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The other night my wife and I participated in the age old tradition of the high school open house that many parents of 8th graders go through when searching for the right Jewish school for their child. However, this was not any open house. It was the open house at my alma mater, Valley Torah High School.

To say this open house was not the one I attended so many moons ago as a soon to be high school freshman would be an understatement. The presentations were polished, the videos powerful, the mini-lessons prepared and the sushi and cappuccinos delicious. Plus, while my memories of Valley Torah are ones of a high quality education, clearly they have come a long way since my days of (inside reference headed your way) waiting for the empty 5 gallon arrowhead bottle in Mr. Wards class to stop bouncing.

Now, while it was clear my school has grown over the years to become a leading provider of Jewish education and college and life preparation, one thing obviously has remained the same. It was why I chose to attend VTHS years ago even though it was not the closest school to my home. The school remains, as it was back in the day of Pearl Jam and Crystal Pepsi, a strong community of students and teachers that feel warmly connected to Valley Torah and its values as well as Jewish life and learning. How is that possible after all these years?

First, I would be remiss to not credit the stable leadership of Rabbi Stulberger, Valley Torah’s Dean. As I have written before, strong positive school leadership is the critical element to a healthy school culture. The warm and nurturing atmosphere Valley Torah students have experienced for decades is due to the leadership style of Rabbi Stulberger and those who choose to be part of the vision he sustains. However, there is another element that I think can’t be overlooked. It is what I believe has also lent itself to the intimate academic atmosphere that I attended and the one that current students attend; the size of the school.

While I am a huge proponent of technology in the classroom and in life, there is no question that our digital generation are growing up with “friends” that may lack the substance of a true friendship. With our online social networks, we run the danger of substituting the strong ties we have with a few friends offline with the many weak ties we have with our online friends (click here for a more in-depth Atlantic article on this idea). Don’t get me wrong, we can have both and keeping in touch with friends even minimally online is wonderful. It certainly helps maintain long distance relationships that otherwise would disappear. Yet, while I greatly value my extended online community of friends, I recognize the need to nurture my offline friendships if I want to keep them. That is why my strong friendships are only reserved for a select few given the time and effort that requires.

I came across the video (below), the innovation of loneliness, based on the book, alone together, by Sherry Turkle and the article, the invention of being lonely,  by Dr. Yair Amichai-Hamburger. The video highlights research that suggests that we are not wired for hundreds of friends and it goes against human nature to try. The video reports that “the maximum natural size of a group of humans is roughly 150 members” and we are incapable of intimately knowing more than that.

The video points out that loneliness has increased and points to social networks as the culprit due to the substitution of true friendship for less meaningful online connections. This lesser state of connectedness occurs on levels way beyond our capacity for meaningful relationships. Additionally, it puts us into an almost addictive pursuit of meaningful connections nearly impossible to achieve online. We almost hoard these online friends with a focus on accumulation and not cultivation.

This may very well be why my experience at Valley Torah was meaningful and why it may be more important that my son attend than I did. With a digital generation growing up with “friends” made up of online connections in the hundreds and even thousands, it is more important than ever to have a nurturing learning environment that enables students to connect socially on a meaningful level and within their capacity for human connection.

The Valley Torah Boys Division has over 100 students with capacity for about 150 students. It has capacity for the exact amount of students where meaningful connections can be nurtured and built. Listening to the administrators, teachers, parents and current students at the open house, the environment that is unique to Valley Torah is clearly an element cherished as it was back in my day. And it should be. It not only makes students feel cared for and encouraged to succeed, it is providing what is getting more difficult to find in the world our children are growing up in.
There are many aspects that make Valley Torah an amazing school, but the fact that they remain a school focused not only academic excellence, but also social, emotional and spiritual growth, may be the secret formula that sets them apart from the competition. Keeping the size of the school within the range of meaningful relationships ensures, as mentioned by an alumnus at the open house, each student remains a part of the Valley Torah community for the rest of their lives. In today’s amazing fast paced digital world that struggles with building genuine community, it is good to know students at Valley Torah will learn how to create meaningful relationships, feel connected beyond the four walls and four years of the school and be better prepared to engage on a meaningful level with the global world around them when they graduate.

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