this began with one of our honorees this evening, Mrs. Dassie Barr. Please feel free to look online at phdschool.org at our weekly newsletter, and you will learn more about the educational field trips and the many other special programs in which our students shine. I could continue talking all night about the ongoing exciting events in both Judaic and General Studies in PHDS and NEAT that create an “Education that Lasts a Lifetime.”
Thirty-three years of service to any school is considered to be an amazing feat. To culminate Mrs. Sheehan’s 33 years, was a move to become the dedicated NEAT General Studies Principal, and in this role, Mrs. Sheehan shined as both a teacher and principal and was beloved by her students.
Returning to my initial question: How do we prevent our students from living a life of meaninglessness? I think the answer lies with our honorees this evening. It is through a firm, friendly and fair approach to education. It is “levarech es amo Yisrael b’ahava, to bless the nation with love.” All of education, Torah and secular, only works when there is a mashpia - mekabel relationship, one that is cultivated through giving, caring and love.
Every year at the dinner, I share with you a story that I heard from Rabbi Nate Segal, Director of Outreach for Torah Umesorah. At this year’s convention, he shared the following story that ties into this special evening.
A few weeks ago, Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, the elderly American Rosh Yeshiva, passed away. As he lay gravely ill and in intensive care in the hospital, one of his students decided to travel from America to visit his rebbe with whom he had remained very close. His friends asked him why he was going, “Your rebbe is so ill and you may never even be able to see him.” He answered, “I will go to his bed and I will whisper in his ear, ‘Thank you, Rebbe.’ Dr. Ernie Isaacson accepted the award this evening so he could say, “Thank you, Rebbe,” to his rabbeim at NEAT.
Rabbi Segal continued by sharing the story of a young mother in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, whose daughter was diagnosed by the camp doctor with a serious medical condition. Her only hope was the pectin in an apple that could potentially provide the child with the basic nutrition to live. The mother spent the next few days on her hands and knees in the snow searching for an apple, while others scoffed at her and asked, “Do you really expect to find an apple buried in the frosted grounds of Bergen Belsen?” She kept digging until her bare fingers were frostbitten, a condition that would remain with her for the rest of her life, but after three days of digging, she found an apple. She gave it to her child and the child not only survived the war but proceeded to build doros. She said, “I always knew that he would survive; I just had to do my due diligence and effort, which I did, and therefore, I found the apple.” The story does not end there, so now let me tell you the rest of the story. That child grew up to be this very same student who visited Rabbi Scheinberg so that he could say, “Thank you, Rebbe.”
Often, we have students who are weak in their studies, are afraid to learn, come from difficult family situations, or arrived from the Soviet Union not speaking a word of English - and the list goes on and on. The teachers, rabbeim and moros of PHDS and NEAT accept them with open arms. At times they have wondered how they would find the magic apple that would spark their students’ interest, that would light their fire for future learning and that would teach them to be proud of who they are. They didn’t give up. They kept digging and digging. Even when the strategies they tried didn’t work and their hands were becoming frostbitten, their eyes were tired and the outlook was bleak, they kept on digging. A syndrome called “meaninglessness” - not at PHDS and NEAT - because we realize that good habits and success don’t come easy; they come only with good teaching and hard work. My message this evening to our parents, teachers and friends is: “Keep on digging.”
In closing, my dear friends, look at all of the teachers and alumni who are here to pay tribute to our honorees. They are here this evening, and we are all here this evening, to say “Thank you, Mrs. Sheehan; thank you to the Barrs and the Isaacsons. May Hashem bless us with the ability to continue to educate another generation of students who will grow up to say, “Thank you, Rebbe; thank you, Morah; thank you, General Studies teachers; and thank you, Abba and Ima for allowing us to go to Providence Hebrew Day School.
Thank you all for coming and enjoy the rest of the evening.