Social Emotional Learning Initiative

By Dr. Evie Rotstein and Nancy Parkes

The goals of Jewish education typically vary depending on denomination and learning context and are often determined by a multiplicity of factors. The good news is that there is evidence of a growing consensus amongst Jewish educators that a key outcome of Jewish education is ultimately to create a Jewish learner, who is also a caring and empathic individual, grounded in Jewish values, and who lives their life accordingly. Whereas goals of specific Jewish content knowledge are forever debated and changed, Elias and Kress (2001) point out, “the major Jewish value – that of being a ‘mensch’ – has been one of the few constants among the shifting landscape of American Jewry.”

Education in the social-affective domain has received increasing attention by both practitioner and researcher. The topic has been the subject of multiple “keynotes” at Jewish education conferences, and if often related to the discussion of effective informal and experiential education. More and more Jewish educators realize that integrating social-emotional learning (SEL) into the learning environment provides a framework for developing mindsets, knowledge, and skills that enhance students’ social and emotional competence.

Late last spring, a select group of Jewish educators from a very wide range of fields, across denominations and geographical locations, both research and practitioner, early childhood to graduate school, formal and informal educators, gathered together in person and via video, to explore how we might in fact infuse the focus of SEL into the landscape of Jewish education.

Acknowledging that there are a variety of frameworks and approaches to teaching Jewish values, we spent time honoring these approaches as we discussed and identified their commonalities, as well as their differences. These frameworks and approaches included mussar, middot, social emotional learning, positive psychology, and character education.

Through text study, discussion, and inquiry, some of our main points of agreement were:

  • Regardless of one’s approach, to help our learners reach their full potential and live a meaningful and ethical life through the learning and living of Jewish values is an important goal.
  • Relationships are central to our work and to teaching.
  • Educators and their emotions cannot be separated from this work.
  • These approaches can and are being integrated into Jewish education settings.
  • Jewish text and practice are pathways into the important conversation of social emotional learning and character development.

We discussed the challenge of some of the different core elements of these frameworks and the different language associated with these approaches. This perhaps adds to the challenge of building on what is presently being done, but our participants certainly did not see these differences as insurmountable. In fact, there was a great deal of enthusiasm about continuing this conversation and inviting others to join us as we continue to build an expanded focus for Jewish learning.

We determined a number of next step possibilities:

  • To create a resource bank to identify and disseminate existing resources and develope additional materials.
  • To promote professional learning opportunities, especially notable given the presence of representatives from institutions focused on pre- and in-service education.
  • To design a conceptual paper that represents the intersections and points of divergence of the various approaches under this umbrella.
  • To explore the contribution of Jewish texts to the SEL conversation.
  • To facilitate strategies that link SEL to younger children and parenting needs.
  • To identify people and institutions which are doing innovative work in the field.
  • To plan a conference that will focus on SEL in Jewish learning in the FALL 2019

If you are interested in participating in this conversation, please contact: Nancy Parkes, or Dr. Evie Rotstein

Dr. Evie Rotstein is the Director of the NY School of Education HUC-JIR and an educational consultant. She directed the Leadership Institute for Congregation Educators, a professional development initiative sponsored by HUC and JTS and funded by the UJA Federation of NY.

Nancy Parkes, a former congregational educator, now teaches in the William Davidson School of Education and is an educational consultant and founder of JTeachNOW.