Excellence beyond the classroom

Teachers and students who are taking everything they’ve learned to the next level

By Chandrea Serebro

Rebbe’s Mussar Stories

Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Edelman is a storyteller who uses the power of his voice, with his talent for imparting the Torah’s timeless wisdom through meaningful moshals (parables), to teach children all about growing themselves as people and as Jews. But just to make sure that what he is trying to teach people doesn’t get lost in the pages of history, Rabbi Edelman uses modern technology and the wonderful new ways of reaching out to people on a large scale to get his message across. He does it by way of his website, mussarstories.com, which puts out original and classical mussar stories for kids with powerful sounds and imagery to go along with them. He does this through impactful stories and his own narration, his lilting voice drawing the kids in, background sound effects and musical accompaniment making it real and heart rending, and his direct commentary and explanations as he goes along, ensuring that none of the powerful messages inherent in the stories are lost.

Rabbi Edelman has a talent which precedes Rebbe’s Mussar Stories; a talent for being able to tell original stories in such a way that the audience can connect to the message he is trying to convey, which he has always practiced at his Shabbos table and on the school children that he teaches – “even direct rebuke, but in interesting and loving ways”. The listeners find themselves at the edge of their seats waiting for more, waiting for the punch line, waiting for the message – even if that includes some constructive criticism. Rabbi Edelman derives stories from his creative thinking, while others he gets from the Midrash or Torah, or Jewish lore. But the stories are always told in a new, exciting, and innovative way, often humorously, always educationally, and in such a way that the message can be brought across gently. Rebbe’s Mussar Stories are powerful. When you hear them you identify with the characters in the scenario and it impacts your life and the experiences that you are going through both in conscious and deeply subconscious ways.

“My mission is to spread mussar with innovation and appeal.” The rabbi might be doling out mussar, or ideas on moral conduct, a principle which grew into a cultural movement that saw its heyday in the 19th Century, largely founded by Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter in Lithuania, but he does it in a popular way. “People don’t want to feel criticised; they want to run away whenever they hear comments about their conduct, whether it is constructive or not.” Rabbi Edelman was even advised against naming his website Rebbe’s Mussar Stories for this reason. “But I chose to go with it because I want people to know that yes, mussar can be criticism, and yes, it is important to hear, but it doesn’t have to be about negative judgments on people. Rather, it must be seen as positive ways in which we can grow, which can also be fun, interesting, and appealing. Mussar is such an important part of our lives; it contributes to our growth as people and, of course, as Jews.” He believes that the importance of mussar is for a person to become more G-d fearing and for him to perfect his character traits.

Ironically, Rabbi Edelman was always a technophobe. “I didn’t know much about technology, but my partner, Ryan Richard – Managing Director of Raw Media, is cutting-edge and he had approached me numerous times after hearing my stories at the Shabbos table or at shul to publish them. And he knew just how to do it.” It was Ryan’s gentle insistence and motivation which propelled Rabbi Edelman to take the plunge, and of course his technical savvy brought Rebbe’s Mussar Stories to life. “I believe that if Yirat Shomayim (fear of Hashem) is correctly instilled at a young age it will strengthen our children and give them the tools they need to overcome the difficulties we face in this generation. With Rabbi Edelman’s unique ability, I saw how we would be able to inspire Jewish families across the world by building a healthy, educational, and exciting alternative to negative media available to Jewish homes worldwide,” says Ryan.

So far, Rabbi Edelman has written eight stories and there are another five in production. He is inspired and motivated to put out many more, realising that the capacity to teach in new and broader ways is far more expansive than he could ever have imagined. “That is the beauty of the stories. They inspire people in a way that challenges them to help themselves and to grow, without putting them down and making them feel less holy in any way. People want to grow. They don’t always like to because it is hard, but deep down everybody wants to better themselves.”

The added bonus of Rebbe’s Mussar Stories is the learning that takes place over and above the broader message of the piece. It is not just mussar that the children are gaining. The rabbi takes the children on a journey into the world that he creates and there they learn and do so much, with an entertaining and sometimes mesmerising soundtrack provided by partner Matthew Klawansky, composer and producer, as well as some well-known tunes from renowned Jewish artist Yaakov Shwekey (with his permission).

Rabbi Edelman has also been going around schools giving over mussar stories to the students to rave review. And his audiences love him. “It has gotten to the point where parents cannot switch off the car because the children, and indeed even the parents themselves, want to finish the story.” Mission accomplished.

For more information, visit: www.mussarstories.com

The 613 Mitzvot of Chidon Sefer Hamitzvos

Thirteen-year-old Tanni Cohen was one of seven lucky Torah Academy students out of 18 qualifiers who got the opportunity to journey to America to compete in the international Chidon Sefer Hamitzvos competition, which sees kids delving into the deepest meaning behind every one of the 613 mitzvos in the Torah. “I feel so proud to have been a part of the whole thing and for achieving what I did, and knowing that the amount of studying I put in is visible in the results that I achieved,” says Tanni. The competition, organised by Tzivos Hashem International for 10-14-year-olds from around the world, was started six years ago. A Shabbaton in New York that pulled out all the stops was the reward for any child who had scored high enough on three difficult tests on the 613 Mitzvos. As the Shabbaton was brought to a close, the children were challenged: “Come back next year, but with another friend too.” And so it grew to four times its size the next year, and now the competition sees over 15 000 kids worldwide taking part and over 2 500 participants at the Shabbaton from around the world.

