Hello and welcome! I greet you tonight at a pivotal moment in your journey as parents, as you consider where to establish a community for your child for the formative educational years of their life. You are here tonight weighing how best to nurture the spirit and possibility contained within your child, this part of yourself who not a blink ago was a baby swaddled in your arms.
And of course, you are doing this work at a particularly challenging moment in which to be a parent. In the middle of the last century, Americans as a whole felt anxiety in the workplace and mastery in the home. In the second half of the twentieth century those poles shifted, as parenting has become a domain of expertise, a science with an entire literature behind it. You have likely read a number of books written by benevolent doctors who attempt to explain your child’s brain or behavior to you. I certainly have. I like to begin open houses with this graph
, of the incidence of the word “parenting” in English language books from 1900 to 2000, which is a flat line at zero until about 1970, at which point it spikes, and continues to grow.
It is enough to make one anxious, all those books. And of course we worry not just about how best to parent our children, but also about the world our children will inherit—particularly so in a season such as this, marred by mass shootings, white supremacy emboldened in the public sphere, and a seemingly endless parade of supersized natural disasters. These have been events that have impacted our friends and communities, where many of us have felt called to action, to offer our support. Here at Brandeis they have given us opportunity to consider not just our curriculum around service, but also the role of empathy across the grades, via our partnership with the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning.
Empathy, unfortunately, is not something we can take for granted in the current state of education in America. Last year the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report called Turning the Tide
. It argues for rethinking the college admissions process, looking at many of the ways in which that process has negatively impacted adolescent mental health, from rising stress levels to a diminishing sense of connectedness. Among the data the researchers cite is a study of 10,000 middle and high school students. Only one in five counted “caring for others” as central to a meaningful life. Another meta-analysis cited in the report found a steady decrease in empathy among its sample of 13,000 American college students over the period 1979–2009, with a sharp decline since 2000.
These are numbers that should worry us. These are kids in cities like ours, kids going to the best high schools and colleges in the country, and these studies describe a structural limitation in their thinking, one that is being instilled in them alongside learning how to read, write, and do arithmetic. They are being taught to understand their achievements and their lives in isolation, divorced from notions of community or shared endeavor. We may not know the specifics of the challenges that this century will present, but we can sense their outlines in record-setting hurricanes and wildfires, in the widening gap between rich and poor, and in the decentralized threat of terrorism—and what is certain is that these challenges will require creative thinking from our best and our brightest working in concert. What is certain as well, then, is that we need our children to understand that they have a responsibility to the world, and to know to their core that they are connected to each other.
That sense of connection is important not just for the impact our kids will have on the world, but also for their own well-being. Dr. Lisa Miller at Columbia University has been researching the impact of spirituality on child development, and what she has found is stark: adolescents who describe themselves as having an authentic sense of spiritual connection are 80 percent less likely than their peers to abuse drugs and alcohol, 70 percent less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, and 60 percent less likely to suffer from major depressive disorders. This year Brandeis was one of twelve schools from around the country invited into the leadership group of the Collaborative for Spiritual Development, convened by Dr. Miller at Teacher’s College. As part of that project we are creating a set of curricula and best practices related to spiritual identity and civic and ecological engagement.
At Brandeis, in our work with the Collaborative and with kids, our focus is on developing a personal, authentic spiritual identity. This is visible in weekly practices like making time to pause and celebrate Shabbat in the classroom, or in daily rituals like mindfulness, or morning meeting. These shared rituals are not didactic—we invite students to consider what each means to them, to share what each of them does or does not look like in their own homes, and to study how they appear in other cultures and other traditions. Enriched by that permeability, they set the cadence of our time together in school.
Working toward a better world is another core part of developing an authentic Jewish spiritual identity at Brandeis. This is visible in student-directed responses to world events, from bake sales to walk-a-thons, and in grade-level projects such as the first grade changemaker project, where students work together to effect change in the school that feels important to them. We also make time for service to the community in our annual calendar, and during special events. This work culminates in our seventh grade Tzedek Program, where students spend a year studying the most pressing issues in their communities and the non-profit organizations working to address those issues, then make donations to a few, using funds pooled from the gifts they would have given each other for their bar and bat mitzvahs. This program was written up in the New York Times
last year in an article on cultivating generosity in young people
These programs grow out of our community value of tikkun olam
, which we translate broadly as “service,” but which is more typically translated into English as “repairing the world,” with olam
meaning world. I was at a bar mitzvah recently at the Kitchen, an emergent Jewish community here in San Francisco, and was surprised to see the word “olamim
” in a prayer, since in Hebrew the ‘–im’ ending marks the plural—the equivalent in English of putting an ‘s’ at the end of a noun. Does this prayer imagine worlds, in the plural? And why are these plural worlds translated here as “universe”? I did some research and found that olam
is a word that underwent a shift in meaning—that in biblical Hebrew it meant “age” as in "an age of wonder," and olamim
meant eternity; in medieval Hebrew olam
came to mean world and olamim
, universe. Worlds and universes, ages and eternities.
My encounter with olamim
took my mind to the book The Crisis of Infinite Worlds
, by the wonderful Cincinnati poet Dana Ward. In the title poem of the collection, he describes the atomization and alienation of contemporary life, “a model of terrible momentum… stripped… of becoming / just the mainframe / & its withering severity / without any predicate / of others.” The crisis articulated here feels familiar to me, and echoes of the fatalism many of us sometimes feel when confronted with the scope of our world’s challenges, imagining ourselves isolated against them. But the poem continues, seeking a chink in the armor of inevitability and disconnection, a space for optimism. Toward the end of it, Ward writes:
That same May
I had gone to Detroit. I saw
the most wonderful graffiti, more
a prayer, written on a wall
in magic marker, it read—
1) That we would grow closer & closer as time progresses.
2) That our ships would not crash.
In the happenstance of this graffiti, Ward sees the capacity for a different kind of momentum—toward connection and shared possibility. I love the asymptotic line imagined in these ships growing ever closer without crashing. This is the motion of empathy—of staying true to oneself while caring for others—and the narrative of democratic citizenship, of tuning our individual minds toward common good. It is why we at Brandeis do the work of grounding individual spirits, and teaching them to put those spirits in service of a better tomorrow—because in them we see infinite worlds as potential, rather than crisis; and it is our prayer that they will continue to bend the arc of this moral universe, of all our ages and possible worlds, toward justice.