Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Teaching Jewish Prayer/Tefilla

The goal of this blog is twofold:
  • To discuss pedagogical tactics and methods for evaluating tefilla in formal and informal settings.
  • To help Jewish educators share resources and dynamic ideas on the topic of tefilla . 
Here is a consolidated list of articles, classroom resources, word lists, lesson plans and activities, websites, and collaborative projects that surely helps achieve the above goals.  The list is organized by the Lookstein Center - proud host of this forum.  I strongly encourage you to check it out and share additional links.  

Is Hebrew the Obstacle?

A reader of this blog contacted me to share some tefilla news: the local rabbi of the major neighborhood shul arose on Shabbat a few weeks ago and addressed the issue of davening.  This rabbi diagnosed the problem primarily as one of frustration with the language barrier and suggested, since Gd understands English, that the congregation experiment with the vernacular in order to increase the meaning and spirit of the community's prayers.

I fear that language is not what is holding the masses, or even individuals, from greater enthusiasm in the realm of tefilla.  But maybe I am wrong.  Try it out.  Read the Shema - do you see/feel a possibility for transcendence?  I - and this is my personal belief - think that you have to try what works best for you.  For some people, English prayers might work best, but for me, it just seems awkward.  I am of the opinion that it is nice to have a special language in which to speak to Gd even though that same language is used to order food, yell at people, and even used in comic books (all in Israel).  It is nice to travel the world and to walk into a temple or synagogue and to have a mutually common way to pray, regardless of the language in which we speak at home.  Having a special and historic channel helps me in my spiritual yearning - but I know that this doesn't work for everyone.

Nonetheless, I think it is worth revisiting whether the revival of the Hebrew language has really led to a spiritual revival in the realm of prayer.  When I tried out the English tefilla, I realized (again) that the problem is that I don't easily meditate or have a sense of how to focus on the meaning behind the words.  I personally attended Hebrew School growing up, which I credit with teaching me how to be illiterate - give me the ability to read but not understand a word. If davening is like punching a ticket and one fulfills the obligation for tefilla by simply chanting words in a particular format then there is a clear method to evaluate what is being taught and practiced in our schools.  But aren't we looking to do something more in our tefilla?  I am happy that some rabbis are standing up and acknowledging that there is a problem within our shuls - but let's be serious about educating people on how to improve the situation.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Jewish Gospel Music

I will be attending in a few weeks the Limmud Conference in the UK – perhaps the most amazing event of Jewish learning and discovery in the English speaking world.  There is a good amount of buzz surrounding one performer there:  Josh Nelson – known as the Prince of Jewish Gospel blending Judaism and gospel music.  I wanted to share some samples of his work to see if you thought this approach or style had a place in your minyan or school? 

Adon Olam?

Mi Kamocha?

And finally, more of bio of the artist on the element of soul.

Please share your thoughts and reactions.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Asking for Help

I remember a few years ago, listening to Radio Kol Chai (a religious radio station in Israel) when I heard an advertisement for a new call-in program with the following appeal:  If you have a medical issue, surely you would call a doctor. If you have a legal issue you would consult with a lawyer and a tax issue, you would contact an accountant.  Why then with a moral or spiritual question, wouldn’t you consult a rabbi and mystic? 

In last week’s Torah reading Rivka was having a difficult pregnancy, as it states:
  וַיִּתְרצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרשׁ אֶת-ה.

And the children struggled within her, and she said, 
“If this is so, why am I such” and she went to inquire of Hashem. (Genesis 25:22).

I am not here to judge Rivka’s neonatal care (nor her parenting style after the delivery), rather I wanted to note that she, almost naturally, turns to prayer and in turn receives a prophecy.

Who can we turn to today for spiritual guidance and advice for our moral quandaries?  How can we teach our students to have the same care and humility to recognize the need for guidance in situations that seem beyond our control or comprehension?  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Praying Sitting or Standing

Does it matter?  Does sitting or standing while davening have an impact on your spiritual feeling?  Call it the calisthenics of tefilla if you will, but do I really raise my tefilla when I rise up?

