Harnessing Judaism

How Jewish educators can address the youth mental health crisis

In Short

Jewish values, teachings and practices can help build up emotional resilience in teenagers

If you have worked with teens at any time during the past three years, then you have probably heard a colleague say something like: 

“The ninth graders have the emotional maturity of seventh graders.” 

I heard these words recently from a seasoned Jewish educator over a cup of coffee here in suburban New Jersey, and the sentiment reflects something that I’ve heard from literally hundreds of other caring educators who have supported teens through social anxieties, interpersonal struggles and discipline challenges. 

This generation of teens is, honestly, a paradoxical lot. They benefit from a greater awareness of mental health issues and many of them have experienced the benefits of therapy firsthand. But they also have the highest rates of suicidal ideation that sociologists and public health officials have ever tracked. This generation utilizes Uber, so fewer teens are learning to drive, and fewer teens are driving drunk and ending up in the hospital, but the visits to emergency rooms by teens in 2022 was the highest recorded of all time due to psychiatric crises. 

So, while parents of teens, therapists and psychiatrists work on helping struggling teens to find homeostasis, I hope that we as Jewish educators can respond to this moment by asking two questions: 

“How might we play a role in supporting the overall well-being of teens?” And,

“How might the ways that we teach Jewish text, ritual practice and ethics better support teens’ overall well-being?” 

I’ll start with the good news: There is compelling evidence that educators and others can teach both self-awareness and interpersonal skills to teens that can support their well-being. 

A prime example of well-being-focused education is the work of Columbia University’s Center for Nurture Science, which began its research with the challenge of teaching teen parents with premature babies how to interact with their infants. Part of what helped the young couples to interact with their infants was helping them to learn to connect with one another. Now, the center trains physicians to espouse a “relational health” model and to share connecting interpersonal activities with new parents. 

It turns out that for teens, connectedness to other teens is paramount to their relational health. According to Dr. Robert Blum, a professor at the John Hopkins School of Public Health, the core skills teens need to acquire are initiating relationships, sharing emotions, asserting displeasure with other’s actions and managing conflict. Communication skills and empathy, for example, have been demonstrated to improve among teens with basic NVC (non-violent communication) training. All four of the skills Blum points to are learnable skills, and skills that can be fostered in informal educational environments. And it goes without saying that all four skills are deeply connected to Jewish interpersonal ethics, including the ethics of speech, of rebuke, and of shalom bayit (peace in the home). 

Jewish education, especially education which utilizes the basic chevruta (study partner) model of learning, is a perfect vehicle for learning interpersonal skills. Dr. Orit Kent and Allison Cook’s work exploring the pedagogy of chevruta is one example of this approach in action – how basic communication and empathy skills can be baked into the act of Jewish study. 

In addition to directly addressing interpersonal skills, there is also evidence that exploring and developing spiritual sensibilities can serve as a major protective factor in the lives of teens. Dr. Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist and professor at Columbia University, Teachers College who directs the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at the school, has been championing what she terms an “awakened brain” approach to protecting us against anxiety and depression. 

I had the pleasure to interview Miller this month as part of a Moving Traditions series for parents of teens, and she spoke of the need for religious communities to provide teens with experiences beyond the “transactional culture” of their lives where they can encounter a sense of connection to the earth, to plants, to animal life, to other humans and to a higher power. Miller stressed the important role that serving others has in the lives of teens, and she warned of the multiple obstacles that are preventing teens from tapping into what she defines as their innate spiritual sensibilities. As a result, Miller estimates, about half of this generation is not protected from the natural waves of emotional despair and social isolation that come with adolescence. This is even more true for teens with highly educated parents, whose lives are judged in social contexts that stress college acceptance and prestige.  

Jewish educators have a major role to play in teaching teens the wisdom that Judaism has to offer on self-awareness and communication skills, and in helping them cultivate a personal sense of Jewish spirituality that is embodied, connecting and transcendent. In my own volunteer teaching I have explored Jewish mindfulness and movement in my work with teens, and with my colleagues at Moving Traditions we have amplified our work on teaching communication skills (tochecha), empathy, expressing emotion, setting boundaries and exploring spirituality in the curriculum and training that we design and provide for educators. 

So, can Jewish educators do anything about the lack of wellbeing among teens? 

The answer is yes. We can design, over the coming years, new ways of supporting all teens with Jewish education that is grounded in the science of well-being and helps them to understand themselves, relate to others and open their hearts to the Holy One.  

As Hillel said, “If not now, when?”  

Rabbi Daniel Brenner serves as the vice president – education for Moving Traditions and lives in Montclair, N.J.