I come into class and students have already set up the desks in a circle. I take my place, as much as a participant as the teacher, and, on cue, each of us in turn shares their mispar nokhehut, a number from one to ten that captures our presence at that moment. I take mental note of those whose number is particularly low or unusually high or very different than the previous week. In the course of a minute or two, I have my hand on the pulse of the class and how much they are present with me. I share my number with them so that they can measure my presence as well.
Next, I may ask students to voluntarily share their “story” for the day. Explain your number, share something about your day so far, and tell us where your thinking is right now. Perhaps, instead, the prompt may be to share a moment of gratitude or joy, or frustration from the week. Sometimes the sharing is deep and personal, at other times, it is short, humorous, or pithy. There are no rules here other than to share, to listen, and to be honest.
One student each week brings a snack of some kind to distribute and then proceeds to tell everyone something about themselves that others might not know. To my surprise, these turn out to be moments of deep sharing. One week a student talks about her academic struggles, while a week later another speaks about her difficulty in not being able to behave properly in class. They speak about what it was like to transfer from another school, how hard it is to be around children with disabilities, how aspirations for an Olympic career were thwarted by injury, and how tough it is to live in the shadow of successful siblings. The list goes on. We have protocols for unpacking these presentations and the most rewarding aspect is to watch the students listen to one another, to see them asking deep questions and responding in kind, to watch them sharing their inner worlds in ways that are not typical in a classroom.
All of this sounds very much like the bare bones of a good social-emotional-based guidance program. But then we move on to something we call the avodah pnimit, the inner work or internal exercise that I select to encourage students to use their growing social-emotional sharing skills to apply to some Jewish text. It may be something related to parashat hashavua, connected to an upcoming holiday, or even some aspect of a text we have been learning in our regular curriculum together but have not explored. There are protocols for this activity too, but the overall goal is to get students to delve more deeply into how the topic speaks to them or could speak to them, how it could play out in their daily lives in their relationships with friends or family or God. Here, the social-emotional shifts implicitly and ofttimes explicitly to the religious as well.
The framework for this work, and the many protocols and pedagogic and philosophical underpinnings, are the brainchild of Rabbi Dov Singer and Yishai Singer who have created a master’s program in Israel called Lifnai v’Lifnim. I was blessed to be introduced to this work a couple of years ago by my colleague Rabbi Yehuda Chanales, who first invited me to join a contingent from Fuchs Mizrachi in Cleveland to train in Israel and then bring it back to our schools. Since then, Yehuda, with the support of the Mayberg Foundation’s JEIC and UnitED, has created a cohort of nine schools that have been training in this method and bringing it to their faculty and students in various contexts and to varying degrees. For my part, I experimented one year with two classes, and the results were so powerful that the administration agreed that it be adopted by the entire school this year. Each class in the school experiences what we call Lev HaShavua once a week with the same teacher each time. In so doing, we hope to create small communities within the school with a common culture and language of openness and trust in speaking about our feelings and about our faith.
Before being able to encourage our students to speak this way, however, we need to be able to do so ourselves. The truth is that many of us are simply not wired that way, have not been taught that way, or have not been given permission to speak that way, so a critical part of this undertaking is the training undertaken by teachers. Every other week, all of the teachers who run a Lev Hashavua with students meet together as a group and have our own Lev Hashavua. This is not a training session per se; it is first and foremost a place where we undergo the same process as our students. We sit around in a circle and share our numbers, we talk about our stories, personal or professional, one of us shares something personal with the rest of the group and we have our own avodah pnimit. It is considered a safe space, sacrosanct, the kind of space we want to create for our students, and in it we learn how to be more open and sharing with people we might otherwise have not been so open and sharing with. In the process, we form our own community of kindred spirits. For many of us, it is an oasis of sorts within a large school and a busy school day. It can be an anchor, the kind of anchor we want our classes to be for our students. It does not come easily to everyone; indeed, a number of faculty were skeptical at the beginning. And while some have drunk the Kool-Aid, others are still creeping toward finding their comfort level.
If we believe, as we do, that all human beings are inherently spiritual, that all human beings crave connection and meaning, that younger children are particularly open to being moved in this way, and that the period of adolescence is a critical developmental stage when the search for spiritual meaning is especially strong, then we do our students a disservice if we do not address that aspect of their being. And if one could once have argued (wrongly, I believe) that we could take that kind of growth for granted, that is no longer the case in this post-modern, hyper-connected, digital world. Incorporating that kind of meaning-making and search for God within forty-minute day school periods and in a schoolwide culture, however, has often been a challenge. We have found Lifnai v’Lifnim a powerful tool for doing so.
Assessment of spiritual growth is surely desirable, but elusive. How can we truly measure what students are experiencing internally? What we do have is anecdotal evidence. Here are some samples.
One: I had told students one morning that we would not be having a Lev Hashavua during a period later that day for technical reasons, not least of which was that I had not arranged a volunteer in time. Unbeknownst to me, students went out to buy food during a free period, rearranged the room, found a volunteer, and prepared the session entirely on their own. By almost all accounts across grades, Lev Hashavua is their favorite “class” of the week, having nothing to do with the fact that regular learning is suspended. Students now know explicitly that, as one person told me, “Our inner life matters here.”
Two: At the end of the year, a student reported:
The most critical part of our Tanakh class this year were the rich discussions that we had about the relevance of the material to our own lives. I’ve been with these other students for years and I can honestly say those discussions would not have been as open were it not for the discussions we had in Lev Hashavua.
In other words, the weekly meeting has a spillover effect on the regular classes and curriculum.
Three: I was teaching a different class last week (not my own Lev Hashavua group) and before I could begin teaching, one of the students, in an impromptu way, said “Let’s first go around the room and share our mispar nokhehut right now.” And that’s what they did, with nary a protest, with attentive listening, and with the expectation that I would participate as well. The culture of Lev Hashavua is transferable to other classes in a natural organic way. The language of our meetings has become a lingua franca of the school’s culture.
Four: A colleague recently told me that daily communal tefillah has a different feel to it now, a little intangible but a little measurable by the kind of language used there and the kind of sharing one can do. Students just seem more open. In other words, Lev Hashavua can have a spillover effect on other religious domains of the school as well.
Five: There was the student who said that she was talking to a friend in another school over the weekend only to discover that she wasn’t the only one to know what a mispar nokhehut is. Her friend was having her own Lev Hashavua in her school! They now share a common language with students in other schools, thus creating an even broader community culture.
Spirituality may arguably not be able to be taught, but it can be experienced if only we would create the spaces and provide the prompts for doing so. Through its focus first on interpersonal relationships, our Lev Hashavua opens students and faculty up to share inner feelings and experiences in a safe environment, which then provides a portal through which one can begin to speak more naturally about a personal relationship with God and the inner life of Judaism. It is, perhaps, a pedagogic variation of the oft-quoted William Blake poem:
I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see.
I sought my God, but my God eluded me.
I sought my brother and there I found all three.