For me, the issue of posture and prayer started back when I was younger and often heard the “please rise” and “you may be seated” conducted in the tefillot in my Hebrew School and at camp.  I once had a rabbi/teacher who explained the conceptual idea behind the Shmoneh Esrei prayer, called the “Amidah” or “standing”, as being titled such since it is said standing upright which he claimed was a uniquely human posture.  Thus standing erect in prayer before our Creator (and bowing) was a way to acknowledge our special position and connection to God.

Another controversial situation is whether it is proper to sit during the Torah reading in synagogue or stand up.  On this issue, the sitters have won out, but it seems that some sources support this position only out of sheer comfort and not as an ideal way to hear the public reading of the word of God.  In Jewish practice standing is a sign of respect and is done for a parent, teacher or rabbi.  When the Ten Commandments are read publically, people customarily stand up out of respect and as if to re-enact this experience as it was described in the Torah.  (Anecdotally, when Senator Joseph Lieberman went to synagogue the first Shabbat after being nominated in 2000 as the VP candidate, a reporter from the Washington Post wrote that “upon entering the entire congregation rose and read aloud the Ten Commandments”; coincidentally he was tardy for Shul on what happened to be parshat Vi’Etchanan).  Also, when the last lines of any of the five books of the Torah are read, there often is a loud clap in shul or a “please rise” so that we can rise to mark the ending of a book. 

One argument that I hear from some educators is that standing keeps kids from falling asleep.  So goes the theory that slouching is a habit of the lazy and lazy, unfocused people cannot find spiritual transcendence.  Now I have many friends that can sleep anywhere – and it is important not to confuse the bliss and harmony of sleeping with a true spiritual experience.  (It is also noteworthy that one can sleep while standing – indeed this is a habit that the IDF imparts into many an Israeli youth).  But is it a more spiritual posture? Recently when I was on an airplane and couldn’t rise to pray - mainly for safety reasons and courtesy to the others that would have been blocked from moving about in the cabin, I davened in my seat, with a slight recline.  It was a different experience but not a bad one.  I think it was just not what I was normally accustomed to.

Somehow, I think there is a power in having a proper posture in prayer. What do you think?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Breaking News in the Tefilla World

I am being alarmist but I did just come across this on twitter:  a Digital Edition of "My Siddur" Animates Hebrew Prayer.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Mediation on Shlomo Carlebach

Today marks 17 years since the death of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach - one of the most powerful influences on modern Jewish expression in the past 30 years.  I think that his influence is really taken for granted - especially in the Jewish music world but also in the realm of tefilla.

Considering that the Kabalat Shabbat service was introduced only in the 16th century and is arguably one of the most popular tefillot, it is hard to think of davening or singing in camp without a 'Carlebach' niggun.  Someone once told me, and I tend to agree, that the two most influential personalities on people "returning" to the practice Judaism in Israel are Rebbe Nachman from Bretslav (stories) and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (songs).  Whether this is true or not I cannot empirically prove nor do I have the time to do so. What I can say is that the Jewish content that they have created has positively touched thousands of Jews beyond their immediate circles and has generated new connections to the Jewish tradition. 

For Jewish day-school students today, the concept of a niggun is actually mainstream.  For Hebrew School students, thankfully there are other versions to "david melech yisrael" than the one with the funky hand gestures.  By the way, I also think that Debbie Friedman (who passed away almost a year ago) did much to bring non-Orthodox music into a new more meaningful era. If there was a Carlebachian influence on Friedman I do not know...

The point of this post is to first of all appreciate that the tone, tune, and variety of music has improved dramatically over the past few decades and actually engages a lot more people to participate or even dance in shul.  The second point of this post is to highlight the often overlooked meditation element to singing a Hasidic niggun.   Repeating a word allows participants to focus on the theme at that moment.  Removing words and humming or shouting a meaningful tune permits more people to feel included.  And most significant is that a niggun stretches a powerful moment - at a wedding, a brit, the welcoming of Shabbat, or a prayer for soldiers - to be longer than the one minute it actually might take to say the bracha.  This is mediation and I sadly have not and do not hear many educators of tefilla teaching their students practical steps to block out distractions and learn to elevate their focus. 

