Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Getting Beyond "Formal vs. Informal" Education

This is a follow up article/resource on the topic of education in general, written by Jacob Cytryn in the RAVSAK Journal.

I think the article raises solid points and should empower educators to apply the same methodology to approach tefilla.

Can Education Alone Save the Jewish People

Recommended Reading from The Canadian Jewish News - By Robert Eli Rubenstein.  The only question I ask on this article is how can we evaluate our educational approach and measure the results?

Can Education Alone Save the Jewish People?

Since biblical times, we Jews have been a famously contrary lot, and the erosion of traditional values in the modern period has only deepened the divisions. Yet there is a single article of faith proclaimed with startling unanimity and certitude by all who profess to care about the survival of the Jewish people.

From one end of the broad Jewish spectrum to the other, from secular humanists to the most rigidly devout, Jewish education is promoted as the key to securing the Jewish future. In last week’s CJN, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman added his powerful voice to the chorus. As he put it, “Nothing is more crucial to advancing this goal [of ensuring the continuation of a strong Jewish identity] than Jewish education. At all levels, from the earliest age in the home, through formal and informal education at all levels, there is no alternative to exposing the next generation to Jewish values, traditions and identity.”

I began entertaining doubts about the conventional wisdom regarding Jewish education years ago, and these have only increased as I raised my own children and became ever more involved in the lay leadership of the Jewish schools they attended. Let me make clear that I am not saying I no longer value Jewish education. Rather, what I mean is that in the distant past, the lives of our people were suffused with a critical mass of Jewish content, and this preserved in them a strong sense of self as Jews. Today, however, the great majority of Jews wish to replace the actual practice of Judaism with mere knowledge of Judaism. As a consequence of this shift, we tend to have overblown and unrealistic expectations regarding the efficacy of Jewish education in building Jewish identity.

In 1986, the Canadian Jewish Congress, Ontario region, commissioned a “Task Force on Assimilation, Intermarriage and Jewish Identity”, which I was privileged to co-chair. Following an intensive investigative process, the taskforce issued a report setting forth recommendations for counteracting the erosion of affiliation among Jews. Looking back, I am struck by the fact that almost all the recommendations involved promoting Jewish education in one form or another. In the years since, our community’s deep conviction that Jewish education is the panacea for assimilation has continued to grow, as reflected by its ever-expanding investment in Jewish educational facilities and resources. Yet parallel to this trend and notwithstanding our heroic efforts, we have witnessed a relentless increase in the rate of attrition.

Some years ago, I was visiting in Borough Park, a Brooklyn neighbourhood heavily populated by readily identifiable chassidic Jews. While strolling along the main street on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I came across a group of people wearing baseball caps and clutching cameras, listening to a tour guide’s animated explanation of the significance of the different types of garb worn by the local residents. I was intrigued to learn that these were members of a synagogue adult education group from Long Island, who had come to catch a glimpse of how their ancestors in eastern Europe lived long ago. They were no doubt having a fine educational experience learning about their ancient heritage, but this does not mean they had any interest in living significantly Jewish lives themselves. It is the difference between being a spectator at a sporting event and being a player: the self-perceptions and actual commitments of the two are simply incomparable. And if the goal of “Jewish education” is to ensure that there will be Jews in the world of the future, no one could seriously argue that the photo-snapping tourists from Long Island were as likely to have Jewish grandchildren as the bemused black-clad chassidim walking by.

Our Jewish community is one of the most affluent, generous, and dedicated in the world, and we are justifiably proud of the wonderful schools and other institutions that we have created. The great majority of parents I know who send their children to day schools wish them to be Jewishly knowledgeable, so that one day they will be in a position to make informed decisions about how they will choose to fulfil themselves as Jews. Deep down, they hope their children will ultimately vindicate their own life choices by choosing to be just as non-observant as they themselves are. Many are the stories of day school parents, including even some leaders of the community, who have called the principal to complain indignantly about a particular teacher who “brainwashed” their child into requesting that the family start having Shabbat dinners together on Friday nights, at an hour when the parents customarily go out with their friends.

I have acquired from my own Holocaust-survivor parents an appreciation for the sacred imperative after Auschwitz of transmitting a strong Jewish consciousness to the next generation. Although my parents never attended Jewish schools, which simply did not exist in small prewar European communities, their Jewish identity has always been unwavering and vigorous, absorbed intuitively from the personal example set by their own parents in the family home. Yes, I know, times have changed. For this reason, our challenge today is to identify the success factors of times past and try to make them work in our contemporary situation.

