In Memory of the Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Roee Grutman, Karen Douglas and Katie Stack: These are the names of the three Newton high school students who took their lives in the past four months.

What is happening to our children? Is the pressure so unbearable that they see suicide as the only alternative in their lives? And where is that pressure coming from? School, home, the playing field? Are their feelings of despair so deeply internalized that we, their parents, only see the usual adolescent angst? I don’t have answers – only deep sadness and raw fear.

There are always statistics to pair with any tragedy. In the case of teen suicide, the statistics are particularly sobering. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention report that for youths between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third-leading cause of death. It results in about 4,600 lives lost each year.

Deaths from youth suicide are only part of the story. According to the CDC, more young people survive suicide attempts than actually die. A nationwide survey of youth in 9th through 12th grades, both in public and private schools, found that 16 percent of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13 percent reported creating a plan and 8 percent reported trying to take their own lives in the 12 months preceding the survey. There are also about 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 who receive medical care for selfinflicted injuries at emergency rooms across the country each year.

One of the more recent and visible projects addressing teen suicide has been the Internet-based “It Gets Better.” Founded by gay activist Dan Savage and his husband, the enterprise began as a response to the high suicide rate among LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth by featuring gay adults in videos communicating that life improves as kids grow up. The campaign was so successful that there is a dedicated website with more than 50,000 videos made by adults of all sexual orientations encouraging kids to work through hard times because life always gets better.

Efrem Epstein knows about weathering tough times. As an adult, Epstein came out the other end of a severe depression and in gratitude for his recovery volunteered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 2009 he was invited to participate in World Suicide Prevention Day, where he saw a number of diverse organizations present programs in their communities in support of suicide prevention. It was a light-bulb moment for Epstein, who realized that there was no Jewish organization dedicated to working on suicide prevention. “I knew I needed to create an organization with Jewish nuances in mind,” Epstein said in a recent interview. The result was the creation of Elijah’s Journey, so named for the prophet Elijah who asked God to take his life after a trying time. In response, G-d told Elijah to take a 40-day journey to rethink his life.

This is one of the text studies that Epstein teaches in synagogue groups, Limmud classes and Hillel programs. He says, “Developing text studies and programs using a Jewish lens opens up the lines of communication about suicide.” In his presentations, Epstein also points to Numbers 11 in which an overwhelmed Moses asks G-d to end his life. G-d advises Moses to surround himself with 70 elders who can share his burdens with him.

In addition to offering Jewish wisdom on the subject, Epstein notes, “These texts highlight the fact that suicide is not new. Biblical characters had suicidal feelings and it is becoming a lot less taboo in the Jewish community to talk about it. Part of the challenge that Elijah’s Journey has had has been to get the word out there. The issue has not been on the Jewish community’s radar. There are 1 million suicide attempts every year resulting in 40,000 actual suicides. But we have worked with synagogues of all denominations to convince the Jewish community that it is a critical issue for the community.”

To introduce its mission into homes, Elijah’s Journey is working on a document for Passover that families can read at their Seder when they open the door for Elijah. “We’re hoping that we can incorporate thinking about suicide prevention into the Seder ceremony,” says Epstein. There also plans to develop information for visiting the shiva house of someone lost to suicide.

For now, though, I’d like to take a moment to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for Roee Grutman, Karen Douglas and Katie Stack. May G-d comfort the families and friends who loved these young people among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and the entire world.

Mourner’s Kaddish

Yitgadal veyitkadash shemey raba

Be’alma di vera chir’utey

Veyamlich malchutey

Bechayeychon u’veyomeychon

U’vechayey di’chol beit yisrael

Ba’agala u’vizman kariv ve’imru amein Yehey sh’mey raba mevorach le’alam u’le’almey almaya

Yitbarach ve’yishtabach ve’yitpa’ar ve’yitromam ve’yitnasey

Ve’yit’hadar ve’yit’aleh ve’yit’halal

She’mey d’kud’sha b’rich hu

Le’eyla min kol birchata ve’shirata tushbechata ve’nechemata

Da’amiran be’alma ve’imru amein

Yehey sh’lama raba min shemaya ve’chayim

Aleynu ve’al kol yisrael ve’imru amen

O’seh shalom bimromav

Hu ya’aseh shalom aleynu ve’al kol yisrael

Ve’imru amein

Magnified and sanctified be Your name, O G-d, throughout the world, which You have created according to Your will. May Your sovereignty be accepted in our own days, in our lives, and in the life of all the House of Israel, speedily and soon, and let us say, Amen.

