Building Brains, Holding Hearts, Seeing Souls

By Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, Ed.D.
Director, Master of Educational Leadership Program
January 25, 2024

Two women looking at each other while in a deep conversation

Four women smiling at the cameraOnce upon a time, when a younger me was making decisions about my career goals, a Jewish professional advised me, “If you want parents to call you with questions about carpool, become a Jewish educator; but if you want parents and children to reach out to you when they are confronting big Jewish questions, become a rabbi.” While this may have been a semi-reasonable distinction 30+ years ago (though I don’t believe it was!), it is far from the reality of what it means to be Jewish educational leader today. We Jewish educators are in the business of nurturing and guiding our learners, our teachers and faculty, and our community members to become their whole selves. This requires us to create sacred relationships. This requires us to become equipped with a variety of pastoral resources, skills, and mindsets to draw upon when those individuals come to us with spiritual needs, existential questions, and moral dilemmas.

In the last 3+ years, beginning with the pandemic, and now amid the Israel-Hamas war and the skyrocketing rates of antisemitism, we are tending even more to the pastoral needs of our community members. They are pondering deeply challenging and existential questions, in addition to the accompanying, dare I say, routine, social, emotional, and spiritual (SESL) challenges of today. We hold our communities through the pain and fear of mass shootings and other forms of violence. We are first responders for parents and children facing antisemitism or bullying at school or in their child’s extracurricular activities. We work in partnership with our clergy colleagues – or sometimes on our own – to create spaces for prayer and reflection. We design, redesign, and redesign again, learning experiences that are responsive to the SESL needs of today, and at the same time hold faculty in their own struggles, personal and professional, as they strive to put into effect these new learning experiences.

Many of these moves require us to see ourselves not only as educators but also as pastors. As educators, we may or may not have conventional training in pastoral care. The rabbis, cantors, social workers, and mental health professionals in our midst generally receive that education in their graduate training. But we are not fully ill-equipped.

We know that for people to find in Judaism guidance for how to live out their lives, we need to attend to and nurture their whole being. As Dorothy Gale of Kansas is to the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, we Jewish educators build brains, hold hearts, and see souls. We do that by:

  • Listening and reflecting. We ask probing and productively challenging questions. We reflect back. We help others tone and hone their reflection muscles.
  • Building cultures founded on trust and connection, creativity, and bravery. Creating opportunities for people to connect with their peers, to build friendships, and find support networks.
  • Leading with empathy. We begin with the I-Thou, seeing each person’s divinely created uniqueness. We create spaces of belonging. We hold them in their pain and joy. We validate.
  • Creating opportunities for learning, critical thinking, problem solving, asking questions, and finding diverse answers.
  • Knowing our resources and using them. We know when a particular person’s challenges are beyond the scope of our expertise or require more (time, attention, etc.) than we can give. We know who to call and when do to so, and how to lovingly make that referral.
  • Knowing that the work we do, even the most mundane of tasks, is holy.

My dear colleagues, on behalf of the thousands of souls you teach, lead, guide, and support, I thank you. Thank you for being there. Thank you for the late nights of planning and replanning. Thank you for the innumerable phone calls and text messages, checking in on teachers, parents, teens. Thank you for the one-on-one meetings, the calls to the school districts, the sharing of resources and new ideas. Yes, you are surely helping parents create carpools, and running to Costco for snacks, and setting up tables and chairs for the next program. And you are there for each and every one of your people in their moments of fear and joy, of confusion and curiosity, ready to hear their questions, and to help them find their answers.