The truth is that it requires very little objective knowledge to live a vibrant Jewish life, and in our increasingly interconnected world, this knowledge is easy to attain. The real issue is the individual Jew’s degree of motivation to seek it out and act on it. I can agree with Lieberman and many others that Jewish literacy is a worthy objective, but on the available evidence, I have my doubts that it necessarily leads to the development of a strong Jewish identity. One can acquire a comprehensive Jewish high school education, one can even become a university professor of Jewish studies, without necessarily forming an emotional commitment to living a Jewish life. The key to forming such a commitment is actually doing the rather simple things one has learned about, and doing them consistently. Such observance can move beyond mere nostalgia or folklore and become an integral part of a person’s being. An individual who embraces an all-encompassing core of Jewish activity is apt to seek a like-minded spouse, and together they will strive to raise children on this model.

A respected Jewish community professional recently told me that she herself did not observe any Jewish rituals because she never had the benefit of a day school education. I responded that it does not take very much education to know how to light Shabbat candles, for example. All that is required is the determination to do it and the ability to strike a match. My ancestors, like hers, knew what they had to do to live richly satisfying Jewish lives, without having enjoyed a formal Jewish education. Clearly, something has changed dramatically. If we truly care about securing the future of the Jewish people, as we profess, we owe it to ourselves to examine what that “something” might be, and what we need to do about it.

The celebrated 19th-century German Jewish bibliographer Moritz Steinschneider was a modern man with modern sensibilities, unwilling to lend credence to any religion, including his own. People would ask him in puzzlement why a totally non-observant Jew had chosen to spend his days cataloguing musty old Jewish books with such loving devotion. His unsettling response was that he saw it as his mission to give Judaism a decent burial. If they wish to avoid being among the pall-bearers, the many present-day Jews who share Steinschneider’s modern sensibilities yet yearn paradoxically for a bright Jewish future, need to discover meaning and satisfaction in the Jewish experience beyond merely being knowledgeable about it.

As we survey the contemporary scene, there is, to be sure, much to cause us consternation. But in all fairness, there is also much to give us hope. In Montreal and Toronto and other hubs of Jewish life, we see young people creating dynamic new communities where they devise innovative, stimulating and joyful new ways to reconnect to their sources and celebrate the age-old treasures of Judaism. Throughout our long and tortuous history, we Jews have rebounded from countless existential crises by pulling together. I am confident that in the end, we shall once again meet the challenge, for “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

Robert Eli Rubinstein, a Toronto businessman, is the author of An Italian Renaissance: Choosing Life in Canada, which won a 2011 Canadian Jewish Book Award.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reapproaching the Torah Service

I just attended a fascinating session by Amichai Lau-Lavi (who is the founder and director of Storahtelling) at the Limmud Conference titled "Meet the Maven".  The session introduced the historical role of the maven - also known as a miturgaman (translator) - from the time of Ezra the Scribe.  The job of the maven was to inform and transform the Torah experience for those who didn't understand the original text.

What I thought was really important to share was Lau-Lavi's diagnosis that we have live in a time when most readers don't understand what goes on in the Torah service or are just uninterested.  He aims to reach back to a lost practice of having a skilled and trained  'maven' translate the Torah reading to the modern reader (the profession ceased almost 1,000 years ago).  There is a serious pedagogical approach behind his argument, one that I suggest you follow the link to read more about.

I am presently looking for other organizations and initiatives that are looking to reapproach tefilla in synagogues and schools.  If you know of or hear about creative ideas similar to the concept of Storahtelling, please share it with me and the readers.

The Lights of Chanukah

Chanukah is a time of miracles - but it often seems like a fairy tale or something from long ago.

Imagine if you lived in those times.... would you have believed or followed the rebellion?  If you were  in Jerusalem the year after the war (166) would you kindle the candles to celebrate the newborn holiday?   Would you change your traditional routine to add a new holiday?

As one twitter follower noted last night, similar sentiments are felt today regarding Israel's Independence Day (Yom Ha'atzmut).  Should it be embraced without a divine sign?  How can we celebrate receiving only part of the biblical territory or with such nasty neighbors?  [I think it is worth noting that Yom Ha'atzmut is the first national Jewish Holiday added to the calendar since Chanukah]

I think that too often we take for granted the circumstances of the past and the adversity that was needed to overcome the challenges to effect a significant change.  But looking at the candles tonight, I appreciate it more and it is something that causes me to really understand the meaning of our prayer for  miracles "as they happened long ago, in today's age".

