Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Confessions of a Third Grade Tefilla Teacher

The following post was submitted anonymously. Care to share, agree or disagree?

The way I see it, there are two sides to our dilemma on Tfillah. Them and me.

THEM: Do children in third grade know what they are saying when they daven? Should they know the meaning of what they are saying? When kids (or anyone) read words that are unfamiliar and hard to understand, it can help turn something potentially meaningful into something meaningless.

Secondly, I think the fact that the children say the tfillah with the same brachas and the same songs each day can get very old and boring for them. On Rosh Chodesh actually, I always find that there is some excitement and more participation, as we say Hallel- a tfillah which is not recited every day.

Finally, let’s consider the developmental aspect of it all. How much can an 8/9 year old truly grasp when it comes to the whole concept of tfillah?

ME: In my years teaching and parenting, there is one thing that has become very clear. You’re excited, they’re excited. You’re bored or uninterested? They sense it in an instant, and they turn bored and uninterested as well. I have to be honest; I always found it very hard to connect with the tfillah. My personal feelings towards tfillah undoubtedly spill over into the class. And my brilliant students sense it, that I’m sure.

I always dread the parts of the day where I have to ask the children to do an activity or go to a specialty I am sure they do not enjoy and are not interested in. I always find that the disciplinarian in me becomes stronger as I almost force certain children to a dreaded music class or Hebrew grammar group. This is the way I feel sometimes about tfillah. At 8:30 every morning we must daven. We have no choice. Making the children do something they do not want to do is never fun.

Lastly, (it is confession time) The first half hour of the day I want to be preparing for class. My mind is very often on our lessons for that day. I would love the extra prep time like the English teachers have. While I know that tfillah is part of my job and essentially part of what I ‘teach,’ I am still struggling with making it feel as part of my curriculum as opposed to a separate entity.

WHAT I’VE TRIED: My most successful ‘trick’ in getting the children more “into” tfillah is what I like to call the “color war captain” method. When I stand on my chair and punch my fist, when I cheer them on and tell them that their tfillot sound beautiful, it can create this energy in the room that is infectious. My class has been known to do the “bang-bang-clap” to aleynu. I’m into it, they’re into it… The problem with this is that it is extremely draining for me. And by the time 9:00 rolls around I’m exhausted.

In third grade one can always fall back on bribery. Charts, stickers, checks, homework passes etc. I have always had mixed feelings about bribing children to daven. Maybe at such a young age where the concept of tfillah is a hard one to grasp it’s ok?

Finally, we began a program called “tfillah-minute” in school a couple of years ago. After davening each day the children sat down, and for one minute, we spoke about a certain aspect of tfillah: the meaning of a bracha, the reason for saying a bracha etc. It was an organized and systematic program where we focused on one part of tfillah at a time. I had success with this in my class for one year. The next year was not as successful because of the nature of the group.

While I think I understand the issues, and have come up with a few solutions, I have not been able to nip this in the bud completely. How do I become more into it? How do I get my students to become more into tfillah?

A Call for Inspirational Teachers

Abraham Joshua Heschel asked, "Who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of the soul?"

Any suggestions for names of people who excel at this craft?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

In Shul to Talk or to Pray?

I am travelling and spent this past Shabbat at a synagogue that shall remain anonymous (to protect the names of the guilty/innocent). The room was mostly full during what is called the 'main minyan' Shabbat morning. I had the following curious thought:

If you gathered 300 people together for the sole purpose of socializing over a two hour time period - do you think that people would spontaneously breakout into prayer? The reverse of this happened in a not so surprising fashion this Shabbat.

Rather than focus on the issue of praytalk, I'd like to focus on the challenge of matching up one's expectations for a spiritual connection with the subjectivity of place and time. How can we get the most the most out of our time in a tefilla? Let's explore some options this week, but first, a reader of the blog submitted this piece from Yedidya Meir, originally published in Haaretz 15 November 2007.

Run for your life
By Yedidya Meir

One of the remarks a religiously observant person hears most in his life is "Let me tell you what bugs me most about religion ..." Usually the speaker begins by praising Judaism and its ways: "Listen, Judaism has really beautiful things to offer. The shiva [week-long mourning period], for example, is utterly enthralling." Then comes the bit that irritates them. For example, this unnecessary prohibition on traveling on Shabbat. Why? Who needs it? Or all this gobbledygook about "fruits of the sea." A complete nonstarter.

I have a great many responses, believe me, but sometimes I too get the urge to say what bugs me most about religion. It happens almost every day. You are standing and reciting a prayer that is important to you, that speaks to you and which you had planned to recite with total intentionality - and suddenly it's over. You felt nothing. That is, you were definitely concentrating, but on completely different things: the kids, the bank account, why there is still no replacement for the Channel 2 news anchor.

A brief explanation is in order for those readers who by chance do not pray. In contrast to the Sukkot lulav (palm branch), the Shabbat candles or the tefillin (phylacteries), prayer itself is a non-physical commandment. It is difficult and challenging spiritual work. For the greatest rabbis and for righteous people, those for whom prayer is a way of life, it may be easy, but for a rank-and-file Jew, it is very hard to recharge the prayer with new meaning each time. But that is exactly what the person is required to do. Someone once wrote that good prayer should be like a train journey: the landscape doesn't change, yet at every moment you see it from a different vantage point. So it is in prayer: The text is the same text, but a person journeys all his life, he does not stand in one place, and on each occasion he is meant to experience the prayer from the inner point he has reached.