May Your great name be blessed for ever and ever.

Exalted and honored, adored and acclaimed be Your name, O Holy One. Blessed are You, whose glory transcends all praises, songs and blessings voiced in the world, and let us say, Amen.

Grant abundant peace and life to us and to all Israel, and let us say, Amen.

May You who establish peace in the heavens, grant peace to us, to Israel, and to all the earth, and let us say, Amen.

Hey Jude by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Fifty years ago the Beatles came to America and told gaggles of screaming teenage girls, “I wanna hold your hand.” But I first heard the song at my uncle’s wedding in 1967. I was the six year-old flower girl with the plastic daisy crown that wanted to dance all night because the Beatles told me that, “Yeah, you got that something.” When my uncle and I twisted and shouted all the way to the ground, I was the little girl who was certain that she twisted “so fine.”

 Beatles

The gray suitcase record player that my uncle and my new aunt gave me for my birthday came with a 45 RPM record with Yellow Submarine on Side A and Eleanor Rigby on Side B. I played Yellow Submarine over and over, dancing and spinning and dizzying myself into black star-flecked space. “We all live in a yellow submarine.” But I also lived at 1735 Asylum Avenue in West Hartford, Connecticut, where my much older father had altogether different and old-fashioned taste in music.

Dad cued up Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, Straus waltzes and John Philip Sousa marches on the gleaming hi-fi console in the living room. On random Sundays, particularly in the summer, he marched my brother and sister and me around the house to the rhythm of Sousa’s brassy, piccolo-inflected music. Over the blare of tubas and trumpets, my father conducted us as we waved small American flags. Dad, the standard bearer of our patriotism, carried a large flag with only forty-eight stars.

Dad kept the car radio in the ’65 aquamarine Chevy Malibu tuned to WRCH, the station that claimed to play “rich music.” Neither classical nor popular, WRCH broadcast the cascading string music of Ray Coniff and Henry Mancini. Pop music occasionally poked through my father’s repertoire. He bought me 45 RPMs of  “The Ballad of the Green Beret” and “Winchester Cathedral.” I listened to the former with the reverence of taking in a prayer that I didn’t quite understand. The latter was a goofy vaudevillian tune with sliding whistles and muted trumpets.

My young Cuban mother sang Guantanamera, the de facto anthem of Cuban ex-pats the world over, morning, noon and night. Before I discovered the Beatles, the Cuban crooner Beny Moré was the closest I came to dancing to rock ‘n’ roll. On cold Connecticut afternoons, my mother played Beny’s music. “Soy Guajiro,” Beny sang. I was a peasant too. I mixed uneasily with my father’s refined second generation Jewish-American family.

In those days my homesick mother danced in place as if she were afraid to move even further away from Havana. The pleated gold Ed Sullivan Show-style curtains gave our beige and brown living room theatricality. I pretended to be the lead singer of Beny’s orchestra. I also imagined the Beatles one and only Hartford performance, taking place at 1735 Asylum. The Fab Four would sing a rendition of “Love Me Do” that would harmonize with the audience’s teenage screeching.

My mother also loved Nancy Sinatra singing, “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” Mom had a sleek shiny pair of black and brown boots that fit her like a second skin. She’d hum the song as I helped her pull off the boots. And I believed that, “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”

The Beatles, though, were mine alone.

recordplayer

Before I packed up the gray suitcase record player forever, I played the one 45 single that the Beatles wrote just for me. “Hey Jude, don’t carry the world upon your shoulders.” But I did. Images of the Vietnam War mingled with my parents’ domestic feuding. The women’s movement helped my mother go back to graduate school to wage her own War of Independence. And I was on the verge of growing into a sulking, moody teenager. But that was okay according to the Beatles. “For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder.”

