Day School Education for Student Thriving

By Rabbi Jethro Berkman

In the face of the shifting sands of Jewish identity in contemporary America, Jewish day schools urgently need to answer the question: “what is the value-added of Jewish day school education?” For some families, mostly the highly-Jewishly-engaged, the reasons for Jewish day school are self-evident. But for many families, standard reasons like Jewish identity development, Jewish continuity or Jewish text learning are insufficient.

After 10 years at Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school, it is increasingly clear to me that one key response to this question is as follows: Jewish day schools offer students access to Judaism’s unique tools for human thriving – and Jewish tradition has some powerful tools. With more and more young people struggling with anxiety and depression, and with a growing body of research demonstrating the importance of spirituality for mental health (see Lisa Miller’s The Spiritual Child), students need Jewish tradition’s powerful resources for social, emotional and spiritual growth more than ever.

A school oriented toward “Jewish education for student thriving” might ask some new questions. In addition to asking “how might our learning program strengthen Jewish identity?” or “how might our program build Jewish literacy and text skills?” such a school might ask “how might our school use elements of Jewish wisdom and practice to help our students thrive?” and “what Jewish practices best promote social, emotional and spiritual growth?”

Based on my observations over the years, and on the results of several focus groups I conducted with 11th and 12th graders at my school, I offer the following areas where Jewish day schools (and other educational institutions) might leverage Jewish wisdom and practices to help their students to thrive:

Developing character strengths: The Jewish ethical tradition of Mussar offers a powerful tool for personal growth. Our school offers opt-in Mussar groups for faculty and students, in which students explore their relationship to key character traits (middot), such as patience, responsibility and compassion, and work to manifest these traits in their everyday life. One 12th grader reflected: “You talk about a middah, and your practice of it, and how you want to develop it further. And you talk about your experiences, with your struggles and your victories. It helps me understand what I need, and where I have left to grow. And I would also say it’s made me a better person.”

Engaging in conversations of meaning: Recent research highlights the importance of developing a sense of meaning and purpose for human thriving. Jewish tradition offers a rich vocabulary for engaging with life’s big ethical and existential questions, and our 11th and 12th grade Jewish Studies curricula engage students in wrestling with these big questions through a Jewish framework. As one student shared in a focus group: “In Jewish Studies classes you have these raw personal stories about belief … You’re thrust into encountering what you believe in Jewish Studies classes more than other classes. It’s where we’re making sense of the world around us.”

Cultivating a sense of intergenerational self: Research by Drs. Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University suggests children’s knowledge of their parents’ and grandparents’ stories – their sense of being part of a family extending back in time, is associated with resilience, positive self-esteem and overall mental health. It’s likely that feeling a part of the story of the extended “family” of the Jewish people offers similar benefits, although there is not yet research to support this idea. Our 10th grade Jewish Studies curriculum aims to help students find their place in the amazing story of the Jewish people, and culminates in a trip to Israel, where that story comes to life. A student in my 10th grade class recently said: “I’m proud of all that the Jewish people has been through – that we’re still here. It gives me a feeling of strength, that I can get through tough times.”

Cultivating self-knowledge and emotional awareness: Judaism has a long tradition of meditation practices, and a number of Jewish texts emphasize the importance of awareness of our inner world (particularly in the Hasidic tradition). As faculty learn these practices and texts, with support from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, we have begun to integrate Jewish mindfulness practices into Jewish Studies classes, Mussar groups, Zman Kodesh (morning Sacred Time) groups and elsewhere. The powerful effects of mindfulness practices on social, emotional and spiritual well-being are well documented, and although we are just at the beginning of this process, we are excited to see how it impacts our students and faculty.

Other modalities that promote student thriving include: the careful crafting of caring, supportive community through Shabbatonim, joyful singing, and Jewishly-framed sharing of personal stories (a powerful modality) during Zman Kodesh; and connecting students to nature, fresh air and sunlight through the Gann Farm and our “Outdoors Minyan.”

We recognize the risk that this approach could become narrowly individualistic at the expense of developing students’ sense of responsibility to the Jewish people and the wider world. We therefore endeavor to ground the lens of student thriving in the outward-looking language of our mission statement: we want our students to thrive so that they can “create a vibrant Jewish future and build a better world where human dignity will flourish.”

The sum-total of this approach is powerful to witness, although we are still very much at the beginning. We see students experiencing Jewish wisdom and practices as powerful sources of their own growth and thriving, leading them to recognize Judaism’s transformative power. We hope that as our students graduate and move out into the world, they will continue to understand Judaism as a vital source of their own thriving and will return to the Jewish well for spiritual nourishment again and again.

Rabbi Jethro Berkman is the Dean of Jewish Education at Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, MA. He is grateful to Clal, The Jewish Education Project and the Judaism Unbound podcast for influencing his thinking on this approach to Jewish education.