Redefining the Meaning of Spirituality

When I speak around the country, people often ask, are religion and spirituality the same? I want to give meaning to spirituality and how it can guide our practices in early childhood without entering into the realm of specific religious values. Redefining the Meaning of Spirituality

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Let me begin by defining what spirituality means to me. I grew up as a Jew in Guadalajara, Mexico. My maternal grandparents immigrated from Russia during the Bolshevik revolution. As immigrants to a new country, they assimilated into the culture while maintaining their religious and cultural values. As a child, I lived multiple realities rooted in my Jewish education, the deep culture and folklore of Mexico, and my mother’s family’s values. My mother converted to Judaism (never to be mentioned – a family secret) and introduced secular Christmas and Easter to us. Within my upbringing, I learned that spirituality was not necessarily religious but a way of being in a relationship with others. Spirituality gave me a sense of peace and purpose. It allowed me to connect to different people and to listen to and respect diverse perspectives. 

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Judaism has been present in my life in various ways. I have found refuge and community in Jewish congregations and built strong friendships. However, religious dogma has also made me run away. Spiritual leaders often guide the doctrine, and in my experience, they usually take on a righteous attitude that removes them from being in contact with their humanity. Every time I experienced the self-righteousness of religion, it made me connect with my spirituality, which is now an essential part of who I am. 

That is why I find a difference between spirituality and religion. Religion dictates what we must believe. It creates a distance and separation. Spirituality brings people together as we honor the many different ways of being in the world.​​. Spirituality and religion can exist together as long as people place respect and humanity at the forefront and we intentionally reflect on the self-righteousness dictated by religion.

I embrace two concepts of Judaism that connect me to spirituality. Tikun Olam (healing the world) and mitzvot (doing good deeds). In all my work, I question how my practices heal the world and how I can do good deeds to help others. I find these principles in nature and in the relationships I have forged in my life. I embrace the humanistic perspective of Judaism because it places value on what is most important in my life, people. I recently had the honor of being the scholar of record at the Early Childhood Education Reform Judaism conference. As I met many educators and listened to their stories, I reconnected with my spirituality. I grew in my spirituality when I heard Shira Klein lead us in song as a group each day because we shared in fellowship. When I listened to Susan Anderson’s music, I gave meaning to my doubts and feelings about who I am as a human being and a Jew. When I gathered in the community to say goodbye to the Sabbath, I cried for the memories of my childhood. In those moments, I found my roots as a spiritual Jew and found fellowship, peace, and purpose. 

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Let me now return to introducing spirituality into early childhood ecosystems. We must separate our religious beliefs from our spirituality. This separation may seem too much to ask, but when we dictate our religious beliefs, we may end up hurting children if they do not follow the same religious values. Instead, begin by honoring and respecting the children and families in the program. Value the unique perspectives, language, history, and traditions they share. Refrain from assuming that most people celebrate the holidays the way you do. Do not think you recognize Jewish children by asking them to celebrate Hanukkah and share a dreidel game. Children who do not celebrate in the way you expect will feel isolated. Refrain from exclusion or tokenism. Focus on how to bring in spirituality. Spirituality will guide your program to find commonalities that will build community and foster respect.

Nature is a place to start. Focus on the smell and taste of the season in the context of your ecosystem. Exploring the rhythms of time and how light and shadows move also inspires us. Be creative in bringing the outdoors inside—share the bounty of a harvest you planted together—make deep connections to our spiritual responsibility to sustain the living ecosystems we inhabit. Spirituality means embracing a sense of wonder that makes us curious enough about ourselves and others that we work to heal the world we inhabit. 

Focus on building relationships and community from an authentic and spiritual perspective. We are not all friends, but we can all build meaningful connections. Respect children’s unique ways of being in the world. Support their strengths and value their ideas. Feelings are real and not just emojis or feeling dolls. Acknowledge feelings as part of children’s spiritual way of being. Share meals anchored in playfulness and joy, and not just to teach about healthy habits. After all, what is healthier than joining in joyful moments?

Create communities guided by common spiritual values. What is meaningful to all of the people in the community? Have conversations with colleagues and families, and listen to children’s ideas and understandings. It takes courage and commitment to find and forge an authentic spiritual path. However, as educators, we foster and find a sense of joy in community. With the added focus on spirituality, we gain a stronger sense of peace and purpose.