Monday, September 26, 2011

Recommended Blog - These and Those

Over time I have become a fan of twitter as a great tool to discover tangentially related information that may not have otherwise crossed my way. A few weeks ago, I came across a collective student blog from Machon Pardes (full disclosure, I have taught on the summer program there for three summers). The blog titled These and Those has some interesting reflections from their diverse and dynamic student body.

Yesterday's entry titled "The Unattainable Prayer" was an honest reflection that I wanted to share with followers of this blog. One reaction I had was to think about this time of year, the Days of Awe, as a time to have a perfect prayer; to throw away the nonsense of shul and to really focus, dress our best, bring out the best daveners, and be honest with Hashem. If not for only a few days of the year - let's pray right! (Isn't this part of the traditional trend in the Jewish world that Jews come out of the woodwork to attend and be identified in a RH or YK service?)

Often good tefilla feels indeed unattainable - but the searching process for a great spiritual connection allows us to dabble and taste the richness of successful experiences. Wishing you all a שנה טובה!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Car Wash Selichot Service

It is that time of year - when tickets go on sale for synagogues, when school is interrupted by a parade of Jewish holydays, and we plan to eat and eat and eat again.

The first event of the season traditionally is the first night of selichot. While Sefardic Jews begin reciting selichot on the first day of Elul, Ashkenizim began only last night on the first Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. In my communities, there was a lot of grumbling about the additional 30 minutes added on to their morning tefilla time. Some people are drawn to the service by tradition; other are drawn in by the tunes used (check out this article Desperately Seeking S'lihot by Allan Nadler), others chose not go.

The above picture titled "Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur" often captures how I used to feel about the prospects of spending hours on end inside a shul.

It says in Vayikra 29:30:
בַּחדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת-נַפְשתֵיכֶם, וְכָל-מְלָאכָה לא תַעֲשׂוּ--הָאֶזְרָח, וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם. כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם: מִכל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי ה', תִּטְהָרוּ
I like to call this the "Car Warsh" approach to tefilla. The pasuk reads that, "in the seventh month on the 10th of that month, you shall afflict your souls and refrain from any work; the citizen and the stranger that dwells among you. For this day itself will atone for you, to purify you, from all of your sins, and before Hashem, you shall be purified (my translation).

Indeed the Rambam discusses (in Hilchot Teshuva) that even if a person doesn't "prepare" for Yom Kippur by asking forgiveness from others or making amends to their creator, the essence of the days washes away minor transgressions and gives you a new chance at life. That is to say that even if you don't want to get forgiveness - by going through the certain motions on Yom Kippur - sitting through the sermons and clapping your chest - you can get spiritually cleaned by coming out on the other side.

I think that is a popular attitude among some worshipers that hope to get through the selcihot service believing that their attendance, coupled with mumbling of words of piyutim they don't fully comprehend, gains special points for the holiday. I struggle with this approach and how to impart a greater passion to my students that it isn't about turning the pages to get to the end of the day and that one does not have to say every word in order to attain divine forgiveness.

These are my thoughts on the upcoming Days of Awe - and hope to share some more insights from the works that I am reading. One comment that came in to the blog: Imagine a selichot service that captures the energy of a Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tefilla for Gilad

I feel obliged to share the link for Tefilla for Gilad - which will be held on October 5th, 7PM Israel time, 1 PM Eastern Standard time, and 10 AM Pacific Coast time and you can join via video conference into your classroom.

The event is being organized with the support of the Shalit family.

If there is something that pulls my heart and propels my davening each day - it is the need for humanity to scream out for Gilad Shalit's release. It is the feeling I have when I close my eyes and hear Achenu being sung.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Davening Differently for a Week

By now you may have seen posted or have been forwarded Yale University senior Emily Langowitz's article in the online Magazine Reform Judaism Campus Life 201: Trying out Frum.

I think that Langowitz's experience, who's approach falls in the genre of contemporary books like A.J. Jacob's The Year of Living Biblically in which a person takes on a restrictive or radically different culture and shares lessons learned, has something significant to say about tefilla.

Langowitz writes: Prayer was by far the most challenging part of my week. It wasn’t carving out the time from a Yale academic schedule that was so difficult; in fact, having those necessary breaks and seeing the same people at the same hours every day because of a prescribed rhythm was incredibly calming. What was hard was figuring out how to have some sort of meeting with God on a fixed schedule instead of coming to it on my own. I was going to have to pray shacharit each morning at the 7:30 service whether I was ready to or not, so how was I going to make the experience spiritually meaningful? Also, the mode of prayer made me feel disconnected. There was just too much I didn’t know—I was using an unfamiliar siddur, and even though I’m fairly fluent in reading Hebrew, I could barely keep up with the pace set by my peers, who had a lifetime’s experience of saying the same words day in and day out. I was constantly trying to figure out how many pages I was behind or which prayers I could skip. It was a good day if I could make it through the Amidah once before the leader finished his repetition.

