Summit Focuses on Mental Health in Jewish Education

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Jewish educators recently gathered in Baltimore for a Jewish Educational Services-hosted summit focusing on mental health for both students and teachers. The Refuat Ha’Nefesh Jewish Education Mental Wellness Summit was meant to encourage teaching strategies that take students’ mental states into account and focus on their mental development during a critical time in their lives.

Educators watch Rabbi Abraham Zalman as he gives his keynote address at the Refuat Ha’Nefesh Jewish Education Mental Wellness Summit. (Courtesy of Julie Tonti)

Approximately 40 educators from 19 different Jewish institutions from across denominations attended the summit, which took place on Tuesday, Feb. 6, at Pearlstone. These included eight principals, 14 school counselors and several community rabbis.

The summit was funded by a grant from The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore’s community planning and allocation department, with the subject matter chosen as a response to the country’s declining mental health since the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Mental Health America’s “The State of Mental Health in America” report, over one in 10 youths aged 12-17 are experiencing depression that is affecting their school and social lives, and over half of all American youths with major depression do not receive any treatment for it.

“Some of the numbers are just staggering,” explained Julie Tonti, director of partnerships in education at JES. “Since COVID, and post-COVID, we know that no one is immune to mental health problems. We would like to think that our Jewish community is immune, but we are dealing with the same crisis and have reason to believe that those national numbers are reflected similarly in the Jewish community.”

School counselors at Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools already meet regularly with JES, but the idea for the summit was to have a day where educators could work together as a community to address mental health concerns for both students and themselves.

The keynote speaker was Rabbi Zalman Abraham, a member of the leadership team at The Wellness Institute, a division of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute dedicated to addressing mental health issues among Jewish youth. Abraham used teachings from Jewish texts to discuss the importance of mental wellness and what Jewish philosophers have to say about navigating difficult situations. While The Wellness Institute takes a faith-based approach to dealing with emotional turmoil, its methodology is still based in scientific research about the mind.

This keynote address was followed by several smaller breakout sessions, each hosted by local psychologists, social workers and rabbis and focusing on different subjects. These included a program designed to help educators tackle impostor syndrome, another about how to let go of mistakes and learn from them, and several focused on fostering confidence and tenacity in students. Tonti noted that “Art as a Process; Not a Product,” which saw participants creating art as a relaxation technique, drew a particularly large crowd.

One of these sessions — hosted by Rabbi Ilan Glazer, founder of Our Jewish Recovery founder and fellow at Rabbis Without Borders — focused on the healing power of music, as it helped him get through a particularly difficult part of his life.

In addition to its focus on helping students with their own mental wellness, the summit also focused on teachers’ mental health.

“You need to be the one to model how to speak and act so [your students] can follow,” Tonti explained. “Students take cues from the adults they’re around, so it’s important for teachers to model positive behavior.”

She added that she hopes the mental wellness summit will spark more conversations about mental health in the community, and that educators make it a priority for both their students and themselves.

“We believe that if more people come in to learn and support each other and have new ideas about mental wellness and helping students with it, that they could really make a difference in the lives of the students they serve,” she said.

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