Strengthening Character Development: Resetting Priorities in Jewish Education

By Shmuly Yanklowitz

One of the most potent indicators of a sustained, Jewish life is an upbringing that nourishes the intellectual dynamism of Jewish thought and lived experience. That being said, consider the typical Jewish educational experience. Whether through day school or supplemental programs, the vast majority of curricula tend to focus on (varying levels of) Jewish identity development, Hebrew linguistics, Israel engagement, Jewish history, comfort with Jewish culture, socialization, and the like. These individual elements are very important, of course, but I believe the number one priority to nurture a child’s faculty is missing from the aforementioned list.

That trait is character development.

And by character development, I don’t mean a vague, general awareness of middotcharacter traits—that help guide people through their days. Rather, when I think about character development, I specifically mean the cultivation of mussar principles through immersive mussar practices. Refining one’s spiritual practices not only allows for the internalization of deep ethical truths, it prepares the mind and soul to venture out beyond normative comfort zones and into the recesses of the unknown. If we are to raise the next generation of dreamers, then this is an essential lesson for them to digest.

Indeed, we can only address the messiness of our outer world to the extent that we have the ability to address the messiness of our inner worlds. Only through the cultivation of inner light can we bring outer light to others through moral leadership and good deeds. While there are countless ethical virtues that we need our children to cultivate, these capabilities can only be displayed if they’re represented in everyday situations. When students are taught humility, courage, patience, awe, and gratitude, among the multitude of traits, they’re getting an education that goes beyond the page. To be sure, facts will come and go. Texts will be studied and forgotten. But our inner lives—the lens with which we encounter ourselves, other people, and God—becomes part of a permanent epistemology of spiritual discovery.

When we approach life from the virtue of hitlamdut (seeking to learn and grow from every encounter), Jewish commitments are sustained and refreshed. At the same time, ethical and spiritual lives grow and flourish. Because of this view, I’m not calling for a minor, superficial adjustment: say, adding a small mussar curriculum to the school. I’m calling for radical change: making mussar the central element of Jewish education. Through this style of learning, students will still learn Hebrew, Talmud, history, cultivate their identities, and develop friendships. But most of all, they will become part of a continuous tradition that goes beyond the cognitive and social, where the end goal is developing our children to be righteous and holy. They become more self-aware, more other-aware, and more God-aware. We enrich their souls through emotional intelligence while simultaneously instilling deep-rooted vivacity of Jewish wisdom.

We need our students to learn spiritual truths: awe, wonder, trust, and faith. But we cannot do it without providing a platform for students to flourish. Often, Jewish education becomes stuck in a pattern of box-checking: AlefBet, check; Five Books of Moses, check; Crusades and expulsions, check; the miracle of Israel, check. Where is the fire? Where is the zest for learning what is beautiful, remarkable, and unique about Jewish teachings? When everything becomes rote, intellectual stasis prevails; stagnation follows.

But exploring new avenues of engagements is difficult as well. I have seen this personally. When my Jewish education organization, Valley Beit Midrash, launched our Teen Mussar Fellowship in the summer of 2016, I was skeptical. After all, isn’t mussar for adults? Do teens have the maturity to look at their inner lives and articulate it a reasonable manner with peers? My fears were allayed almost instantly. I learned that that capacity is most certainly there and, in fact, I know from parenting my young children that it is there from these formative years. I am so convinced by this vision that, indeed, it is my dream to one day launch a full-time mussar school to help transform the future of American Jewish education and the soul of the American Jewish people.

Rather, teaching Judaism to the next generation is an imperative not only because we are mandated to do so, but also because we have the opportunity to shape the lives of countless souls in a positive manner. We should—need to!— commit to passing this wisdom down. By doing so, we demonstrate that Jewish wisdom is forever relevant; it will allow students to thrive as they go through life. This wisdom helps impressionable minds to be successful at school and work, to develop meaningful relationships, and, most importantly, have a rich and rewarding spiritual life in which to cultivate happiness; this happiness will—with God’s help—pass down to the next generation. And the next.

And the next.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.

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  • I agree that character development is vital and it should be included in Jewish education contexts. My concern is that Mussar is a century+ old self-improvement tool and there are now many other useful tools too. Mussar has changed with time and the Mussar methods can be very useful to many, but not all people. By anchoring Jewish character development education for children to Mussar, it becomes the Jewish approach to self-improvement. This isn’t just a straw man. I’ve seen Mussar promoted this way. For those who it doesn’t work for, they’ve been given access to a limited tool kit or they feel like they are failed Jews.
    I’ve seen similar issues with mindfullness or meditation efforts in young kids, but, at least in those cases, those approaches aren’t linked to a religious imperative.

    Mussar is a tool at Jewish children should learn about and experience, but I have serious concerns with making it the core of children’s Jewish education.

  • Shmuly, your thesis that “Mussar (Character Development) should be the most central component of all Jewish Education” is both myopic and an attack on thousands of years of Jewish education.

    The central components of Judaism are Torah study (e.g. Tanach, Talmud, Halacha) and mitzvah observance as practiced by traditional Jews, and that is what Jewish education has and should continue to focus on with primacy. One only need review the “The Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews” to verify that this is the correct path.

    From the pew study: After a period of four generations, the populations of non-affiliated, reform, and conservative Jews in totality decrease by almost 80%. Only the Orthodox population dramatically increases (30 times!!!) in size. In several generations, right-wing Orthodox Jews will be the majority. See http://www.aish.com/jw/s/Will-Your-Grandchildren-Be-Jews.html

    Teaching Jews HOW to be Jews is what traditional Jewish education has focused on for thousands of years and has kept the Jewish people alive and vibrant.