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Chanukah!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Recommended Blog - Keeping Kids in Shul

The following is reposted from Hirhurim, one the most active blogs at the forefront of Jewish issues and ideas online.  I wanted to share it in full below but encourage you to follow this link to see the original post and the comments posted there.

Here are my two cents:

The author makes a keen accounting of some rabbinical responses to the "problem" with disinterested teens and tefilla and reflect spectrum of reactions.  I appreciate that he is trying to treat the symptoms of this problem and the greater illness - that some kids don't want to come to daven.  The last two paragraphs are as honest as you get on the topic of tefilla.

Keeping Kids In Shul
December 7, 2011

 In a recent issue of Jewish Action (Summer 2011), R. Jay Goldmintz writes about the problem in the Modern Orthodox community of teens who don’t, or don’t want to, attend shul on Shabbos (link). R. Goldmintz offers a few suggestions on how to remedy the situation, which I sum up as: 1) force them to go to shul, 2) use walking to shul as a bonding opportunity, 3) model proper prayer.

I’ll have to take R. Goldmintz’s word because I’m not otherwise aware of the problem he addresses. I’m certainly familiar with teens who do not want to go to shul, or school, or anywhere. I just never imagined that their parents would give them a sustained choice in the matter. There are certain assumed activities in life and going to shul, at least for boys, ranks along with going to school. It’s a given (community customs vary for girls).

In the latest issue of Jewish Action (Winter 2011 – not yet online), a number of communal leaders respond to R. Goldmintz’s article. Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin objects to the idea of forcing kids to go to shul. “When we make harsh demands of our children, our values don’t become internalized.” Yes, but when they don’t even show up, there’s no chance for them to become full members of the community. I think Dr. Sorotzkin and R. Goldmintz are speaking of different kinds of children. Dr. Sorotzkin is warning against forcing, in an overly harsh manner, rebellious teens to attend shul. R. Goldmintz is advising to push lazy teens to shul. I don’t know that they disagree all that much.

R. Daniel Rockoff advocates getting teens involved in the service, either with a special minyan for teens or other, similar methods. That is also a worthy idea that does wonders… for kids who want to lead, or set up, or somehow get involved. As a parent of teenagers, I suspect that quite a few would find it burdensome.

R. Ron Yitzchak Eisenman writes that he is not worried. He is confident that “once these young men become husbands aand fathers, they will be found in shul on Shabbat morning along with the rest of us.” Except, presumably, those who go off the derekh entirely, for whom shul attendance is the least of their religious challenges.

Like R. Rockoff, R. Hershel Billet advocates involving teens in kiddush preparation, leading services, public speaking and otherwise in shul. R. Billet adds that raising a teen must be a partnership between parents, school and shul. They all need to work together to devise a unified prayer curriculum for schools and abbreviated prayer service for teens. I teach my kids what they can skip when they don’t feel like davening — they have to do a minimum. It would be nice for all kids to know that.

R. Dovid Gottlieb shares my puzzlement over teens missing Shabbos shul but agrees that there are many teens who fail to relate properly to prayer. Like other respondents, he points out that many adults face the same challenge. He points out that shuls are the “third line of defense,” after families and schools. His suggestions of involving teens in leading services or something else are similar to R. Rockoff’s and R. Billet’s.

The bottom line is that few of us relate adequately to prayers but we all learn to live with the parts we don’t like and appreciate the parts we do. Some don’t like the rabbi’s sermon; others the leining: others Pesukei Dezimra or the repetition of the Amidah. Regardless, we each are sufficiently mature to recognize our responsibility to attend shul, to deal with what we don’t like, to embrace aspects that speak to us and to make the most of the entire situation.

As we evolve through life, going through many stages of personal successes, crises and changes, we find that we relate differently to all aspects of life. The prayer you mumble quickly today may someday be the only hope you have to keep your family together or to regain strength after the death of a loved one or to articulate your deep gratitude for a personal success. You need to be in shul in order to find those unexpected benefits as you make your way through the ups and downs of life. But try telling that to a teenager.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Justin Bieber and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

I found the following article on a #jedchat conversation on twitter: Justin Bieber and the principal: The real story by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.  

While this article is not about tefilla, I think it is inspirational story for educators and serves as a necessary reminder about how we cannot discuss teaching to higher level cognitive abilities - the pursuit of self-actualization - without treating the basic needs of our students.  There are many distractions in and around the classroom, and these especially crowd the arena of tefilla.  Below is a diagram of Maslow's theory: 

At first glance, tefilla seems to be a higher order activity -at the top of the pyramid.  But thinking through this theory more it is clear to me that many people daven solely for their physiological needs, or for safety and for all the different components categorized.  I think that davening can be appropriate for each of these levels but it is immensely challenge to teach and practice tefilla with students at various stages of this paradigm.

