"T hat’s an Idea,” a weekly column in Hamodia, never fails to be good fun and is frequently useful, as the moderator and readers exchange tips on a wide variety of household problems — e.g., how to get ink stains out of your shirt (of particular moment to me), or remove mold from air-conditioning grates, or keep a cut apple from turning brown.

I was pretty shocked, however, when a recent column suddenly veered into a series of Hebrew language pamphlets, Psach Lo, by Rabbi Yechezkel Schulvaks. The subtitle reads: “A guide to creating fascinating family programs to foster open dialogue with our children.” Though I had never previously heard of either the series or Rabbi Schulvaks, I found the suggestions for activities in Vol. IV, which deals with Chanukah, to be indeed fascinating.

Rabbi Schulvaks’s premise is that a home environment of warmth, love, and appreciation constitutes the best protection in today’s world against the “foreign winds” on the outside.

In one suggested exercise, the children sit around a table, and one of their parents asks them to list ten accomplishments that made them feel great. Then they are asked to list ten occasions where they disappointed themselves in some way. In both cases, the exercises are to be completed within a set amount of time.

That particular exercise, Rabbi Schulvaks suggests, provides a good measure of each child’s self-image. If, for instance, the child has difficulty listing ten accomplishments, but quickly writes down ten failures, that is a good indication that he feels himself to be a failure. And vice versa.

I understood that the lists remain private, and the ease with which the child completes the assignment is the key indicator for his or her parents.

In another exercise, each child describes in writing a success of which he is proud and reads what he has written. His or her siblings then take turns analyzing the talents and middos with which the writer has been blessed that made possible that achievement. They are then asked to offer suggestions as to what that combination of abilities and middos might help the subject achieve in life.

The focus on success and the qualities needed to obtain it follows from the adage of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter: It is tragic if a person does not know his faults and weaknesses. But it is even more tragic if he does not know his strengths, for those strengths will most often be the key to his unique form of avodas Hashem.

The involvement of the other children in identifying the positive traits that made the particular achievement possible reminds me of a game we used to play with our kids when they were young. Points were earned toward some kind of family prize by the children identifying something praiseworthy that one of their siblings had done over the past week. Encouraging children to develop their ayin tovah and to look for the positive, rather than the negative, in their fellow beings, is a big part of raising them to be positive, happy Jews.

And finally, the exercise helps children see themselves as unique in some critical way, and reinforces what I consider to be one of the most empowering messages we can give our children and ourselves: Hashem does not create doubles. No one else has ever been born with the same constellation of talents to be utilized or of weaknesses to be overcome. No one else will be born into the same family or into the same larger historical situation in the very same way as we have.

Each of us must internalize that Hashem brought us into the world and placed us in our particular situation precisely because we have a unique mission, a role in the great symphony of Hashem’s glory.

That recognition is the explicit goal of a third exercise in which each child is asked to explain what the world would be missing if his neshamah had not come down into it. And if the task of identifying the impact on the entire world is too daunting, each child can describe how his family would have been different. In either case, the child is encouraged to think about him or herself as having some unique contribution to make. His life is a matter of supreme importance to the Ribbono shel Olam.

And if the child falters in identifying his unique contribution or potential, his siblings are instructed to point out his unique place in the family structure, and how much his absence would be felt and why.

Rabbi Schulvaks does not entirely ignore the need to work on weaknesses and temptations as well. Each child is asked to identify some particular area in which he feels challenged. Not only must he identify the challenge, but also specify what he can do to confront the yetzer when he raises his head. The message here is that anticipation and preparation in advance are the crucial tools for dealing with temptation. Don’t ignore the challenge; prepare for it.

Parents and schools today often engage in a lot of finger-pointing and recriminations. When anything goes wrong, educators and parents are quick to blame the other and to suggest that the responsibility was theirs. Each is ready to assign specific tasks in chinuch to the other.