That's the theory; now for the reality. I come to the synagogue on Shabbat morning, recite "Nishmat kol hai" ("The breath of every living being") - one of the most meaningful prayers - but feel nothing. And then, on Monday evening, while on the treadmill at home, clad in shorts and an undershirt, at the third kilometer, I hear via the iPod the song "Nishmat kol hai" - the same words - sung by Shlomo Carlebach, and am suddenly seized by tremendous excitement and potent intentionality: "The breath of every living being shall bless thy name, O Lord our God, and the spirit of all flesh shall ever glorify and extol thee, O our King. From everlasting to everlasting thou art God. But for thee we have no King, Deliverer and Savior to rescue, redeem and give sustenance and to show mercy in all times of trouble and distress; yea, we have no Sovereign but thee".

And the Jew goes nuts. Why? Because on Shabbat, when this prayer is part of the service, I wanted it so much, I absolutely craved it, but it just didn't happen. And now, of all times, on a treadmill in shorts - suddenly it comes? That, people, is the most annoying thing about religion.

According to a sample poll I conducted, I am not alone. Other observant Jews also find it easier to connect with God while cooking, driving, shopping, even while doing the dishes, with Jewish music in the background. For just that reason I recently decided to change my approach: When the Shabbat morning prayer arrives as you're running on the treadmill Monday evening, just to flow with it. If not on Shabbat, let it at least be on Monday. Athletic prayer is fine, too.

And then, after the song ends, after the thrill of the words "Therefore, the limbs which thou has fashioned for us, and the soul which thou hast breathed into us, and the tongue which thou hast set in our mouth, lo, they shall thank, bless, exalt and revere thee. They shall proclaim thy sovereignty, O our King" - I wipe off the sweat with a towel, tuck the undershirt into the shorts - for dignity's sake - and say in my heart:

"May it be thy will that this treadmill be as important to thee as though it were my seat in the synagogue, and this iPod as though it were a prayer book, and this towel that is wrapped around my neck as though it were a tallit, and may the thrill I felt in this song be as important to thee as though it were a prayer at its time and its place."

And then I go on running.


Let me know your most surprising locale for positive tefilla experience!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Guest Post: What Jewish Practice has been most responsible for Jewish Continuity?

The More You Know About Its Past, The More You Want To Be A Part Of Its Future

Query-What Jewish practice has been most responsible for Judaism surviving two thousand years of Diaspora and persecution? Undeniably, it is the synagogue. The requirement that a quorum of ten be present before performing rituals such as the Torah Reading and the recital of Kaddish has by default caused Jews to live within close proximity of each other and to a synagogue. The synagogue then became where families developed their social circles-where
husbands found wives and children found playmates.

Today the synagogue competes with other activities that lead to social relationships. Nevertheless, many Jews, among them the Orthodox, still view the synagogue as the center of their social network. How do we impress upon all young Jewish men and women that the synagogue can and should be viewed as the place from where their social circle can sprout, particularly in the years when they attend college and beyond? An argument will be made here that a course of study centered on the synagogue service taught the year before boys reach Bar-Mitzvah age and girls reach Bat-Mitzvah age can create such a view of the synagogue.

We expect our Bar-Mitzvah boys and Bat-Mitzvah girls to read from the Torah and to chant the Haftorah. Some also prepare to lead the services. Does anyone teach them why we read from the Torah each Shabbat? Why people are called to the Torah? The meaning of the Brachot that are recited both before and after a person is called to the Torah? Why four Brachot are recited after reading the Haftorah? The function of the prayer leader? Why we need a quorum of ten before reading from the Torah and before reciting Kaddish?