While there is indeed controversy surrounding some of the actions and stories of Reb Shlomo, his name is now a ubiquitous tag line to sing-songy service honors his memory and reminds us that, like the addition of Kabalat Shabbat nearly 500 years ago - things can change for the better.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Postmodern Tefilla Tip # 1

I recently was struck by a passage in Jonathan Sack's The Dignity of Difference (2003).  In the chapter titled, "The Imperative of Responsibility" the good Rabbi Doctor Lord wrote:
The 'individual' - the creation of the seventeenth century - had an identity, which is to say, a stable sense of self from birth to death. His or her life could be told as a narrative, factually in an autobiography, fictionally in a novel, both of them genres which achieved great popularity in the modern age.  Something happens when change is so rapid that nothing confers meaning - when lives become lifestyles, commitments become experiments, relationships become provisional, careers turn into contracts, and life itself ceases to have the character of a narrative and becomes instead a series of episodes with no connecting thread (page 75).
Since reading this, I have been thinking a lot about my students (and children) and, knowing that it is impossible to reverse the trends of post-modernism to return to a more stable identity, how I can educate them towards a connecting thread and empower them to have the strength to become their true personalities.  

I truly believe that tefilla is one of the most powerful vehicles for strengthening this thread of identity.  Especially if there is a school emphasis to create an extra sensitivity in the students and widen their perspectives to enrich their total learning experience.  The approach that regular tefilla offers is a reflective spirit and engagement in ideas and materials that can put them into an uncomfortable space where they can speak, learn, and develop attitudes that help create their own narrative. Rather than see the prayer slot as a dumping ground for ritual exercise - take an aggressive step to make your minyan the incubator of Jewish identity, the moment to coalesce the themes and goals of your mission as a school.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Raise the Bar (Mitzvah Age)?

Some of the feedback I am hearing from educators is that a significant factor that compounds the pedagogy to teach davening is the sense of "obligation" and point to this as a pressure and barrier to developing a desire to pray.  I'd like to offer a different approach to this problem:

David M. Bader - in his master treatise, Haikus for Jews, published the following poem:

                               Today I am a man -
                                    tomorrow I return
                                        to the seventh grade.

Once upon a time - in a galaxy (read shtetl) not that far away - Jewish boys and girls lived in separated spheres of influence and responsibility.  Upon coming of age, young people were expected to 'earn their keep' and take on responsibilities in the farm or business, to maintain house or study.  The Rabbis determined maturity mainly based on physical development and thus chose a different age for girls and boys.

I think, and fear, that this gauge for maturity is no longer valid today and the irony of Bader's Haiku rings true at least for me.  For a variety of factors, young people are more coddled (and educated) to at least age 18 and only begin to be active decision makers and take on greater responsibilities when they leave their parents home.  This fact is reflected in the significant rise in students spending a gap year after high school and before college studying (perhaps in Israel) or working.   I am sure that I am not the only person who senses a sting of falseness in the expectations put upon today's bar and bat mitzvahs in their description as leaders and active members of their community when they can't even drive until their 16, vote until they are 18, consume alcoholic beverages for non-ritual purposes until 21, and rent a car until age 25!

While I don't think there is really much that can change the bar/bat mitzvah pageant season (because again, this is about being physically mature, i.e. puberty), much can be done to change the mindset of charging our young people with the expectation to behave responsible and take ownership if their Jewish identity. I believe that educators need to find new benchmarks to ease these tweenagers into a more mature sense of identity that works in not just with their physical and cognitive development, but with their socialization as well, and thereby guide them to a proper sensitivity to express a spiritual yearning.  Judaism obligates many things - to be a good person, to give charity, to honor one's parents - how an obligation is framed will give a student a solid base or potentially retard their future development.

While davening needs to become a more serious endeavor with older teenagers, the general approach needs to be appropriate for different stages of life and not lose the dynamism that often sparks younger children to wonder.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Educating Youth to Pray in Shul

The following article was published yesterday on by the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.  Author Rachel Kohl raises poignant questions about issues facing parents and educators who want to pass on a traditional of davening to their children.  While the article focuses on Orthodox synagogues, the questions she raises are for all educators who think seriously about their craft: "The goal is not to be exhaustive, but to stimulate conversation and to help us rethink what we assume to be true about children and synagogue." 

