It was a day of kindness and empathy at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford last Friday.
Or more accurately, it was “Yom Kindness and Empathy,” to use the blended Hebrew and English title the school coined for the occasion.
For it students, who range from age 3 through middle school, the day offered a break from the usual academic rigors, with a variety of age-appropriate activities.
It’s not that kindness and empathy ordinarily are lacking in the school. But last year, the school decided to emphasize five character strengths and virtues — selected by parents, faculty, and school leaders from a list of 28 as identified by psychologists Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman in their work on positive psychology.
“Our long-term goal is that those character strengths will be embedded in the curriculum, whether we’re talking about the weekly Torah portion or social studies,” Dr. Ilana Kustanowitz, the school’s psychologist said. “But that’s a process. We did not want to wait for that curricular change to happen.”
Meanwhile, there was Yom Kindness and Empathy, and the other “specific days that really focus on and promote these character strengths so they become part of the vernacular of the students.”
The other three traits are gratitude, curiosity, and perseverance. Yom Gratitude and Yom Curiosity were observed in in October and February; Yom Perseverance is scheduled for later this year.
Kindness and empathy were grouped together because “they’re very connected,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. “When you have empathy toward another person you’re more likely to respond with kindness.”
The day began with the eighth graders carpooling to school early, in order to greet the younger students with warmth and paper flowers.
“It was a really kind and beautiful way to start the day,” she said.
The day at Schechter begins with Shacharit prayer services; on Yom Kindness and Empathy, a student gave a d’var Torah connecting the prayers or the weekly Torah portion to kindness.
For the younger grades, guests came in to the classrooms to read appropriate storybooks.
“We had our security guard and a police officer read,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. “We thought they would be amazing ambassadors for kindness and empathy.”
In a project that embodied the motto of writer Anne Herbert to “practice random kindness and senseless beauty,” students wrote short, kind, encouraging messages on post-it notes and placed them on random pages of books in the school library.
“The hope is that in the future, when someone picks up the book, they will come across the kindness,” Alexandra Tal, the school’s social worker, said.
Students were also asked to think about kind wishes for one of their classmates — and these then were forwarded to Jerusalem to be placed in cracks in the Western Wall.
More global still, students learned how to make origami and took part in the Peace Crane Project, which invites “every student on the planet to fold an origami crane, write a message of peace on its wings, then exchange it with another student somewhere in the world,” according to its website.
They also wrote kind expressions (or drew pictures, for the younger, less literate students) on magnets, which were placed on door frames throughout the school building.
The day also featured a basketball game between the eighth graders and faculty members — whose kindness did not, in fact, extend to letting their generally shorter opponents win the game.
The students learned about empathy with help from a “silent DJ” who brought a set of headphones for each student, and programmed three channels of music: One was contemporary Israeli pop music; one was Israeli a capella; and one was classical music played by Israeli musicians.
The students danced to the music on the channels that they selected. Amid the resulting fun, a lesson was being taught: Just as they didn’t know what music their friends were hearing on their headphones and dancing to, “We don’t know what the other person’s experience is,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. “We don’t know what’s in their head.”
Leading up to Yom Kindness and Empathy, Dr. Kustanowitz and Ms. Tal used their weekly meetings with the lower school grades to talk about the principles “so it doesn’t seem like a one-hit wonder,” Dr. Kustanowitz said.
And apparently it wasn’t. On the Monday after the special day, Dr. Kustanowitz was talking with first graders about strategies for resolving social conflicts.
“One of the kids said, ‘It’s really important to have empathy and understanding of what someone else is feeling’ and they brought up the silent DJ. At that moment I felt fulfilled. It was clear the first grader understood the connection between the silent DJ and empathy and applied it three days later.”