Spirituality encompasses wonderment, awe, caring and kindness, yet many adults have a hard time finding a spiritual path. Ester Leutenberg and Deborah Schein, Ph.D. have written a book that gives adults a road map to finding their own spirituality and directions on teaching spirituality to children. The book, “Nurturing Spiritual Development in Children by Understanding Our Own Spirituality,” will be available in January.
“I was 55 before I knew or felt what it was like to really feel spiritual,” says Leutenberg, who will turn 80 in November. Unfortunately, her spiritual path began with tragedy when her son, Mitchell, succumbed to suicide in 1986. Since that time, Leutenberg and her husband, Jay, who have been married for 62 years, have honored their son by working as mental health advocates. She has collaborated with mental health professionals to coauthor more than 100 books that deal with the basics of life management skills. “I have been writing books in an effort to make sense of Mitchell’s suffering by helping others,” she says.
Mitchell, diagnosed with clinical depression, first attempted to take his life in 1978 at age 22. Leutenberg says at that time she knew nothing about mental illness, and for the next eight years read everything she could, attended classes and went to psychologists and therapists to learn how to help her son. Mitchell asked her and Jay to promise not to discuss his mental illness with anyone, not even his three sisters. He was concerned that even though he was able to run a business and volunteer at their synagogue in Cleveland, people wouldn’t accept or understand his mental illness. (Leutenberg and her husband now live in Oro Valley.)
“I promised not to tell, but after Mitchell died, I told the world,” says Leutenberg. “Once I started writing books I got letters from mothers all over the world.” She believes that Mitchell would not be angry with her for telling his story, and would be proud of what she has accomplished. The new book focuses on how spirituality enhances people’s lives beyond just managing everyday living.
Schein, a specialist in the philosophy of early childhood education, develops custom programs, workshops and talks, and writes articles to help teachers and parents nurture spiritual development in young children. She and her husband, Rabbi Jeffrey Schein, now live in Minneapolis, but lived in Cleveland for many years, where Jeffrey was the founding rabbi of a Reconstructionsist synaoguge, Kol Halev. The Leutenbergs were members.
Teaching 3- to 5-year-old children in an inner city school in Cleveland, Schein realized that something vital was missing from early childhood education. At age 56 she started a doctoral program, focusing on spirituality in children. She says that all children are born with what Maria Montessori, a prominent educator, described as the child’s “spiritual embryo” or “vital force” that influences each child’s growth, independence and a desire to learn. Nurturing a child’s innate spirituality, Schein says, helps them learn the concepts of love, caring, kindness and reverence, enabling the child to better develop values, culture and social responsibility.
“There is no age limit to spirituality or learning to be a spiritual person,” says Schein, explaining that many adults have trouble understanding the concept of spirituality because they only associate it with religion or some complicated mystical practice.
The book is set up as a workbook and includes sections for readers to write thoughts and feelings and answer questions posed in the book.
It starts with a series of definitions, stating that spiritual development involves experiencing love, deep connections and strong relationships. It is being touched by moments of wonderment, awe, joy and inner peace, and is cultivated by gratitude, love and kindness and by having tolerance and empathy toward other cultures. It requires learning to balance “the heart, body and mind in response to everyday encounters.”
To many people this might sound complicated, but Leutenberg and Schein say there are simple ways to incorporate spirituality in your life. Book chapters include spiritual moments, caregiver love, self-awareness, mindfulness and mindsight, disposition, wonderment, kindness, imagination, openness and acceptance, gratitude, and breath and presence. “We cannot pass along spirituality to children if we don’t feel it ourselves,” says Leutenberg.
Acts of kindness require noticing what is happening with other people, says Leutenberg. She cites an example of thanking a grocery store clerk even though the clerk was grumpy or snippy to you. One time, as she greeted people coming into the synagogue, saying “Good Shabbos,” and asking “How are you?” one man responded gratefully to her greeting, saying that no one else had said anything nice to him in the past week.
“Wonderment feeds the spirit when seen through a positive lens,” says Schein. “Children as young as 2 and 3 years old can know to act kindly. There is no need to be a bully.” Nature, she says, is a great way to experience wonderment for adults and children. Just taking a walk and noticing and appreciating what nature has to offer can be a spiritual experience. She also recommends not only reaching out to others with acts of kindness, but doing something special for yourself.
Although the book does not mention religion, both authors say that being Jewish provides opportunities to experience spirituality. Schein says children have “absorbent minds” starting at birth and are influenced by what happens around them. This includes hearing blessings recited, listening to Jewish music, smelling special foods, cooking and seeing a mezuzah or other Jewish symbols. The High Holy Days are a time of spiritual renewal, but Rabbi Schein says “sometimes the prayers and liturgy of the services sail right over us.” He recommends using the book to help people (not just Jews) get more out of religious services.
“There is a spirit of togetherness when we go to synagogue, whether sharing celebratory moments or sad occasions,” says Leutenberg. “There is something in the air, something about prayers that we have said since childhood, and something about being interconnected with other people and their life cycle events and their feelings.” These things, she adds, can be experienced in any religion.
Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.