Sunrise, Sunset: A Son Rises

These days I shade my eyes and look into the distance from my almost empty nest, remembering not only the “firsts” my children did, but also the last moments of actively parenting kids who were once wholly dependent on me.

As I write this on a snowy Wednesday, I go back to the moments when snow days guaranteed me snuggling time with my Anna and Adam. They’d flop into my bed and I would luxuriate in how small they were – small enough so that three of us had room to spare in my king-size bed. Adam is a young man and Anna is away in college. The empty bed feels gigantic.

Time blurs from the first time Adam and Anna tentatively rode away on bicycles to the first time they sat behind the wheel of a car. It whips by from the time I could carry my kids to the moment that Adam gives me his arm so I don’t slip on the ice. Adam’s childhood effectively ended for me the first time he wrested a shovel from my hand and cleaned up the walk in half the time I could have done it. It dawned on me that my son was physically stronger than I was as I watched him heave piles of wet snow so effortlessly.

My son shaves his face. My daughter catches a ride back to school with someone I don’t know. Adam navigates his way downtown on the T. Anna calls the doctor to refill her prescription. These were things that I used to do for them. When that first tooth fell out, I played the tooth fairy and slipped a dollar bill under their pillows when I was sure they were deeply asleep. I miss tucking them in at night. I miss reading to them. What was the last book I read to them? What was the first “grownup” book they read to lull themselves to sleep?

Once, I knew everything about my children – from their sleep habits to their favorite foods. Now I stand on the periphery watching them change and grapple with adulthood. I’ve witnessed Anna’s heart break. In these last years Adam has shot up 11 inches straight into manhood. My children are building their own identities; I hope Ken and I gave them a solid foundation.

Which brings me to Adam. A couple of months ago, I was reading the paper on a Saturday morning, debating whether I should go to synagogue or catch an early movie. Adam was up uncharacteristically early. He always sleeps through a weekend morning. But I could tell there was something on his mind. That particular day, Ken slept uncharacteristically late. It was just my boy and me, and I noted his strong jaw line, the soft stubble on his face. I saw so much of Ken and me in him. He was on his way to becoming the gentlest of men, just like his father.

Ken finally came downstairs. Adam suddenly stood in front of us and said he needed to say something. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “What is it, buddy?” Ken asked. “I’m gay,” said my son. “And we adore you,” I replied.

My children know that there is nothing that they can say or do that will make me stop loving them. My children also know that claiming their identities is a cause for celebration in our house. Just last summer, Ken’s brother Glen married his longtime partner Roger in a beautiful ceremony on a perfect summer evening. His wedding picture takes its place on my mother-in-law’s shelf among the photographs of his two brothers and their brides.

I learned a lot from my in-laws about having a gay child. When Glen came out, they immediately found support at PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). PFLAG was founded in 1972 by a mother who simply wanted to support her gay son publicly. My in-laws quickly found their footing at PFLAG meetings and were dismayed at the stories they heard from gay children rejected because of who they were.

It demonstrates how far we have come as a society that Ken and I feel we don’t need a rudimentary education in having a gay child. Adam is one of the only boys in his all-male school that is out and his friends and teachers have been notably supportive of him. His rabbis have told him how beloved he is at temple and how they support his choice to love whom he wishes.

“Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years … I don’t remember growing older; when did they?” goes the old song. God willing, my daughter will make a life with a man she loves and so will my son. And each day that they mature, I love them more than ever.

One Stitch at a Time: Anne Lamott’s Homespun Theology by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Anne Lamott is one of my rabbis. I know Ms. Lamott is not Jewish, but over the years she has crafted a homespun theology that is kind and wise and downright sensible.

In her latest book, “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair,” Lamott tells readers we live “stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching.”

