This year, I want my students to have the opportunity to talk about more than liturgy; I want them to think about their spiritual lives. There needs to be something more to Wednesday Hebrew school than the basics of learning how to recite a prayer for a bar or bat mitzvah.
Last year I had the pleasure of working at Isaac M. Wise Temple as a part of my second year TJF Fellowship. After a year of teaching, I was asked back for a fellowship this summer which focused on nurturing children’s spirituality. In addition to researching approaches and frameworks for providing the atmosphere in which children can nurture their spiritual selves, I found it necessary to explore my own spirituality and reflect on my teaching the previous year. As I did, I thought critically about a classroom routine I had implemented I’ll call “Wednesday note-cards.” Every Wednesday, before the beginning of my Hebrew class, I wrote a question on the board and asked my students to write their answers on note cards. I asked such questions as where they like to pray, how they feel when they pray, how they feel about being Jewish, their favorite Jewish food or dish, or their Jewish role model. As I thought about these types of questions this summer, I contemplated about how close I was to creating a great space for spiritual growth and safety in my classroom. However, my questions were never going to get to the deeper conversations my students were capable of having.
Instead of asking my students these surface level questions, I could have delved much deeper. According to Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, “Children already have a spiritual life, and the role of teachers and parents is to help them give expression to what is already inside.” (Mencher, 2014) When I return to the sixth grade Wednesday class this year, I will revisit the note-cards in order to allow spiritual questioning and growth. So instead of asking my students whether or not they believe in God, I can ask my students where they find God. The reframing and resetting of questions provides a new space for welcoming deeper and more spiritual responses.
Before a space for spiritual discussion can occur, I must create an “avirah ruchanit” in my classroom next year—a spiritual atmosphere that is safe and an environment that incorporates living middot (Jewish moral virtues). (Ben-Lev, 2014) In her article, “The Quest for Meaning: Insights on Nurturing Adult Spiritual Development” (2014), Roberta Louis Goodman says:
We as Jewish professionals need to intentionally nurture people’s spirituality. People are walking philosophers and theologians whether or not we as Jewish professionals enter into conversation with them. If we as Jewish professionals do not intentionally explore with them life questions, their purpose in this world, how they relate to others, and even where God is in their lives, then they will find us to be irrelevant. We will have marginalized or limited ourselves to liturgy, life cycles, and study, but not to the fullness of what is important to those we serve.
Though Goodman speaks about adults, I believe the same is true for children, and the call to attend to people’s spiritual lives extends beyond Jewish professionals to anyone teaching in a synagogue setting. Teachers need to reflect on their own spirituality and beliefs, so that they can intentionally explore questions about life and spirituality that their students want to discuss. In addition to exploring their own spirituality, teachers must model the middot so that the students do not simply hear teachers using the terminology (tikkun olam, kavod, derech eretz), but actually see them living out the various middot. For example, a teacher models kavod (honor) when he/she treats the students with respect, no matter the students’ behavior.
When teachers model middot and spiritual exploration, then the students are able to learn from not only what the teacher says, but also what the teacher does. As a part of my fellowship, I compiled various articles and framed reflective questions for teachers to consider when preparing their avirah ruchanit for the coming school year. The executive director of education, Barbara Dragul, will be highlighting various aspects of spirituality during the upcoming teacher orientation, and I will be leading a session on how teachers can bring spirituality and spiritual moments into their classroom.
Having the time to explore ways to nurture children’s spirituality has prepared me for my upcoming year teaching sixth grade Hebrew school. Unlike my past Wednesday note-cards, my future note-card questions will foster an opportunity for my students to explore their own spirituality, and the objective of my Hebrew classroom will be greater than making sure my students can read the prayers.
Rachael Klein is a TJF Fellow in the religious school of Issac M. Wise Temple.
Ben-Lev, Moshe. “Avirah Ruchanit: Creating a ‘Spiritual Atmosphere’ for Jewish Teens.” CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly. 61.1 (2014): 61. Print.
Goodman, Roberta Louis. “The Quest for Meaning: Insights on Nurturing Adult Spiritual Development.” CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly. 61.1 (2014):152. Print.
Mencher, Edythe. “Our Children Need God.” Reform Judaism Magazine Online, Summer 2006. Web. 1 Aug. 2014.