Duties of the Heart: Building Our Collective Resilience

– by Rachel Shamash Schneider and Sara Allen

October 7th, 2020

Bahya Ibn Pakuda, an eleventh century Spanish Jewish philosopher and rabbi, wrote the first treatise on Jewish ethics called Duties of the Heart (Chovot HaLevavot). His Jewish wisdom has served as inspiration for centuries and his book is often celebrated in the days leading up to Rosh Hashana.  He proposes that the obligations of Torah fall into two categories: those that we perform with our limbs (Hovot HaEvarim) and those that are the realm of the soul/heart/spirit (Hovot HaLev). He points out that the “duties of the heart” are often neglected. Yet, at this moment in particular, we must elevate “duties of the heart,” nurturing people’s spiritual and holistic wellness to build resilience, so they have the strength and skills to adapt to and overcome challenges of today and the future.

One of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s core assumptions is that in a world that is constantly shifting and changing, there remains a strong and persistent human desire for connection, meaning, and purpose. As Jews, we celebrate our people’s history of resilience—an ability to adapt Judaism and Jewish life over thousands of years to meet these needs. Living through today’s great disruption and evolution, our community again has demonstrated dedication and creativity to offer Jewish learning with connection, meaning, and purpose in mind. Our community also has witnessed, and tried to respond, to pressures on our collective mental health and wellbeing.

As always, the High Holidays were an opportunity to start anew. Our preparations and rituals invited us to care not only for our own wellbeing but also for the wellbeing of strangers, our loved ones, and our broader community and world. These annual rituals remind us of the “duties of the heart” and our interdependence. Even amidst social distance, we are all connected and linked in some ways—and building our collective resilience will help us to face challenges ahead.

Opportunity to Elevate Wellness
Unlike more isolated inflection points or personal times of change, we are all facing this reality together. But as we have seen from so many organizations and individuals, this reality also presents opportunities to think about Jewish life in new ways. We have the opportunity to prioritize an upgraded wellness toolkit to strengthen our resilience and to reimagine Jewish community building, meaning-making, engagement, and education.

Even before the pandemic, teens and young adults faced increasing rates of depression, anxiety, stress, and wellness-related challenges. Research shows teens and young adults today are struggling the most and are actively seeking more connection and support. In a study conducted this summer, 63% of Jewish 18-40 year-olds reported heightened depression or anxiety but only 37% had sought out mental health support or professional counseling. At that time, 70% of young adults responded that it was particularly important for them to connect to their Jewish identity, and 63% had participated in something Jewish virtually since the pandemic began. In another study led by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC),  more than 55% of FJC’s teen and young adult survey respondents said they would welcome more mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health support, and 79% cited feeling that their Jewish friends had helped them cope with the pandemic. As a community, we can further elevate access to wellness support. Participants are showing up to programming with high anxiety and stress. Many are choosing to engage as one way to help mitigate and work through these challenges.

As funders and conveners, we have an opportunity to amplify our support of learners and educators. According to a recent study of professional development programs funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, educators and program leaders reported that supporting emotional well-being is, for many, of equal priority to providing meaningful intellectual experiences. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, states that basic needs (like safety, security, food and water) and psychological needs (like esteem, belongingness, and love), must be met before self-fulfillment needs (like achieving one’s full potential). Thus, we must not only recognize the importance of these foundational needs, but also support them in order to achieve the highest levels of connection, meaning, and purpose. Through this lens, the connection between wellness and education become crystal clear: a learner cannot get the most from a learning experience or a teacher cannot educate with greatest efficacy unless their base needs of wellbeing, feeling safe and secure, and fulfilled. 

Looking to Jewish Sources for Support
Research, particularly from the last ten years, affirms that young people and families look to Jewish sources for connection and support. Thankfully, many Jewish organizations have built their wellness capacity and core competencies during this time too. A number of youth-serving organizations (YSOs) have recognized the importance of supporting and elevating teen and young adult wellness, offering their professionals trainings to serve the holistic needs of young people, addressed them through a Jewish lens. One example of this is the Youth Mental Health First Aid Training curriculum and certification program developed by National Council of Behavioral Health (it’s noteworthy that this is now available online). YSOs recognize that for their participants to meaningfully engage in programming, the wellness of those participants must be addressed. BBYO’s The Center for Adolescent Wellness and Hillel’s HillelWell, for example, support the mental health of their young people. Other organizations rooted in wellness and spirituality since their founding, like Moving Traditions, Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and At The Well, are supporting the field right now by making their trainings and community-building experiences accessible through new partnerships with organizations that want resources to support their constituents. At a time when bandwidth is stretched, these collaborations are critical. The power of the collective shows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Path Forward to Meet Wellness Needs of Youth
Today, organizations that serve young people recognize that their staff are on the front lines of support for their young people’s mental health. And while Jewish education has much to offer in the way of this support, many educators and other leaders do not have the appropriate skills and training to do this part of their work. Thankfully, however, the void of expertise in this area is slowly decreasing.

In January 2020, Jewish Teen Education & Engagement Funder Collaborative (the Funder Collaborative), convened a Wellness Gathering with Jewish experts, funders, and practitioners from across the country to make sense of developments in the wellness field. The convening sought to weave together and integrate the fields of wellness, education and engagement in the Jewish community by highlighting effective and meaningful work in this space. In turn, the convening revealed significant gaps in offerings, affordability, and accessibility. Since then, the Funder Collaborative, in partnership with YSO leaders, has led efforts to advance and coordinate the somewhat segmented and siloed Jewish wellness field and to connect engagement and clinical efforts that are underway. These efforts included a second convening of the wellness collective just last month, this time under the name “Resiliency Roundtable,” speaking to the resilience work that must be done to strengthen the social-emotional health of learners and educators. The dozens of participating organizations are working more together to build this field and offer best in class resources to meet the growing need for wellness support in the Jewish education community. If successful, the Resiliency Roundtable will position young people, educators, leaders, and communities writ large to be more resilient not only during this crisis but also into the future.

We know that Judaism has much to offer people searching for connection, meaning, and purpose in times of joy and sorrow. Tikkun olam, repairing world, is a familiar framing in the Jewish educational world. It is embraced by many Jewish learners and has inspired generations of Jews to collective action. This year, it feels important that we elevate the lesser-known notion of tikkun hanefesh, repair of the soul, and to recognize how it connects to the much-needed work of repairing the world. The idea of tikkun (repair) doesn’t imply inner brokenness; it is a recognition of a lack of balance.  Jewish education that prioritizes the importance of holistic wellbeing must provide a pathway for this tikkun hanefesh—for this rebalancing. Jewish wisdom and elevating “duties of the heart” will enable us to better repair ourselves and build our resilience so that we can care for others and our collective community.

Rachel Shamash Schneider is a Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation. Sara Allen is Executive Director of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative.