Taking the Time and Making the Investment to Thrive


How are we helping our learners today draw on their Jewishness to live more meaningful, fulfilling, and responsible lives?

It sounds like it should be so simple.

We spent the last decade talking about the importance of getting our learners in the door and excited to be there, of opening the arms of Jewish education wide, for example, engagement in coffee shops, a congregant’s home, or while on a bike ride or hiking. Of shifting the learning model to be student-centered, project-based, outside of the building. Words like “meaning” and “mindfulness” entered the Jewish educational lexicon. Suddenly the goal—as articulated by Aryeh Ben David in “Launching the Third Stage of Jewish Education”—was to bring Jewish learning into our hearts and feel a deeper personal connection to the sources.  Many part-time Jewish educational programs, in settings such as synagogue schools, integrated these innovations into their educational programs.

Yet the question of how to draw on our Jewishness to live more meaningful, fulfilling, and responsible lives is not simple at all. We believe the answer is quite complex, requiring a new approach to Jewish education and educational leadership roles. An intense planning process at The Jewish Education Project in New York ultimately led us to a new theory of change for our agency, something that we had not tackled for almost a decade but can serve as a model for our constituents.  

We arrived at a new agency vision: for more Jewish children, youth, and families to experience a Jewish education that helps them thrive as Jews and in the world today. Now we are working to define thoroughly what we mean by “thrive” and then take the necessary steps and time to make thriving a reality in every corner and setting of Jewish education.

Our work is inspired by positive psychology and Dr. Martin Seligman. In his book Flourish, Seligman puts forth a theory of well-being that can lead to an increase in personal and communal thriving. Organized with the acronym PERMA, it includes five measurable elements: Positive Emotion (happiness, fun, gratitude), Engagement (losing ourselves and becoming absorbed in work, hobbies, the moment), Relationships (those that touch our hearts, our souls, our minds), Meaning (a sense of purpose and fulfillment), and Achievement (learning and moving forward with our endeavors big and small; knowing and using our strengths). Each element has unique properties and, applied independently, can add value to a Jewish educational enterprise. Yet to thrive, all of these elements must be applied together.

For this to occur, we not only must consider how and what the learner is learning (the content of the education), but also how we can support the educators, clergy, administrators, teachers, and lay leaders delivering this new vision. Our new paradigm must insist that we support the whole delivery system. We can no longer only be about implementing innovative models of learning. That can only get us so far. We must now intentionally help educational leaders and their teams thrive. This includes developing a thriving educational team that understands one another’s strengths and weaknesses, is trusting, grows together, fails forward together, supports one another, and creates a shared vision. Only then can they, in turn, create communities that lead their learners to living fulfilling lives.

What small first steps can you, as a Jewish educational organization take to begin to make this new vision a reality?

  1. Create a Common Language: To start, take the time to learn together. Begin to understand what thriving can mean to you and your organization. Assign the whole staff a book on the topic and then meet to discuss it. (Examples include: Flourish by Martin Seligman; Becoming a Soulful Educator by Aryeh Ben David; and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck.) Schedule time in staff meetings or informal conversations to talk about how you would define thriving and thriving Jewishly as an individual and as a team. Share examples of learning that you feel leads to thriving—unpacking why you feel that way and what can be learned and possibly replicated in your setting.
  2. Shift Your Organizational Culture: You can’t expect your constituents to accompany you on this journey if they have not bought into it yet. What small but intentional changes can you make that will begin to bring people along? A suggestion: pick one element of PERMA and see how many experiences in your programmatic year support growth and development in that area. Create opportunities for parents to deepen their relationships with each other as well as with the staff. Begin faculty meetings with strength spotting, raising up something you are proud of that you accomplished over the last week or something you spotted in a colleague. Start to use this different language when drafting curriculum, communicating with key stakeholders, or creating new signage.
  3. Take the Time for You, Personally, to Thrive: As an educational leader and one that may be leading this change process, make sure you are taking time to understand what you need to thrive. What do you need to do to nourish yourself? Carve out time to write or read. Use all of your allotted vacation days in a given year. Finally spend that professional development money on an experience that will help you grow.

The steps outlined above will help you and your educational team begin the conversations necessary to transform learning in a way that uses thousands of years of Judaism to help meet people’s desire for a deeply meaningful life.  Thriving and positive psychology provide us new vessels to deliver our ancient tradition in a way that will help our learners—indeed, our whole communities—live more fully, meaningfully, and responsibly.

Rabbi Jennifer Ossakow Goldsmith is the managing director of Congregational Learning and Leadership Initiatives at the Jewish Education Project in New York. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Jennifer received her BA from the University of Michigan and rabbinic ordination and MA in Religious Education from HUC-JIR.