There has been much focus in the past months on the importance of SEL—social emotional learning—to support our children during this pandemic. Many schools who did not normally have a scheduled SEL program in place began implementing one last year. While we have had a weekly advisory program focusing on social emotional skills in my school for some time, I would maintain that there is a different SEL that we who are working in yeshivot need to relay to our students. Our students need more of an additional SEL during the months of this pandemic: Spiritual Emunah Learning.
“Spiritual Emunah Learning?” you might ask. Those of us who are guidance counselors in schools know about the other SEL, but I maintain, wearing my Judaic studies teacher “hat” along with my guidance “hat,” that spiritual emunah skills need to be taught as well. But what are “spiritual emunah skills” and how do we teach them?
In Slovie Jungreis Wolf’s book “Raising A Child With Soul” she focuses on how raising a child with spirituality is in essence good parenting. She writes:
“I have always been amazed at the amount of planning parents put into the minutest details of their babies’ lives. Months before the baby is even born, the baby nurse, nursery colors, the brand of stroller, and even the preschool have all been discussed. As the child grows, so, too, does the list. Swim, karate, ballet, art, French, chess, and tennis lessons from the time they’re tots—all ingredients that spell overload for both parents and children. We strive to give our children the best we possibly can. We worry that they receive proper nutrition, cultural experiences and an excellent education. What is most painful for me is the fact that rarely have I heard parents discussing their plan to develop their child’s soul.”
Wolf continues to stress the importance of building a mikdash me’at, a miniature sanctuary, where God dwells, in our homes, and I assert in our schools as well. It is not about bringing your child to shul. (And, we can truly appreciate this fact as there were months where we were separated from our shuls. We therefore cannot rely on shul to provide that “mikdash”). Nor is it about having a shul in one’s home or school. Rather, it is about “embracing holiness in our daily moments of living.” Children who do grow up in a home or school where God is constantly being acknowledged become spiritual. This awareness of God exists in good times and bad. During challenging times, this child sees all of life’s challenges through a spiritual eye.
Our children need these “spiritual skills” more than ever during these challenging times in which we are living. And the primary spiritual skills they need right now are those of emunah and bitachon—faith in God. As adults, many of us have been able to access faith to carry us through this time. But how about our children? Have we done a good job strengthening that emunah so that when they are confronted by a challenge—whether physical (or medical), or psychological—they are able to lower that fear as they know that Hashem is their light and their salvation?
Emunah and bitachon have tremendous power to combat the fear, anxiety and uncertainty that we have faced these past months. We know the plethora of psychological research substantiating the impact of belief in God and religion on lowering anxiety. Seventy-nine percent of studies in a 2015 review by Duke University of 3,000 research studies investigating the relationship between religion and psychological well-being showed a link between religion and psychological well-being. “Positive religious coping consists of strategies that reflect a trusting relationship with God and a sense of spiritual connectedness to others, including reframing stressful events as reflecting the work of a benevolent God and seeing oneself as collaborating with God to solve problems, among others.” Studies indicate that people who believe in God and pray to Him actually get healthier more quickly, can tolerate pain and difficulty better, have more positive attitudes, are more persistent, and are even happier. Higher levels of “religiosity” are overall associated with better mental health.
Raising a child with God in their daily lives (emunah) allows them to face life with strength and faith. Wolf tells a story: On Sunday morning, Mendy and I took a trip into Manhattan with our children. We decided to spend the day at Chelsea Piers… Once inside, the kids decided to attempt the rock-climbing wall. My then-four-year-old son, Akiva, insisted on joining his older siblings as they began their ascent. I watched him harnessed in ropes, as his little figure grew smaller with each step. My heart beat a little quicker until he finally made it down. I ran over to him and hugged him hard. ‘Akiva, weren’t you scared?’ I asked. He looked at me for a second and then replied simply, ‘No, Mommy. Of course I wasn’t afraid. Why should I be? I was connected!” It dawned on me that this small child had just uncovered a significant truth. You can go through an array of life experiences, some quite difficult to bear; however, if you feel connected to a higher source, you never have to be afraid.”
As educators, how do we create this mikdash me’at? In partnership with their parents, we need to help our children to develop personal relationships with God and be cognizant of Him in every moment.
Emunah is a subject that needs more attention in our Modern Orthodox community. Not only is it good for our children as Jews, but it is good for them emotionally as well. It changes one’s whole perspective on life. I often encourage parents of teens to learn the book “Living Emunah For Teens” by Rabbi David Ashear (who has similar books for adults) with their children. Rabbi Ashear speaks about small scenarios like getting a C on your Chumash test or an insult from a friend; if one recalls that God is running the show and it is all part of His plan, then our worries diminish. To quote from the introduction written for the teens,“Emunah is so essential to our happiness… Who are the people who you know who are positive…? They are the people who believe in the essential lesson of emunah… How do you face the challenges of school, family relationships, and friendships? How do you deal with disappointments that cloud every life? The summer job you wanted but didn’t get, the must-have item you can’t have, the learning that just won’t penetrate?...A foundation of emunah will change the way you view your challenges… Happiness is always there, right at your fingertips… Emunah is the secret to happiness… We learn from Chovos Halevavos that trusting in Hashem is the only way for a person to live a life that’s not weighted down with worries…”
Rabbi Ashear uses a wonderful metaphor that is quite concrete for children. “Imagine if throughout the day you found messages from Hashem. When you faced a challenge, He would let you know that He sees what you’re going through and has the whole situation in hand. When something good happened, it came with a note attached that said, ‘This is something special just for you.’ There would be no greater source of courage, comfort and joy in our lives. We would have no worries. We would feel pampered and protected at all times, even in the midst of something that would otherwise be unpleasant.”