I believe you will find many of the themes and issues raised on this blog beautifully framed and hopefully it will generate more conversations on improving our tefillot.  Here is a reprint:

Youth Education in Orthodox Synagogues
Rachel Kohl Finegold is the Education and Ritual Director at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago, where she holds the Dr. Carol Fuchs Kaufman Rabbanit Chair. This article appears in issue 11 of Conversations, the journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

An Orthodox synagogue finds itself in an unusual position as an educational institution. Although there are growing numbers of Conservative, Reform, and multi-denominational Day Schools, it is often a synagogue-based religious school that provides the primary Jewish education for non-Orthodox youth. An Orthodox synagogue, however, has no such imperative, since most of its constituents send their children to Day School.[1] The Orthodox synagogue may ask itself: if our children already attend a Jewish Day School, what is our further role in Jewish education? The problem is that this question is not even asked.

Why isn’t this question asked? Many parents are satisfied as long as there is something for the children to do while the adults pray. Other parents expect the synagogue to reinforce what the children learn in school, but do not expect it to add anything to their children’s Jewish development. Often, the youth programming at an Orthodox synagogue is of a social nature. At best, the Shabbat morning groups offer a place for the children to pray at their own pace, and at worst they provide glorified babysitting.

An Orthodox synagogue can, and should, see itself as a serious educational institution, even if it does not have a formal religious school. In order to do that, as members and staff of Orthodox synagogues, we must challenge our assumptions about children at synagogue. We must think outside the box—in fact, outside of several boxes. I have framed the conversation below in terms of four of these “boxes,” which represent our assumptions and the resulting limitations we place upon ourselves. Some of these ideas represent efforts I have implemented at my own synagogue in Chicago, while others are dreams and musings of what could be possible. The goal is not to be exhaustive, but to stimulate conversation and to help us rethink what we assume to be true about children and synagogue. Once we free ourselves from these assumptions, we can think creatively about what children can gain from their synagogue experience. We can build innovative models of synagogue youth education.

Box #1: We think like a school.

One of the biggest advantages of providing Jewish education in a synagogue context is that a synagogue does not have the constraints of a school, such as grade levels, testing, and curriculum requirements. This may be obvious—“shul” is not school![2] So then why are we thinking like a school? For example, why must our youth groups be organized by grade level? There certainly are advantages to dividing children by age: they share a similar level of knowledge and ease of social interaction, and it also is the easiest way for everyone to know which room to go to. But the grade model might be an unnecessary limitation for a synagogue.

What if we organized the youth groups by neighborhood? What if each Shabbat morning children of a range of ages, who live near each other, gathered together to pray and learn together? What if each child in grades K–6 was paired with a child in grades 7–12 who lives in his or her own neighborhood, and these partnerships formed a mentoring relationship? In small groups, the older children would teach the younger ones, under the guidance of a well-trained educator, who would guide and facilitate these interactions. What if these children then saw each other later that afternoon on their block where, on long summer Shabbatot, they would gather in someone’s home for hevruta learning and Seudah shelishit? This is just one possible model, but we can simply recognize that there are many ways to organize the children into groups, and the grade division is just one. Once we let go of the assumption that “shul” needs to think like school, we open up richer and more creative ways of engaging the children.

The youth program could also tap into what is perhaps a synagogue’s greatest asset—the synagogue’s membership. This includes, but is not limited to, parents and grandparents who would be eager to participate and offer their presence and expertise. Young adults in the community are ready role models for teens especially. We have one older member of our congregation whose family has been with the synagogue for five generations. He possesses a wealth of knowledge about the congregation’s history, and some wonderful anecdotes about former rabbis and deceased members. He accompanied our B’nai Mitzvah group on a hessed outing to help clean up the synagogue’s cemetery, which is over 100 years old. He was able to regale the children with stories of past members and give them an appreciation of the heritage of our community. What a treasure.

Box #2: Just as long as the kids enjoy coming to synagogue…

I recently asked a parent (not a member of my synagogue) what she hopes her children will gain from the Shabbat morning youth program at her synagogue. She presented me with something of a hierarchy of goals. First and foremost, she said, it needs to keep them out of my hair so that I can pray in peace. If they enjoy it enough to make them actually look forward to coming to synagogue, all the better. And if they even gain something educational from the youth groups, then that’s wonderful.