This is an eloquent summary of the perspective of our beginner daveners; yet no surprises here. It is a challenge. Davening on a routine schedule can be tough and sometimes listless. Rather, I found Langowitz's reflection to be captivating:

I did, however, gain a very important understanding from davening with others. Before frum week, I had assumed that more observant Jews were just speed reading through the prayers, as compared to the Reform Jews in my home congregation, who actively participated in musical prayer services—the kind of service which often helped me feel connected to God. But after spending so much time experiencing this different style of prayer, I begin to sense that the “mumbling” was really its own type of music, with its own rhythm, its own voice rising and falling.

What would it be like to drastically change the nusach or overhaul the style in which your class davened for a week or month? Would the class get 'used to' the new approach to tefilla? Langowitz never relinquishes her Reform beliefs or taste, but develops an appreciation and some new skills that she will take with her on her Jewish journey; this reflects her maturity as an adult and openness to her ideology. How can the mumbling hum of a tefilla be appreciate for its harmony for students who only see the mumbles?

I remember when I was in Israel for the first time, I was taken to a Yemenite shul for Shabbat morning. What a different (a term that is somewhat watered down here) experience it was for me! Our guide was able to give a educational frame to the experience that allowed me to be more open to this tefilla and not see it as horribly different just because it wasn't what I was used to in New Jersey.

One of the key take aways from reading this post should be to push yourself to stretch out your own personal experiences in tefilla and to offer similar outlets for growth in your students. For if there is one thing that I have learned in davening regularly over the past decade+ is that there is great consensus of what is WRONG with tefilla, and only a few ideas of what can really inspire and touch a soul.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What are you Reading this High Holiday?

This time of year I see a lot of buzz about new reading material for the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days (also known as the Playoffs of Prayer). Koren Publishers have come out with a new Mahzor authored by Chief Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks.

This is a very interesting trend, in my humble opinion. Consider that Rav Soloveitchik had a machzor published in his name by the OU in 2006 with his insights (for those who don't know Rav Solveitchik zt"l died in 1993).

What is driving this urge for so many people to have supplementary reading material for the extended service? The Center for the Jewish Future will surely be publishing its "Rosh Hashana-to-Go" series as will a message from chancellor of JTS and updated information from the Union for Reform Judaism.

Are people SO bored during the davening on the Yamim Noraim that there is a need to distribute new and current inspirational material? Is it wrong to bring The New Yorker to shul for an interesting read? I think that a lot of the specialized publications reflect that most people do not sincerely connect with the tefilla experience while it is actually happening. In many synagogues the most popular parts of the service are either the sofar blasts, the classic tunes, and the rabbi's sermon. What would it take to get people to learn to focus on the tefilla with some passion?

One final comment to slightly contradict my message today: One of the best preparatory books that I have read is Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days (1996) by Olitzky, Sabath, and Wolpe. It is a "guided jorunal' that gives some practical and thoughtful tips to getting spiritually ready to stand and daven before our creator. The key positive aspect of this book is that it is meant to be read before the actual holiday - and is not intended to be a two day reading to lift you up.

What are you reading this Elul season?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Keva & Kavanah: Understanding Jewish prayer

The journal Jewish Educational Leadership just published the Summer 2011 edition on the topic of the Arts in Jewish Education.

I highly recommend checking out the article by Gail Baker, Judith Leitner, and Pam Medjuck Stein on "Tefillah Studies and Visual Arts in Grade 5". Below is in an excerpt that I believe has some practical suggestions for educators for any grade level:

In this program we express our understanding of Keva and Kavvanah, and we foster symbolic thinking through an art form. We renew and enrich the culture of derekh eretz in the art room. We perceive that prayer develops our self-awareness as vital individuals and as members of a learning community; that Jews pray alone in community.

In Tefillah Studies we ask, "How can we understand the nature of prayer? How can we understand Rabbi A. J. Heschel’s thoughts on Keva and Kavvanah in Jewish prayer? Where can we find these notions elsewhere in the human experience to help us clarify the act of prayer?

We begin with Rabbi Heschel’s words, quoted in Abraham Joshua Heschel: Interpreter of Jewish Prayer by Arnold Jacob Wolf:

There is a specific difficulty of Jewish prayer. There are laws – Keva: how to pray, when to pray, what to pray. There are fixed times, fixed ways, fixed texts. On the other hand, prayer is worship of the heart, the outpouring of the soul, a matter of inner devotion – Kavvanah. In this way, Jewish prayer is guided by two opposite principles: order and outburst, regularity and spontaneity, uniformity and individuality, law and freedom, a duty and a prerogative, empathy and self-expression, insight and sensitivity, creed and faith. These principles are two poles about which Jewish prayer revolves.