In the last one hundred years, our knowledge of the history of the synagogue and the synagogue service, particularly the development of the Jewish prayerbook, has grown substantially due to the research undertaken by university professors in Israel and elsewhere. We are now in a position to relay to our students the Jewish history that lies buried within the Jewish prayer book. Here are several examples:
  • That the practice to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish did not develop until after the First Crusades. It was instituted to afford minor boys an opportunity to gain merit for their deceased parents because the avenue open to adults, leading the services, was closed to minors because minors lacked the legal capacity to lead the prayer services.
  • That the Bracha we recite before lighting Shabbat candles was composed during the period of the Geonim (700 to 1100 CE) as a response to the theology of the Karaites who opined that a person may not benefit from a fire during the Sabbath even if the fire had been lit prior to the Sabbath.
  • That the Kabbalists in Safed initiated Kabbalat Shabbat and composed Lecha Dodi in the late 1500’s as one means of hastening the coming of the Messiah whom they believed was waiting, ready to appear, if the Jewish People were worthy, beginning in 1492, the year in which the Jews were expelled from Spain.
  • That many prayer books provide an instruction to read the first verse of Kriyat Shema out loud because in so many periods of Jewish history, the enemies of the Jewish People prohibited the Jews from reciting Kriyat Shema, the Jewish Pledge of Allegiance.
  • That the Ten Commandments were removed from the Jewish Prayer Book out of concern that Christians would argue that the practice of reciting the Ten Commandments each day bolstered their theological belief that after the death of Jesus, the only part of the Five Books of Moses that needed to be observed was the Ten Commandments.
  • That fear of Christian reprisal may have caused Ashkenazic Jews to stop the Kohanim from reciting the Priestly Blessings before the congregation each day. They were concerned that the Christians would be offended by the Kohanim asking G-d to favor the Jews (the word “Yisa” in the third verse of the Priestly Blessings). Sephardic Jews continued the practice because their neighbors, the Muslims, did not exhibit any animosity towards what was being recited in the Priestly Blessings.
The above events are not the only historical circumstances that influenced the synagogue service. Each generation left a major imprint on the Jewish Prayer book. Jewish educators need to fight against the foregone conclusion that the day a boy or girl becomes “of Mitzvah” is often the last time that the boy or girl ever visits a synagogue. Perhaps, by exposing the students to what the synagogue has meant to the Jewish People over the centuries and how Jewish history influenced the Jewish Prayer book, schools can cause the students to store that information on their “C” drives rather than on their thumbdrives so that they may retrieve it sooner rather than later.

In an age when social relationships are becoming more and more dependent on modern technology, it is incumbent upon parents and schools to proudly tout how successful the ancient forms of social networking have been for the Jewish People. The synagogue the more you know about its past, the more you want to be a part of its future.

Abe Katz is the Founding Director of The Beurei Hatefila Institute, a non-profit organization established to encourage the study of the Jewish Prayer Book and synagogue service in Jewish schools. Eight years ago, in an effort to assist schools in developing courses on the history of Jewish Prayer, Abe launched a weekly e-mail newsletter in which he has been tracing the origin of the words and the structure of the Jewish Prayer Book. The newsletters and other supplementary material on the history of Jewish Prayer and synagogue service are available at the Beurei Hatefila Institute website: This was posted with permission of the author.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Groupthink and Group Prayer

I came across a recommended article on - ripped from the NY Times headlines. This posting on the August 9th Arts Beat Blog by Patricia Cohen, Thinking Cap: Preventing Groupthink ( cited a presentation by YU Psychology Professor Elieze Schnall and student Michael Greenberg at the APA convention on the title "Irving Janis' Groupthink and the Sanhedrin of Ancient Israel". The idea of a groupthink theory "describes how a tight-knit, smart and well-informed group can suppress dissent and make disastrous decisions because of the pressure to agree."

I found this article blog worthy for two reasons. The first reason was that I like its statement on a meta-cognitive level. At the end, Cohen asked her readers to share their opinion of the author's argument; I think this serves as a model for developing a rich conversation (and just good pedagogy).

The second aspect was something not mentioned in the article. It is significant that despite the social hierarchy that may have prevented groupthink, the rabbis of the Sanhedrin still davened together even though they argued and disagreed voraciously about their cases. Cohen explores the angles of groupthink and the negative consequences of discouraging dissent. However, how can you build a community of daveners when there are different styles, interests and approaches? In the movement to make school tefilla more meaningful, educators must create a dynamic among the students and staff that allows for vibrant expressions at various different points of the service, knowing that participation will rarely be maintained at a level of 100%.

One last final point. If the metaphor from the Arts Beat Blog is about the Sanhedrin, then let's take it for a holistic analysis: Mr. Schnall writes, and “disciples watched court proceedings and were generally allowed to volunteer their opinions.” Our children are watching in synagogue how the rabbis and adults behave - what are they learning? How are they participating?

I leave this unsaid to create a space for a conversation.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Summer Time

We all know the old adage about the three best reasons to be a teacher: June, July and August.

Indeed summer vacation is surely one of the most special aspects of the teacher's work cycle. The summer off provides time to recharge one's batteries, learn and prepare new material, and strategize for institutional and classroom improvements - in short, it is time to reflect.

But isn't that what tefilla is all about? It is a time to reflect on the past, present and future and to verbalize our needs and wants and to change what we may not like about our situation. The same could also be said about Shabbat - having a day separate from the work week to pause from the hustle and bustle and to re-calibrate one's needs and focus. No wonder the concept of a professional sabbatical exists! Reflection is indeed a uniquely human disposition.

My thought for today is this - perhaps our davening should evoke the same emotions and mind set that each of has about summer vacation, by this I mean that tefilla presents for us an opportunity to reflect expansively about new approaches to difficult situations. Using the formula and rituals of the siddur, I can drift away from the hectic schedule of the school and meditate on my purpose and being.

Further to this point, davening at summer camps and other informal educational environments has a more natural feeling than it does in many schools. Summer is awesome! How can we make tefilla in our schools awesome? How can we bring the spirit of the summer into the classroom shul? Let's explore ideas on how to make such steps.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Impact of Tearful Prayers

Here is a link from Ideals ( from Rabbi Simcha Cohen:

What prayers do we say today that bring out the tears?