JCDS has made the commitment to be a radically inclusive school where students and their families feel a profound sense of belonging. According to the 20th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, “belonging” or “love” is almost as foundational as food, sustenance and safety. A student who feels a sense of belonging feels cared about, accepted, respected and valued by others at the school. We know that these are the essential ingredients needed for positive learning, development of pro-social behaviors and a strong connection to our community, our Jewish community.

If we have learned anything from the pandemic, we now know that we humans are not meant to be socially distanced from one another. We crave interaction and friendship, intimacy, family and love. Humans have the need to feel like they belong to particular groups. We are hardwired this way. And yet we cannot assume that it will just naturally happen, especially in a school setting with new peers and an unfamiliar setting. Connection takes time and effort.

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ

The Lord God said, “It is not good for people to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).

Connection is precisely what we are paying attention to at JCDS. With a large number of students newly enrolled, our faculty and staff have recommitted to making new and returning students feel that JCDS is home. We have refocused our efforts to achieve Maslow’s third strand and we know that if we are not intentional about how we create a sense of belonging, we will not successfully achieve this for our students. It requires a tremendous amount of creativity, attention and reflection. It means prioritizing the time to help foster deep connections as well as really seeing our students for who they are. We are committed to the creation of a Jewish ecosystem organized around connection and belonging because this is how deep learning can best happen. At JCDS, our Friday all-school lunch and recess program aptly exemplifies this goal.

Recess isn’t just recess. We know that recess is not just a break from academic work, but an opportunity for social-emotional development, interpersonal skill-building and opportunities for leadership development amongst our students. Recess can also be a launching pad for radical belonging when created with intention and attention.

In a 2013 article in The Atlantic, author Singrid Anderson Cordell quotes findings from a study depicting the alarmingly high number of school administrators who choose to take away recess as a response to troubling behavior in school. Up to 81.5% of surveyed schools admitted to denying students recess as punishment for bad behavior. And yet we know that “it gives kids a much-needed break from intense studying, teaches them social skills, encourages them to use their imagination, and allows them to exercise” and paves the road for meaningful connection and a strong sense of belonging to our community. For these reasons, at JCDS we are taking lunch and recess really seriously.

Every Friday, all 191 students enjoy a structured recess outdoors together. It is an opportunity for students from different grades to mix and match and enjoy each other’s company. Siblings can catch up with each other and older and younger members of our kehila (community) connect in authentic and fun ways.

Our “Outdoor Chadar Ochel” created and maintained by dean of students Avi Minder provides a safe and healthy space for students to have conversations with each other around the dignified setting of long tables with comfortable chairs, set up with love and care by our school custodians Nick Sutherland and Rich Pozzi.

Avi notes: “Lunch at our Outdoor Chadar Ochel gives students a daily opportunity to sit together, get to know each other and create cross-grade connections. Students wave to siblings, chat with new friends and smile their way through lunch. This atmosphere has fostered a greater sense of belonging and inclusivity at JCDS for all our students.”

Seventh grader Leone leads a weekly book club for middle school students and a book read aloud for our younger students during our Friday recess program. According to Leone, “I do this because I want people to decide that they actually like to read.” He also understands the profound positive impression he can make on younger readers. And from our point of view, this is a fantastic opportunity to shine a light on Leone’s passion for reading in an authentic way. Students can also choose balloon-making with second grade teacher Naomi Greenfield, creating pencil toppers and drawing with chalk.

Quin, a new member of the sixth grade class, offered to teach a rock-climbing class to interested students who are up for a challenge. When I asked Quin how this activity came to be, he shared: “It was on a Friday. Avi asked if I would do a rock-climbing station. Every recess, I do rock climbing on the playground. It is really fun. There were many kids and it was a little overwhelming at first. Kids were coming up to me and asking me for routes and I gave them easier ones than I was doing. I like to pick harder routes for myself. If I fall, I’ll be fine. I’m used to bouldering without a harness. I climb up and jump down when I’m done with my routes. Sometimes kids ask for help and I tell them where to put their feet. I can see how, for a new kid in the school, being asked to run an activity for recess would be good. I’ve been rock climbing at the BU gym before COVID. I took a class and I did it at summer camp. I love the physical activity and the feeling when I get to the top of the route and I can say that I finished it. I know how to fall correctly.”

Membership and belonging in our Jewish community has always demanded a sense of shared destiny, manifested in our commitment to care for one another. Where once, according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 17b), belonging to a Jewish community relied on structures such as a beit din (law court), a tzedakah fund, a synagogue and a bath house (mikveh), today at JCDS, we rely on lunch and recess to do the job!

Shira Deener is head of school at JCDS.

The School Sparks blog appears periodically by various writers among the JCDS educational team. Learn more about JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School.

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