Stitches
Hope, meaning and repair are in the details of life.When I was younger, I used to fixate on the big picture and get overwhelmed. Here is what I tell my children when they start to get anxious: Take life in 10-minute increments. It will give you the time to notice the fine, intricate parts that create a life.

Lamott’s book is also a response to the first anniversary of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. To that end, Lamott does not hesitate to tell her readers that life is grim, the world is a mess and, quoting the writer Barry Lopez, “[all] that is holding us together is stories and compassion.”

A number of years ago, I was at a school meeting in which the principal asked what we, as parents, hoped that our children would get out of Jewish day school. We went around the room and most parents said that they hoped their children would be happy and satisfied with their lives. I love the sentiment, but I don’t want my children to be happy and satisfied all the time. How will they help to repair the world if the never get fed up with the poverty, hunger, racism and all of the other maladies plaguing our world? I want my children to be compassionate, and then I want them to be even more compassionate. But coupled with that, I want them to be optimistic. In my mind, an optimist doesn’t close her eyes and wave away the bad and the ugly in an “everything is going to be all right” way. That feels empty to me. An optimist takes Lamott’s stitches and makes something of them. “You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next,” she writes. “Without stitches, you just have rags.” That’s the kind of belief in the power of good that I’m taking about.

And God bless Anne Lamott for bringing up the overly sensitive child. I want to say this as clearly as possible: There is no such thing as being overly sensitive. I know what I’m talking about. People call me overly sensitive all the time. The overly sensitive child is the fifth child in the Passover Seder. Nobody says it better than Lamott when she writes, “Almost everybody worth his or her salt was a mess and has been an overly sensitive child. Almost everyone had at one time or another been exposed to the world as flawed and human. And that it was good, for the development of character and empathy, for growth of the spirit.”

When Anna was little, she told me that she couldn’t stand it when people were angry with her. My guess is she felt misunderstood when a friend or a parent berated her. As the overly sensitive child grows up, she never quite gets over the events that made her sad in childhood.

And then there is the quandary of what you say to people when they ask you how you are. You don’t want to open a dam of feeling and possible sadness, so you say you’re fine even though your child may not be faring well in school or your elderly parent is having trouble remembering your name. Things are so perfunctory in our society. But like the great teacher and spiritual counselor that she is, Lamott’s good news on the subject is that “if you don’t seal up your heart with caulking compound, and instead stay permeable, people stay alive inside of you, and maybe outside of you too, forever.”

When I said the Kaddish for my father eleven years ago, I was determined to keep him alive in my heart by not missing a day of prayer. Sometimes I brought my kids to minyan in their pajamas. There was Adam shuffling around the chapel in his Scooby-Doo slippers. Anna sometimes participated in the service with her friend Jackie, whose mother was also mourning her father at the same time I was. We called them the “Ashrei” girls because they opened the evening service with the ubiquitous Psalm of David.They were overly sensitive children in training.

Like this startling world of ours,children don’t always grow up the way you expect them to. Love and beauty have infinite forms. Once again, I summon Anne Lamott to explain “that we are shadow and light. …We are raised to be bright and shiny, but there is meaning in the acceptance of our dusky and dappled side, and also in defiance.”

Being Both: Susan Katz Miller’s Interfaith Journey by Judy Bolton-Fasman

It has been more than a decade since my children entered Jewish day school. Our choice was the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston and I don’t regret a minute of their education there. But in the beginning Ken and I paused over the fine print of the application that asked us to confirm that our children had a Jewish mother or were converted in a mikveh—a ritual bath. A part of us felt that any child with a Jewish parent—mother or father—who sought out a Jewish education should have one. But we are also temple-going Conservative Jews who support matrilineal descent. It was a conundrum—one that after all these years I haven’t fully worked out.

I’ve had this discussion many times with my good friend Susan Katz Miller. Sue grew up Jewish with a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother. The Jewish community frequently misunderstood her patrilineality and often made her feel like an outsider. Although she had a bat mitzvah and attended Hebrew school, she steered clear of a Hillel in college that made her feel unwelcomed. She married her Episcopalian husband in an out-of-the box interfaith ceremony that was almost unheard of twenty-five years ago.

