Judaism + Positive Psychology
Best Practices for Integrating Jewish Education + Positive Psychology
My day job centers around working with Jewish teenagers. When I tell people that, and cheerfully admit that I actively choose to spend my days with high school students, I generally get looks that range from skepticism to abject horror. Educators, parents, and other adults seem convinced that all of the worst stereotypes of Generation Z are true - that they're lazy, entitled, tech-addicts. But as someone in the trenches, that's not what I see. Instead, I see a generation of passionate leaders, committed to making the world a better place for themselves and their peers. But they're also over programmed, stressed, and at serious risk for mental and emotional illness.
As Jewish educators, it is incumbent upon us to teach to the whole selves of our learners. We aren't just responsible for fostering their Jewish identities, but for encountering the complexities of their overall characters and providing them with safe spaces and resources to flourish as human beings.
Which brings me to positive psychology. The brainchild of Martin Seligman, positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life the most worth living, emphasizing the factors that contribute to a well-lived and fulfilling life. Positive psychology has been shown to produce improvements in well-being and to lower depression levels when applied. So as Jewish educators, with the mission of bringing value-add to the lives of our learners, how can we integrate positive psychology principles into our work in such a way that allows Judaism to be the vehicle for wellness and happiness?
Luckily for us, there are plenty of spaces where the two go hand in hand. Jewish rituals have positive psychology applications, and by viewing them through this lens, we can guide our learners through a process of seeing Judaism as a religion, culture, and overall set of practices that reaches every aspect of their physical, social, and emotional lives.
As I've said elsewhere, I'm not someone who is, or has any desire to be, shomer Shabbat in a halakhic sense. But the concept of Shabbat, of taking a day to unplug and recharge, reconnecting with ourselves and those around us without the barriers of technology and the distractions of the world, can provide an incredible boost to wellness for learners of all ages.
In Judaism, there are certain central prayers and key practices that a person can't perform alone. We need the support of our communities in order to live fully actualized Jewish lives. It's too easy for teens (and others) today to isolate themselves from community, and many of us live in silos, either physically or mentally removed from the collective. But positive psychology and Judaism both demonstrate the importance of community, of being committed to and part of something greater than ourselves, and of improving our characters through our relationships with others.
Liberal Judaism spends a lot of time talking about tikkun olam, the idea of repairing the world. We use this to encompass volunteering, advocacy, and even interpersonal relationships. It can sometimes seem that its breadth has caused it to be watered down, but when it comes to positive psychology, we know that there's a direct boost to oneself when one feels like they're improving the lives of others, and are a valued member of the local community. Tzedakah and gmiliut chassadim (acts of lovingkindness) are our ways of contributing to something greater than ourselves.
In this case, I'm not focusing on the details of meat/milk separation, or which animals appropriately chew their cud. But food as mindfulness, being intentional about what we put into our bodies and honoring it with active choices, is a wellness practice that both Judaism and positive psychology can get behind.
So what now?
If you're interested in applying positive psychology to your educational practice and finding the integration points between the two, I encourage you to join me for the new Gratz NEXT class I'll be teaching starting July 23. Gratz NEXT courses, for those who are unfamiliar, are online learning opportunities for Jewish supplementary educators. You can learn more about Gratz, and all of the offerings, here. I hope you'll join me for 4 weeks of exploration of teens, Judaism, and positive psychology. If you have questions, please reach out to me (email form below!) or the Gratz staff for more info.