By Rabbi Robin Foonberg, Executive Director of the Jewish Educators Assembly and the Education Specialist for USCJ
According to the recent Census, published by the Jewish Education Project, the most important goal many respondents cited for their schools is “to foster a sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” How does that happen? It begins with our teachers.
Our educators and teachers are the soul of our learning communities. Those who teach in our religious schools care about each student and about Judaism. They care so much, they work on Sunday mornings and during weekday afternoons. They care enough to do much of their lesson planning at home. Our teachers are largely responsible for setting the tone in our classrooms, honoring and listening to each child, and teaching children to honor and listen to each other.
To cultivate a sense of belonging, the children need to first feel belonging in their classrooms and in their youth activities, then in the synagogue as a whole. From there, they can take that sense of belonging to summer camp, college, and time spent in Israel. One way we make this happen is by creating sacred safe spaces within our learning environments. We do this in the following ways:
- Create A Place Where Kids Can Safely Ask Tough Questions. We want our students to be critical thinkers and feel free to ask all of their questions. This is how we honor their learning and their growth.
- Create A Place Where Kids Can Be Vulnerable. We encourage our students to share their feelings – with the teacher and each other. Starting this practice at a young age, with friends they are likely to grow older with, will foster sharing and empathy.
- Create A Place Where Kids Can Experience Love and Forgiveness. When children learn these important social and emotional skills, they will forge close bonds with their classmates and their teachers. And when someone makes a mistake, it will be a learning experience for all.
Teachers can be taught the skills they need to create these sacred spaces. It is essential to offer Professional Development opportunities for them to grow their skills and to develop as their own community of learners. It is also an important way for the synagogue to honor them and their special place in the lives of the children.
Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua used to say: Let the honor of your student be as precious to you as your own; and the honor of your colleague as the respect due your teacher; and the respect towards your teacher as your reverence for God. (Pirke Avot 4:15)
May your school provide safe and holy space for cultivating belonging. L’Shanah Tova!
Rabbi Robin Foonberg is the Executive Director of the Jewish Educators Assembly and the Education Specialist for USCJ. For more information, please email [email protected].