Why have we set the bar so low? Shouldn’t we expect the synagogue to actively contribute to our children’s growth as Jews? Even in the best-case scenario, synagogues place unnecessary limitations on the education they offer. Some provide an extensive Tefillah program, where the children pray together at an age-appropriate pace, increasing the number of Tefillot as the children get older. In addition, they may talk about the parasha or play a game. These certainly are positive things for children to do, and these activities reinforce the skills and knowledge the children are already gaining in school. But can’t we offer education that children are not already receiving elsewhere[3]?

The synagogue is a place that is ripe for compelling and immersive Jewish experiential education. Encourage the children to ask their “big Jewish questions,” to explore ideas that their teachers do not have time to cover in school. Even within a parasha discussion, have the children get up and act out the characters in the story, or ask them what they might do in the same situation. One of the favorite games that our children like to play is “Agree/Disagree,” where the youth leader makes a statement (for example, “All Jews should make aliya, and the children respond by voting with their feet—standing on one side of the room or the other to demonstrate whether they agree or disagree with the statement, or anywhere in the middle to show where their opinion falls on the spectrum. They then defend their stance, which leads to rich conversations, and gets the children thinking about important Jewish issues.

If children are spending their time in engaged in these innovative and creative activities, when do they pray?

It is not necessary to eliminate praying from a youth group program. One can split the time wisely, or even weave some of these creative activities into the praying. However, there is another option: children can pray where the adults do. Which leads us to…

Box #3: Children and adults pray separately.

Most children who are readers are able to sit in synagogue and pray what they know. Even my two-year-old notices when we say “Shema,” and she covers her eyes and approximates the words. I recall that when I first knew the aleph-bet, I would sit with my mother for a few minutes and “daven,” reading the aleph-bet that was printed in the back of our siddur. After that, I could go outside and play with my friends. (Our tiny shteibel had no youth programming to speak of.) Sitting in synagogue is the best way to teach children about praying, and to show them the ways that the Tefillah is different on Shabbat than during the week. Bringing a book and a quiet snack also teaches children synagogue-appropriate behavior—to sit quietly and be respectful. Each parent knows his or her child, and knows what length of time is appropriate for that child. Bring your children to synagogue before groups start, and spend some time together in the sanctuary.

The youth groups can be designed to assume that children will be in synagogue with their parents beforehand. At our shul, we encourage our B’nai Mitzvah group (the 6th- and 7th-graders) to arrive for at least part of Shaharit and Torah reading. About halfway through Torah reading, the group meets for what we call “Tefillah Off the Deep End.” They start by praying Mussaf together, then break for a short Kiddush of their own, and finally engage in meaningful and “deep” discussions, often driven by their own questions.

It is a shame for children to experience synagogue in a vacuum, away from where synagogue happens for the adults. When they walk in and go straight to groups, and get picked up by a parent at the end, they never set foot in the sanctuary and never grow to understand what actually happens in a Bet Knesset. There are many ways to integrate children into the sanctuary. Our Yeladeinu group (1st- and 2nd-graders) comes into synagogue at the end, and sits together for the completion of services. They’ve learned to follow Ein K’elo-heinu and Aleinu, and they are even beginning to learn Anim Zemirot simply by hearing it each week. One rabbi I know has a “Bring Your Child to Shul Day” to encourage children to arrive before groups start. During Torah reading, he asks parasha-related trivia questions before each aliya, and the children search for the answers as the aliya is read. This is a great way to teach children to follow Torah reading, and to help them feel comfortable in the sanctuary.

An unexpected benefit to having children in the sanctuary is for the adults. There’s nothing like a child to make an adult take his or her own synagogue experience more seriously. When we are aware that the children are looking to us as models, we are challenged us to be our best selves.

Box #4: Youth Education is the job of the Youth Director.

I have encountered rabbis who are not tuned into what the children are doing in their synagogues. A Youth Director would benefit greatly from guidance and vision of the Board, the rabbi, and other stakeholders. Synagogue activities often operate in silos—the youth program, the hessed committee, and the adult education classes, for example, have minimal interaction. Instead of each one operating in its own bubble, these functions can coordinate their efforts. If the social action committee is organizing a drive for winter coats for the homeless, then have the children learn about the concept of a sukkah as a temporary dwelling (coordinate the timing with Sukkot), and think about those who do not have permanent homes. Offer a similarly themed class to adults on an appropriate level. Have the children participate in the coat drive, along with the social action committee.

