Keep Calm and Teach: The Role of Silence

When was the last time that you were silent? I mean really, really silent. Silent enough to hear the different types of bird song outside your window. Silent enough to concentrate on a deep inhale and exhale of your breath. Silent enough to hear the deepest meditations of your heart. For many of us, silence is a rare commodity amidst the whirring and buzzing of text messages, phone calls, and social media begging for our attention. The only moments of silence we might get on a work break or even during our commute we fill with music, tweets, and the most up to date news postings. In essence, we almost never give our mind and hearts a time to just be present, be calm, and be quiet. Yet, it is this silence, accessed through meditation, breathing exercises, or sitting in intentional quiet, which renews us, refreshes us, grounds us, and helps us to connect to our deeper spiritual selves.

At Kulanu, the Cincinnati Reform Jewish High School, silence is key to the learning atmosphere. When high school students from Cincinnati’s Reform congregations come together on Sunday evenings to learn, silence is part of the weekly equation that makes up their experience. Although not every class engages in meditation or a few moments of silent breathing, creating sacred space is a core component of the school’s vision. One way in which this vision is achieved is through quiet meditation and giving teachers and teens alike the opportunity to use silence to help ground them in their work at the school. During my time as a Fellow this past year at Kulanu, I saw a few ways that silence was used to help nourish the school’s sacred atmosphere.

Each week the staff of Kulanu sits together silently breathing for almost ten minutes as part of preparing ourselves to teach. We focus our breath and ourselves to what we are there to do: help Jewish teens grow into kind young adults with life skills, based in Judaism, that will to help them to weather what life throws at them. Not only does focusing our breath help to remind us of our goals as teachers, but it also creates a deep sense of community amongst the staff. Sitting with one’s eyes closed and focusing on one’s breath is quite vulnerable and requires a certain level of trust. This trust is felt as we all sit together, each in his or her own thoughts. An intimate sense of shared community is created as our breathing falls into similar rhythms and patterns with each other. This communal silence creates a special bond, a sacred bond, and one that grounds us for our work ahead. As we close each meeting with prayer, holding hands in a circle, asking for strength/courage/peace/groundedness/kindness to help our students that week, we truly stand together as part of a greater team that shares in a silent and sacred practice together.

This sense can be felt as the teachers move from the staff meeting into the classroom. The silent practice helps the teachers to go into the class with the best of the gifts they can offer. There is a sense of tzimtzum, or contraction,as the teachers withdraw themselves to allow for students to cultivate questions and drive their own learning. Many teachers will also begin their classes with a silent breathing exercise. Both students and teachers are able to engage in their studies with intentionality, having put the hustle and bustle of the outside world away and refocusing themselves within that class and community. This intentionality allows for students to explore their Judaism in a calm, collected and connected manner that ties in their lived experiences with the study of text and Jewish values.

Even those who do not step foot into a Kulanu classroom are transformed through the value of silence and mindfulness at the school. The board meetings for Kulanu also commonly begin with a quiet breathing exercise, cultivating the sense of community and intentionality for the meeting. Here, the silence reminds the board members that their work is indeed sacred service. The board, teachers, and other members of the Kulanu staff have come together for the sacred purpose of teaching, nurturing, and mentoring Jewish teens through these difficult, hectic and formative years. Taking that moment of silence is truly a moment of humility, of recognition that the work is great. The quiet breathing allows each person to remember to give the best of themselves, whether as board members or as teachers, as we each guide the students on their journey to young adulthood.

Through intentional breathing, through silent support, and through quiet encouragement, Kulanu has helped me to understand the “sacred” in sacred service-learning. Through these moments of prayer, silence and connecting to God, I have been able to recognize what it means to be of service, why I choose to be of service, and how I am able to best be of service to the teens at Kulanu. “All my life I was raised amongst the Sages, and I never found anything better for a person than silence…” (Pirkei Avot 1:17)

Dana Benson is integrating mindfulness into her teaching at Kulanu, the Cincinnati Reform Jewish High School, and her mentor is Rabbi Dave Burstein.

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