Unshackling the Chains of Spiritual Poverty

By Ted Dreier

Children are organically connected. When a child asks about the nature of a snail, sees the beauty of a star-studded night’s sky, bucks convention unknowingly by taking up an unusual hobby, or gets lost in his imagination, he is naturally expressing the nature of his soul. But when adults fail to acknowledge children, these young souls suffer. A deep and unnecessary spiritual deficit can occur when these children are unsupported in exploring this healthy and natural wonder in the world.

Tragically, our society often discourages youth from these types of expressions. As a result, their spiritual growth is stunted. In her book, The Soul of Education, nationally renowned educator and practitioner Rachel Kessler warns us what might lie ahead, imploring, “Do we need periodic reminders from sawed-off shotguns to show us that these young people feel … when schools systematically exclude heart and soul, students in growing numbers become depressed, attempt suicide, or succumb to eating disorders and substance abuse.”[1] Warren Nord, describes the situation in detail, asserting:

“We modern day Americans have a spiritual problem… We who have succeeded so brilliantly in matters of economics, science, and technology have been less successful in matters of the heart and soul. This is evident in our manners and our morale; in our entertainment and our politics; in our preoccupation with sex and violence; in the ways we do our jobs and in the failure of our relationships; in our boredom and unhappiness in this, the richest of all societies.”[2]

Educational leaders, parents, and students need not accept this reality. Jewish education can and must do something to help children simultaneously cope with the difficulties in our world and also to experience the joy that a spiritual life has to offer.

However, it is impossible to act effectively without clarity about the challenges around “spirituality”. It is a word whose definition is elusive. Even those consciously steeped in processes of spiritual discovery articulate different understandings of spirituality, but the ambiguity surrounding the definition of spirituality should not hinder one’s resolve to approach a solution. Kessler keeps reminding her readers that young people are in a constant search for purpose and meaning in their lives, and that they need outlets for such searching. Children are inherently inquisitive, constantly asking questions about why things are they way they are perceived. This fascination with the world, the experience of wonder and awe through the grand and the simple, is what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls radical amazement. Children are in a constant state of questing, searching for authentic ways to connect to themselves, others, nature, and God. Whereas contemporary society too often views compassion, astonishment, and reflection as weaknesses, and tends to drive these healthy human and spiritual inclinations out of children, Jewish tradition is well equipped to deal with this dilemma, and can be mined for solutions.

Of course, Jewish educators cannot alone be expected to radically counteract all of the underlying American culture. Instead, Jewish educational leaders must work within their communities to devise educational responses to challenge these cultural norms. Jewish adults in children’s lives should capitalize on a child’s inquisitive nature and yearning for spiritual engagement to help them discover their own spiritual identities and grapple with life’s big questions. Uncovering these spiritual dispositions and cultivating identity takes more time than Jewish educators have. They need help. They need partners.

More precisely, they need parents. Luckily, many parents want to engage. One parent, when asked in a personal interview if he would like to engage with his child on a spiritual level, responded with excitement, declaring,

“I would love it… It would be interactive and a chance to share some values… It would make me feel like a good parent. And like we’re sharing something and that I’m helping him make a positive connection with me and with this mountain of understanding to be chiseled away at.”[3]

A parent’s devotion to both her child’s well-being and the rich, deep connection she wishes to forge with her child work as a perfect catalyst for engagement.

Still, despite this eagerness, a significant amount of liberal Jewish parents remain uncomfortable with their own thoughts and beliefs about spirituality, and uncertain how to engage in discussing such topics with their children. It’s not their fault. They too grew up in a society that valued success at all costs, and saw weakness in mercy and compassion. Parents need help unshackling the chains of spiritual poverty to which they have been shackled for too long, both for their sake and their children’s. Jewish educators are missing an opportunity to transform the lives of two generations simultaneously. We need to help them discover what lies within themselves, so they can do the work that is so urgently needed of them.

The answer to this spiritual challenge remains the same for parents as it does for children: education. Engaging parents in personal spiritual identity formation is the first step to a multi-generational solution. The earlier parents engage in this growth process, the better! If parents are to help themselves and their children to develop spiritual identities and ways of expressing them, much like language development, the earlier one starts, the more likely they are to find success. Spiritual education in this way is an attempt to give parents the knowledge to formulate their own beliefs about spirituality and spiritual practice, the language to express those beliefs to each other and their children, and the confidence to do so in a culture that encourages them to do the opposite.

Spiritual education is not a panacea for all the world’s ills. It is not likely to stop wars or mend the divides among humans. Moreover, it will not end risky behavior or answer every question about the unknown. Instead, good spiritual education can help a child see the humanity in others and empathize with his fellow. It can build self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, while simultaneously helping an individual see the beauty in what others consider mundane, and, if done effectively, it can reinforce the strong bond that links parent and child. Spiritual education may not be able to change the world, but it can transform the life of an individual. What more could one ask for?

[1] Kessler, Rachael. The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000. Print. xii.
[2] Nord, Warren A. Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1995. Print. 380.
[3] Goodman, Jon (Pseudonym). Personal Interview. 24 September 2014.

Ted Dreier is a graduating double-masters student at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, with pending degrees in Jewish Education and Jewish Nonprofit Management. He can be reached at trdreier@gmail.com.