In her new book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, Sue chronicles her experiences as a Jewish interfaith child as well as the bold move to bring up her children with both Jewish and Christian traditions. She and her husband are part of an interfaith community called the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington. Sister organizations exist in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Through IFFP, Sue and her husband have sent their children to Sunday School and celebrated Jewish and Christian holidays with their interfaith community.

1202_being-both

 

Over the last decade, I’ve watched Sue grow in her commitment to Judaism in ways that I did not always fully appreciate. And in the end what Sue and her family are doing may not be so bad for the Jews. After all, her children are religiously knowledgeable citizens of the world. Their Jewishness flows from just one Jewish grandparent, yet Judaism gets equal time at the Katz Miller household. As Sue writes in the introduction to her book:

 

“Some of us are audacious enough to believe that raising children with both religions is actually good for the Jews (and good for the Christians or any other faith or denomination represented in marriage. The children in these pages have grown up to be Christians who are uncommonly knowledgeable about and comfortable with Jews, or Jews who are adept at working with and understanding Christians. Or they continue to claim both religions and serve as bridges between the two. I see all these possible outcomes as positive.”

 

 

I do too until my bias for rearing children in one religion comes into play. Like me, Sue and her community are invested in Judaism’s survival. She writes that, “Interfaith families who choose both [religions] for their children do feel concern for the survival of Judaism in the world. But many of us also feel that we are ‘making a Jewish choice’ by giving our children access to both cultures, rather than choosing nothing, choosing only Christianity, or choosing a third religion.” But for me it’s not only about demographics; it’s about raising literate Jews committed to Judaism alone. I see that commitment as the ultimate survival tactic.

 

As much support as there is for Jewish continuity at IFFP, there is also the Jesus factor to consider when it comes to embracing Judaism and Christianity. As a Jew who went to a Catholic high school, I’ve thought a lot about the role of Jesus in Jewish history and his place in my Jewish pantheon. Sue unambiguously declares that she sees Jesus as a teacher, not as a personal savior. She describes herself as “a Jew who celebrates interfaithness.” She also reports that her children’s formal religious curriculum presents Jesus as a Jew who lived 2000 years ago. The class explores Jewish history until the birth of Jesus. Jesus’ teachings are examined in a Jewish context and also presented as a critique of the Judaism of his time.

 

But it’s a sixth grade interfaith education syllabus in Chicago that forthrightly asks the question that is on my mind:

 

 

“How can we teach this material and not sound like the evangelical group Jews for Jesus? We answer these questions with a very Jewish approach focused on the importance of learning history, a foundation of any good Jewish education. As many of our sister and brother Catholics have discovered, understanding the Jewishness of Jesus is key to a much deeper understanding of his wisdom and ministry—an understanding that we have experienced through out marriages with Jewish partners.”

 

I appreciate the sensitivity to Judaism in Sue’s interfaith world. I’d go as far as to argue that she has a very Jewish approach to interfaith education and celebrations. Am I comfortable with everything she’s doing? Not always. It’s similar to the discomfort I felt when I read the fine print all those years ago on Schechter’s school application. But embracing two religions pushes my boundaries even further. And yet, I love that Sue’s kids claim their Judaism, patrilineal or otherwise. And I love that my friend has written an important, thought-provoking book for Jews and Christians, and interfaith families.

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgivukkah and Anatevka by Judy Bolton-Fasman

It had been forty years since my last violin lesson when I went this summer to rent a violin to start up again. I glimpsed the stock room where there were hundreds of violins, still and gleaming and soundless, coming together in a symphony of silence.

 

It’s funny what the body remembers. As soon as I tucked the violin under my chin, I automatically started the fingering of a Vivaldi concerto in A Minor on the violin’s graceful, ebony neck. There was no sound played, just my fingers making contact with the steel strings.

My father and grandfather loved playing the violin and they wanted me to love making music too. Each of them practiced with me often, and one of my earliest memories is of my father tucking my tiny, quarter-sized violin under his chin to tune it. He aimed to give me, his tin-eared daughter, a fair start.

