I often joke that I do my best parenting Shabbat morning before synagogue, when I am drinking my coffee and absorbed in a book. Sitting at my dining room table, I am just present enough to let my children know they are safe and just distracted enough to let them figure out whatever conflict arises. In my mind, I am creating what the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott termed the “holding environment.”

Drawn from the mother-infant relationship, the holding environment is an environment that nurtures and fosters the natural development of a young person. Winnicott notes that even before birth, the mother holds the child in the womb, providing a physically nurturing environment. This continues in the earliest stages of life, which are often characterized by a cycle of holding, feeding, changing, and sleeping. The mother attends to the child’s needs until gradually, as the infant develops into a toddler and beyond, she begins to give the child more space to come into his or her own being.

For Winnicott, children come to understand themselves through their parents’ messaging. The good-enough mother (another great Winnicott term), “starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds, she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.” When the good-enough mother empathetically withdraws absolute care, she enables her child’s independence, simultaneously shaping her child’s self-conception by communicating confidence and acceptance of the child as a person. By comparison, the parent who strives for perfection (in their own parenting, in their children’s behavior) unhealthily imposes their will onto their children in ways that stunt the child’s independence and maturation. Though unknown to Winnicott, the concept is similar to the Lurianic Kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum, God’s benevolent retraction of God’s self to make space for creation. So too, parents must make space to enable their own children’s flourishing.

The holding environment is the space where the child knows they are secure enough to try freedom. This is most visibly on display with parents of young children at a playground. First time parents of new walkers dote on their children, making sure they do not fall. And this is reasonable. During the first year of life, the parents were constantly attuned to the needs of their child, learning the meaning of different coos and cries, patient when their child was cranky. As the child gains more confidence and the parent sees what the child can do, the child is given more freedom. The parent creates the holding environment when they give the child the safety to know that if they try the slide, and something goes wrong, they will be cared for.

As children encounter caregivers and ultimately enter schools, the holding environment expands. Schools do not automatically provide young people with holding environments, rather, this is a vision and ethic that needs to be cultivated. Jewish day schools are particularly well positioned to build Jewish holding environments, but they also face unique challenges. Below, I offer four considerations for building Jewish holding environments.

1. Panim el Panim – Face to Face

In my first year of teaching, my department head forbade me from asking fellow teachers about my students until after the first week of class. She explained that she wanted the students to have an opportunity to encounter me without preconceived notions. It is amazing how quickly I decided who were the studious kids, the gossips, the challenges. It was always a struggle to really let students surprise me.

Just as the infant comes to develop a sense of self through his or her parents’ eyes, young people also come to further self-realization through the way their peers and their teachers see them. The school is not a substitute for the parent but can provide children with new ways of thinking about themselves. It is also a place where young people often come to develop mindsets about who they are as students, many of which are quite negative. In a Jewish school this also results in how they see themselves as Jews. Just as the Divine renews creation every day, how can educators see their students anew every day?

The construction of a Jewish holding environment requires educators who see sparks of Divinity in the faces of their students, who recognize that students will manifest those sparks in a range of ways, and who feel committed to finding ways for students to manifest their holy possibility. Further, these educators must understand and desire to create an environment where they help the students recognize these sparks in one another. The recognition of individuality rests on deep relationship.

2. The Parents and School Must be Partners in Creation

Sending children to Jewish day school is not a light decision and at the same time, it often does not feel like it comes with much of a choice. My wife is a day school administrator and I taught in a day school for five years, and while there was no question of where we wanted to send our kids, the decision did not come without baggage. We have high hopes and dreams that through day school education our children will learn the content, skills, and dispositions to act as thoughtful engaged Jews in adulthood. But it is much more than just about an outcome. We send our kids to Jewish day school because we want them to be enveloped in Jewish community, to develop habits of heart and mind shaped by a Jewish calendar and Jewish time, and to actively participate in a robust, developmentally appropriate, Jewish life of Torah and mitzvot. Nothing warms my heart more than seeing the art projects and worksheets which integrate nicely into the holiday schedule or promote a discussion at the dinner table.

The challenge, of course, when one brings such hopes, dreams, and expectations is that it is difficult to let go and give children, their teachers, and the administration, the space and trust to allow for real growth. Parents, as the Harvard education professor Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot identified, speak to schools “from a position of intimacy, advocacy, and protection for their children.” This disposition is exacerbated in the Jewish world by parents’ fears of assimilation and the incredible financial burden of Jewish day schools.

Against the backdrop of this incredible anxiety, it is easier than ever for a parent to let the school know they are displeased with something going on in their child’s classroom. Schools are often expected to post pictures and updates of life at the school. Some schools even use online gradebooks permanently accessible to parents. And, schools are often their own worst enemies, sending emails, texts, and WhatsApp messages all day long. Despite the deluge of communication, there is often little trust.

Perhaps, the problem is all the back and forth? Remember, I parent best when I am slightly distracted. For the school to be able to function as a holding environment they need to develop trust early and often with the parents and they need parents to be taught how to be partners. Unfortunately, the burden for this rests on the school, its leadership, and the teachers. To develop partnership requires a deep commitment to taking the anxieties of parents seriously, so they may learn the skills and dispositions necessary for the task of raising children in a Jewish community.

3. Sacred Architecture Should be Filled with Klei Kodesh

Winnicott is unique in drawing our attention to the role of space and environment in child development. Development happens in relationship to people, but also in the space in which the child resides. That space has an architecture. Inside the space there are different objects and instruments. There are tools, both physical and cultural. Enveloped in this world of things and people, one encounters the aggregated affect. Synagogue goers understand this intuitively. What makes for a heimish shul is not just the people but the sum of its various parts—the melodies, the kiddush, the lighting, the furnishings, and its inhabitants.

How does a Jewish school look different from the other school down the block? Of course, we are aware of the way language shapes the experience—if the students eat in the dining hall or the hadar okhel. Or, how pictures on the walls and the flags that are raised come to shape the students’ conceptions. The cultural tools that fill up the school are incredibly important. They define the students’ immediate horizons. They are the things with which the students will shape their own worlds. The Jewish school builds a Jewish holding environment when it is filled not only with keilim (instruments) like language, art, song, stories, and books, but when their faculty see themselves as klei kodesh (holy vessels) for whom these instruments are alive.

4. Holy Play

David Hartman once wrote, “The traditional Jew does not begin with immediacy, but by listening to a story from his or her parents, by first participating in the drama of the collective standing before God at Sinai.” One who is nurtured by a Jewish holding environment comes into relationship with the Divine and a sense of yiddishkeit through a web of associations and connections. We perform the drama of Sinai as we become enfolded in relationships with the tradition and the people who share it with us.

We also become embedded in the tradition as we play with it, figuring it out as independent actors. For Winnicott, play is the vessel for self-actualization because it is where we are less guarded and try things on. Play is in opposition to sincerity, and this may scare Jewish educators. Sincerity demands a commitment, something Jewish educators often imagine as their educational goal. To be sincere on demand, something often asked of students, goes against the definition of sincerity. Rather, when educators demand sincerity their students are forced into subservience, but hardly sincerity. To actually play with something is to take it seriously. There is nothing more real than the worlds made by three-year-olds in a preschool classroom.

The Jewish holding environment is constructed through commitments to people and values, filled with robust instruments of holiness. In this environment, the community enables individuals to mature in ways that they come to see themselves for who they are in the faces of its members and the 70 faces of Torah, as inheritors and contributors to the ever-unfolding Jewish tradition.

Joshua Ladon is the Director of Education for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Rabbi Dr. Ladon previously served as the Dean of Student and Jewish Life at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

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