The Challenges of Jewish Education in the Spiritual, Social, and Emotional Realms

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School 

Jeffrey S. Kress is associate professor of Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary, and academic director of The Davidson School's Experiential Learning Initiative.

The following is adapted from the introduction to Growing Jewish Minds, Growing Jewish Souls: Promoting Spiritual, Social, and Emotional Growth through Jewish Education (URJ Press, 2012), edited by Dr. Kress. The book includes chapters by several of the contributors to this issue of Gleanings: Carol Ingalls, Laurence Scheindlin, Judd Kruger Levinston, and Shira Epstein.  

The earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters' face there was darkness. Then God's spirit [ruach] glided over the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:2)  

We've got spirit [ruach], yes we do! We've got spirit [ruach], how 'bout you?

                                                                                                     —Popular camp cheer  

The second verse of Genesis is a familiar one, part of the opening section of the Torah, imprinted by the learning and repetition of the Creation story. This rich description of an unfathomable vista prompts us to imagine the scene, to impose a familiar image based on our own interpretive framework. Rashi, for example, describes God's throne as hovering above the water.

The above-quoted camp cheer is also a familiar refrain, pulling on the memories of Jews who have spent time at a summer camp, youth group convention, or Shabbaton. The memory brings its own images of energetic children screaming and banging on tables in crowded dining halls. 

These two quotations are linked in their use of the term ruach (spirit), and provide a stark illustration of the multiple meanings of this term. In particular, they highlight two tensions in the understanding of spirituality—the nature of its relation to the emotional and the social spheres. At the risk of opening a can of metaphysical worms, I think it is reasonable to suggest that the image of ruach Elohim (the spirit of God) does not involve hoarse vocal cords or tables and chairs used as drums. To me (and, I think, inherent in Rashi's comment), the term as used in the Creation story invokes a sense of reverence, a counterpoint to the unformed and void chaos of tohu vavohu. The emotional tone is a quiet one; the social dimension is one solitary point of spirit existing amid the void. On the other hand, the chaos of tohu vavohu is an apt categorization of moments of ruach in a camp dining hall. Here, emotion is pouring forth, and the nature and context of the chant (the emphasis of "we" compared to "you") emerge from and further build a sense of group and community and connectedness.

The discussion of spirit has a parallel in the discussion of emotions; the two terms are overlapping though, importantly, are not synonymous. To start with, there are emotional elements inherent in both the contemplative and exuberant connotations of spirit. Researchers have even used the term "sacred emotions" to describe affect often associated with religious or spiritual experiences—for example, awe, reverence, and gratitude. To George Vaillant (2008), a Harvard psychiatrist who has written extensively on the topic, "spirituality is all about positive emotions. These emotions include love, hope, joy, forgiveness, compassion, trust, gratitude, and awe. Of enormous importance is the fact that none of the eight are 'all about me.'"

Further, a parallel tension exists between an emphasis on emotional control and a focus on emotional awareness and expression. Scheindlin (2003) sees educational efforts too often aiming toward the former. Both psychology and Judaism have had complicated relationships with emotions. Both have conceptualized emotions alternatively (or even simultaneously) as potentially dangerous forces to be controlled and as aspects of experience to be embraced. While acknowledging an interplay of affect, cognition, and behavior, educators and psychologists often start from a standpoint of cognitive hegemony. Scheffler's often cited work on the "cognitive emotions" (1991) is an example of looking at the latter through the lens of the former. Contemporary research in neuropsychology, however, points to "hardwired" emotional pathways subject to change and learning in ways similar to those of cognition.

One might characterize spirituality and emotion as having both centripetal (inward- or center-moving) and centrifugal (outward-moving) elements. Spirituality and emotions can ground us internally, giving us a strong sense of who we are and what we believe most strongly. They can serve as an internal compass as we interact in the world. The centripetal element encompasses issues of reflectiveness, sense of wonder, emotional awareness, dealing with frustration and challenges, goal orientation, creativity, empathy, and appreciation of one's strengths.  