The competition takes the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvos and splits it up into sections for each age group. By competing every year that one is eligible to, all 613 Mitzvos will have been covered, which is a mammoth task for even the most dedicated Torah learner. But Tanni couldn’t resist the challenge when her friends asked her if she would participate in the competition two years ago. This year, Tanni made it to the finals which is even greater motivation for next year. “Learning all that information inside out is extremely hard, and then having to achieve on the tests is challenging. But being able to represent my team and my grade on stage, along with four new friends that I met in America, and making it to the finals, made all the frustration worth it.”

The idea of travelling to America to compete was a major motivating factor. Picturing herself being one of the 1 000 girls worldwide wearing the purple jersey reserved for participants with pride was a goal that kept Tanni going. Being involved in such healthy competition – against, but also together with one’s friends – and learning such valuable knowledge is a great reason for anyone to do it, says Tanni, and she is determined to convince others to experience the adrenalin and joy as well. “It is the most insane experience – even though it is hard, it is so worth it. There are no regrets.”

It is not just another competition though. “It is a movement – fuelled by an incredible international four-day Shabbaton experience and the most glamorous championship and award ceremony most will ever experience,” says Tzivos Hashem. Days before the Chidon Shabbaton starts, girls from all over the world begin filling up Crown Heights, says Tanni, and welcome signs in the streets set the scene. “The Chidon colour this year was purple and the streets and shops were packed with girls in purple jerseys; the vibe was palpable, there was a buzz in the air.” Tanni took the time to enjoy and soak up the unity that came out of the Shabbaton, where she met and made friends with people from all around the world, every one of whom studied and worked supremely hard to get to where they are.

“It is the perfect space to grow, and nothing beats the feeling of self-fulfilment at the end of a tough study round, knowing that you just conquered your challenge.” The biggest trials Tanni experienced were sticking to her learning schedule, studying every day, finding the strength not to give up, and feeling satisfied with the knowledge gained at the end of each day. Tanni admits that she may have neglected her school studies a bit, but the most important thing she did was to set a balanced school and Chidon schedule. And she still managed to maintain her sense of humour too – “leaving my phone alone for once as part of the schedule even gave me time to speak to my siblings. And I discovered that they are really nice.” Probably not one of the 613 mitzvos, but just another way so much good can come out of healthy, Torah competition – especially when you excel at it, as Tanni did.

For more information, visit: www.chidondrive.com

International Bible Quiz

Seventeen-year-old Matan Kaplan made his parents, school Yeshiva College, and indeed the whole of the South African Jewish community proud last month when he competed in the finals of the annual International Bible Contest, or Chidon HaTanach, which quizzes youngsters on Tanach trivia every Yom Ha’atzmaut. The event – which began with the support of David Ben Gurion in 1963 – is sensational in every sense of the word, with the cream of the crop of exceptional contestants from every country competing live on Public Television and Radio.

“I feel very excited, motivated, privileged, and humbled, all at the same time, to have been in Israel representing South Africa at the contest,” says Matan, who spent a gruelling year preparing for the event. Together with several government ministries and other non-profit organisations, the Jewish Agency promotes the International Bible Quiz in all Jewish communities around the world and assists all Jewish youth in their participation in the quiz. The process sees children aged 14-18 write three qualifying tests from which the top two scores go toward their final mark, and from there two or three of the top achievers are sent to Israel to represent South Africa among many other countries.

This year, Matan and Tzipora Krawitz from King David Victory Park travelled to Israel, where they took part in a two week long Bible Camp – which the quiz organiser, The Jewish Agency, says is aimed at “focusing on the importance of the Bible within their Jewish identity”. There they “explore their heritage as they travel the land, learn about Israel’s history, and meet with several government officials, including the Prime Minister. “It is an awesome experience in Israel, which was well worth all the months of hard work and effort that we put in,” says Matan. “I got the chance to meet up with 75 kids from over 42 countries all over the world for two jam-packed weeks filled with unbelievable touring and experiences. We found ourselves touring the very sites that we had spent the last year learning about. It was also amazing meeting so many people from across the globe and hearing about their communities and Jewish life at home.”

The Bible Camp allows social connections to be made, but is also great preparation for the quiz as the participants get the chance to ‘live’ the Torah in a very real and meaningful way. “This is a deep, fundamental, and ideological experience for all youths,” says the Jewish Agency. “The camp was an unbelievable and unique experience, one which I’ll carry with me forever,” says Matan. For him, the greatest highlight of the process had to have been the knowledge that he gained preparing for the quiz, which he says “will stay with me throughout my life”. Matan learned one of the most important life-lessons through the process – that “hard work has its rewards”. But it was not without its own set of challenges. “The hardest part was finding the time to learn. Both Tzipora and I are in grade 11, which is an academically stressful and demanding year. The demands of the schoolwork left very little time to dedicate to Tanach” – a task which he also found “isolating” and “lonely” at times. “Spending so much time devoted to Tanach sometimes left me finding it difficult to stay motivated. But I was determined to get to Israel, and I wanted to try and do my best, and this goal got me through it.”

A preliminary written test was held at the beginning of Bible Camp, and the points accumulated determined who made the finals; the 16 top scorers make it to the World Bible Quiz. The Diaspora Quiz, held for all Diaspora representatives, sees 16 top representatives of each country compete against each other. The World Bible Quiz sees 12 representatives from Israel and 12 from around the world participate, contesting in a written test and three public rounds. The third stage, presenting identical questions to all contestants, is known as the Prime Minister’s Question. At the end of the quiz a winner and three runners-up are awarded their titles. Despite reaching the end of his round in the finals, Matan succeeded where few others did. And still he is “humbled by the fuss everyone has made of me” and feels privileged to have enjoyed this life-changing experience and achieve as much as he did.

For more information, visit: www.jewishagency.org/

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