My violin tuned, my dad then perched the small instrument on his lap. “I can’t believe they make them this small,” he said. By his own description he had me “later in life” and I imagine he said the same thing about me when I was born.

 

I started violin lessons when I was eight. When I was fourteen I handed my father back the full-sized violin I had finally grown into. I was not a musician.

 

My Grandfather Bolton also began violin lessons when he was eight. His family cut the household budget razor-thin to give their promising young son music lessons. When Grandpa touched bow to strings his parents heard his talent and though they may not have understood it that way, my great-grandparents sensed that Grandpa’s musical ability coupled with America’s social mobility would enable him to move ahead in this country at dizzying speed.

At the age of 14, my grandfather debuted at a tony Connecticut country club. In his unpublished autobiography he wrote that he went to his first gig in a sleigh and was woozy from the cold until someone warmed him up with a hot toddy. It was the first time he was drunk.

My grandfather chronicled his sparkling immigrant story on legal-size loose-leaf pages. Grandpa’s faithful secretary typed draft after draft of a book he simply entitled Memoirs. With each pass, Grandpa further sanitized his history, hoping to make his life as all-American as the cars he drove.

 

William M. Bolton--Yale Graduation-1913

William M. Bolton–Yale Graduation-1913

William M. Bolton was born in 1891 in Ukraine and came to the United States when he was six months old. He saw the advent of the automobile and the refrigerator. He wrote about his father’s trips to the icehouse in the family’s horse-pulled cart for blocks of ice to store dairy products. But he wrote nothing about the poverty in which he grew up.

 

Grandpa fiddled his way through Yale by joining the musician’s union to pay his college tuition and to buy the “right clothes” to go to classes with the likes of Cole Porter. I imagine that Cole Porter played his piano in the rarefied company of Yale’s sons while Grandpa played at dances in fraternity houses to which he would otherwise never be admitted. He was silent about Yale’s anti-Semitism in the early 20th century. By the time my paternal grandparents met during Grandpa’s junior year at Yale, they had deliberately forgotten that they came to America from Russia as babies.

 

I’m not sure what my father and grandfather would make of Thanksgivukkah, this once in a century, possibly once in a millennium holiday. They loved America fiercely and unquestioningly. They may have thought the whole idea was kitsch. Certainly the name is as cumbersome as their Judaism was to them. Or they may have felt vindicated by the fuss over the confluence of this American holiday with an ancient Jewish one. My grandparents were assimilated to the point that they traded the white and blue flame of a Hanukkah menorah for the red and green glitz of a small silver Christmas tree propped on a coffee table.

 

But I think I’ve figured out my grandparents’ story. When I had begun to play the violin my parents went to see Fiddler on the Roof. They came home with a recording of the show’s song that I played in an endless loop on our hi-fi. Zero Mostel boomed about a fiddler just like Grandpa, the fiddler who hovered over my childhood like a Chagall painting.

 

 

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here in our little village of Anatevka, you might say everyone of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy.

 

My grandfather fiddled to keep his balance as he took on the mantle of a navy blue, Ivy League life. To start over he changed his name from Bolotin to Bolton. But despite those dramatic attempts at fitting in, I think my father and grandfather were Thanksgivukkah Jews. They aspired to have the best of what America offered. But in the end their descendants celebrate Hanukkah over Christmas.

 

Fiddler on the Roof shed light on part of my grandfather’s identity. He loved the record as much as I did. And it was the first time that I realized my grandparents came from shtetls like the fictional Anatevka. It feels right that their story is set to music. It feels right that Fiddler on the Roof was as American as the Boltons, or for that matter, Thanksgivukkah.

 

For the Breath of Schoolchildren by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The Talmud states that “parents bring a child into this world but a teacher can bring a child into the World to Come.” As I was searching for this quote on the Internet, in its idiosyncratic wisdom, Google also pointed me to the saying that a father is obligated to teach his son to swim.

