The stage is decorated as though for a concert: a long sign draped across it reading, “ON A HAPPY NOTE,” along with an appropriate quote from Hebrew liturgy, golden music notes hanging from the ceiling, the curtain backdrop glowing with blue light. The music begins – a cheerful, upbeat song with a bouncy rhythm. The audience claps and cheers as excitement mounts. Out of four giant rings of stylized piano keys step four young ladies in poufy tulle skirts. They begin to dance across the stage, twirling, jumping, linking hands…
This is no ordinary performance. This is the opening activity of the Discovery program at Bais Yaakov High School of Baltimore. The program runs each year on Hebrew Fridays (the school alternates between Torah and general studies, as it is a shorter day), and is dedicated to exploring different essential values and character traits that the students might incorporate and improve upon in their lives.
Mrs. Yehudis Feldman is the faculty advisor to the program, and this year, Esti Kramer, Chaya Blima Ely, Toby Meth, and Sara Barr are the select group of seniors who run it. Together, they brainstorm how to present the year’s theme to the student body in a manner that is both fun and inspirational. This year’s theme is Simcha/Happiness, and the initial song and dance presentation they prepared was a beautiful start to what promises to be an exciting and meaningful program.
After the presentation, the program kicks off with an anonymous survey:
On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate your level of Simcha?
Who in your life do you think epitomizes Simcha? Why?
Why do you think happiness is so hard to achieve?
This is only a sampling of the questions given to the girls for consideration. The survey is designed to give the students a preview of the aspects of the theme that will be discussed throughout the year, to help them develop an awareness of which aspects might present a particular challenge to them, and to elicit feedback that will be considered in determining the most effective way to present aspects of the trait of Simcha/Happiness going forward. As the allotted time slot draws to a close, the girls are treated to a delicious snack and go back to class excited, invigorated, and inspired.
Two teachers, Rebbetzin Miriam Heinemann and Rebbetzin Shlomis Eisenberg (a”h), first brainstormed the Discovery program around 16 years ago.
“They wanted to bring the ‘flavor’ of Yiddishkeit to the girls,” Mrs. Feldman says. “The goal was to show the beauty and joy in it. Mitzvos aren’t a burden – they are a privilege.”
So the first year’s theme was “Vehiyisem li segula mikol ha’amim” – the concept of being the Chosen Nation. This was explained through the device of contemplating a truffle – a rare and expensive mushroom with a delicate and prized flavor – as a metaphor for how precious and beloved we are to Hashem. The program continued to present the concept of elevation and refinement in all aspects of the students’ lives: elevating one’s eating by saying brachos (blessings) and answering Amen, elevating one’s speech by speaking in a refined and respectful way, and elevating the music one chooses by only listening to songs that are appropriate in tone and message. The theme closed on a high note, stressing a personal connection to Hashem through tefillah. It was wildly successful.
The following year, they decided on a different theme: Kavod – Honor/Respect. Aspects included respect for teachers, honoring parents, respect among friends, and self-respect, culminating in the concept of Kavod Shamayim – honoring Hashem.
The third year, the theme of Emes/Truth brought home issues like true friendship, honesty in financial dealings, avoiding exaggeration, and being true to oneself.
And the fourth year’s theme was Simcha/Happiness, completing what became a four-year cycle.
Needs of the Generation
In this day and age, when the surrounding culture is steeped in unbridled narcissism, how does one convince a teenager to engage in genuine self-reflection, with the ultimate goal of self-improvement?
“The program is 100% non-threatening,” Mrs. Feldman explains. “We don’t lecture.”
“It relieves the stress of school,” says Rena Miriam Steger, 10th grader. “It’s nice to have something to think about besides schoolwork.”
The student committee spends a significant amount of time on Thursday nights at school, preparing for the presentations and making sure the costumes and decorations are engaging, aesthetically pleasing, and suited to whatever aspect of the theme will be focused on the following day.
“When things are presented properly, it conveys chashivus – importance,” Mrs. Feldman explains. “It’s not necessarily fancy, but it has to have a professional look, an inviting look.”
They definitely manage to achieve that, and in ways that don’t break the bank. Balloons, posterboard frames and lettering, cleverly draped fabric, and even hanging egg chairs borrowed from yards create a fun, enticing milieu. Costumes include previously mentioned tulle skirts, items from the school’s Production stash, and dress-up clothes from home.
“I really appreciate the connection [of the theme] with the decorations they do,” comments Dassi, 11th grader.
