Chatter from a hundred or so high school girls rang through the dining hall as Serena Goldman pondered the question: Was she an honest person?
She had, after all, come to this place to hear experts talk about teen-age morals and ethics. Perhaps she needed a little help in those areas.
"Some people do," the ninth-grader confided, glancing at a few of the girls around her. "But I don't."
Goldman attends the private Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High School in West Los Angeles. Last weekend, the Orthodox Jewish girls' school bused its students to a secluded camp in the Simi Valley for two days of workshops focusing on cheating, lying and other such unpleasantries.
Theme of Self-Discipline
"The very essence of the Jewish people is self-discipline at all times," said Rabbi Herbert Hexter, principal of the school. "Where should our children carry on this tradition? Where will they get it from? They're not going to get it from society. They're not going to get it from watching television."
Hexter and other school officials said the need for the symposium became apparent over a period of time. There were no particular incidents nor specific problems with the students, they said; modern society was to blame.
"In this day and age, it's sort of like fighting back," said Debbie Rabinowitz, a school spokeswoman.
And all this in spite of rigorous schooling and a religious curriculum.
"We teach them the Torah. But the kids were not making the connection between the moral values of the Torah and their own behavior," said Bruce Powell, who oversees studies at the school. "They were still cheating on tests and doing things like that."
The symposium was not mandatory. But almost 100 of the 135 students in the girls school paid $52 to attend. A similar session for Yeshiva's boys' school is planned for next month.
On Sunday, the students gathered, with parents in tow, at a hilltop temple overlooking the lush grounds of the 3,200-acre Brandeis-Bardin Institute. The institute, which is devoted to teaching Jewish culture, rented its facilities to Yeshiva for the weekend.
Jerry Friedman, a Los Angeles businessman cum graduate student, volunteered to design and supervise the session. Friedman is a Harvard doctoral candidate studying moral education under the noted developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. When discussing his specialty, Friedman is wont to use terms like "cognitive development" and "internalized values." He calls teachers "facilitators."
The symposium began with a heated oratory from Rabbi Sholom Tendler, a dean at the school, who castigated society for rationalizing abortion and euthanasia.
"I think we all consider ourselves ethical people," he said. "But don't you think the Nazis considered themselves ethical, too?"
Things quieted down from there on. The 225 parents and students were separated into small groups and given hypothetical moral dilemmas. Discussion, encouraged by a facilitator, followed.
The situations were rather tame. No sex or drugs. One of them involved American Revolutionary soldiers at Valley Forge who took the supplies of a poor widow in order to feed hungry troops and continue the fight for independence. There were no right or wrong answers.
"We're looking for a clash of values and how to prioritize these values," Friedman said.
The discussions were generally low-key, except for when a man stood up to rebut another participant's view and said, "You're advocating anarchy. I think you're extremely irresponsible." But then he added, "Nothing personal." Anarchic points of view were given neither more nor less weight than other opinions.
"We're not trying to give them a bunch of values," Friedman said. "We're trying to give them an approach to these dilemmas."
'She'll Stop and Think'
Explained Hexter: "The kid may not have the strength to resist the temptation of doing something wrong. But at least she'll stop and think about it and know she's doing something wrong. That's a step forward."
Students and parents were also presented an explanation of Kohlberg's treatise on why people act the way they do, entitled "Stages of Moral Reasoning." It was sophisticated fare, and during that portion of the seminar, most of the girls in the back of the room fell to whispering with friends, reading or fidgeting.
After that, the students acted in several skits regarding morals and ethics.
The girls seemed to think that what they were doing was important. "I don't think teen-agers nowadays really understand how to make moral decisions because not many decisions are left up to them," said Faranak Rofeh, a 10-grader.
And they liked getting the chance to express opinions, rather than being lectured to from a book.
"It's not so much a teacher-student kind of thing," said Sharon Tajkef, who is in the 11th grade. "It's more of a discussion with us as human beings."
Of course, you can't teach morals in two days. That is why parents were invited: They were urged to discuss moral dilemmas at home.