Ideally, the youth education, as well as every other area of programming, is an extension of the mission and vision of the synagogue itself. The Board should give the Youth Director its mandate, to reflect the goals and values of the institution. The Youth Director often feels like they have the lowest job on the totem pole and that community members don’t respect the position. I believe this can stem from a lack of support and input from the synagogue stakeholders. The Board should engage the Youth Director as a partner in the synagogue’s growth in carrying out its mission.


Our Sages teach us, “Emor me’at v’aseh harbeh” (Say little, and do much). It is easy to pontificate but harder to take action. Challenging the status quo is especially difficult when the general sentiment is that everything is “fine.” The children like coming to synagogue, and they’re even praying a little… what’s the problem? The greatest challenge is tapping into our creativity, peeking outside these constricting “boxes” and asking the question, “What if?”

It might also be challenging to motivate the children to actively engage in creative and thoughtful activity at synagogue. Jewish Day School students often see synagogue as a break from learning. They look forward to hanging out with friends or getting a good snack. However, children respond when they see that their time is being well-spent, and that they have much to gain. At our shul, I have parents who tell me that their kids jump out of bed on Shabbat morning because they don’t want to miss their group. For many children, however, jumping out of bed on Shabbat morning for anything will entail a real paradigm shift.

Often, the difficulty of motivating the children stems from the parents. Adults have a variety of reasons they come to synagogue, as well as their own baggage about what it has or hasn’t been for them. Parents who want their children to be happy about going to synagogue often hesitate to make it a requirement for their child. They worry that if they force their child to attend the youth group, it will make their child resentful. Some parents may recall their own feelings of being forced to go to synagogue when they were young, and do not want to recreate that for their children.

The problem with parents bringing their children very late, or not at all, is that they are depriving their children of the opportunity to develop an appreciation for the synagogue. How can your children enjoy something they barely get to experience? By trying to ease up on their children, parents are depriving them of a formative Jewish experience. Instead, parents should focus on modeling the desired behavior. Show your children how important it is for you to go to synagogue, and show that you are going in order to pray and to learn; that will send the message loud and clear that synagogue is worthwhile. If parents see the synagogue as place of growth and Jewish development, children will do the same.[4]

There are also some logistical challenges. In order to create a real youth education program you need real educators. Appropriate staffing can be difficult. Often, high school students are the ones running the Shabbat morning youth groups, but that makes it hard to create and implement high-level programming. At our synagogue, we hire graduate students and young professionals who are experienced educators to run our Shabbat morning program. However, in order to retain this level of employee, you need to pay well. We have made the commitment to pay them as would a competitive urban Hebrew school. That means devoting significant funds to the youth program.

What Lies Outside the Box

In the face of these challenges, it is extraordinarily helpful to constantly remind ourselves of what creative and engaging youth activity could look like, and where it can lead young people. One recent Yom Kippur, I had a group of middle schoolers arranged in the four corners of a classroom. I had asked them to stand in whichever corner represented their own metaphor for God: parent, monarch, best friend, or guide. Only one girl stood in the corner that represented God as a best friend. When I asked her for her thoughts, she said: “I think of God as my best friend, who knows what I think and is always on my side.” I was genuinely moved. To go from this exercise into an examination of the “Ki anu amekha…” prayer, where we lay out numerous metaphors for the relationship between God and the Jewish people, enriched the discussion immeasurably. If we can create this kind of atmosphere of curiosity and thought for our youngsters, they will grow up feeling more connected to the synagogue and to their Judaism, and will be ready to contribute to our community.