There is one area, however, in which we should be able to agree that the responsibility of parents is primary: helping their children develop self-knowledge. Schools can and should emphasize many of the ideas we have been discussing: that each of us has a unique mission, regardless of our class rank or any other hierarchical rating system; and that the discovery of that mission requires us to think deeply about ourselves and about what is unique about us.

But when it comes to helping our children actually develop that self-knowledge and awareness of what makes them unique, particularly their strengths, the primary responsibility falls upon parents for the simple reason that they know, or should know, their child better than any mechanech can come to know a child in one year and in a class of 30 or more students.

For raising awareness of ways in which parents and families can positively foster the development of each child, we owe Rabbi Schulvaks a debt of gratitude.


In Memoriam: David Wyman

The Jewish People lost a close friend and powerful advocate with the passing March 14 of historian David Wyman. Wyman was the author of two major works on American government policy during the Holocaust: Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis 1938-1941 (1968) and The Abandonment of the Jews (1984). I relied heavily on those works to provide the context for the rescue work of Mike Tress and Zeirei Agudath Israel detailed in They Called Him Mike.

Precisely because Wyman was not himself Jewish did those works, as well as his 1978 Commentary article, “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed,” have the impact they did. As he himself came to realize, had they been written by a Jew, they would have been dismissed in many quarters as “the Jews complaining again.”

As it was, his meticulously researched and passionately argued critique of the attitude of FDR and his administration ruffled many feathers. He wrote of the failed Bermuda Conference in 1943, “the great fear of the Allies was not that the Nazis would refuse to release captive Jews, but that they might.”

While FDR’s failure to rally the American people to the cause of rescue was the focus of Wyman’s righteous indignation, he did not spare the mainstream Jewish leadership of the time, either. “Too few schedules were rearranged. Vacations were seldom sacrificed. Too few projects of lesser significance were put aside,” he wrote.

Nor were the sins of the mainstream leadership only ones of omission. The mainstream Zionists deliberately sabotaged the efforts of the Revisionist Zionists led by Peter Bergson (the alias of Hillel Kook, the nephew of the Chief Rabbi of Palestine Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook.) When the Bergsonites, using leading Hollywood stars of the time, mounted a pageant entitled “We Will Never Die,” which was viewed by 40,000 people in Madison Square Garden and another 60,000 in five cities around the country, mainstream Zionist groups pressured other communities to drop their sponsorship.

Stephen Wise and other mainstream leaders even opposed passage of a Rescue Resolution in Congress sponsored by the Bergsonites. The Rescue Resolution eventually pressured FDR into creation of the War Refugee Board in early 1944. Wyman estimates that the WFB saved as many as 200,000 Jewish lives.

Wyman and co-author Rafael Medoff brought the latter criticisms of the mainstream leadership to a head in their 2002 work Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust, which consisted primarily of two lengthy interviews with Hillel Kook. Kook details how “the leaders of the major Jewish organizations… and particularly Zionist leaders Stephen Wise and Nahum Goldmann, invested considerable resources in undermining [the Emergency Committee’s] activities. For the most part, they behaved as if large-scale rescue operations by the American government were either impossible or doomed to failure.”

Pretty much the only allies the Bergsonites found were in the Orthodox community, as in the October 1943 march of 400 rabbis in support of the Rescue Resolution in Washington, D.C., the first public protest by any segment of the Jewish community of the Roosevelt administration’s indifference.

As Kook summed up the matter, the Orthodox rabbis were “more courageous… [They] were simply more responsive, more Jewish, in a sense. They were more sensitive to the issue, and less affected by the environment…. They operated on the old Jewish theological concept of ‘He who saves one soul, saves the world’ [the wartime motto of Zeirei Agudath Israel].”

David Wyman, the descendant of Protestant clergymen on both sides, documented the charges of indifference against the American government and the American Jewish establishment and gave them a credence they would have had coming from Jewish sources. For that we will be forever indebted.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 706. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com