In our advisory class we present the students with a scenario of rejection or disappointment and we actually have the students imagine “What kind of words of encouragement do you think a person can imagine God is saying to him/her at a moment like this that can help him overcome his upset?”
There is a famous story of the Kotzker Rebbe. He was walking by a small boy and asked him, “Little boy, where is God?” The boy replied, “That’s easy. He is everywhere.” The Kotzker Rebbe responded, “God is only where you allow Him to enter.” As educators, as with any value or skill we want our children to acquire, when we model bringing God into our daily lives, our children will mimic and internalize this behavior. And when they learn Tanach or even learn science or history, we need to make a conscious effort to point out the hand of Hashem. This practice is not just good for their spirituality, but also good for their mental health.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, in his shiur on “Bitachon: Trust in God” (Yeshivat Har Etzion Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash), discusses two types of bitachon.
The first type is the optimistic bitachon where they are “saturated with faith and hopeful expectations for the future.” The ma’amin believes that with Hashem he can win every “battle” and “everything will be alright.” This is the type of belief when things are optimistically hopeful and things are moving in the right direction.
The second approach to bitachon does not “attempt to scatter the clouds of misfortune, try to raise expectations, or strive to whitewash a dark future. It does not claim ‘it will work out for the best.’” Instead, it is the belief that even if things do not turn out the way I want and the outcome is negative, I will always remain connected to Hashem and rely on Him. This type of emunah may be similar to what those of us are going through right now while there is yet no cure for this pandemic in sight, but we still believe and know Hashem will be there for us.
As we raise our children as believers, we don’t only raise them to believe when they trust the end result will be good. They need to also believe when the result may be bad.
Rav Lichtenstein, zt”l, maintains that we have done a good job in our communities and homes in raising our children to have the first type of bitachon, which is hopeful, but we “neglected to teach the values of loving trust, of cleaving to God without hesitation under all circumstances. We did not fortify our children or ourselves concerning the possibility of crises, conveying that the song to God must be sung even on the rivers of Babylon… We taught our students about the ‘human comedy’ but never about the ‘human tragedy.” We need to do a better job in raising our children to trust in Hashem during tragic times.
We can all relate to this type of bitachon during this time of COVID-19 when things are uncertain. We realize how essential it is to weathering these times. Sometimes we need to teach our children to say, “It will be difficult. No miracle may be waiting around the corner. But, Hashem is always with me and He will support me no matter how hard it gets.” And our relationship with Hashem is like all relationships. There are times when we feel Him close by and times of distance. But, He is always there.
Sarah Radcliffe, in her article “Helping Children Develop Faith,” stresses the importance of first allowing children to express their anxieties and to never shut them down by saying things like “Don’t worry, God always protects us.” Although that statement is true, statements like that “should not be offered until you have helped the child address his or her frightened feelings. Fear causes cortical inhibition (a diminished capacity to process and utilize cognitive information), so providing education while the child is in a frightened state is usually useless. Moreover, trying to do so may be perceived as uncaring, which can harm the parent-child relationship.”
Radcliffe speaks about the importance of accepting their fears and asking them to tell you about it so that they feel you are there for them. We then need to offer strategies to help them relax and calm their fears. Once they are more relaxed, that is the time to offer statements about belief in God, tell stories about how God has helped you in the past, or even help them recognize the hand of God in their own lives. She says, “Always help your child turn off fight-or-flight chemistry before talking about Divine Providence!”
I particularly appreciate how Radcliffe takes mental health strategies and incorporates belief in them. She calls them “fear busters”:
There are numerous ways to help calm a child’s mind and body. Here is a small selection:
A child who worries is an expert at (negative) visualization. After the child has described his scary image of unfolding events, and you have accepted the worry with open arms, ask him to close his eyes and imagine everything working out just fine. Ask him to describe the positive events in his new “movie” to you. Ask him how the positive image makes him feel. Instruct him to repeat the exercise as often as possible and particularly when the scary story enters his mind.
Another use of this visualization skill is to imagine God’s Divine protection and assistance in various ways. For example, “see” God’s messengers, His protective angels, surrounding the bed when drifting off to sleep.
Teach your child to use the breath to help calm the heart, which will then calm the brain, which, in turn, will release calming hormones to every cell of the body. There are numerous ways to breathe for this purpose, but a simple one is to breathe in normally and then breathe out slowly, thinking the number “one” on the out breath. To be effective in times of need, this breathing pattern needs to be practiced for one minute daily, forever. An ideal time for practice is at bedtime when falling asleep or in the morning just after awakening.
The most powerful way to help children accept the reality of God’s kindness is through your positive modeling. When you sound like you believe it, your kids will too!
So, while educators who work in yeshivot have spent well-invested time in developing their social emotional learning program, I believe that there is now an imperative to turn our focus to spiritual emunah learning and emunah education to assist our children in developing resilience to cope with difficulties they will face in life.
Dr. Aliza Frohlich is the director of guidance at Yavneh Academy middle school, where she also teaches limudei kodesh.