Rabbi Sam Frankel, an experienced family therapist, social worker and yeshiva school teacher, puts down a placard that says “Live in the moment” on my desk at The Jewish Link office as we begin our interview. “I like to bring this with me,” he says with a smile. “It reminds me to stay present.”
This concise, seemingly simple motto actually is the basis of the theory that Rabbi Frankel follows, as part of a mental health philosophy that was initially developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s, and in the years since practiced and developed further by many others: mindfulness. Frankel defines this term as “being able to pay attention in a certain way, in the moment, with focus, and without judgment.” He explains how training one’s mind to live in the moment can bring tremendous clarity and mental health. “Normally, your brain is flowing! You’re thinking about your next appointment, about what happened yesterday. If you can train it to stay constantly in the now—mental health lives there.”
Frankel stumbled upon the concept after the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks, when he started seeing children as young as 6 or 7 exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. They had witnessed footage of the crashes on TV, and the images were playing on a loop in their heads, causing night terrors and depression. “They (were) stuck in the past,” said Frankel. “I thought, if only I could help them be able to get back into the present.”
Through drawing and play therapy, Frankel developed techniques to help these children focus on their surroundings. He took them to his backyard, showing them planes flying over Teaneck, so they could watch them go by safely. “As they started getting more present, the symptoms went away,” Frankel said. “That’s when I realized, maybe I can adapt this principle to my practice. Teaching people how to be present, living in the moment... Anxiety comes from worrying about the future. Depression comes from worrying about the past. Health lives in the now. So I’ve been bringing it into my practice since then, with great results.”
Frankel’s next mission and “current passion” is to bring mindfulness into yeshiva schools. In addition to his family therapy practice and worldwide seminars, Frankel has been involved with the yeshiva school system for more than two decades, as the dean of students at Yavneh in charge of discipline, and a long-time teacher of middle school children.
Frankel describes the particular importance of mindfulness for these students, who are growing up in a generation of technological explosion. “I’m not against technology. I think it’s great. But it’s got a lot of downsides. Technology pushes your brain to bounce around all over the place—and it doesn’t teach you the ability to be able to deal with it. I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and the amount that I’m able to cover now compared to when I started has gone down tremendously. Kids’ attention spans are shot!”
Frankel has seen great results after implementing his techniques in the classroom. “Mindfulness is the antidote to technology,” Frankel says. “Teachers report that in classrooms where mindfulness is part of their curriculum, they are able to devote more time to quality education, while spending less time on discipline and managing disruptive behaviors.”
One mindfulness lesson that Frankel emphasizes is the distinction between reacting and responding. The former is a knee-jerk instinct, where as the latter is a thought-out, active decision. “A response takes two Ts—time and thought. You respond differently than you would have reacted. You make better choices, as you become more mindful. You tend to think of others.” He has found that training children in mindfulness helps them build focus and empathy, minimizing bullying and other behavioral problems.
In addition to being a hot topic in the mental health field, mindfulness is a highly Jewish value and theme. Frankel plans to introduce it to children in that way. “Most people, with mindfulness, introduce it as Buddhist. Because Buddha was into meditation—deep reflection, concentration and thought. But so are we, as Jews!” Frankel explains how davening is “Jewish meditation,” a time to focus entirely on the present, introspect and reflect on your spiritual self. He has spoken to students about mindfulness in tefilla.
Frankel also spoke about how the “Mesorah embraces mindfulness.” One example is that “mindful eating,” a dieting strategy in the nutrition world, is already built into our Jewish rituals. “We don’t just eat. What do we do before we put something into our mouths? We remember, am I meat, or dairy. We have to think. And then we stop for a moment, make a Bracha, and focus on what we are doing.”
Mindfulness is also apparent in the Jewish value of caring for others: “V’ahavta l’reacha kamocha. Chesed, compassion. You’re looking around at other people, taking their needs into account. That’s being mindful,” Frankel says. “Everywhere we go as a Jew, we are forced to be in the moment. Constantly looking around and being aware of the present.”
Frankel believes that there is a lot of mindfulness in the classroom already. He hopes to be able to educate administrators, teachers and students to be aware of it, to reinforce what is already there and to add to what is not. “Teachers can be trained on how to be able to integrate mindfulness into the classroom, point it out when a kid is being thoughtful: “Wow, did you see what Chaim just did? That was such a mindful thing to do!” He also believes that short periods of quiet time for kids to focus on their breathing and practice concentration can have a tremendous effect on the classroom dynamic.
Frankel asks that schools, and anyone else interested, reach out to him. “My next step is to start meeting with people in schools. I’m hoping that this article will stimulate interest out there, so principals and other people will get in touch, and I can start doing the trainings,” he said. He affirms, “It is my wish for our great community to start working with our children to plant the seed of mindfulness in them. If we do, we will see the payback for a long time to come.”
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at [email protected]
By Rachel Retter
Rachel Retter is a third-year intern and contributor to The Jewish Link. She is a rising sophomore at Stern College for Women.