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The race: Jewish teens as stressed as their peers
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The race: Jewish teens as stressed as their peers

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Seeing Race to Nowhere, said Ilysse Rimalovski, left her with the determination to do something to help change the climate of stress that youngsters must cope with. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
Seeing Race to Nowhere, said Ilysse Rimalovski, left her with the determination to do something to help change the climate of stress that youngsters must cope with. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

Ilysse Rimalovski, a mother of three from Maplewood, was recently at a party for a 12-year-old. The birthday girl’s parents were worried about their daughter — concerned about which college she would attend. “She’s 12,” said Rimalovski, “and they were already planning her higher education.”

Those parents are not the exception, according to local professionals.

The pressure parents put on their teens — and the anxiety it may lead to — is the subject of Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture, a new documentary making the rounds of theaters across the country. A screening scheduled for Livingston on Tuesday, Feb. 15, is sponsored by Jewish Family Service of MetroWest and Livingston High School, in partnership with the Livingston Municipal Alliance Committee and the Livingston Public Schools.

A Jan. 25 screening at the Clearview Cinema in Millburn was sponsored by NJ Seeds — a not-for-profit organization preparing disadvantaged youth for private secondary schools and elite universities. It was followed by a discussion facilitated by professionals at a luncheon at the Martini restaurant.

Facilitator Beth Berns, a JFS social worker at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, said she sees a lot of stressed-out teenagers.

In groups with middle school and high school students, she said, “the kids are talking about cheating to reduce the stress they feel. And they feel cheating is essential to get their work done.”

Renee Jacobs, also a facilitator and a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Randolph, said the problem lies in part with parents. “Parents are overly involved and overly concerned about their kids doing well. They pressure them academically, they pressure the teacher if they think the teacher didn’t give their child a good enough grade, and they sign them up for a zillion activities and volunteer work because they have to get into a good school.”

All this pressure, she said, is driven by the goal of the kids getting into a good college. Jacobs said she had a patient, a Jewish girl with severe learning disabilities, whom she started seeing professionally in second grade. “Her father promised her a Corvette if she got into the school of his choice,” she said. “She’s in second grade. It’s terrible. I see this all the time.”

The pressure to do well is “more intense” among Jewish families, according to Jacobs, a member of Morristown Jewish Center-Beit Yisrael. “We’ve always emphasized education as a means of survival and thriving in the world,” she said. “Jewish parents get caught up in this illusion that if they do A-B-C-D, all will be well.”

Nearly 400 people, mostly women, attended the sold-out screening. In the theater before the film, women could be heard chatting about their children — but also about their children’s latest homework projects and how they (the mothers) helped them figure out what to present and how; one even described everything she did to help her son complete a recent project.

It was the kind of parental over-involvement the film criticizes in its examination of the culture of stress and anxiety among today’s teens.

The 85-minute documentary sheds a disturbing light on the toll stress takes on teens today. They use drugs not for recreational purposes but to stay awake all night to do homework. They cheat because they see no other way to get everything done; they start worrying in elementary school about getting into “the right” college.

The film heaps plenty of blame on parents who over-program their children and inquire incessantly about homework and projects and college applications. But it also points a finger at teachers who give too much homework and administrators who don’t reel them in. It scolds colleges for promoting a culture in which every student is expected to excel in every subject, to take a load of advanced placement courses, to do community service, and to maintain a high grade-point average.

It saves its harshest criticism for No Child Left Behind for creating a culture of testing that not only increases the pressure on kids, but has also taken away teachers’ ability to teach creative thinking and problem-solving skills — the tools the next generation will need to succeed — in favor of teaching to the test. It’s an indictment of the education system as it exists today and of the emphasis on tests and college.

But the film’s real power comes from its interviews with teens who describe how the pressure drives them to stress clinics, to alternative high schools, or into depression. Their anguish is made more poignant through interviews with professionals who describe the lack of correlation between hours of homework completed and success in school. And it is made more painful through the description of a mother of a teen not in the movie, who committed suicide after getting an F on a math test.

Filmmaker Vicki Abeles says she was prompted by the experiences of her three children, including her third-grader who suffered from headaches and stomach aches, and her 12-year-old with a stress-induced mental disorder. Abeles’ own Jewish background seeps into the film in both obvious and nuanced ways, from the discussions about three days of Hebrew school as part of her daughter’s already overburdened schedule to her comments, in press material, echoing Hillel’s famous statement, to explain her inspiration to make the film. She wrote, “If I don’t speak out and share these stories, who will? And if not now, when?”

After the movie, Rimalovski, the Maplewood mother, said, “I think it’s a must-see for everyone, especially the faculty and staff and education planners. It just leaves me with the feeling, what can I do to help change things?”

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