New Year resolution

Meeting the needs of our religious school students

In Short

Synagogue professionals should make mental health a priority for teenagers this coming year

Even preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, the news was stark: our kids are suffering, and many are experiencing severe emotional distress. 

According to the 2022 National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report, “Nearly 20% of children and young people ages 3-17 in the United States have a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder, and suicidal behaviors among high school students increased more than 40% in the decade before 2019.” According to an additional study, young women are particularly vulnerable to mental health crises, with one in five experiencing acute depression before the age of 25.

Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the widespread and significant stress from the COVID-19 pandemic, from a combination of disruptions to daily life to the fallaway of social supports, and toxic home environments. LGBTQ+ youth appear to have suffered more intensely, while few emerged from the pandemic emotionally unscathed.

If you consult any Jewish educator, clergyperson or synagogue professional, they will, unfortunately, confirm these findings, having witnessed the struggle firsthand. As much as synagogues and Jewish communities need to grapple with isolation and mental health challenges that span generations, we cannot lose sight that our young people – our future – remain in crisis. Especially as we approach the Jewish New Year and the beginning of the school year, we must renew our commitment to care for the most vulnerable members of our community.

As a senior staff team, we do not pretend to have a panacea for such deep pain, but we have discovered successful approaches that seemingly help many children and young adults in our religious school and youth group. We share them with our colleagues to continue conversations and collaboratively surface best practices to help our students receive the support that they need.

  • First, our mantra: “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” This quote, questionably attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, is hard to live by. In just a few hours each week, we are supposed to help our students cultivate a deep Jewish identity, learn Hebrew, understand their history, and learn to pray. None of these matter, however, unless they are shared with kindness and through compassionate student-teacher relationships.
  • Second, belonging. Students remain hungry for friendship, a sense of community and the opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves. Though we are not part of their regular learning, this reality has enabled us to create a safe space, distinct from their daily routine, that provides extra support for navigating the challenges of their day-to-day lives.
  • Third, shared values: We establish a class “Brit,” which lays out, in covenant form, the expectations for how to treat one another. We focus on the nature of interpersonal relationships and mensch-like conduct, particularly since our students may be exposed to less kindness from others in their lives.
  • Fourth, stop everything and care: When a student (or teacher or staff member or clergy) is showing signs of distress or relays a difficult experience, they will receive the necessary attention. Our focus should not be on having this person return to the learning environment, but, instead, on demonstrating the necessity of halting our usual routine to appropriately care for and support this individual.
  • Fifth, belts and suspenders with staff: Our community has invested in more teachers per classroom and additional “floaters” between spaces during religious school. This means that students having a difficult day or moment always have someone to sit beside them or allow them to take a pause. This also reduces the stress levels of teachers – which translates into a calmer classroom environment more widely.
  • Sixth, Nefesh Nook: We have created a quiet space in our art room for students to take a few minutes to themselves, without having to sit in someone’s office and feel like they are in trouble. They can read, color, listen to music or engage in other activities that will help them recenter.
  • Seventh, increased clergy presence: Although clergy are spread incredibly thin, notably because of ongoing pastoral crises in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic has waned, they often serve as a conduit to mental health care, especially for young people. Their presence and support can, likewise, provide important role-modeling for Jewish adulthood. Our clergy serve as religious school teachers, lead tefillah, and tutor B’ Mitzvah. Students know them and have formed meaningful connections with them.
  • Eighth, deep relationships with parents, guardians and caretakers: We know so little of what occurs at home and in the lives of our students, unless parents, guardians and caretakers inform us. This year, we are rededicating ourselves to increased social gatherings and points of connection for the adults in the lives of our students. They need each other’s support right now, and we need to work in partnership with them with greater intention.

As the school year commences, full of its stresses and hopes, we remain mindful of the urgent needs of our students, and that they are far bigger than may meet the eye. Yet, synagogues and Jewish organizations have a unique opportunity to play a positive role in the lives of our young people. May this New Year be one of compassion, kindness and care for those who will form our Jewish future.

Mindy Sherry is director of education at East End Temple in Manhattan, where Rabbi Joshua Stanton and Cantor Olivia Brodsky serve as co-clergy.