Applying Positive Psychology in Synagogues

By Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing. The field has been pioneered by Martin Seligman and other psychologists over the past couple of decades. They seek to understand what helps people thrive in their lives and have discovered many indicators and actions which can lead to a life filled with meaning and purpose.

Ostensibly, one of the main goals of religious life is to provide people with meaning and purpose. If this is so, then, we at Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders thought it would be interesting to teach rabbis about positive psychology and see if and how they can integrate it with their work as rabbis. We have been teaching an introduction to positive psychology to rabbis since 2010 with favorable results, and last year decided to take a pilot group of ten rabbis through a year long in-depth study of positive psychology with the VIA Institute on Character to see if and how studying and applying learning from positive psychology would affect them and their congregants. Thanks to support by the Mayerson Foundation, we hired an outside evaluator to interview the rabbis and their congregants to determine the impact of their study and interventions.

Three clear results came out of the evaluators report. First, it was clear that after studying the 24 character strengths identified in positive psychology, rabbi’s relationships with people in all areas of their lives improved. One rabbi reported having a break through with her relationship with her synagogue board. She had felt frustrated in the past because she had a number of new ideas she wanted to try, and the board would always slow her down. After she and her board took the VIA Survey of Character Strengths and analyzed the results, she came to understand that her top character strengths were creativity and bravery while many people on the board led with perspective and perseverance. This information brought their conflict into sharp relief. It helped both sides to better understand the other. The rabbi reported that now both sides can understand the strengths each bring to the table and can laugh about them and forge a way forward when before they would hit a wall of frustration with each other. Another rabbi reported how he and his staff took the VIA Survey and after learning what each other’s strengths were, he was able to better distribute some tasks which played to people’s’ strengths, thus increasing everyone’s job satisfaction. Still another rabbi reported how he was better able to appreciate his children now that he could identify their strengths and their relationship has improved since he was no longer as frustrated with them. He understands that their strengths are different then his. All the rabbis reported being better able to appreciate their own and other people’s unique gifts which helped them appreciate difference and improve their relationships with others.

A second outcome was that a study of positive psychology led rabbis to interpret Jewish tradition and rituals in new ways which they thought would better help their congregants flourish. One congregant reported how her rabbi asked them to participate in the Yizkor service on High Holidays differently. Instead of reading silently through several prayers, the rabbi had passed out a list of character strengths and asked the congregants to turn to someone next to them, tell that person about the person they were remembering and identify and share the deceased character strengths. The congregant reported that this was the most meaningful service she had ever attended. She felt less alone mourning her mother after speaking with the person next to her in services and sharing meaningful memories. The rabbi reported seeing laughter and tears across the sanctuary in a way she has never experienced before. Another rabbi reinterpreted the Al Chet service which is a list of sins recited on Yom Kippur. Instead of repeating the phrase “Forgive us for the sin of…” the rabbi wrote a prayer “We have the strength of x … thank you for opening our hearts to this strength…” Studies in positive psychology have shown that building on strengthens as Barbara Frederickson writes about in her book Positivity aides individual’s thriving while repeating negative emotions hurts their mental health. Perhaps, we need to re-think how we approach Yom Kippur to better build people up, rather than focus on what they have done wrong in the past year. Lastly, rabbis reported using positive psychology, especially the ability to identify character strengths, in all kinds of life-cycle ceremonies from bar mitzvahs, to weddings and funerals. One rabbi related that being able to cite peoples strengthens built a connection between her and the individual or couple in a new way which led to greater depth of communication and meaning in the ritual for all involved.

Third, the evaluation showed that being immersed in the study of positive psychology brought a new sense of purpose to the rabbi’s work. One rabbi said, “Now I understand that my job is about helping people lead more meaningful lives. It is not about making people feel more Jewish or following Jewish law. It is bigger than that.” This statement gets to the core of what integrating the learnings from positive psychology in to our Judaism can do for us. It can make us remember that practicing this amazing centuries old tradition is not just about expressing a Jewish identity. It is about using ritual and connecting to a community in order to deepen the meaning and fulfillment we want to feel in our lives. Judaism is not an end in itself. It is a means for living a better life.

This was a relatively small pilot study with just ten rabbis. However, the impact that we saw was tremendous. Both rabbis and congregants remarked on the rabbis improved relationships with those around him and her. Rabbis felt renewed by reinterpreting Jewish ritual with an eye towards promoting positive flourishing, and most of all, rabbis understood their role as spiritual leaders in more expansive ways. Judaism has sought to help people thrive in every human dimension: relationships, emotional life, spiritual life, their sense of meaning, and personal achievement. The lens of positive psychology applied to Jewish thought and practice may in fact lead rabbis to be be more effective in leading their communities, just as it seems to nourish their personal lives.

We look forward to continuing our exploration of this field and discovering what new learnings we can uncover. Practiced with the lens of positive psychology, Judaism is a deep and meaningful path for human flourishing.

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal – The National Jewish Center or Learning and Leadership and the founder of RabbiCareers.com.