    Primary “character development” should be a result of classic Jewish education, not in spite of it. Even the “founder” of the modern mussar movement, Rav Yisroel Salanter gave primacy to Torah learning and mitzvah observance over mussar. Mussar, as a “separate domain” of learning, is meant to enhance Torah learning and mitzvah observance, not usurp them.

    You stated “We need our students to learn spiritual truths: awe, wonder, trust, and faith. But we cannot do it without providing a platform for students to flourish. Often, Jewish education becomes stuck in a pattern of box-checking: Alef–Bet, check; Five Books of Moses, check; Crusades and expulsions, check; the miracle of Israel, check. Where is the fire? Where is the zest for learning what is beautiful, remarkable, and unique about Jewish teachings? When everything becomes rote, intellectual stasis prevails; stagnation follows.”

    How can you overall criticize Jewish education with vague indictments? Are you being evidence-based or merely anecdotal? If evidence, what is your evidence? How many Jewish schools and Torah classrooms have you even observed in Phoenix AZ in your own backyard? I can list at least five Orthodox schools in Phoenix. Have you observed Rabbeim and Morahs teach in any of them for any significant period of time? I don’t think so.

    I have certainly observed many rabbeim and Morahs teach in at least four of the five and I couldn’t disagree with you more.

    Your “mussar solution” to Jewish “education becoming stuck in a pattern of box-checking”, lack of beauty, zest, fire, etc, is non-meaningful and based on zero empirical evidence.

    Education, whether secular or religious, begins and ends with the teacher. NOT, the material. A great teacher can make almost any material exciting and a bad teach can do the opposite.

    If you want to focus on something meaningful, I would suggest 1) focus on the material that IS PROVEN to prevent assimilation and sustain the Jewish people and 2) focus on teachers. That correct mix for generations has created Jews who have an intergenerational love for Hashem and his mitzvos.

    • Mark, I am going to respectfully disagree with your comment. As a Jewish educator of 26 years, I don’t think Jewish education begins and ends with the teacher. Rather, in the spirit of Parker Palmer, as described by Jeffrey Schein in “What We Now Know About Jewish Education,” there is a dynamic triangle of teacher-learner-text. If Rabbi Yanklowitz is able to engage teens post-B’nai Mitzvah in that triangle, using principles of Mussar, then I applaud him. While that is not necessarily the domain in which I teach, retaining students and keeping them excited about their Jewish learning during their teen years is quite an accomplishment. Kol HaKavod!

      • Lori Riegal,

        One might say the ultimate goal of Jewish education is Jewish continuity and assimilation prevention. Only a traditional Torah (aka “Orthodox”) education has proven to be highly effective in accomplishing that.

        A traditional Jewish education is focused on a rebbe (and more contemporarily, a morah for girls). I obviously refer to a rebbe not in the Chasidic sense, but as a (classroom) teacher. The rebbe/student relationship usually transcends merely conveying information, but includes spiritual role-modeling and guidance.

        My comment “education begins and ends with the teacher” simply means, if the teacher does not embody the values and spirit of the material, then it seems to reason the material will not be effectively transmitted. Everyone has had experiences where a teacher either turned them on to the subject matter or turned them off.

        According to the National Jewish Population Study of 2000-01, 72% of Conservative Jews and 72% of Reform receive some form of formalized Jewish education. (http://www.jewishdatabank.org/studies/downloadFile.cfm?FileID=1481)

        And yet, according to the recent Jewish population studies, within four generations, only 1/4 Conservative Jews remain Jewish and 1/5 Reform Jews remain Jewish. (In four generations, Orthodox Jews grow 30x in size, with almost no attrition.) http://www.aish.com/jw/s/Will-Your-Grandchildren-Be-Jews.html

        Clearly, the non-Orthodox are doing a very poor job providing an education which fosters Jewish continuity as well as being unable to entice 30% of their respective membership to even acquire any form of Jewish education.

        I was not able to obtain a copy of Jeffrey Schein in “What We Now Know about Jewish Education”, but would be happy to ready it. I challenge the non-Orthodox to provide any tangible studies/evidence that their educational systems prevents intermarriage and complete assimilation in any significant capacity over the long-term.

        My original point stands…people like Yanklowitz can tinker with and manufacture “Jewish” educational curriculum that aligns with their personal values and notions of what they would like Judaism to be, irrespective of the core values of traditional Judaism and reality of what has sustained the Jewish People for ages. However, the results will prove disastrous in the end, just like empirical studies demonstrate for others who have done so.

  • I agree that transforming Jewish teachers into educators who know how to nourish each student’s inner light is essential. And that hitlamdut, learning from each encounter, learning from life as we apply a Jews lens to it, is equally important. Incorporating the Kelm School’s approach to Mussar within a weave of a number of other modalities, we’ve found works magnificently in our Distance-Learning Maggid-Educator Program at the Institute for Jewish Spiritual Education. The modalities we’ve elected are over text and experiential learning of over 50 Jewish spiritual practices (mitzvot), training in professional Jewish story telling with paired traditional and contemporary repertoire, with methods of Hashpa’ah–Jewish spiritual guidance–drawn from traditional methods as well Mussar, InterPlay (TM), Focusing, meditations, the arts, and training in curriculum development and supervision. We’ve also found the approach allows us to convene teachers across the spectrum of Jewish life without conflict, and rather in the formation of supportive live video-conference based learning communities (plus one annual retreat). Be in touch if you are interested in learning more. And I’d love to hear what others are doing to support the bodies, emotions, minds, and souls of our students on their Jewish journeys.

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