The activities are cute, sometimes hilarious, and let the intended lesson speak for itself. One of the most poignant and effective activities held during the “Chosen Nation” year of the cycle concerned elevating the clothing one wears. In the four rounds of the game, the four students in the Discovery committee dressed in different types of ensembles: high school girls in uniform, in Shabbos clothes, and in camp clothes, and as mothers. The audience was asked questions like:
Who seems most likely to go mud-sliding with their kids in the rain?
Who seems most likely to live in Meah She’arim (a Hareidi neighborhood in Jerusalem)?
Who seems most likely to be a teacher one day?
Who seems most likely to study for a test the night before? Who the week in advance?
Who seems most likely to have their Shabbos food prepared by Thursday night?
Who seems most likely to snooze their alarm clock a few times before getting out of bed?
Point well taken.
An activity held during the “Emes/Truth” year brought to life the concept of “seeing the complete picture” by showing a zoomed-in photo of a part of a common household item and asking the girls to guess what the item was. It brought home the necessity to convey complete and honest information when we speak.
The program also invites speakers to address many of the presentations. The students have heard words of encouragement and inspiration from prominent community leaders such as Rabbi Aharon Feldman (Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel), Rabbi Dovid Heber (Rav of Khal Ahavas Yisrael Tzemach Tzedek), Rabbi Yosef Berger (Rav of Khal Kol Torah), Rabbi Shmuel Silber (Rav of Suburban Orthodox Congregation), and internationally renowned author and storyteller (and Bais Yaakov High School parent) Rabbi Yechiel Spero, among others. Other community members came to share valuable life experience, ranging from discovering Judaism for the first time to thriving through adversity. In one presentation of the Emes/Truth theme, Rena Lipsky, a Bais Yaakov and seminary graduate, spoke about her experiences encountering true friendship. In another, Mrs. Dena Schneider, a mother of a very large family, bli ayin hara, discussed her journey from aspiring career woman to embracing motherhood as her “true self”. Mrs. Shifra Rabenstein, Mrs. Yehudis Hexter, and Mrs. Laure Gutman, a”h, have also shared their powerful stories. At times, Mrs. Feldman herself has a message to deliver to the students.
“Mrs. Feldman is an amazing speaker,” Dassi says. “She really speaks from the heart.”
When people share their own spiritual journeys, it makes the concept of self-improvement relatable and – more importantly, perhaps – attainable.
Technology has become a major challenge in the past few years, as online content has become more easily accessible – and more harmful – than ever. Many teens have personal devices, and studies have shown that engaging with those devices detracts from time that would otherwise be spent engaging with friends, family, and other purposeful pursuits. According to the data, excessive online engagement negatively impacts relationships, school performance, and mental health.
Through the Discovery program, Bais Yaakov addresses this issue head-on. The entire month of Nissan is devoted to encouraging the students to free themselves of technology’s addictive hold. According to Rabbi Zweig, principal of Bais Yaakov High School, this is the most anticipated part of the program. Mrs. Feldman agrees. “It’s completely voluntary,” she notes, “and widely embraced.”
This segment of the program is, like the others, introduced through fun, themed activities, audio-visual presentations, or powerfully illustrative stage displays. In one such display entitled “Disconnect to Reconnect,” a girl sits in one hanging frame and is shown to be using an electronic device. In another frame, another girl sits alone in a kitchen. In a third frame, two girls are sitting on a bench, happily engaging with each other without a device in sight.
After the introduction, a calendar is distributed to the students to track their participation. Each calendar day has three check boxes. The first box may be checked off if the student completely refrains from use of any device – smartphone, tablet, or computer – for one hour of out-of-school time that each student chooses for herself. In addition, the student’s phone must be shut off by 12:30 AM and put in a public place. The second box may be checked if the student refrains from going on social media and watching any secular movies or shows, and limits herself to 40 minutes of shopping online for the entire day. The third box may be checked if the student refrains from texting or using WhatsApp for the entire day.
Accumulated checks earn the student tickets to a raffle at the end of the program, in which one girl from each grade wins an exemption from one final exam. In addition, those who participated and accumulated at least twenty checks may participate in a trip that takes place at the end of the program during school hours, usually lasts a full day, and is heavily subsidized by Bais Yaakov PTA and others. Trips have included Adventure Park USA, ZavaZone, the Coco Keys indoor water park, and Round Top Mountain Resort.
