This blog is intended to feature community members and leaders doing great work with the concepts from Changing the World from the Inside Out. Read on to get a sense of the ways in which these concepts come alive in community!
Here, we get the chance to learn from Elizabeth Aeschlimann, Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life and Assistant Director for the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Vassar College.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work you’re doing with Changing the World from the Inside Out at Vassar?
With David’s support, I taught a 6-week course based on some of the main ideas of the book. It’s been a really wonderful experience in creating a space for students to be vulnerable and really connect around their experiences of trying to do good work in the world.
This is also the 3rd year we did a Jewishness and Race Shabbaton. I pulled together material from the book and other places and led a session where I asked students to think about what gets in the way for them when they’re doing racial justice work or they’re in a hard conversation. Based on what they identified, they looked at a text and an idea from Mussar and engaged with a practice as a kind of middah or antidote.
What did class meetings look like?
I taught lessons every week based on the book […] We started off by connecting about how people’s practice had been over the past week, and the concept or theme of the past week, and then went onto the new topic. We did some text learning together, and then engaged the topic with a more creative, embodied, interactive activity. Between classes the students met in chevruta to share how their practice had been going and what they were thinking about.
Were there particular themes that resonated with the students?
I think students got a lot out of finding good points. Self-criticism and shame came up often throughout the course. So when we looked at good points it was just a radically different interpretation than what we’re normally taught in society about how to relate to ourselves and others, and to social justice. Even the idea that the yetzer hara is a neutral force that needs to be balanced or channeled is profoundly different from the black/white good/bad dichotomy that so much of the world pushes us toward. So it seems simple but I think that’s been very meaningful.
Humility also really resonated with students. On a campus like Vassar’s, where there’s a lot of thinking about privilege and oppression, people spend a lot of time thinking about how much space they take up, but not necessarily practicing how to find a balance or take up space in different ways in different contexts. I think it felt really powerful for a lot of students, especially who are quieter or who said they tend to make themselves smaller, to see speaking and taking up space as an aspect of humility.
What is the most exciting part of bringing this material to college students?
I think many students were drawn to the class because there aren’t that many opportunities for intentional spiritual and personal development on campus, especially for students who don’t affiliate strongly with a religion. It was really powerful to go along through each topic, each lesson, with students and to be pushed to get into practice again myself. I learned so much from their responses and thoughts about Mussar, but also from engaging with it again on my own.
I was also proud of a few of the activities I came up with for how to explore the concepts in embodied ways, like the anavah (humility) circles on the floor (in the picture above). I asked students to step into circles that said “too small,” “too big,” and “anavah,” and experience in their bodies what it felt like to take up too much space, and then to take up too little space, and then to feel balance, what it feels like to feel just right. It brought up some really deep reflections.
The other thing I’m thinking about is just how to bring these practices to the activist community more broadly on campus. I don’t know what direction it will take yet, but I’m excited to see what it could look like.
Is there one piece of wisdom or one teaching that you find to be most salient from Changing the World from the Inside Out?
In the final class, when we were synthesizing all of what we’d done, I had the students draw a concept map that included the central idea of each of our sessions, which corresponded to different chapters in the book. I immediately drew a tree, with the word “balance” at the trunk and “yearning for good” in the branches. Everything kind of fit into those two very basic frameworks. It was a new realization for me about how I understand what’s at the heart of Mussar.
I love that Mussar is not only a concept but a way of practicing, of actually moving toward a different approach.