For me,  I think in terms of tefilla of the reflective ability to reach my personal potential and missions of the Jewish tradition.  This is very much the vision of self-actualization.  However, modeling this for students who are cognitively, emotionally, or socially at a different place can be a recipe for disaster.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Do You Need to Believe to Daven?

I recently read this awesome controversial educational statement on twitter:

L'hitpalel, usually translated as 'to pray,' actually means to judge/examine oneself. So, it is taught, you don't need to believe in Gd to authentically pray as a Jew. Agree? Disagree? Thoughts?

What are your thoughts on this tweet and how would your students react to this statement?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Kavanah for Waking Up by Andrew Shaw

In these still, quiet moments,
I am not asleep
and not yet awake.

In the threshold of day and night,
with the mixture of darkness and light,
my body is once again coming to life.

I am reborn, each day,
from the womb of your compassion.
May all of my actions
be worthy of the faith You’ve placed in me.

With words of thanks I’ll greet the dawn.

This was posted by The Open Siddur Project on twitter that also featured a picture with this poem by Andrew Shaw. 

I also recommend you see his translation of Modeh Ani as well.

Correction 22 Dec 2011
Thanks for a diligent reader who follow the links to see that the credit for the picture goes to Ha-Wee titled "Good Morning Sunrise" 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How to Teach Tefilla - Part 1

So this is the million dollar question - how can one succeed to teach kids how to daven and evaluate your results?

I see the following ten variables at play here:
  1. The calisthenics of proper prayer - when to move and what gestures are appropriate
  2. Symbolism in the physical environment - being comfortable in any minyan
  3. The vocabulary of prayer - what are the key trigger words
  4. Hebrew
  5. Introspection and self-examination
  6. Meditation and blocking out mental distractions
  7. God 
  8. Repetition of ritual performance and maintaining a sense of purpose 
  9. Music and training of the ear to the melodies of tefilla
  10. Balancing personal needs with communal benefit
Over the next few weeks I will be suggesting resources and ideas for developing these variables and methodology for evaluating their implementation.   

The Desire for Jewish Authenticity

The following article titled "The Spiral of Jewish Authenticity" was published last week in Sh'ma, A Journal of Jewish Ideas by Stuart Z. Charme.  I think this is good educational food for the mind and soul, especially considering the last paragraph and the 'breaking news' out on Matisyahu.  It is just hard to be an educator!

Around the time my daughter turned 16 years old, she cut off most of her thick, long hair for an edgier and hipper look. She began to perform slam poetry, and she announced that she no longer saw herself as Jewish. Being Jewish, she said, just didn’t figure very much in her sense of identity, and she found greater authenticity in performing poetry or doing community service than in reciting Jewish prayers to a deity that neither she nor I believe in.

I was not all that shocked by my daughter’s announcement. Having interviewed dozens of teenagers about their Jewish identities as part of a research project, I knew that teens — much like adults — respond to the fact of being Jewish with feelings ranging from intense pride to utter indifference. I also knew, from following these teens years later, when they were in college, that the meaning of being Jewish had already changed for many of them and would most likely continue to do so throughout their lives. Indeed, as socio-psychologist Bethamie Horowitz and others have pointed out, Jewishness is not a static condition but rather a journey with various twists, turns, and detours along the way. In a similar way, I have described the experience of Jewishness over the course of one’s life as a loose spiral. We circle back to revisit a variety of issues related to Judaism and Jewishness; each time, we approach the experience of Jewishness from new perspectives and with new investments and understandings that emerge in response to other changes in our lives.

For many Jews, the feeling of Jewish authenticity involves a sense of connection to a romanticized or idealized image of the past. Living in or just visiting the land of Israel, enjoying Klezmer music, assuming the lifestyle of an observant Jew, or checking one’s DNA for a “Jewish” marker may provide a sense of unbroken tradition and peoplehood. This idea of authenticity, however, has often been critiqued and deconstructed as an essentialist myth that merely serves to legitimate favored forms of identity while delegitimating others.