[1]Although there are numerous Orthodox children who do not attend Day School, for the purposes of this article I focused on synagogues where the vast majority of the children attend Jewish Day School. A synagogue with a mixed population of Jewish and secular schools faces a different set of challenges.
[2]It is, however, interesting to note that the colloquialism “shul” comes from the German/Yiddish word for school.
[3]I have chosen not to dwell on the idea of summer camp, but it certainly is another source of valuable Jewish education. Non-Orthodox summer camps have succeeded in being high-level immersive Jewish education. Orthodox camps also provide valuable experiential education although often not as thoughtful or thorough, but not every kid goes to camp, and shul can still supplement and offer what camp does not.
[4]The problem, of course, is that synagogue often is not sufficiently engaging for adults either. Another conversation for another time…

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Davening Like a Lion

To those who know me know that I am very upfront about the limitations of my learning background and gaps in my education.  My unorthodox upbringing has allowed me to appreciate much my journey in the Jewish world as well as my academic explorations.  My introduction to serious Jewish text had an instant impact on my life and I'd like to share an inspiring revelation with you all.

The Shulchan Aruch, the codification of traditional Jewish law by Rabbi Yosef Caro in 1563, is a significant primary text.  Especially when it is combined with Rabbi Moshe Isserles' gloss presenting Ashkenazi interpretations.  The fact that THE book of Jewish customs starts with diverging interpretations was one of the first beautiful encounters in my studies (this point reinforces a valuable lesson in diversity). But, I digress.  The very first law taught in the Shulchan Aruch is the following:

יתגבר כארי לעמוד בבוקר לעבודת בוראו

The above presents an interpretative challenge as it is possible - at a quick glance-  to miss the essence of the sentence (or as Chaim Nachman Bialik said, "Reading in translation is like kissing through a veil").  One way to restate this law is: "Arise in the morning like a lion to serve The Creator".  I remember being struck by this command to become a morning person - to jump out of bed to run to do mitzvot.  I was/am not an early riser and this was a philosophical struggle to grasp the essence of this behavior.

Upon visiting the zoo, I soon learned that lions sleep or rest about 20 hours a day and are mainly nocturnal. And then I realized that I had read a mistranslation - the law should be read as: "Gird yourself like a Lion in the morning to serve The Creator" (another translation is "overcome").  Lions may hang out in the shade or nap for a majority of the day, but when the king of the jungle senses danger or a possible prey, it immediately shoots up, girded for war and ready to spring to action to defend, attack, or just stare down an onlooker.

And thus I learned a powerful lesson that helped me better start my day and develop my service to 'The Creator'.  One needs to be ready to go, to spring up to act, as each day there are challenges, tasks, and problems that need to be attended to - and although our inclination may be to sleep or vegge out, we must gird ourselves, overcome ourselves to do what is our mission.  I really like this more than the simple teaching that it is important to get up early to daven.

One final thought - Something that I hope to draw out over the next few weeks is the connection between tefilla and self-reflection.  Human beings are unique in our capacity to be self aware and reflect in a cognitive way (do animals keep blogs?). To teach and encourage young people to daven is to help them overcome a purely animalisitc behavior and discover a way to direct their lives with purpose and meaning. Thus the first halacha is an important one to set the tone for young people that both validates their nature to hide beneath the covers as the alarm clock rings but hopefully inspires them to come to school to grow, learn, and impact.

Evaluating What You Do

Evaluating the work and impact of teachers is one of the more controversial topics on the subject of education reform.

On the topic of tefilla, I am interested on how schools evaluate the progress made by students as individuals or in a group setting? I see the following five possibilities:
  1. Attendance - that there are tushes in the seats at the proper time.
  2. Spirit- that there is significant participation or a lack of disruptive behavior (are students saying "Amen").
  3. Feedback - either compliments or complaints that come to the administrator's desk or formal evaluations that are given to students at the end of semester. (not so clear that it is fair to check if the prayers were answered from above).
  4. Overflow - that students attend other prayer events (i.e. shul) or talk about tefilla in other classes.
  5. Performance of skills - that individuals demonstrate an ability and/or comfort with specific tefilla skills (leading or reading Torah) that satisfies a benchmark.
These possibilities explore how to evaluate the student - but how does the supervisor evaluate the educator on this aspect of their job. Do you know of specific guidelines for teachers in their professional reviews? What criteria has your school given you to measure your educational return on investments for tefilla?

Some educators have contacted me have to say that they are compensated more for running or attending tefillot in their school and explicitly mentioned that there compensation has no relation to the performance aspect of the students.

What professional standards are in the Jewish Marketplace?