The Secret Ingredient of Shiriyah

This past week, I had the privilege to watch my oldest daughter’s last Shiriyah and my middle daughter’s first Shiriyah. If you want to understand what Shiriyah at Frisch is, pause and read this beautiful blog perspective from alum Corey Berman ’15: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/on-winning-the-lottery.

Many teachers and administrators at other schools have asked me for the secret of Shiriyah. How do we get 90 percent of our students to come in on Sunday, which is not a school day, and then stay in school throughout the week until 9-10 p.m. or even 1 a.m.?

This reminds me of the old Jewish story where the non-Jew asked why the food on Friday night tastes so good. The response is that the food has a secret ingredient—Shabbat. Similarly, the enthusiasm of Shiriyah is due to a secret ingredient. That secret ingredient is Shiriyah. But this begs the question: what is in this secret ingredient that becomes Shiriyah?

Many give answers about the enthusiasm of the faculty, the tradition over the years, the many different types of events. But I believe the one answer is a word in sociology known as agency. Agency is the feeling of an individual that he/she is in total control and can make decisions about the things that matter to him.

Too often teenagers in a school context feel helpless, like they have no agency. Their teachers choose what they should learn and what assignments they have to do. The high-performing students learn to please his/her teachers in a myriad of ways. But these ways are really about doing what others want, not expressing one’s true self.

The secret of Shiriyah is that the normal formula of school is reversed. It is the students who now have total agency. They decide how they want to express themselves in a myriad of ways. Teachers are still there for support and consultation but they are there at the behest of the student. Their job is to help their students exercise maximum creativity. When you give students agency over something that matters to them and has a lasting value, they will work their hearts out to fulfil skills and abilities they did not even know they had.

I think of my 9th-grade daughter who helped create the banner this year and then gave the d’var Torah on it at the Shiriyah finale to all of her classmates, teachers, friends, parents in the packed Frisch gym. Besides for her Bat Mitzvah, she had never spoken in front of a group close to this size before and now, she was speaking in front of thousands.

This is the magic that is Shiriyah.

Of course, there exists some tension in Shiriyah - students must learn to navigate exercising their independence and offering their individual ideas while working within a group of people with their own ideas and ways of communicating them. This tension can create arguments, especially amongst students in the younger grades. But gradually, students learn the value of community, and discover how to use agency harmoniously within a greater group.

The most exciting thing about this in the context of Shiriyah is that it is a microcosm for living a fulfilling Jewish life. G-d wants us to use our abilities and exercise our free will, use agency, to grow into our best selves. There was a telling display at the beginning of the senior hallway. The theme of the seniors was Shabbat and, after people walked through an exhibit of Shabbat candles, they entered a space ship. This ship was a model of the space shuttle Columbia with Ilan Ramon inside. --Full disclosure: my oldest daughter came up with the idea for this section of the senior hallway, major nachas.-- There were Kiddush cups hanging on the ceiling and the burned out Kiddush on the wall; the handwritten Kiddush that Ilan Ramon recited while in space and that survived miraculously the shuttle burning up in the atmosphere. The message, said the seniors, was that Ilan showed that even if one chose to be an astronaut one could still sanctify the Shabbat from outer space.

This reminds me of a famous statement that I heard my rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, say in the name of the Rav.
There should be a 14th ani maamin. “Ani ma’amin be’emunah sh’leimah she’kol ha’Torah kulah y’cholah l’hiskayeim b’chol makom u’v’chol zman. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah can be kept in every place and in every time. If you don’t accept that Ani Maamin, what’s the use of the (other) thirteen? If the Ani Maamin is dependent upon geography and chronology, then when the Jews are scattered all over the world… You mean to the moon? Yes. If you want to know about Mars, I can tell you that Mars, too.” (The Rav Thinking Aloud on the Parsha, Bereishis, p.274-278)
This is, I believe, what God wants from each and every one of us, and this is the fundamental message of Shiriyah. We believe that the Torah can be kept with every human ability and creative skill. Students can utilize every skill set they possess, whether it be art, music, dance, videography, to exercise complete agency in the service of Torah values. Hashem wants us to exercise our free will and God-given abilities within the structure of Judaism to become the best versions of ourselves. God does not want robots who serve Him mindlessly. He wants creative individuals who find new ways to show their talents in the service of God.