Much has also been written (see the March 2011 issue of Sh’ma for several essays on Jewish identity) about the postmodern freedom to “construct” or “invent” Jewish identity in a myriad of ways ranging from contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy to Torah Yoga and Jewish “mindfulness.” And even the notion of “the Jewish people” is less a fixed body with natural boundaries than a continually reimagined community with contested rules and conditions for recognition and membership. It is obvious that claims about authenticity can never really offer a scientific test of purity, a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, or a warranty against change. Some of what is now accepted as authentically Jewish will eventually be abandoned and some of what is now rejected will later be reclaimed. In this sense, each individual’s search for Jewish authenticity is a microcosm of the collective process of redefining Judaism at different moments of history.

The desire for Jewish authenticity, therefore, has both retrospective and prospective dimensions. On the one hand, it situates one in relationship to one’s personal and group history; it provides a sense of existential orientation and protection; and it, thereby, offers a provisional home in the world. But the goal of authenticity is simultaneously a warning to be careful of claiming too much certainty at the present moment — recognizing the permanently destabilizing power of the future to shatter and rebuild the foundations of our world in ever-new ways.

For both of these reasons, the issue of Jewish authenticity remains compelling and inescapable. In some ways, authenticity resembles other ultimate human goals like “salvation,” “enlightenment,” or “utopia.” All of these concepts are most useful as ever-receding targets that beckon people to construct identity and community, but also to resist complacent acceptance of the status quo, mechanical repetition of the past, or unquestioned conformity to the consensus of one community at a particular moment in time. There is probably some Zen-like truth to the idea that those who claim most adamantly to have found or achieved Jewish authenticity are also those who lack it in a deeper sense.

Ultimately, what I wish for my daughter is a Jewish journey that is intellectually and psychologically honest, vibrant, and creative; one that values questions more than answers, while avoiding the pitfalls of premature closure and rigidity. I trust that she will discover authentic forms of Jewish expression for herself as she redefines her past and plans for the future. I can’t predict whether slam poetry will be part of that process, but if the singer Matisyahu could use reggae to find a sense of Jewish authenticity for himself, then why not?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Smooth Prayer of Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa

    A tefilla story from the Talmud (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Berachot, 34):

Once upon a time, the son of Rabbi Gamliel fell ill. He sent two sages to Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa to pray that his son might recover from his illness. As soon as Chanina beheld the two men, he quickly ran up to the loft of his house and began praying that the fever might disappear. And as soon as he finished he came down to them and said: “Go, the fever has left him.” They said to him, “who told you?”

Rabbi Chanina replied, “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I have it as a tradition from my father’s father that if a prayer run smoothly (fluently), then it is a sign that it has been heard. My prayer just now went smoothly without any problem, therefore, I am sure that it has been heard.”

They noted down the time when he had told them that the patient was better, and when they returned to Rabbi Gamliel, they told him the exact time when the turn for the better had set in and showed him the note which they had taken. Rabbi Gamliel swore by Hashem that this was the very time when the fever left the boy and he asked for a drink.


How to train people to have a smooth/fluent tefilla?  This is the topic for tomorrow's blog.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

To Strengthen your Spiritual Muscles

This was a lesson plan that a colleague shared with me and I think it begins to push yourself and/or your students in tefilla.

Some Jews pray three times a day and say blessings before and after they eat or drink, utilizing different Psalms to communicate with God. If this seems like a spiritual marathon and you are not ready for the run, here is a way to prepare yourself for the beauty of prayer.

Find a quiet place outside, like a garden, hill top or your backyard, where you can enjoy God’s presence. Spend 15 minutes just talking to God in your words and practice the fundamentals.  Praise God for being all powerful, the caretaker of humanity and giving you all that you have. Ask Hashem for something you need. Then thank God for listening to your prayer. 

This is the foundation of tefilla. If you can do this exercise you will strengthen your spiritual muscles, and better prepare yourself for Jewish prayer and enhance it once you begin to take more steps.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Speed of Prayer

I have asked this question a few months ago and want to ask it again for the sake of a deeper conversation.  Is a longer tefilla better?  Or is less more?

My motivation behind this questions is the fact that when some people daven or observe people in the depths of prayer, there is a sense that a skilled craftsman can be in deep focus.  But this is completely an outwardly judgmental as it is impossible to know the true focus and intention of this person. 

Take for example the shmoneh esrei prayer, also known as the “silent devotion”.  There is a custom, when praying in a school or synagogue, to wait for the rabbi to finish his/her personal davning before starting the public repetition.  This waiting period can either lead to a great sense of awe amongst the congregation or a lot of chit-chatting in shul to pass the time.  I have a friend who went to a yeshiva which customarily waits a good five extra minutes from when the students finish their shmoneh esrei and the Rabbi concludes – he has taken on the habit of opening up a book. 

