Mussar, an approach to character growth emerging as a movement in the 18th century, has increasingly been incorporated into contemporary Jewish education. The purpose of mussar—the cultivation of character—is consistent with the goals of Jewish day schools and other settings. This article examines the implementation of a mussar-based program in a Jewish community high school. Particular attention is given to questions raised by the introduction of this program into a pluralistic school setting. Implications are discussed in terms of the broader goals of Jewish education.
The implementation of a mussar-based initiative at a Jewish community high school surfaces questions about universalism and particularism, the hierarchical structure of schools, and the challenges of implementing character education in content-oriented classrooms. At the same time, this article describes one mussar-based initiative implemented in one Jewish day school. As such, the goal the is not to prove some set of generalizable outcomes (such as claiming that mussar interventions “work”) but rather to use the current data as a springboard for asking questions and exploring ideas that can be applied to mussar interventions in other contexts, those similar to Gann and those different. Given the context dependency of school-based initiatives, we might wonder about the way a mussar based program might play out in a denominational school, or a congregational school, or a camp. Further, we can wonder about developmental issues: Are certain middot particularly relevant and/or malleable to change at different ages? Further research can shed light on questions such as these.
Though limited in its generalizability, this study supports past work about the possibility and potential of bringing mussar into Jewish education. One notable aspect of mussar is that embedded within it are both values underlying character (middot) as well as behavior-change methodologies for working toward these character values (e.g., Vaad meetings, kabbalot). Secular social-emotional learning and character education approaches are sometimes critiqued for lacking one or another of these. Further, mussar’s emphases and structures, filtered through contemporary sensibilities, were clearly relevant to participants, who describes its impact on their behavior. Here too, though, we acknowledge limitations of this study in relying on self-report about short-term gains. Future research can include other methods such as behavioral observation and following students over time.