“The technology program was a big help for me,” says Basya Sora Bitman, 11th grader. “There’s a really big goal of a free final, and you don’t have to be perfect at it – you can work at it at your own pace. I have really been able to move away from technology because of this program.”
Dassi shares: “Two years ago I worked on taking apps off my phone. Last year I took more apps off, and worked on screen time. It’s such a freeing experience – I have more time on my hands. And because it’s only one month, it’s attainable.”Mrs. Feldman shares that the girls leave the introductory event with calendars in hand and a strong sense of mission that transcends the school walls. Even without the incentive of the raffle and trip, she has heard from graduates who continue to participate in the program through their seminary year and beyond. It’s also not unusual for mothers to participate in the program alongside their daughters. One mother even quit Instagram entirely because of the program.
The vast majority of the students eagerly participate in and benefit from the Discovery program. Lives have been changed in big ways and small, both through the year-long program in general and through the Technology segment in Nissan.
“I’ve gained a lot of skills in general, midos-wise, because there are specific things you work on at a time,” Basya Sora says. “I really have time to focus on it, and they’re right there with us, helping us out with announcements and reminders. Also, doing it with my friends, I can really start to work on it in a small way and then build it up.”
Some students are surprised by what they learn. Nechama Bulka, 11th grader, elaborates: “Last year when we talked about Emes, we learned about things you wouldn’t necessarily think have to do with emes,” she says. “Like, exaggeration is not emes. I didn’t realize.”
Even during Covid, when school was closed, there was a massive amount of participation via phone and Zoom. At the end of that year’s technology program, instead of a trip, they held a drive-by event and gave out specially printed sweatshirts to the participants.
But what of those students who are not “joiners,” who may have a more skeptical attitude, or just prefer to sit on the sidelines and avoid the action? Mrs. Feldman is sure that the effects of the program reach even them, as they observe and absorb the content. “We ‘pack their suitcases’,” she says. “At some point in their life, they’ll take some of these lessons and apply them when they need them.”
As a case in point, Chana B., 11th grader, describes her personal evolution on the technology program.
“In 9th grade, I was really against it,” she says. “I didn’t see the point. But as time went on, it changed my outlook on technology in general. I’m not as obsessed with it as I was. I hope to continue to manage my use of technology, and come to a point where I manage it really well.”
Is it worthwhile, I wonder, to sacrifice so much class time for this extracurricular program?
When Rena Miriam discussed the program with friends, they concluded that the fact that the school devotes such a large amount of time for Discovery during what would otherwise be class time shows how important it is.
Both Rabbi Zweig and Mrs. Feldman agree that some things are better learned outside the classroom than inside. And presenting Jewish values in a format that radiates positivity, encouragement, and love is well worth giving up class time.
To that end, the time and energy Mrs. Feldman and the committee put into making sure all elements of the Discovery program come together just right is enormous. Mrs. Feldman spends a lot of out-of-school time, in addition to preparing for her regular classes, brainstorming, guiding, and troubleshooting for the program.
“Every year, I rethink doing it,” Mrs. Feldman admits. “It is extracurricular, and it takes a lot of time. But I’m so passionate about sharing these concepts… I can’t stop!”
And the rewards are apparent.
Dassi is enthusiastic about Discovery. “They’re life lessons that are really applicable,” she tells me. “[Mrs. Feldman and the committee] are on the ball about what’s going on in a high school girl’s perspective. They really cater to different backgrounds and where people are on the ladder.”
“My favorite part of the program is getting to know myself better,” says Chana B. “I discovered a lot about myself, and it helped me grow and get closer to Hashem.”
“It’s no wonder,” Rabbi Zweig muses, “that for students, being voted in by grademates for Discovery leadership is such a coveted opportunity. Discovery adds rich color and a degree of real splendor that greatly enrich Bais Yaakov High School life.”
There are high expectations for Discovery this year.
Dassi and Nechama look forward to “a deep dive into what simcha is” and “how to attain true happiness.”
“I don’t struggle in Simcha so much,” Basya Sora muses, “but if there’s one thing, I do have a hard time being happy when it’s tough. I hope to learn to feel that Simcha when it’s not naturally there.”
“I’m looking forward to it, because it’s hard to know what true happiness is,” Chana B. shares. “The small times of happiness, when I feel content – is it real, or am I just trying to fill myself with something more? I want to learn how to be a truly happy person.”
And can Simcha improve relationships? “I’ve gained so much insight on how to communicate with friends better,” says Rena Miriam. “I’m looking forward to more of that.”