Spirit and emotion can also serve to mediate and motivate our engagement with others, providing meaningful connections with friends, communities, nature, and so on. These centrifugal elements have to do with pro-social activities such as social justice and social action, as well as positive everyday social interactions. Likewise, we see heightened spiritual and emotional awareness emerging from both social disconnection (think about the prototypical meditator sitting on the mountain) and social engagement (imagine an emotional song session at camp). Paradoxically, these two elements are often described as intertwined, with solitary meditation leading to feelings of connectedness. 

Judaism sees interplay between the individual and the collective, which results in "individual responsibility coming together for the sake of community."2 "Spirituality" and "emotion" are marked by ambivalence in Judaism at least as old as the rise of Hasidism and the opposition that accompanied that movement. We still draw a distinction between keva, the fixed elements of ritual, and kavanah, the elements involving intentionality. We stereotype spiritual practitioners alternatively as individuals who live lives of deep religious meaning and those who focus on surface elements of rituals, the equivalent of singing "Kumbaya" around the campfire.

Perhaps it is because of this breadth of meaning that Judaism has struggled with the idea of spirituality. Empirically, Jews have been found to score lower than other Americans on a broad range of spiritual indexes.Data also point to denominational differences, with Conservative and Reform Jews reporting lower rates than Orthodox on spiritual indexes having to do with transcendent experiences (such as prayer) and feelings of "oneness of nature and the universe."Over a decade ago, researchers found that while adolescents value a search for meaning, "Judaism is often seen as irrelevant to this search."5 There have been Jewish communal leaders who have expressed pointed concern about Judaism's limitations in doing "the one thing Judaism is supposed to do best," namely, helping "to create a personal intimate relationship with God; a life of cosmic meaning and purpose; a life of soul satisfaction, true inner happiness, and deep-felt joy and fulfillment."6

Though spirituality is a difficult construct to define, it can be seen as sharing elements of the social and emotional domains: self-awareness, a sense of (or a seeking of) meaning and purpose in one's life, an appreciation of the interconnectedness among living things and between living things and their environment, and a sense of transcendence and of the sacred. The ambiguity surrounding the term is a challenge to educators, but not one that should stymie efforts to promote elements of spirituality. Rather than indicating lack of clarity, the multiple uses of the term "spirit" may reflect ambiguity in the literal sense of having multiple meanings. The various manifestations of both "spirit" and "emotion" are reflective of the realities of the human experience. 

Think about the educational setting with which you are most familiar, be it a school, a summer camp, a synagogue, or even a family dinner table. Do you want, ideally, to see at this setting the quiet soothing manifestation of ruach as in Genesis? The boisterous ruach of a camp dining hall? Intensive emotional introspection? The exuberant outpouring of emotion? If you—like many educators—find yourself answering, "Yes, all of the above," this is an indication that the language of "spirit" and "emotion" may be insufficient to capture the broad range of outcomes we associate with these terms. Rather than being constrained by the limits of language, we would do well to live with linguistic ambiguity while we work toward a broad range of inter- and intrapersonal outcomes. 

Educators in Jewish and secular settings alike face considerable challenges to their efforts to address outcomes in the inter- and intrapersonal domains. The issue of "finding room in the curriculum," already heightened by the environment of assessment and accountability, is compounded in Jewish day schools by the rigors of a dual curriculum and in Jewish supplemental schools by the limited number of hours of attendance. Educators are concerned that their students' parents and the communities in which they live have diminished in their will or in their capacity, or both, to serve as allies in achieving these ends. They see the media, long suspected of undermining attempts to build values and community, as becoming ever more invasive and ubiquitous. And, though they may lag behind their students in technological know-how, they are aware that social interactions are becoming both faster-paced (with texting, IM'ing, and social networking) and more interpersonally distant (with electronically mediated interactions replacing face-to-face dialogue). 

In the spiritual realm, educators may be unsure about their own beliefs or struggle with their relationship with God. The range of approaches to God and spirituality within the Jewish tradition may provide multiple access points for belief but can also cause educators to try to juggle multiple expressions of belief among themselves, their coworkers, their students, and their communities. 

