Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

Creating Shmita

Two weeks ago, I was speaking with an educator involved in Jewish farming about burnout and finding time to recharge, be mindful, and just let go of the stresses of today’s frantically connected world. Unsurprisingly, the metaphor my colleague came up with had to do with shmita, the year in Israel — the seventh after a cycle of six — during which farmers must allow the land to rest and aren’t allowed to grow crops.

My colleague spoke about finding shmita time during each day, time to rest, to simply be, in the same way that the Sabbath, the seventh day after a cycle of six, offers us respite from the work of the week. I know that I deeply anticipate the nourishment that comes from celebrating the Sabbath, but the metaphor of farming my colleague introduced into the conversation captured my imagination not only because of its newness, but because in January, I spent time at the Leichtag farm in Encinitas, CA. The Leichtag farm is a Jewish one that follows the laws of shmita, not only to be able to teach Jewish farming practices to those interested, but to model how those practices create a more mindful world.

My daughter and I planted trees for Tu B'shvat earlier this year, at the Leichtag Farm
My daughter and I planted trees for Tu Bishvat earlier this year, at the Leichtag Farm

Frankly, it’s really easy to live more mindfully in a place as beautiful as the Leichtag farm, which sits on 67 1/2 Arcadian acres and boasts 850,000 square feet of greenhouses, is adjacent to a botanical garden, and is a ten-minute walk from the idyllic and idyllically named Moonlight Beach.

Moonlight Beach, Encinitas, CA
Moonlight Beach, Encinitas, CA

The challenge, my colleague and I agreed, is carving out shmita time when we’re not thinking about or surrounded by farming, gardens, or beach. I’ve been pondering that challenge for a number of years now, particularly for my students, who are increasingly becoming as over-scheduled as the adults in their lives.

Two recent pieces, a book and a film, chart the pressure that students are currently under. The book, Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids by Denise Pope, Maureen Brown, and Sarah Miles, thankfully doesn’t only discuss the rat race that school has become, but also highlights the work of various schools that are shifting their practices and pedagogies to make their institutions more balanced and healthy for everyone in them. One chapter in the book is, in fact, dedicated to wellness programs schools have undertaken, programs that help nurture the kind of shmita time we all need to live healthy lives.

The film, Beyond Measure, which I haven’t yet seen, is a follow-up to The Race to Nowhere, which I did get a chance to view a number of years ago and which, as the title suggests, ponders the efficacy of the high-stakes testing environments in which we place our kids.

Thankfully, some of them are beginning to speak out: In a letter to the New York Times, which recently published an article about the film Beyond Measure, a student wrote:

As a student who has suffered from depression and anxiety as a result of the crippling race toward academic “achievement,” I find it disheartening that academic success continuously trumps learning — which is about experience, not perfection.

Modern education is no longer an opportunity for furthering knowledge and experience, but instead an endless scramble for perfection.

Our goal is not learning anymore, but good grades, good extracurriculars and a good social life. We are stripping students of creativity, curiosity, and enthusiasm. Yet we wonder why suicide rates in students have increased?

There is no joy in learning anymore, and it is ruining us. It is the pursuit of learning — something that enhances the student as an individual — that we should be chasing in our schools, not impossible perfection.

Rainesford Stauffer, Carmel, Indiana

The writer is a student at the New School in Manhattan and a member of the board of SXSW.edu, which promotes innovation in education.

I wish I could say things are getting better because of media interest in opponents of standardized testing, but I opened the paper as I was writing this piece and became excited to see that schools are being required to include social and emotional learning components in their curricula. Hooray, I thought — until I saw that one of the school districts piloting the program has begun devising tests to evaluate how mentally fit their kids are. Imagine getting a multiple choice question on what characteristics you think are important for success! What on earth is the right answer to that? And how have we gotten to the point where we think the only way to prove a person is successful is to measure it on an exam?

Fortunately, I’m working on a project now that is the direct antidote to this problem. My good friends Nina Kampler and Zvi Marans unfortunately lost their wonderful son Judah Aaron Marans in December. He succumbed to his mental illness, and in his honor Nina, Zvi, and their family are building a music and arts wing at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ, the elementary school Judah attended and where he demonstrated early proficiency in music and art.

Anyone engaged in the arts can tell you the deep level of contentment that results from immersing oneself in an artistic pursuit. Though often artists describe the artistic process as a struggle, we also know that we can forget our troubles — or even manage them — as we lose ourselves in creating a painting, a poem, a musical composition, a play. Engaging in the arts can be as profound a shmita experience as rooting around in the soil.

In fact, Nina sees the Judah Marans Music and Art Center offering students the chance to experience, each day, calm, peace, and quiet and to be rejuvenated and healed, instead of poked and prodded to fit some sort of mold that society has deemed “successful.” Nina says, “Basically, I believe that artistic expression and creativity is an outlet for the hidden self and often when we are going from class to class or to task to task, we neglect to listen to that inner voice. [H]aving the opportunity to learn and play with music and art will allow students to dig into their true souls. Maybe we’ll discover the next Mozart or Van Gogh, but far more importantly, we will give our young people a chance to feel understood, accepted, and beautiful.”

I think we should all find ways — on a daily basis — to shape our world and our inner lives and not to feel that externals are constantly shaping us. We all need to be in a space where we feel “understood, accepted, and beautiful,” and we should all have the chance to “dig into our true souls.” That seems like the right outcome for any kind of shmita.

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Jewish high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. www.theideaschool.org. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.
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