Learning and Meaning-Making at JTS and Beyond

Dr. Jeffrey Kress, current JTS Provost and former Interim Dean of the William Davidson School, has devoted his career to social and emotional learning. From training hundreds of educators in the theory and practice of social and emotional learning to conducting field-building research in Jewish education, he now brings his expertise to his work across JTS—influencing campus culture, working with faculty, and supporting students.

When Jeff Kress entered a doctorate program in clinical psychology in the early 90s, he assumed he would pursue a career working with at-risk children. Fast-forward 30 years and he has published field-building research and trained hundreds of William Davidson School educated professionals to work with thousands of children so that they are better equipped to face troubles of all kinds. As JTS Provost, he now applies the values of social and emotional learning to his work across all schools.

“My work in graduate school coincided with the 1995 publication of Emotional Intelligence by science journalist Daniel Goleman, which profiled social and emotional learning programs,” said Kress. Even before Goleman’s book was published, priorities such as resilience and self-awareness were growing in prominence on the educational landscape. For example, in the 1980s the “Say No to Drugs” campaign was launched. “It turns out that it takes a fair bit of social and emotional skills to be able to say no,” said Kress.

“I started to learn about an approach that started with an innovative question: if we were seeing troubled kids who have problems with self-control, executive planning, managing communication, problem-solving, etc., why don’t we start before the trouble appears.” This model of preventive mental health shifted Kress’s own clinical orientation toward research and practice in social and emotional learning in educational settings.

Prior to coming to JTS, Kress worked at the Social Decision Making/Social Problem Solving Program, which was founded by his graduate school advisor, Dr. Maurice Elias. Through this community mental health arm of what is now Rutgers Medical School, Kress trained teachers in New Jersey public schools and exposed them to social and emotional learning approaches to help them influence the children in their classrooms.

“Things like classroom routine, décor, greetings—these play a role in helping children develop social skills,” said Kress. “Teachers probably have more ‘awake time’ with children than anyone else and are able to model and make a difference in the ways their students interact and make decisions, and ultimately in the sorts of people they become.”

Kress, a Jewish day school graduate and former Ramah swim staffer, began what he called “dabbling” in how social and emotional learning could be relevant in Jewish education. “The goals of social and emotional education are very consistent with the goals of Jewish education,” he said. “Jewish educators are trying to influence the person the learner becomes, how that person interacts with others and makes decisions.”

In Jewish educational settings, Kress discovered that the methods of achieving this influence did not always match the best practices. “There is actual learning theory on how to have impact in these realms,” said Kress. From early on at JTS, he offered courses in social and emotional learning and conducted training out in the field in formal and informal educational settings. In his research, Kress asked “how can what we know from psychological practice come together with Jewish learning in an authentic way?”

For Kress, this was not just about how an educator works with learners but also how school leaders work with their staff and how teachers manage changes in their own behavior. “Good educators are always doing this,” said Kress. “Early childhood and special education teachers have been doing it forever.”

Davidson alumni remember their classes with Kress (which were often oversubscribed), especially how he has paired social and emotional learning approaches with the priorities of Jewish education. The “sandbox” image Kress often uses when he teaches about social and emotional learning positions common Jewish educational goals such as character education, moral education, positive psychology, middot/values education, and mindfulness all within the framework of social and emotional learning.

“If you ask, ‘what’s Jewish about social and emotional learning?’ you find a lot of common ground,” said Kress. He identified four specific common elements:

  1. Goals. Both social and emotional learning and Jewish education focus on the sort of person the learner will become, or “mensch-making.”
  2. Judaism’s everyday content has obvious potential to tap into social and emotional dynamics. There are wonderful Jewish sources about who we are as social and emotional people. The stories we teach show people hundreds of years ago grappling with many of the same issues of today.
  3. Musar/character education focuses on a topic or content area that is consistent with social and emotional learning skills, such as self-regulation or decision making.
  4. The spiritual component that is part of social and emotional learning resonates in Jewish education through prayer, reflective practice, even the ecstatic dancing at a Jewish summer camp.

Kress sees social and emotional learning as a tool for achieving Jewish educational goals. “I like to ask my students, what does it take to be ‘good at’ b’tzelem Elohim (acting in God’s image)? If I want to be ‘good at’ b’tzelem Elohim, what do I need to be able to do?” Social and emotional skills and competencies–like self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, relationship skills, decision making and creative problem solving–are an important part of the answer.

Jewish education is about continuity and connections. Kress sees in this a key application of social and emotional learning: “to understand where you connect, you need to understand yourself and your community.” This perspective informs his teaching, research, consultation, and collaboration work.

Throughout his career at JTS—he has been at JTS since 2000 and served as Interim Dean of the William Davidson School in 2013-2014—Kress has viewed the institution as a kind of laboratory for social and emotional learning. “JTS embodies the idea that ‘learning’ can go hand in hand with meaning-making,” he said.

When Kress was appointed Provost by Chancellor Shuly Rubin Schwartz in 2020, he brought his perspective on social and emotional learning to the broader institution. “As Provost, I’m looking for ways to bring together academic and social – emotional learning. Neither needs to get diluted.”

As social and emotional learning has taken center stage during the pandemic, Kress has witnessed the impact in all JTS schools. “Interestingly, while we were teaching online, many faculty recognized the importance of small group work, checking in with students, and getting to know them and their interests. These things enhance learning and can and should carry over to in-person teaching.” 

Starting in New Jersey public schools and now reaching the leaders of 21st century Judaism, Kress has been a force for broadening the appreciation of and embedding social and emotional learning into our goals for educational achievement and real-world resonance—for learners, educators, and scholars alike.