Educators are increasingly being called upon to help students develop the skills needed for social, emotional, and spiritual development, as well as to provide opportunities for students to practice the use of these skills and to integrate them into a sense of self. Educators in Jewish educational settings have some particular advantages in meeting these challenges. Jewish educational settings generally embrace their role in promoting values and spiritual growth. Many Jewish educators are comfortable with values language and embrace the holistic nature of their work. While far from perfect agreement, there is at least a general consensus about the scope of these values. Jewish schools exist within a network of Jewish communal organizations in which many students and families already participate, though the connections among these may be tenuous. These educational and communal settings are, to varying extents, communities of choice for which a degree of shared values and goals is asked in exchange for membership. 

Innovative efforts have been undertaken by Jewish educators to promote outcomes in the intra- and interpersonal realms. Lessons from these efforts would inform not only those engaged in Jewish educational research, practice, and policy making, but also their counterparts working in general education. 

Jeffrey S. Kress is associate professor and academic director of The Davidson School's Experiential Learning Initiative. His interests include developmental issues in Jewish education; program implementation; and the varied social, emotional, and spiritual elements of Jewish educational contexts. His book Development, Learning, and Community: Educating for Identity in Pluralistic Jewish High Schools (Academic Studies Press, 2012) won a National Jewish Book Award. In addition, he is the editor of a volume titled Growing Jewish Minds, Growing Jewish Hearts: Promoting Spiritual, Social, and Emotional Growth in Jewish Education (URJ Press, 2012). Dr. Kress is the coauthor, together with Drs. Bernard Novick and Maurice Elias, of Building Learning Communities with Character: How to Integrate Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2002). He has published numerous journal articles and book chapters. Dr. Kress has also served as the chair of the Network for Research in Jewish Education.

Prior to coming to JTS, Dr. Kress worked as a program development specialist and school-based trainer for the Social Decision Making / Social Problem Solving program of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey's Community Mental Health Center. He completed an internship in Clinical/Community Psychology there after receiving his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers University.


Quoted by Jonathan Woocher in his forward to Jeffrey S. Kress, ed., Growing Jewish Minds, Growing Jewish Souls, New York: URJ Press, 2013, vi.

Mirel and Werth, 2001.

Cohen and Hoffman, 2009.

Goodman et al, 2005.

Kadushin, Kelner and Saxe, 2000.

Dosick, 2001. 


Cohen, S.M. and L.A. Hoffman. 2009.  How Spiritual are American Jews? Los Angeles: S3K Synagogue Studies Institute.

Dosick, W. 2001. "The State of Faith," in The Jewish Lights Spirituality Handbook, ed. S.M. Matlins. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights: 18.

Goodman, J.M. et al. 2005. "An Exploration of Spiritual and Psychological Well-Being in a Community of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews," in Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, ed. R.I. Piedmont. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Kadushin, C., S. Kelner and L. Saxe. 2000. Being a Jewish Teenager in America: Trying to Make It. Waltham, MA: Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, 67.

Kress, Jeffrey, ed. 2012. Growing Jewish Minds, Growing Jewish Souls: Promoting Spiritual, Social, and Emotional Growth through Jewish Education. New York: URJ Press.

Mirel, J.L. and K.B. Werth. 2001. "Study: Our Relationship with Community," in The Jewish Lights Spirituality Handbook, ed. S.M. Matlins. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights: 131. 

Scheffler, Israel. 1991. In Praise of the Cognitive Emotions. New York: Routlege.

Scheindlin, L. 2003. "Emotional Perception and Spiritual Development." International Journal of Children's Spirituality 8: 179-93.

Vaillant, George E. 2008. "Positive Emotions, Spirituality, and the Practice of Psychiatry." Mens Sana Monographs 6, no. 1 (Jan.): 48-62. doi: 10.4103/0973-1229.36504. PMID: 22013350.