On the surface, these two Talmudic directives seem to be at odds with each other. The first asks parents to give over their child to a teacher for a proper education. The second is a handson command to teach a child a basic survival skill. But walk into Dr. Jonathan Garlick’s research laboratory at Tufts Dental School and the two dictums come seamlessly together.

Dr. Jonathan Garlick

Dr. Jonathan Garlick

Garlick is a professor of oral pathology and the head of a stem cell research laboratory, for which the ultimate goal is “using [stem] cells for personalized therapies for regeneration and repair of diseased or damaged tissues and organs. [And] to develop novel applications for artificial skin made in the lab that closely mimics the form and function of this human tissue.”

“Science is about communication,” says Tufts University Professor Jonathan Garlick.
In short, Garlick harvests stem cells that allow him to model the way your skin behaves. But read the summary of his research closely and you’ll pick up subtext that the two Talmudic dictums suggest: designing experiments that further our understanding of how stem cells can be used to fight disease and developing the hands-on laboratory protocols that are required to expand that knowledge. As novel and innovative as Garlick’s scientific work is, there is something else just as extraordinary happening in his laboratory: He is deliberately and effectively training the next generation of scientists and science-literate students. And he is capturing their hearts and minds while they are still in high school. There has now been a long line of Gann Academy students and others, including my children Anna and Adam, who have completed immersion programs in Garlick’s laboratory specifically geared to pre-college students. It began when Garlick welcomed high school seniors from Gann into his workspace through Ma’avar – the school’s six-week externship program. The experience proved to be so powerful for both the students and Garlick that he went on to design a two-week immersion experience for high school students in the summer.

Garlick is passionate about his work and dedicated to his mission “to be an incubator for student learning of all ages. This isn’t just about research, but about the broader impact of science in their lives. I want kids to converse in science, and by that I mean that I want to inspire them to be empowered citizens in ongoing conversations about science.”

Garlick’s vision of educating students is couched in the Jewish values that he holds dear. He explains that his research with stem cells is a type of regenerative medicine that he views as “molecular ‘Tikkun Olam’” – he sees replacing damaged cells with cells that he grows in the laboratory as contributing to healing the world.

Garlick recognizes that aspects of stem cell research are open to public debate. He says that his mandate to teach science to younger generations and beyond evolved from his experience as a stem cell researcher. He observes that his work is often surrounded by “moral, political and legal issues that have a direct impact on scientific research. I needed to learn about these broader impacts in order to better understand how social, moral, philosophical and ethical issues that are grounded in science can play an increasingly larger role in our contemporary lives.” To that end, Garlick relishes teaching students how to wrestle with issues at the interface of our capabilities and conscience while also emphasizing respectful debate.

“Science,” notes Garlick, “is about communication. There is value to communication and teamwork when doing scientific research.” Students in his laboratory also learn that they have personal stakes in the work to which they are exposed. Garlick cites the human genome as a prime example. What does a researcher, an insurance company or, for that matter, a private citizen do with the information that is generated? With whom do we share it? What is confidential and what is public? What does one do when she learns that she may be at risk for a particular disease?

“I teach my interns about probabilistic information versus deterministic information, judgment versus uncertainty,” says Garlick. “It’s crucial to help these students develop powers of discernment to appreciate the broader impact of this technology in their lives.”

As with much of science, failure is a “welcomed part of the experimental learning process. We get unexpected results. In fact, at times, we don’t get it right, but every result has a purpose and kids end up using critical-thinking skills to teach each other.”

In addition to growing stem cells, Garlick emphasizes that he is cultivating a culture of “derech eretz” – respect – in his laboratory. “Mutual respect and collaboration is a value that transcends cliques in high school. We engage individuality for the greater good. And that individualism has meaning and value whether it is from a 10th-grader or a postdoctoral student. My goal is to humanize the science.”

Jonathan Garlick’s dedication to nurturing the next generation of scientists and informed citizens brings to mind another Talmudic saying that joins the work of teachers and parents: “The world endures only for the sake of the breath of schoolchildren.”