Last year, Valley Beit Midrash (VBM) launched its Teen Mussar Fellowship Program. VBM selected 10 outstanding teens in the community for a course of eight workshops focused on Jewish character development (mussar). The workshops began in fall 2016, and the fellows received a $500 stipend for completing the program.
Rachel Pressman was part of that first Teen Mussar Fellowship cohort. Here, she explains what she learned and what the experience has meant to her.
Last year, when Rabbi Joseph Telushkin gave a lecture to the Phoenix Jewish community, he said something that resonated deeply within me. He said, “It is important to know your faults, but it is even more important to know your strengths so that you may overcome your faults.”
This last year was a rollercoaster of emotions. From taking the SAT, to the presidential election, to prom, and more, my junior year of high school was certainly a challenge. Through it all, however, the Jewish concepts of mussar — Jewish character development — anchored me.
Last summer, I was accepted to Valley Beit Midrash’s first-ever Teen Mussar Fellowship. I didn’t know what to expect. But as I’ve always been interested in enhancing the quality of my life experiences any way I could, I wanted to develop an understanding of the principles of mussar and how they might affect my life in a positive way. I know what my flaws are, so learning about mussar seemed to be a positive way to learn how to build my character.
On my original Mussar Teen application, I noted that I’ve always struggled with patience. I also knew, to quote a cliche, that “patience is a virtue.” Since I was not naturally blessed with the virtue of patience, I knew that this was one trait that I needed mussar for in order to develop it more clearly. What I learned is that patience and understanding go hand in hand in life, so for me to be a more understanding person, I had to first work on patience.
Our monthly sessions were the one place I knew I could share my feelings in an open, mature way. At every meeting, we told our peers what was new in our lives since the last meeting, with each of us giving our complete attention to the others as they spoke. It was amazing and enlightening to be able to say something and know that everyone in the room was genuinely listening.
When I look back on what I did with the fellowship, I learned a lot about self-reflection. I could see the progression of me developing my patience. Most of what we learned would have been for naught if we, the fellows, did not look inward and allow ourselves to admit our flaws publicly. I can’t speak for everyone when I say this, but admitting that I have flaws and working on diminishing them was not the easiest task. But it was the task that brought me closer to developing the positive parts of myself.
Being positive is something everyone is capable of, but most of the time people resort to negativity. Teen Mussar allowed me to see that being positive in any situation goes a long way to turning these feelings around, or, at least, provides a different outlet for me to channel my emotions in a healthy way.
Through this fellowship, I also gained a wealth of knowledge about the good traits I already have.
I think, most importantly, Teen Mussar taught me about taking care of myself. In the future, when life gets more complex as I prepare for my college career, I know it will be difficult to find moments of peace and quiet. But using all the mussar skills I learned will certainly equip me well for the journey ahead. I left the Teen Mussar Fellowship with arsenal of knowledge concerning the good traits, the bad traits and the traits I am working on.
Being a part of this innovative program was a fantastic learning experience; I am thankful for the skills I’ve acquired. Teen Mussar made me a more complete and well-rounded person. Thank you to Valley Beit Midrash for a wonderful, engaging and sincere year of learning. Thank you to my fellow fellows! I will always be grateful for this experience. JN
Rachel Pressman is a senior at Horizon High School and a member of Congregation Or Tzion.