Here is how I evaluate if the speed of my tefilla is appropriate:  I try to start out intensely focused on the purpose of my prayer and the words that I am saying – if (WHEN) I lose focus and notice that my mind is wandering I will speed up saying the words in a precise manner but not wanting to draw them out.  Track how far you get before you lose focus, 

I once met a rabbi who was the first to finish his personal tefilla in shul and many congregants were a buzz about how quick he davened.  I finally mustered up the courage to ask him what his methodology for tefilla was and he responded in one of the most honest and refreshing ways – he said that it was hard to keep his mind on task so he says it quickly with purpose. 

So which do you think is better, a quick tefilla or a slow one? 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ripped from the Headlines..... The Problem with Dynamic Rabbis

This article appeared in the NY Jewish Week and its reprinting here is not an endorsement, but rather I wanted to share it because it relates directly to our ongoing conversation about teaching tefilla.  How much to change, how much to preserve, and how to excite students to engage in this ancient and sacred practice.  Please share your thoughts on this piece:

Rav Kingfish
The problem with ‘dynamic’ rabbis.

Jonathan Mark
Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I’m a traditional Jew. I like my religion straight up, neither shaken
nor stirred. I’ve been saying Yizkor, and seriously, for years, but
when rabbis don’t trust the power of Yizkor and feel the need to add
an English call-and-response, they lose me. At the Passover seder, I’m
thinking about the leaving of Egypt; I don’t need dynamic rabbis
comparing the seder to the Civil Rights movement, the Arab Spring, or
global warming.

Is there a synagogue website that doesn’t describe their rabbi as
“dynamic”? Rabbis looking for jobs swear they’re dynamic. And yet the
more that we have  “dynamic” rabbis, the more Jews tell pollsters that
they find Judaism lethargic.

Perhaps the problem is exacerbated by Newsweek’s “Best Rabbi” surveys,
in which rabbis are seemingly judged by “dynamic” criteria that have
little or nothing to do with the job that so many rabbis actually do,
and do well: teaching, counseling, and being a community’s gentle
shepherd. Though even rabbis on the Newsweek list have disparaged it
in private, Newsweek’s list has become used by those same rabbis for
fundraising and prestige, leaving unlisted rabbis somehow diminished.

What’s attractive to Newsweek, and other media, even Jewish media,
gives a new generation of  rabbis incentive—even pressure—to do
something, anything, to make their synagogue and Judaism more
exciting, more Newsweek-worthy, when all along the most beautiful
moments of Judaism are the quiet moments that are hardly dynamic: the
Blessing of the Moon; or a subtle chasidic insight, exchanged in
passing; or an intimate exchange with a rabbi in a hospital corridor.
The best rabbis do what is timeless, rather than dynamic activity that
is innovative and flashy but untested and often fleeting.

Like baseball or chess, Judaism is slow and boring—until it isn’t, or
until the observer learns to see the beauty and understand the
mysteries inherent in the cerebral stillness and anticipation. Why is
the experience of a game at Wrigley Field—where there is no rock
music, the scoreboard is dull without animation, where it rains and
gets cold—nevertheless so treasured while the weather-controlled
Astrodome, once called “the eighth wonder of the world,” designed to
keep fans forever dazzled, is now empty, put to pasture? When dynamic
innovations fail or grow stale, and they often do, what then?

As at the Astrodome, there is some evidence that the more rabbis are
dynamic and attempt to dazzle, the more the people stay home. For all
of the modern innovations in recent years, the pews are emptier than

Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Conservative movement's
Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, recently wrote a paper in which he
noticed that “smaller percentages of men are currently active in our
synagogues,” despite decades of  dynamic change that was supposed to
fill the pews, not empty them.

Similarly, among the Orthodox, the more dynamic the shul, the easier
it is to find a seat. In the famously dynamic Hebrew Institute of
Riverdale, home of the first Orthodox woman “rabba,” membership has
plummeted, from an announced high of 850, according to New York
magazine in 2010, to just over 600, according to a letter to The
Jewish Week from that synagogue’s president.

There are many theories going around about how to be a more successful
rabbinic leader, and here are two. The first is the Stewardess
Theory—be less of a pilot and more of a flight attendant. You walk up
and down the aisles, “Do you need a blanket? Are you OK? Are you hot?
Cold? Do you need help with your life preserver?” Do that well and you
can “fly” your shul anywhere.

The second theory of rabbinic dynamics is the Seven-Percent Solution.
If a rabbi is seven percent ahead of the congregation, that rabbi is
brilliant, terrific.

