Late last Shabbat afternoon I came downstairs to find my husband reading aloud an article from The New York Times to our 12-year-old daughter about a free loan fund that had been started in Atlanta by a Jewish couple. Seeing the economic hardship around them, this couple put aside $5,000 to help their neighbors in need through extending small loans. As my husband read to our daughter, I immediately knew that this was a story that I had to bring to the attention of my students the following morning. It would serve as an important companion piece to another story I had decided to share — the SAT cheating scandal that recently came to light in Great Neck. To my dismay, most of the students involved in this incident were Jewish. Clipping the articles, I wondered how I could connect them in an all-too-short 45-minute session.
As the principal of The Rebecca and Israel Ivry Prozdor High School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I work with my faculty to create content-rich, interesting and relevant classes for the students in grades eight through 12 who choose to continue their Jewish education on Sunday mornings. This semester I am also teaching an elective, guided by Jewish sources, called Money and Morality: Jewish and Business Ethics, a topic I think our high school students need to talk about in-depth.
So on Sunday I raised the topic of the cheating scandal and asked the students if they knew of cheating in their own schools. Not surprisingly, they all did. One student said he knew of an incident wherein a student had hacked into the school’s computers and deleted an upcoming exam. He didn’t get caught. Another student said that she and others didn’t report those who cheated because they feared, in her words, “getting beat up.” Yet another student said he thought that there was a cleverness that these students displayed that he couldn’t help but admire.
This discussion took place in at least three other classes as well. I learned after class from a teacher that a student from France explained that if a person cheats on a matriculation exam there that he is barred from college admission for five years. Now that’s a deterrent. Not one of my students thought that the punishment of community service was either sufficient or a deterrent for future cheaters.
While my students were unsettled by the news of the scandal, they were not outraged. I wondered how they had become cynical at such a young age that such deviant and deceptive behavior didn’t faze them. Looking for guidance, I found the work of Dan Ariely, an economic behaviorist and author of “The Upside of Irrationality,” who had done extensive experiments to measure to what extent people cheat. He found that when someone who is part of our own social group cheats, we find it more acceptable to cheat, but when people who are not part of our social group cheat, we want to distance ourselves from these people and cheat less.
Now I was worried. Since the majority of those charged were Jewish, had I just lowered my students’ threshold of tolerance for cheating by bringing this story to their attention?
In class, I segued from the cheating scandal to the story about the couple that had created the free loan fund for needy neighbors in Atlanta. They were guided by their rabbi who was familiar from his childhood in Brooklyn with the system of gemach [interest-free loans or community collectives, from the Hebrew words “gemillat chasidim,” acts of loving kindness]. Even today gemachs largely exist in Orthodox communities, enabling families to borrow items from one another, including wedding gowns and baby clothes. However, this gemach in the American South was for all Jews in the community.
Regrettably, this practice is not widespread today. It is a modest way to help others that does not shine light on the donor; in fact, the donor never knows who the borrower is, and vice versa. My students were unfamiliar with the notion of people helping one another in this fashion. They were slightly intrigued but needed more years of life experience to more fully understand the dimensions of such generosity. I could not help imagining that the students who paid others to take the SAT had pooled their money for a gemach, instead. Perhaps they, too, would need more life experience to even consider such a thing.
As a rabbi, educator and parent, I strove to connect the dots between these two stories — one imparting a sense of communal pride, the other, shame. And so I ended my Prozdor class by telling my students that they would be faced with opportunities to cheat in life and to take shortcuts that might seem harmless at the moment. They would also be faced with opportunities to help others keep their dignity and gain no credit for it. Hopefully, by talking about both these stories, both the uncomfortable and the uplifting, a small group of Jewish students will know that people are capable of both the very good and the very bad, and that they have the power to make the right choices in their futures.
Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi is the principal of the Rebecca and Israel Ivry High School located at The Jewish Theological Seminary.