Students in our community at University Synagogue in southern California have experienced a substantial amount of tragedy over the past year, including hate crimes and gun violence. As more and more places of worship become vulnerable and we increase security measures, we must be aware of how our students respond, especially as it becomes more difficult to shield young people from the news.
The statistics are daunting: one in five teenagers, ages 13-18, in the United States, has a serious mental illness. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth, ages 10-24. Currently, more teenagers are dying from suicide than car accidents in Orange County.
One of our former students was murdered in what appears to be a hate crime, my former intern passed away suddenly, a parent died from gunshots while camping with his daughters, and another student passed away from unknown causes. These losses have taken a toll on our students’ wellbeing. We also have had several anti-Semitic actions at local high schools and around the country.
We cannot protect our children from all of the horrors of the world, but we can provide tools and preventative strategies to increase their resilience. As the director of congregational learning at University Synagogue, I have helped to shape the community along with our faculty as a community of learning and support for all our students. I co-wrote a mental health/wellness curriculum with Jodi Kaufman, the educator at Temple Beth Sholom, a Reform congregation.
The goal of this curriculum is to build our students’ resilience to stress and anxiety. Through opportunities to talk about feelings, role-play and teaching techniques to deal with stress, we have managed to help students find a way to communicate what is in their minds. We also are training teachers to look out for signs of stress the way we check students for physical illness in our classrooms.
Our curriculum has helped students process their ongoing struggles with stress, both globally, and closer to home. We will continue to provide tools that will help them cope and be successful in as they navigate their development.
Part of our job as Jewish professionals is to equip our students with the tools they need to thrive in the world and to provide a sacred safe space where they can learn and grow. Jewish tradition teaches us that if we see something that is broken, it is our obligation to repair it. As a Reconstructionist educator I take this challenge seriously. I look forward to sharing what we accomplish with the greater Jewish education community.
Sue Penn is director of congregational learning at University Synagogue, which was founded in 1987 in Orange County, Calif. by a small group of families looking to explore Judaism through a Reconstructionist lens. Led by Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, the congregation is a thriving part of the Jewish community in Southern California.