At 17 percent, you’ve probably lost the congregation.

The Seven-Percent Solution accepts that there is room for being mildly
dynamic, but rabbis who are mildly dynamic rarely stay that way. The
problem is that dynamism inevitably becomes predictable, much as Ed
Sullivan’s audiences grew tired of seeing the once-exciting vaudeville
trick of balancing spinning dishes on a pole.

Instead of trusting the congregation to appreciate basic, no-frills
Judaism, the dynamic rabbi’s inevitable mistake is to be more “look at
me,” always more dynamic, not less. The dynamic rabbi starts
resembling nothing so much as the Cat In The Hat, with the fish and
the dress and the cake and the rake, fearing that the congregation
will grow bored if ever the sun wasn’t shining.

Perhaps it would be easier to show how this leadership dilemma works
out in politics, how a dynamic politician can hit a brick wall that he
never sees coming.

Let's go back to 1937. No one was more beloved than Franklin
Roosevelt. Though a child of the upper class, FDR was a populists'
dream, humbled in his wheelchair, as crippled as the country. And then
it went to his head.

After wining a second landslide, in 1936, controlling 77 out of 96
seats in the Senate, he figured he should be even more dynamic in his
bid to end the Depression, which was still raging after four years of
dynamic legislation.

In the book "Supreme Power," Jeff Shesol writes that according to
Roosevelt, “If it was necessary, it was right; if it was right, it was
legal." (A logic that most dynamic rabbis apply to Judaism.) And so it
was that when the Supreme Court ruled that several of Roosevelt’s
dynamic innovations were unconstitutional, FDR tried to get the
Senate—where he had that massive majority—to let him "pack" the court,
in which he would add as many as six new justices (who’d support him,
of course) for every elderly judge who happened to stand in his way.

Was Roosevelt wrong? After all, the idea that there must only be nine
judges was not from Sinai or Philadelphia. The Constitution left it to
the Senate to decide how many judges there should be, and in the 1800s
(not that long before Roosevelt, if you think about it) the number of
justices was fluid, ranging from five to six, to ten and back to nine.
If Madison or Jefferson had thought of it first, no one would have
thought Roosevelt's plan inherently unethical or immoral.

The same with dynamic halachic change. If the Talmud’s founding
fathers decided that it was OK to have women rabbis, or patrilineal
descent, or any one of a dozen other modern innovations, no one would
object today. There is nothing inherently wrong, unethical or immoral
about these innovations.

So why do these changes, meant to excite and respond to the people,
result in fewer people in the pews? Why did Roosevelt's idea for the
court, meant to benefit the New Deal, get so battered?

The answer is simply that tradition has more of powerful hold on our
hearts than the innovators understand. Whatever baseball’s problems,
declaring two strikes to be an out, the better to attract the
“unaffiliated” fan, would more likely lose the committed fans rather
than turn the uncommitted fans into committed ones. As much as fans
love the home run, or might think it clever to light eight candles on
the first night of Chanukah (who could object to more light?), putting
baseball or religion on steroids has only left baseball or religion
the sorrier.

Roosevelt stopped thinking that he was bound by the rules of
consultation, compromise and the political process, which is the way
that tradition validates change. He didn’t see the virtue of going
slow, the wisdom of the Seven-Percent Solution. People still loved
Roosevelt but flinched at the idea of such an Imperial Presidency.
Modern Jews may love an individual rabbi but don’t love an Imperial

In the 1930s, down in Louisiana, Huey Long was as dynamic as a
politician could get. Was he a dictator, as some said? Hardly. He was
elected time and again by  secret ballot, and all his laws were passed
by freely elected representatives of the people. He did everything
from leading the marching band on football Saturdays to initiating a
series of terrific and populist bills, and the legislature permitted
him everything that a shul's board of directors and committees permits
a strong rabbi.

At first, Huey Long was all that was good about a dynamic leader. He
lifted spirits. He cheered people up, had them singing "Every Man A
King," with lyrics about "every neighbor a friend." His admirers
happily called him "Kingfish," after the character on the Amos & Andy
radio comedy.

And then comedy turned tragic. He started calling himself  Kingfish
just a little too often—acted like a kingfish, too. He felt he had to
forever top himself, only to become synonymous with arrogance and
authoritarianism, which is how a dynamic leader can be misunderstood.

