And the Award Goes to...

We need to recognize kids for being good people as well as star students or athletes

Recently, I was reading an essay by one of my teenage students. She wrote, "It is easy to be independent when everyone behind you is with you; the difficulty comes when 99% of your friends think that you are wrong." Just a few weeks before, I met with another student who told me that her greatest problem was "holding fast to her values." In school, all that is important to her friends are designer labels, the make of their parents' cars, and the sizes of their homes. She does not want to follow the crowd, but it's hard to be different.

At the end of the school year, our children receive all kinds of recognition for academic achievement and athletic prowess. But where and how do we transmit the foundation of faith in the idea that doing good is more important than acquiring goods? How do we educate our children to stand up for what they believe even though they may stand alone?

I envision an end-of-school awards ceremony with some of the following categories:

  • Offering comfort to a friend who is having trouble in school or at home
  • Refusing to use or accept derogatory statements about people of other ethnicities or religions
  • Following through with a commitment even though it's inconvenient
  • Serving as a volunteer in the community
  • Showing respect to teachers, parents, and peers
  • Extending a hand of friendship to someone who is not part of the popular crowd
  • Being honest when others cheat
    We all agree that we want our children to win awards like these, to be more just and compassionate human beings. But how do we teach these lessons?


    The Bible gives us some clues. In the book of Genesis, Abraham is called an ivri, a Hebrew. Ivri comes from the root that means "to cross over." Geographically, it describes Abraham's crossing over the river from the place of his birth to a new land. Spiritually, it describes his ability to stand on the other side, in opposition to the majority. The rabbis teach that in the place where no one behaves like a human being, you should strive to behave like one.

    Research on the characteristics of several hundred people who at great personal risk saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust may shed some light on what kind of upbringing educates the soul. It was found that rescuers had "empathetic imagination." In other words, they could see themselves in the "other," no matter how different the other was. They had exposure to compassionate people early in life. They were taught critical-thinking skills that enabled them to make reasoned and thoughtful choices independent of majority opinion. They developed a strong, positive self-image, which gave them internal confidence.

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    Rabbi Sandy Sasso
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