June 7, 2024
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June 7, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Guiding Good Choices: Where We Are and How We Got Here

The undertaking that started off as the “Yeshiva League Substance Use Initiative” in 2017 began with a Zoom gathering of leaders of yeshiva day schools responding to this invitation: “Our kids are partying too much; they’re using substances too much. How can we work together to tackle this problem?” Over the years it has grown and expanded in a number of noteworthy ways, some of which we have shared on these pages. (You can learn a lot more about this undertaking and its work at machonsiach.org.) It’s exciting to see where the community was and instructive to see how we got here.

As a first step to getting a handle on the community’s strengths and the areas that needed further strengthening, we hired a survey and research firm to gather data from thousands of students in 20 Modern Orthodox high schools. From the surveys, administered in 2019, 2020 and 2023, we learned a great deal about our students’ emotional well-being, religiosity and yes, their consumption of alcohol and other substances. This data set, the most comprehensive one of its sort ever gathered, is of great interest to researchers and is being used both to guide our interventions and to assess how well they are working. We plan to survey again in February of 2025, this time including middle schools as well.

The most direct step taken as a result of this deeper understanding of our community’s needs was the introduction of the Guiding Good Choices parenting program, an intervention developed by researchers at the University of Washington to help parents clarify their own values, convey them to their children and strengthen family bonds, all in the interest of yielding healthier outcomes for our children. We have collaborated with the OU in bringing this intervention to the American Orthodox community more broadly. The OU, through its GenAleph parenting initiative, has brought the Guiding Good Choices parenting program to communities in Houston, Cincinnati and South Florida; and Machon Siach and the OU are now partnering to introduce it to the Los Angeles community.

After two years of offering Guiding Good Choices to increasing numbers of SAR parents, this year we made the five-session program mandatory for all ninth grade parents. This gives us the opportunity to see the impact of this intervention on that particular group of parents and students and its ripple effect across the community. We are working with the University of Washington to design a survey of parents, which will be administered next month, to gather data about the program’s expansion and efficacy.

As we engaged with more and more parents, we kept hearing that while they appreciated the strategies and techniques of GGC, and while they could apply them beyond substances to their parenting more broadly, they sought specific guidelines about devices and social media. That realm of adolescent behavior and the attendant parenting challenges was one with which parents want specific, current, research-informed guidance. Partnering with researchers in the field, we have developed a sixth Guiding Good Choices parenting session, reflecting current research about these challenges and the best way for parents to meet them, which we will pilot in our community this June. We have also shared it with the leaders of other schools implementing GGC so that they can introduce it in their communities as well.

Throughout our years of working on this training initiative, we have sent more than a dozen SAR High School faculty members to be trained by the University of Washington as GGC facilitators. The eight other schools that have begun to offer GGC to their parents have trained many more facilitators too. We saw the value, for both our school community and the OU, to have our own faculty trained as master trainers, so that we could train facilitators at the times most convenient to our schools and in a setting that allowed us to focus on the specific needs and concerns of our community. Two SAR High School faculty members are now certified to train other facilitators, and we will be offering a training in June for educators and other community members from across the United States who want to be certified as GGC facilitators.

Looking back now, it’s easy to tell this story as one long unfolding narrative of success, from that first Zoom meeting, through the three surveys, the parenting intervention, the sharing with other schools and their increasing interest, the involvement of middle schools, and eventually to the partnership with the OU. But this is why it’s so important, both for the integrity of the historical record and for the valuable lesson, to say that it wasn’t like that.

We proceeded in fits and starts. We hit walls and roadblocks, and we went down blind alleys. A global pandemic, which shut down our schools and all other communal institutions, intervened. The story of continued, incremental success might be what it looks like after the fact, but that certainly wasn’t what it felt like as it unfolded. There were moments of great excitement and promise, moments of frustration and disappointment, and one point in 2020-2021 when we thought we might have to abandon the entire undertaking. The story as we lived it was not one of linear progress or of a steadily burgeoning communal undertaking. It was one of starting with a problem that lacked an obvious solution; learning from experts who had a great deal to teach us; finding interested partners from across the community; and keeping at it through setbacks and discouragement. Precisely now, as we are seeing significant growth across many fronts, it is important for us to remember—and tell—that part of the story.

If all of this sounds exciting to you, if you think your school or shul would benefit from offering Guiding Good Choices to your community’s parents, Machon Siach will be running a training for facilitators at SAR High School on June 17-19. You can reach out to [email protected] for more information and join the shuls, schools and communities working to support our parents, strengthen our families and help guide our children.


Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz serves as Associate Principal at SAR High School, Director of Research and Development at Machon Siach, and as a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She earned her Ph.D. in the history of science from Princeton University.

 About Machon Siach:

Machon Siach was established in 2015 with a legacy gift from Marcel Lindenbaum, z”l honoring the memory of his wife, Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum, z”l.

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