Schools should focus on spiritual development for Generation Z

Children should be able to experience the beauty of Judaism, according to a new Jewish studies inspection framework


Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, the foremost rabbi of the modern Orthodox movement in the 20th century, had one regret.

He talks of “a serious educational-philosophical problem, which has long troubled me. Orthodox youth have discovered the Torah through scholastic forms of thought, intellectual contact and cold logic.

“ However, they have not merited to discover her [the Torah] through a living, heart-pounding, invigorating sense of perception. Halachah is two-sided… the first is intellectual, but ultimately it is experiential.”

Putting it simply, Rav Soloveitchik despaired because although his teaching of Torah certainly reached the minds of his many thousands of students, it had not reached their hearts.

If this was, and probably still is, a problem in the Orthodox Jewish world, how can it be possible for Jewish studies teachers to succeed in educating children who come from a background where most Jews value a good secular education for its intellectual, material and social benefits, above a Jewish education which is generally perceived as an extra-curricular activity?

Previous generations of traditional Jewish youngsters reluctantly accepted the burden of Jewish education either in school, or more likely in the dreaded cheder, as long as it had a release clause for 12- and 13-year-olds.

The current generation, Generation Z, is a savvy generation. What it learns Jewishly has to have both meaning and relevance. If we don’t meet both the intellectual and spiritual needs of this generation of Jewish children, we are likely to lose them.

The spiritual development of children is a statutory requirement in all maintained schools but, used wisely, it gives us the opportunity to provide a more meaningful Jewish education enabling children to see the beauty of Judaism beyond an often-repetitive curriculum of texts and festivals.

Rebecca Nye, an expert in the field of children’s spiritual development, gives us a useful definition of its meaning by identifying “relational consciousness” as being at the heart of the way in which children express their spirituality. How they relate to themselves, others, the world around them and a “divine other”.

It is important for schools to make time for spiritual development during the course of the school day. For example, creating the opportunity to ask and discuss “big questions” can be a key indicator of the way in which spirituality is explored in a school.

Using the natural world as part of the curriculum can also support spiritual development. Here is a good example taken from a recent Pikuach report: the school’s “commitment to outdoors education builds on and promotes pupils’ natural curiosity, inspiring a love of nature and a sense of wonder. It is linked to their understanding of what Judaism has to say about the environment, as observed in a year-2 lesson on being ‘custodians of the world’”.

Pikuach, the Jewish studies inspection service, has always had to report on “collective worship” but all too often inspectors simply reported that it had been carried out. Here is another example from a recent report showing how Jewish prayer can be made more meaningful for children.

“Tefillot (prayers) are punctuated by moments of directed silence that reinforce the consistent school-wide message of pupils having the time to thank and ask Hashem for something. These moments of silence contribute not only to the sanctity of the tefillah session, but also ensure that pupils begin to understand the value of prayer.”

The new Pikuach Inspection Handbook, which was published last week, has a major focus on spiritual development. To help schools, the handbook provides many examples of how schools can develop their children spiritually.

Of course, primarily the handbook is for inspectors who, while inspecting a school, will need to consider:

l Is this a school where leaders have created a Jewish climate of journey and discovery, where it is ok for pupils, students and adults alike to question, wonder, enquire, make mistakes and to talk about the spiritual?

l How are learners being encouraged to develop a sense of self and identity?

l In what ways are learners able to relate well to others both within and without the community?

l How are learners encouraged to develop a sense of awe and wonder about the natural world, which extends to action to protect and nurture that world and how do all of these things this relate to their Jewish learning?

lWhat impact has Jewish teaching and learning made to these children’s lives?

These small examples demonstrate ways in which our children can find an emotional connection to their Jewish learning, and recognise its personal relevance. If they do not find this, everything they learn will remain detached from their lives.

As Chief Rabbi Mirvis says: “Judaism is not something that you know but something that you are. A deep, spiritual connection to Judaism is essential.”

In other words, “to be as well as to know”.

Jeffrey Leader is chief executive of Pikuach

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