Today, what should a Rav Kingfish do? He should start by trusting
tradition, the magic inherent in the old and slow ways of doing
things. He should trust a  congregation’s need for quiet and
meditation. Most people have a whole lot to think about, and talk to
God about, without needing a rabbi’s dynamic impositions or
distractions. What people crave even more than innovation is a rabbi’s
ability to simply teach the subtle mysteries of faith, to facilitate
introspection in visits to the sick or to the forgotten—and aren’t so
many of us forgotten, more than anyone knows? There is something holy
about the Flight Attendant or Stewardess Theory, simply walking the
aisles, noticing if someone is missing from their seat, if someone
might need a blanket, or need help with a life preserver, or how to
find the emergency exit.

Anyone who has loved a baby, or loved a dying friend or an elderly
parent ravaged by age and incapable of speech, knows that the most
dynamic love can exist in silence, in stillness, in a soulful place
beyond language, where love and relationships are about nothing so
much as modesty and compromise.

That kind of leadership, through selflessness and a sense of grace, is
not only for the hospital or crisis but every bit as needed for a
healthy congregation, one that comes together to be with a beloved
God, who Himself knows when to hide His face.

Jonathan Mark is associate editor of The Jewish Week.

Reader Response.... A Tefilla Lab

I received the following response to a post specific to evaluation: 

I hope Marc Rosenberg will forgive me if in my response to his question, I move somewhat beyond the scope of the question. He asks about evaluating students/teachers when it comes to performance in tefila. I would like to make a proposal about tefila in high school through which I will touch upon his question.

Although I am currently not involved in running a minyan, having taught in various schools across the hashkafic spectrum, I am quite familiar with how tefila is conducted. It seems to me that before we can evaluate how students are performing in tefila, we must educate them on how to do so. Just as I can not expect my students to know how to read a gemara without first giving them the skills, it would be naive for us to expect our students to know how to pray properly, without teaching them how to do so.

My suggestion is that we move from minyan as just a time to daven to minyan as a lab for tefila. If there was a class on tefilla, including why we pray, why praying is necessary and similar issues, we would begin to tackle the problem. Instead, in most schools, we tackle the how; when to stand, what to say and how to bow. Perhaps some beiur tefilla could be included in this class, but I do not believe that the main problem is a lack of understanding of the words. I am well aware of my own struggles with tefila despite a grasp of the meaning of the words.

To be sure, the class would only be a beginning. There would also be a need for students to be able to express themselves about their struggles, successes and thoughts on tefila, perhaps through a blog and/or a brief thought before or after minyan.

Finally, and perhaps this is most crucial, we need the adults running the minyan to open up to the students a bit about their own struggles and successes with tefila.

If we treat tefilla as a part of the educational part of the day, where we try to reach the student intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, we have a chance to achieve something. If not, we will at best create robots who look like they are praying, and at worst continue to fail to touch our students lives in this important area.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Alternative Minyan

One of the constant comments that I am receiving is regarding the need to give students options in their prayer choices   Consensus is not whether they want to daven or not - but rather they may not have found or experimented with the right environment or learned the proper tools

Schools, and especially small schools, are limited to what they can offer their students in terms of environment.  The limitations may be set either because of numbers (the population dynamic of the school) or ideology (a belief that students' practice must reflect what happens in the adult service).

For those educators out there looking to see what is trending in the more liberal Jewish community, there is an option to go to One Shul - which offers live online services and classes. offered a video streamed Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur service - they even had a children's service! Their slogan is: Bringing Judaism to People where they are.  One final adventure into expanding the borders of your minyan is to think of the Khan Academy's approach to micro lesson plans.  Check out this NYTimes article on on how they are blending their digital, personalized approach into the traditional classroom.

I would be curious to hear your thoughts on these and other platforms for engaging students in tefilla.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Guest Post: Asking the Basic Questions

The following suggestion was made on the Lookjed List a few weeks ago and, with the author's permission, I am sharing it with the readers of this blog. I think this is a great trigger exercise to experiment to see where your students are at with regards to tefilla, regardless of their age:  

I've been doing this for several years; it does wonders towards sensitizing our talmidim towards the importance and beauty of tefilla.

1.  Each student writes on a piece of paper their answers to the following two questions:
a. What does tefilla do for and/or mean to me?
b. What is my favorite tefilla and why?

2.  I then collect and read the responses to the entire class (I do it anonymously as to not emabarass anyone).  The kids always listen eagerly to what their classmates write and feel.

3.  I then type all of this up, with a cover letter, for each student and parent to keep as their own.  My method: I write the first question followed by all of the responses, and then the same for the second question.

May we all be inspired by our talmidim!

Avi Herzog
Moriah School, Englewood, NJ

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.