A Missing Priority in Jewish Day Schools

Perhaps it’s because we take it for granted.

Perhaps it’s because we don’t know what it is and therefore can’t work it into the curriculum.

Perhaps it’s because we’re focused on the letter and not the spirit.

Perhaps it’s because we’re focused on the content and not the vessel.

I’m not sure.

But I’ve spoken with colleagues from dozens of Jewish day schools and there’s a common theme: in spite of our deeply religious missions many of us are failing to make spiritual growth and exploration a priority for our students, our families, and our faculties.

And it’s a shame. It’s a shame because failing to educate for spirituality means our students will enter the world with a deficit. They’ll be less happy and they’ll be less whole.

Here are a few assertions that I’d love to discuss, debate, and reflect upon. I’d love to do so online and at the upcoming North American Jewish Day School Conference at the DSLTI-hosted session, “Holding the Unspoken Conversation.”

1) Spiritual development (I know, “development” is a loaded term) is no less important than intellectual, emotional, moral, and physical development. Our schools tend to the intellectual, emotional, moral, and even the physical development of children with great care and concern. Too often we relegate spiritual development to venues like tefilah and the Jewish studies classroom.

2) That’s because many Jewish day schools and faith based schools in general conflate religion and spirituality instead of treating them as interconnected but distinct phenomena.

3) We conflate them because many of our most cherished teachers and administrators aren’t really comfortable owning either the religious or the spiritual mandate that is at the heart of the Jewish day school. That’s in part because we are unsure how our own religiosity and spirituality fit into our professional roles or because we’re afraid to cross the threshold into this terrain.

4) That’s because the schooling that we received likely failed to prioritize our spiritual development. And now we’re paying it forward.

Here are some things that I’ve witnessed that help bring spiritual development into our schools:

5) Promoting spiritual growth and development among our faculty and administration. We can do this during time allotted for professional development. I’ve seen and felt the shift in energy that emerges when faculty and administration address the topic of spirituality– both our own and that of our students.

6) Distributing responsibility for spiritual growth and exploration across the curriculum. When we liberate tefilah and Jewish Studies from the unrealistic burden of owning the entirety of spiritual education it’s good for Jewish Studies and General Studies alike. Lifting spirituality from the “Procrustean Bed” invites teachers across disciplines to embrace the spiritual potential in their curricula.

7) Gathering our most forward thinking and thoughtful people around the table for conversations about the means and ends of Judaic programs like tefilah. When we do this we tap into the deep wisdom and varied perspectives of our diverse communities.

8) Educating parents about the importance of spiritual growth and development and enlisting them in our efforts. They’re favorably disposed, but often equally at a loss for how to bring spirituality into the home. They love discussing  how they and their school community can partner in helping cultivate this naturally occurring phenomenon that we all see in our children and adolescents.

9) Remember that we’re just spiritual beings having a physical experience!

If you’re at the NAJDS and want to share struggles, opportunities, successes, wisdom, and wonder about this topic I hope we can come together and “Holding the Unspoken Conversation.”

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