While students explore the ideas Keva and Kavvanah in Tefillah Studies, in Art Class they investigate color and the elements of design. They study the artist Mark Rothko, who said, “I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on” ( The class explores Rothko’s approach, learning how complementary colors energize, while altering tones and shades can differentiate strength and mood. Once the learning goals of the component disciplines are met, the study of prayer meets Abstract Expressionism in the art room, where students create a large color field painting. Following Rothko they experiment with how abstract composition and color express ideas. The practice correlates with the themes of duality and conflict in Keva and Kavvanah and students explore through their paintings and written artist statements.

We assess student ability to engage in meaningful discussions, to bridge information from diverse areas of learning, and to connect personal artwork to models from art history. Students must express their understanding of symbolic thinking and Rav Heschel’s thoughts on Keva and Kavvanah in Jewish prayer through their painting and artist statement; they must show comprehension of Abstract Expressionism and produce an extended color wheel; they must elaborate on ideas, and employ diverse art materials; they must persist during a directed lesson, work independently and remain engaged in personal artwork; they must also apply the principles of derekh eretz to the collective learning experience. Through abstract art they evince the solitude and collegiality of Jewish prayer.

Gail Baker is a co-founder of The Toronto Heschel School. She is Head of School and Director of the Lola Stein Institute.
Judith Leitner is a Cofounder of The Toronto Heschel School and its Director of Arts. Her book, The Judaic Arts Compendium: 150 Integrated Visual Arts Programmes, will be published shortly.
Pam Medjuck Stein is the editor of think: The Lola Stein Institute Journal and a founding parent of The Toronto Heschel School.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sounds of Silent Prayers

One of the hardest (and most special) parts of davening in a community is the Amidah. When else do you stand in a room with a hundred of people in absolute silence? The answer to this question may be never. It is often hard for people to remain quiet for the 2-4 minutes it takes for people to say their personal 'silent devotion'. The beginning seconds are bothered by the rattling chairs and soon the chatter of those that finish quickly. It is hard to resist the many small conversations but they noise the make can be incredibly frustrating to people trying to concentrate/meditate on their tefilla.

My brother-in-law recently expressed his frustration that at his shul there are couple of folks that whisper their words loud enough to create a hum and noise that interrupts his focus. We looked into the Shulchan Urech in Hilchot Tefilla halacha 101 where it states that you should not only pray in your heart, rather you should move the words on your lips and hear the words in your ears quietly and not hear his voice; these words are appropriate for oneself, but if in a community it is forbidden to disturb the community. This is an allusion to Hannah's prayer in Samuel 1 Chapter 2 which many prayer practices are learned from. Interesting to see the Mishna Berura's comment on this verse which links people who daven loudly as following in the prophets of falsehood and accuses them of lacking in faith by assuming that Hashem could not hear their whispered prayers.

In our overly stimulated environments that are saturated with technology and visual and audio prompts we rarely encounter a few solid moments of silence. As educators, I think it is highly worthwhile to ensure that the students get comfortable with the meditative silence and learn to suppress the urge to cough or chatter with a neighbor during this special moment of tefilla. I have done this exercise in nature (at night) and students have responded positively to questions of awakening feelings of spirituality. Can you do this in a school classroom/synagogue? In an effort to encourage developing spiritual focus I think it is worth testing the respect your students have for the silent moments and possibility of listening to their own hearts.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

What is the Best Environment to Teach Davening?

Welcome to all of the new followers of the blog. A reader shared the following thought, "Actually, I think schools are probably the worst environment to foster tefilla!"

If true, then this is a harsh reality for the upcoming school year! What is the ideal environment to foster tefilla? For those educators who have spent the past few months at summer camp - do you feel this is true?

How can we overcome the grind of the school schedule and academic environment that often make tefilla a particularly difficult sell for students? One idea is to find ways to disarm the students - have them release their fears or self-consciousness about tefilla. This can be accomplished by starting with a song or video that asks for a reaction or poses a question. Naturally there is a tension between accomplishing the davening of the day and explaining/expounding the meaning behind the prayers; educators must identify this balance and leverage it to their advantage as teachers. Thinking of the principle that sometimes Less is More, how much can you "cut out" of the davening to "add" to the content and feeling of the time spent in the tefilla?

I want to make one more point on this methodology of disarming students' aversion to davening. Teaching the skills to cope with the momentum of davening on a regular basis has to be one of your meta-cognitive goals. In the real tefilla world, there are highs and lows, seasons where it is easy to feel the meaning and times where it feels empty/regular, mornings where it feels overly scripted and numbing and others where your tears appear at a single word in the siddur, days when it is easy to get up to pray and others where you pray that you don't have to go - you want your student to be able to navigate all of these situations, not just on the easy days. That is why one of my favorite trigger movies for a conversation on tefilla is Bill Murray's Groundhog Day (1993) which has interesting parallels for experimentation with a ritual that is performed everyday and explores a possible outlet for a transcendent experience. Check out the movie and let me know what you think.