Sharon is a Trustee and the Community Liaison for the Ruderman Family Foundation 

Putting Wellness at the Center

As someone with decades of experience in the philanthropic world, I first began to understand the acute need for mental health advocacy when I saw how those in Jewish education lacked access to proper support. I found that many in the Jewish community were simply not sharing their stories of struggle, which led to feelings of isolation and lack of awareness over mental health issues. 

Which is why I felt that the theme of creativity was so essential for this year’s Prizmah Conference. Attendees and presenters did an excellent job of demonstrating that mental health support is central to individual student success and to the effectiveness of teachers. These supports must be integrated seamlessly into all facets of life—at work, school, worship, family and community life—rather than be isolated in a therapeutic setting. At the conference I joined nearly 1500 faculty, administrators, and other education stakeholders for the three-day event in Denver to explore and practice these concepts.

To me, student success—academically, emotionally, socially and behaviorally—is where we need to apply this idea of a creative spirit. In the presentations, convenings and informal gatherings that I participated in, the idea of creatively incorporating mental health support, “normalizing” wellness practices into the classroom and school environment was a constant, essential theme. I heard many school staff explaining the innovative ways that they are incorporating wellness practices into classroom culture. It is not simply the addition of new mental health support that they discussed, but more a fundamental transformation of the learning environment. 

The fulcrum for this transformation is in supporting teachers and staff for their own wellbeing by providing the information, resources, time and encouragement to take care of themselves as well as their students. Teachers and school counselors in the US are burning out at an alarming rate, so it is essential that we transform the learning environment in ways that bolster their mental and physical health. 

The conference is especially relevant as we enter Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month which reminds us that the work of supporting students and teachers and building inclusive institutions is, in many ways, central to faith.

Prizmah’s innovative design of the conference reflected this paradigm shift in our schools. Mental health awareness and wellness practices were seamlessly integrated into the entire event, culminating with the wonderful presentation of Tal Ben-Shahar, the “Happiness Guru,” whose central message was that maintaining a sense of gratitude, openness, generosity and wonder is essential to maintaining our mental health in this era of stress, uncertainty and change.

Ben-Shahar said, 

“We can only learn to deal with failure by actually experiencing failure, by living through it. The earlier we face difficulties and drawbacks, the better prepared we are to deal with the inevitable obstacles along our path.”

This is such a good reminder that our struggle is our purpose, and that the current mental health struggles dogging so many students and families is part of our process for working toward fulfillment and wellbeing.

At the conference, I connected with other donors who, like us at the Ruderman Family Foundation, are seeking thoughtful, evidence-based, and innovative ways to invest in the myriad mental health initiatives that have emerged in the past several years. My colleagues in philanthropy discussed the importance of making investments into mental health innovations that are showing promise but might not yet be fully supported by evaluations. The urgent needs of students and schools facing the burgeoning mental health crisis beg for immediate intervention and investment even as we struggle to understand the efficacy of some new and emerging approaches. 

But in this era of uncertainty, the Ruderman Family Foundation’s investment in Prizmah, its dynamic staff, and its innovative work with Jewish schools is one area of clarity for us. We are incredibly impressed with the organization and are proud to be supporters of this essential work. Prizmah has established itself as a progressive voice in Jewish education with a deep commitment to young people and their wellbeing. I am proud to be one of their advocates and supporters.