Part-Time Jewish Education: Harnessing the Power of Social-Emotional Spiritual Learning

By Dr. Evie Rotstein

[This is the eleventh in a weekly series of posts from a coalition of institutions across the continent devoted to nurturing the emerging transformation of congregational and part-time Jewish education. The series is curated by the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]

Education in the socio-affective realm is not a new idea. The past two decades, however, have seen quite an increase in well-articulated theories and supporting research with rigorous outcomes, demonstrating that educators in schools can have an impact on student growth in the intra- and inter-personal realms. Further, this growth is linked to a variety of positive academic and behavioral outcomes. Neuroscience is adding concrete evidence to what educators have long understood about the inextricable link between educating the “heart” and the “head.” In these approaches, educators help students develop social and emotional skills (e.g., self-awareness, problem solving) and also attend to the affective and communal dynamics in which education occurs (e.g., promoting positive interactions among and between learners and educators). Various terms are used for education in this area, representing overlapping approaches and theoretical bases. These include character education, social-emotional learning, mindfulness, spiritual education, meaning making, and whole person learning.

While Jewish educational settings have made use of these resources, Jewish educators are also working to bring Jewish ideas, ideals, language, and texts into the discussion. Jewish educators are interested not only in what students know, but also how their lives are informed by Jewish texts, traditions, and values. Terms such as mussar and spiritual education join those listed previously.

The conceptual integration is clear – blueprints for moral and ethical behavior are embedded within Jewish values and mitzvot, particularly those ben adam l’chaveiro (interpersonal mitzvot). Though they differ in various ways, there are a multitude of examples of ways to address both the inter- and intra-personal realms within Jewish education. Some of these are linked to long-standing curricula, as in the work done to bring Jewish value language to Open Circle, a secular social and emotional learning program. Similarly, Facing History and Ourselves uses difficult moments in Jewish and world history to address growth of interpersonal responsibility and empathy. Others are more emergent, such as the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Tikkun Middot program, which brings a lens of mussar to the work of social and emotional growth. Tiffany Shlain’s film “The Making of a Mensch” has also been used for educational purposes as part of an international initiative called Character Day, where schools and organizations around the world host screenings and discuss ideas around character development in a simultaneous online video conversation.

Along with the development of programs for social and emotional growth, many congregational learning teams are refocusing their efforts more broadly to include the socio-affective domain. Jewish educators are asking how they may help their students develop social relationships that are embedded with Jewish values. They are seeking to create Jewish learning that nurtures the soul, honors spiritual curiosity, and is relevant to their lives. Jewish educators working in the part-time space are experimenting with a number of models that foster choice and emphasize the value of group work. The topic has been the subject of multiple keynotes at conferences for Jewish educators, and has been seen as the underpinning of efforts to “make school more like camp.” Schools are experimenting with project-based learning, with offering varied learning tracks to speak to an array of student interests, and with the infusion of mussar-based activities into the curriculum. Many congregations are also providing mussar-based professional development for their faculty. Furthermore, organizations outside of, yet linked to, congregational schools are expanding their reach. For example, one of the most successful national initiatives attending to the socio-emotional realm is being offered by Moving Traditions in their “Rosh Chodesh: It’s a Girl Thing” for girls and their “Shevet Achim Brotherhood“program for boys.

There are of course distinctions among these programs and approaches, but there is also a great deal of convergence. In the Jewish educational context, these commonalities include:

• An emphasis on values based in Jewish concepts such as tikkun olam or middot and/or supported by Jewish texts (e.g., phrases from Pirkei Avot).

• Efforts to build the intra- and inter-personal skills that form the foundation for the actualization of these values. These include:

  • Self-awareness, self-monitoring, and identification of emotional state; the ability to observe one’s own actions
  • Managing one’s emotions and behaviors in difficult situations; maintaining “presence” in one’s interactions
  • Peaceful problem-solving and conflict resolution
  • Fostering positive relationships and a sense of community among and between educators and learners
  • Opportunities to enact prosocial behaviors by contributing to the community within and beyond the education setting, such as through acts of social action on a community level and the incorporation of these behaviors and values into a sense of self as connected to Judaism and the Jewish people

As we continue to harness the power of such initiatives, it is clear that congregational and other part-time Jewish educators are experimenting with new approaches to address the whole person and seeking to offer a deeper and more meaningful context to Jewish life and learning.

Dr. Evie Rotstein is the director of the New York School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She also does consulting for curriculum and education strategic planning. Prior to this position she was a congregational school educator and developed programs for faculty learning, teen mentoring, and parent education.