Spiritual Growth Through Mussar in School Settings

by | May 3, 2023 | Cultivating Jewish Spirituality | 1 comment

The Journey Begins

I was experiencing a challenging staffing situation in one of my earlier years as Head of School. A veteran educator and colleague, new to deepening her Jewish practice, suggested that I might be guided through the situation using Mussar, accent on the last syllable. I was puzzled. What is MuSSAR? She explained, you know, MuSSAR. Something clicked, I blurted out unguardedly, “You mean, MUsser!” The Ashkenazic Yiddish pronunciation, as in, what I grew up experiencing in my Orthodox Jewish day school as a child.

How on earth would that help this situation? She went on to recommend a newly published book, Everyday Holiness—The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar by Alan Morinis. I was surprised, then, doubtful, and skeptical. What might be “spiritual” about Mussar? And how could it help this staffing situation—would I not be better off opening one of those “Staffing How To” books that had been inundating and migrating into the educational world from the business world?

What Mussar had conjured up in my mind, frankly, were memories of the nagging and preachy tropes I recalled from grade school. What possible connection could that have to navigating a dicey personnel issue? She urged me to acquire the book and to read it. I did—and it was life-changing and impactful on the culture of our school.

I had no idea that “Mussar is a path of spiritual self-development.” “Spirituality,” to me, seemed more like intense kavanah-imbued tefillah, singing at a Shabbat table, going for extended silent walks through the forest. What was “spiritual” about Mussar?

I had a lot to learn. Spirituality in the context of Mussar might be best understood as a self-determined curriculum working through character traits on the path of becoming your best self, an awareness of your strengths and weaknesses as you work on the nurturing of your soul. No small matter. And as I learned, a practice that can open up conversations on many levels in a workplace—especially in a Jewish school.

My journey into Mussar brought me from Alan Morinis and his teachings to other current works including A Responsible Life and Mussar for Moderns, a reconsideration of classic Mussar works that I had not truly appreciated, and finally to involvement in the Mussar Institute.

As per the exhortation of Kiddushin 40b, “Study is greater, for it leads to action,” the more I read and the more I learned, the more I began to slowly implement Mussar teachings both into my own life and then into our school’s soul—its students, parents, and faculty. I looked with fresh eyes at our Mission Statement and our School Values. What do we truly mean when we talk about integrity, when we urge students to: Be Ready, Respectful, and Responsible; Feel with Empathy; Act with Kindness; and Build Community? What do these “look like” from a Jewish perspective? More importantly, what are the pedagogical steps one might take to engender these behaviors? How might these values take hold in all classrooms, within the whole school, including the boardroom and the teachers’ room, possibly coalescing into a community culture?

Action Steps

Mussar work entails a deep dive into middot—character or soul traits. There are several lists you may be familiar with such as Rabbi Salanter’s hanging on a poster in many schools or Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues, also 13 (and yes, there is a connection between Benjamin Franklin and Mussar). In fact, Morinis lists almost 60 traits in the back of his book and there is a list of 444 (!) values and traits that is circulating on the internet.

For our school, I identified 13 basic middot and then expanded the list to 18, which became our Mussar Memo, which included a template of the traits with short pithy soundbites both from Torah, Jewish sources, and some quotes from the broader world. This memo greeted teachers and students on the board as they entered the school and was included in the staff’s “Monday Mussar Memo.” They were to be hung in the classroom and included on the board along with the date. Teachers were urged to include the “trait” or “virtue” of the week in their class lessons with the purpose, explained to students, not to simply selfishly perfect yourself but rather to perfect the world through your own continued perfection. In addition, I began a mid-day class, “Mussar for Mommies,” to bring parents into the process.

As a teacher myself, I blended references to the weekly identified middah as it might have popped up in the lessons. Beyond that, I provided my Middle School students with a prompt about the trait of the week, inviting students to journal about it and to then reflect upon the trait at the dinner table at home and then at the end of the week.

Some of the teachers were more diligent about introducing it into their classrooms than others, and some of the students followed through more than others. Reading some of the student journal entries, I was struck by students’ slow but sure experience in reflecting and awareness of the middah. I invited students to share and was truly touched when a student self-reported thinking about the middah before jumping into an altercation with a sibling or responding in haste to a parent.

Not surprisingly, I noticed the effect on my own behavior and thought processes, whether I was in the queue at Starbucks or enduring a harsh honking from a fellow driver. Identifying a middah, reading about it, learning about it, and talking about it is powerful. It seeps into your thoughts and helps you to reframe your experiences as you walk through the day. That’s the whole point of Mussar.

Work in the Field—A Snapshot

There has been work done recently to develop curricular materials for use in day and supplementary schools across a wide range of age groups. In a conversation with Leslie-Anne Kopes-Finke, who works to integrate Mussar education into schools, she shared the effect Mussar teachings can have on students:

I think it comes down to living more compassionately in relationships with others and especially with themselves. This was demonstrated through kindness, through self-awareness, and by relating to the world and each other spiritually.

… I observed that they become more comfortable expressing kindness—in the form of genuine curiosity, concern, and true delight in the experiences of their classmates. They were free with their celebration of the successes of others and more comfortable being vulnerable with each other as well. There were open eyes, big smiles, expressions of concern, and quiet, loving listening.

I observed them as the lightbulb of self-awareness was turned on and they realized they were complex, and that they could experience two opposing feelings/sensations and hold them both with honor. There was both a sense of confidence with balanced pride that came with realizing their strengths and a recognition that they were capable of holding their discomfort as well.

I watched them as they allowed themselves to speak spiritually and then as they imagined God speaking to them through—nature and through their soul—something they did in-community and also very much within themselves. They were so surprised when their spiritual conversations gave them insight into their own heart-knowledge and mind-knowledge.

I deeply believe that ultimately there is no spiritual growth for our students without spiritual growth for ourselves. As R. Yisrael Meir Hacohen, affectionately known as Hafetz Hayyim, writes:

I set out to try to change the world, but I failed. So, I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community of Radin my hometown, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and I failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself. And that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.

Rivy Poupko Kletenik served as Head of School of the Seattle Hebrew Academy for sixteen years after two years serving as Judaics Principal. She has taught at many conferences and communities. Rivy is the founder of RPKInsight, a consultancy firm focused on Jewish education, executive leadership training, and institutional culture shaping.

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Leslie-Anne Copes-Finke, Director of Teen Program
1 year ago

Many thanks to Rivy Poupko Kletenik for this wonderful article on the benefits of Mussar for Teens! If you are interested in learning more about The Mussar Institute’s Teen Mussar Program, Challenges and Choices: A Jewish Teen’s Guide to a Balanced Life, please contact Leslie-Anne Copes-Finke at leslie-anne@mussarintitute.org, or check our website at: https://mussarinstitute.org/challenges-choices-teens/.